I was just a kid. Maybe 12 or 13. Freshly graduated from Hunter’s Safety and so excited to be in the Northwoods with my Dad, on my first official whitetail-deer hunt, license pinned to the back of a blaze orange jacket.
We decided to spend the opening weekend camped in far northern Wisconsin on state land. My Dad had his tent, I had my own. With the hindsight of almost 30 years, I can’t say why two tents were necessary. The Friday evening before the opener, we visited with my grandparents who lived 15 miles away before ensconcing ourselves in sleeping bags.
Snow greeted us the following morning. Wet snow. I found a ridge studded with hemlock and hunkered down, alone. I grew cold. After an hour, I decided that a fire was more attractive than any trophy deer I wasn’t likely to shoot. So, I spent the next many hours trying and failing to light a fire with the damp tinder around me. I remember feeling miserable and frustrated. I remember thinking, even then, of Jack London’s seminal “To Build a Fire.”
We cooked that night in camp. Not long after dusk, my Dad announced plans to “go into town,” leaving me alone in a dark, snowy forest with little more comfort than a dying fire, a jug of apple cider, and some MREs.
In the middle of the night, my body rejected the cider. I threw up. All over myself, my sleeping bag, the tent. Very ill, I began calling out for my Dad. Repeatedly. He did not answer my cries. After finding some water, I washed myself off, did the best to remove any vomit from my sleeping bag and tent, and fell back into a fitful sleep.
By morning, Dad was back. I told him I didn’t want to hunt anymore. Alright, he agreed, let’s get you over to your grandparents.
My beloved Grandma, Eleanore, quickly installed me on a couch with a view of the television and bundled me in warm blankets. My Grandpa fed the fire roaring in their hearth, and I passed the day in this manner, totally pampered. Grandma shuttled between the kitchen and my couch, bringing bowls of soup and plates of buttered toast. A cavalcade of football games played out on TV. What grander glory is there, than to be so coddled by two such loving old people? Just before night fell, my Grandma raced into the living room. An extremely top-heavy woman with badly arthritic feet, legs, and hands, she rarely raced anywhere.
There’s a deer out there, she said, pointing beyond a wide picture window toward their pasture where snow fell heavily.
I sat up, shucked the blankets, looked. Sure enough, a deer.
Get your gun, my grandparents urged. Shoot from the garage, they advised.
I padded through their house, my 12-gauge shotgun (I employed a slug) cradled nervously. I did not don boots, or sneakers for that matter. I remember very clearly, the cold cement floor beneath my stockinged feet. I leaned against the open garage door and took sight of the deer some 60 yards away. I steadied my breathing, took aim and fired.
The deer dropped as easily as if it had been nudged, as if its hooves were on a hinge, like a steel target at a shooting gallery. I can still hear my grandparents, standing behind me, hooting and hollering. My Grandma was crying, weeping with joy.
You took so long to line up your shot, she said. We didn’t know if you had it in you.
She continued, You’ve always been so sensitive. You just never seemed like a hunter.
Pulling on my boots and shrugging into a jacket, the three of us plodded out into the snow. My body surged with adrenaline and punkish pride.
As we approached the deer, it became obvious that this animal was no trophy, no trophy at all. In fact, this animal was something much closer to a fawn than some monarch of the forest. Maybe, maybe it was a yearling. But as we stood over its steaming body, I had the realization that I likely weighed much more than the poor, antlerless creature. Suddenly, all the feelings I’d experienced trudging through the pasture dissolved. I felt sick again and could not contemplate the chore of gutting this … little thing.
I don’t feel very good, I said to my grandparents.
They were so kind to me and simply told me to go back inside. Then they dragged the deer into the garage where they set about butchering it. No small chore, for two retired old folks.
When my Dad came back (from who knows where) he was both suitably proud of my first blood, but also savage with his comedy.
You shot Bambi, he laughed. Bambi just wanted to lick your hand, and you shot him.
This became something of a family joke, the kind of story we recycled every fall, the time Nick shot Bambi from the garage. It has taken me almost three decades to recover, to own the story, and perhaps, to forgive myself. And now, when I reflect on that day, my memory swerves not toward the deer I “hunted,” but toward the euphoric sounds my Grandma made as the shotgun’s roar reverberated out through that snow. She is gone now, but I have that memory of her, of surprising her, delighting her, this woman I loved so very much.
To see photos of Butler’s trip to a family hunting shack near Ladysmith, follow him on Instagram at @wiscobutler.