“The chase is among the best of all national pastimes; it cultivates that vigorous manliness for the lack of which in a nation, as in an individual, the possession of no other qualities can possibly atone.” -Theodore Roosevelt
I never thought sighting in my gun would be so difficult to do. I took the time to put the target in my crosshairs, steadied my breathing, but I always flinched whenever I pulled the trigger. Come on, you’ve done this a million times before, I told myself, yet I continued to miss my target. Maybe I was holding it wrong. It had been a while. Maybe the kick was more than I remember it being. I made sure the gun was tucked tightly into my shoulder. No, it was more than that.
“What’s wrong?” Dad asked.
I set down my 30-30 and walked out of the back of the rifle range hoping that was enough to tell him that I didn’t want to hunt for awhile. Telling him would destroy the bond we’ve created over this way of life. I would have killed and gutted our father-son bonding right in front of him without ever firing another bullet.
Deer hunting runs in the Hessel family bloodlines like putting too much salt on everything and adding a strong dose of sarcasm to your conversations. It’s the driving force behind most of the work we do together as a family. Food plots need to get put in, rocks need to be picked in freshly tilled fields, corn needs to be planted and stands need to be built. Buck mounts on the walls provide opportunities to pass on stories while sitting around the table with a few cold ones. Deer hunting and deer camp is better than Christmas to most people living in the Midwest and there’s a good reason for it. Deer hunting proves to be a time where families get together, share meals and stories, and try to go out and provide for the family. Most people may see this as a “caveman like” way to live due to grocery stores and food that can be delivered to your front door. But there’s something special about going out and being able to feed your family. With all of this in mind, there was a time when I wanted nothing to do with hunting and I almost walked away from it forever.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love guns and I’m not against anyone collecting them or using them for hunting purposes, but I myself am not a big collector by any means. My uncle (whom I never got the chance to meet) committed back suicide when he was fourteen and my mom never let us have guns in her house because of that. We only could store our guns at my dad's place. I have my Marlin 30-30 that was given to me as a birthday present from my dad when I was in high school. I also have a “Frankenstein” shotgun that I got from my grandpa when he passed away back in 2015, but that’s about it. But something happened back in high school that changed the way I viewed their impact.
Back in high school, I had a friend of mine commit suicide the morning he was supposed to graduate. He was a year older than me and we grew up playing sports together, playing video games at friends’ houses, and we sung in the men’s choir together at school. His death was the first thing that shook me to my core. I never had anyone close to me pass away like that, especially at such a young age and unexpectedly. Since then, I’ve had other deaths happen within my family, but nothing quite as unexpected as Wyatt’s death until the summer of 2017 when my childhood friend, Ryan, was found dead with two bullet holes in him. It was at that point I didn’t want to pick up a gun again. I’d seen what they had done to my friends and although I was just deer hunting, the thought of taking away life with it was something I could no longer stomach. This went against everything I knew about manhood. A man goes out and provides for this family. He hunts. It’s his duty and it’s ingrained in him. Where I’m from, if you’re not a hunter; you're living in the wrong area.
Brushwolf Deer Camp is what our hunting party is called and for as long as I can remember we’ve played cards the night before opener, talked trash and ate too much venison jerky. We’d share a couple of the same stories year after year and nobody would think anything of it. Deer camp was our time to just let everything else fall next to our boots resting on the front porch. It would seem foolish to throw all of that away.
“If God didn’t want men to hunt, he wouldn’t have given him plaid shirts.” - Johnny Carson
I didn’t quit hunting though because that’s not what took away the lives of my friends. Yes, a gun was involved, but there were other factors at hand and if you knew my friends, they wouldn’t want me to quit hunting. They were rowdy country boys that didn't mind getting dirty. They wouldn’t want me to shy away from connecting with my band of brothers that I have at Brushwolf Deer Camp. I think about my friends when climbing up into that ladder stand of mine. I unzip the canvas that’s wrapped around my stand and brush off the snow left on my seat from the night before. I let out a deep breath and take the time out in the woods to thank God for the many gifts He’s given me in this life. I listen to the trees creak in the November wind and close my eyes for a few moments to take it all in. Yes, it’s nice when you come with a deer, but that quiet time with my Creator is something I cherish the most.
A colleague of mine that I met throughout my period of student teaching gave me a quote that always sticks with me. “The most important thing about hunting is that you come home.” I keep Eric's quote in mind every time I walk out into the woods and will continue to do so as I’ll forever be a member of the Brushwolf Deer Camp.
- Dalton Hessel