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In the 36 years we shared on this planet, I can only remember two items of camouflage clothing that my father ever owned. There was an old pair of pants with a World War II-era pattern and another pair I bought him years later as a Christmas present. He would wear them now and then, but he never believed camouflage clothes were a hunting necessity.
On a normal workday, you’d find Daddy dressed in khaki pants, a colored short-sleeve shirt and Hushpuppies, the official shoe of old men. His hunting ensemble was just older versions of the same items along with a brown jacket and the latest baseball cap someone had given him.
Daddy came up during the Depression when not everybody in Calhoun County even owned a pair of shoes, much less special clothes for hunting. He learned to kill squirrels, rabbits, quail, dove, ducks and turkeys wearing whatever he had on. As a result, he felt like camo was more of a fashion statement than a real advantage in the woods.
His usual comment on the issue was, “If you’ll learn to be still, look and listen, it won’t matter what you wear.” What he conveniently left out was the disclaimer: “As long as you’re as lucky as I am.”
People who hunted or fished with Daddy regularly soon learned that incredible, inexplicable good luck followed him most everywhere he went.
He liked to tell a story that happened at Horace Travis’s camp, an old wooden structure on stilts toward the south end of Iamonia Lake. Each year, Daddy and his friends would stay down there for about three or four days at the beginning of hunting season. There would be a big barbecue on Friday night for anyone who wanted to come. Saturday lunch would be a giant pot of squirrel and rice.
Daddy followed his father’s footsteps into this gathering and like him became the ‘head chef.’ That meant he had to spend a lot more time at the camp than anyone else, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t hunt.
One cold morning, most of the group had come back from hunting and gathered by the fire. Someone looked up and pointed out a buck deer standing in the woods not 75 yards away. Everyone scrambled to find their guns, except for Daddy. His old Winchester Model 12 was leaning on the tree next to him. He calmly picked it up and killed the buck without leaving his chair.
Daddy liked to tell that story to emphasize the importance of being prepared, but to me it just drove home the point that he led a charmed life. I got undeniable proof of that during a dog-hunting trip back when I was in college.
McClellan swamp is a big swath of land between the Apalachicola River and Hugh Creek Road, just south of Blountstown. Our cousin, Pete McClellan, had owned the property and still had hunting rights. He had a group of friends that included Steve Marchant, Joe Wood, Sr., Henry James Chason, Reddin Brunson, Gary and GW Purvis and a few others, who ran deer dogs on the property. As was so often the case, Daddy also served as the camp cook for this bunch and would occasionally take me with him.
I’ve never been much of a dog hunter, but I always enjoyed hearing them chasing the deer, barking up a storm and changing directions. All the hunters would be spread on roads and trails across the property hoping that the deer was a buck and that the dogs would run it past them.
One morning, Steve, the group’s nominal leader, decided that he didn’t have enough people to properly cover the block of land where they were going to release the dogs. Meanwhile, Daddy was setting up his cook station that included his gas cooker, ice chest, lawn chair, folding table and his small television set that he hooked up with cables to his truck battery. He was planning on cooking and watching football and didn’t have much interest in leaving.
But Steve was adamant that he needed another person, so Daddy grumbled and agreed to go. I rode with him about a quarter-mile down an old two-trail road. He stopped and said, “Get out here and I’ll drive on up the road a ways. If the deer comes by, just make sure he’s a buck before you shoot.”
With that, he drove away and I found a comfortable spot by a log and listened for the dogs. Naturally, they had turned and were heading well away from Daddy and me, so mostly I just sat still, watching and listening, enjoying the sounds of nature.
Nature got interrupted with about four or five successive rifle shots coming from Daddy’s position up the road. I knew the dogs were going the other way, so at best I thought he might have shot a couple of squirrels. The worst-case scenario was that he had just dropped the hammer on a bunch of hogs I would have to clean later.
After a few minutes, I heard him blow the horn. Expecting the worst, I walked down the road to where he was.
I can remember that scene as vividly as if it was yesterday: The truck is parked facing me. The door is open with the television on the front seat, facing out. Daddy is sitting on a log, watching a ball game, with a cigar in one hand and a Natural Light in the other. He’s wearing a pair of light blue pants, gray-brown Hushpuppies, his jacket and a ball cap. His old, beat-up .22 magnum is propped on the log next to him.
When I got to the truck, he said, “I want you to start at this log and walk that way,” as he pointed out into the woods. “Go until I tell you to stop and count your steps.”
I had no idea where this was going, but I did as I was told. When I got to 50 steps, I turned and looked back at Daddy. He waved and said, “Just keep walking.” I got to 75 steps: “Keep going.” When I got to 100 paces, I started to worry because his eyesight wasn’t that good. Nevertheless, he said to keep going.
When I was about 120 yards away, he said, “Whoa! Now look around right there.” To my utter shock and disbelief, there at my feet lay a six-point buck, dead as a hammer, with four bullet holes in and behind his front shoulder. I dragged him back to the truck and Daddy told me that he had seen him slipping through the woods from a pretty good ways off. When he realized that the deer wasn’t going to get any closer, he picked out a clearing ahead of the buck and waited. With iron sights on a .22 magnum, Daddy shot him as soon as he came out into the open.
It was some impressive shooting and Daddy was determined to milk it for all it was worth. When we got back to the camp, he drove right up into the middle of the crowd, got out of the truck, pointed to the back and said: “Here’s your damn deer. Now, y’all don’t interrupt my game again.”
We had a good laugh as Steve put into words what everyone else was thinking. He threw his hat on the ground and said, “That’s it! I’m gonna get rid of all these dogs, burn my camo and come rolling down here about 8 instead of 4. I’m gonna get me some light blue dress pants and Hushpuppies just like Gene’s, sit on my butt and watch football.”
I remember thinking, “Yep. And if you’re as lucky as he is, you’ll still kill deer.”