GON Fall Fiction: White Lightning
Part 1 of a five-part hunting fiction series.
In those days, I wanted to be a deer hunter in the worst way. I read everything I could get my hands on about how to hunt bucks, but that was only half the battle. Back in the early ’60s, there were only a few places in Georgia to hunt deer, and they were always a several-hour drive from where I lived in the suburbs of northeast Atlanta. My possibilities were limited even after I got my driver’s license because I didn’t own a car.
Dale Masters, one of my best friends at school, was always telling me stories about his dad’s deer camp down in Piedmont National. Each year they set up a big tent-city camp on some private land next to the refuge. If someone missed a shot at a deer, it was a big deal. The men would grab the unsuspecting hunter when he wasn’t expecting it and cut off his shirttail. Then they’d hang it up for everybody to see. They proudly kept a flagstaff on display in camp that was full of old shirttails of all colors from past encounters with charmed bucks. It resembled a Marine Corps battle standard with streamers from numerous hard-fought campaigns on it.
It was even worse when someone killed his first buck, especially if it was one of the younger camp members like Dale. After he killed his first buck, a beautiful 7-pointer, the men grabbed him out of his tent while he was resting, held him down and rubbed green stomach gunk and blood all over his face. He had to throw away the white T-shirt he was wearing after they finished with him because there was no way it would ever wash clean. But he never complained. Dale had finally become an official member of the Piedmont Brigade (that’s what they called themselves). Much later on I realized it was a rite of passage that no boy would ever forget.
I dreamed about the day when my first buck was hanging on the meat pole, but I had no intentions of letting a bunch of rowdy, unshaven men grab me and rub that smelly green stuff in my face. I plotted and schemed about what I would do if that actually happened to me. I would be ready for them. If they tried to grab me, I’d run out in the woods and hide. Or so I naively thought.
The ’64 season marked my fourth year of deer hunting up in the mountains in Union County. Little could I know what lay in store for me or Willie, my best friend and closest hunting buddy. It would turn out to be a season that nobody in our group would ever forget.
During my first two seasons of hunting up at Sheriff Knob, I never even saw a live deer in the woods. Then, my third year, a couple of does came by followed by a spike. I was sitting against a tree on the side of a cold mountain ridge, and he sneaked by just below me at about 30 yards.
He was shielded by some thick rhododendron. I tried to get a shot, but it was impossible. I knew it would be bad to try to shoot through all that thick stuff. I had my sights on him for about two seconds, and that was the thrill of a lifetime for me. After it was all over, I was proud that I hadn’t lost my composure and attempted to make an iffy shot that I might have regretted.
The does had been more in the open, and I got my gun up and ready as they came by. I was hoping a buck would follow because that’s what Coach Smart had told me to watch for. Sure enough, that cow-horned spike came sneaking through that thick stuff like an old mountain ridge runner. He couldn’t scent me, and I stayed as cool as a cucumber. Only after I knew he was gone did my heart start pounding like an unbalanced washing machine, and my hands started shaking so badly that I had to put my gun down. What a sensation! I had never felt that way before. I had almost pulled it off! He was only a spike, but he might as well have been a 20-point world record as far as I was concerned. Next year would be the year. I knew it in my soul.
Thank goodness for Coach Smart. Willie and me got hooked up with him in the 8th grade. He taught high school English, and he also coached B-team football and wrestling. It was our first year of high school, and we tried out for both sports. As much as I hate to say it, Willie was the real athlete of our dynamic duo. He had amazing abilities. Looking back, I realize I never really had my heart in any high school sports. Even then, something burned deep inside my soul that prevented me from ever wanting to become a high school sports star.
Deer hunting was the only thing that ever mattered to me.
When Coach Smart wasn’t doing something at school, he was out shooting somewhere. He had a whole slew of World War II rifles, and he gladly let us shoot his M1 Garand and .30 caliber carbine whenever we went with him. Back then, you could drive over to a patch of woods a few miles from school and stop just about anywhere on the side of the road and walk into the woods and shoot. Nobody thought anything about it. Some of my older friends who owned cars even brought guns to school to show off and trade. After school was out in the afternoon, we’d all meet in the parking lot, open the trunk of somebody’s car and drool over some new rifle or pistol someone had just traded for. If you did that today, they’d be calling in the SWAT Team.
The first time I shot the Garand, I was so intent on hitting the 50-yard target that I let down my guard for just a second, and the heavy sliding bar on the action caught my thumb. I had never shot any kind of automatic before, and it didn’t help that I’m left-handed. On the fifth or sixth shot, I moved my right hand slightly to better steady the gun. Wham! That slide took off the top of my thumb. Coach Smart saw it coming, and he tried to warn me, but I squeezed the trigger just as he yelled.
“You ain’t the first novice Marine who got christened by an M1,” he said with a grin as I stood there dripping blood.
That was a real compliment calling me a Marine. He knew I planned to join up as soon as I graduated in a few years.
We never thought of guns as being any kind of evil instrument like you hear about all the time on the news today. To us, a rifle was simply a means to an end like a football or a baseball bat. But there were some obvious differences. A gun was a special tool that a boy had to earn the right to use to achieve an end result. A lot of responsibility went along with that piece of wood and steel. Even at that young age, I realized that a beautiful walnut or curly maple stock attached to some fine steel lines or even an old rusted Stephens 20-gauge single-shot, like I later acquired, made a rifle or shotgun a lot more desirable to a boy like me than any thought of glory on the football field could ever do.
A gun was a lot more than a tool; it was a work of art, but safety was always a top priority. Willie and me were righteously obsessed with safety back then because it had been pounded into our heads. The last thing we wanted to do was to make some stupid mistake and disappoint someone we respected like Coach Smart, who had painstakingly taught us so much. The embarrassment of having an accident would have been a fate worse than getting shot. In those days, right was right and wrong was wrong, and most of the boys I called friends had been brought up to know the difference. We knew where to draw the line. Some things you just didn’t do, period. Today, all that’s gone out the window in a lot of places. What a shame that most boys growing up today will never have what we had.
In the fall, if he didn’t have a football game, Coach Smart would always be out in the deer woods. He hunted down in south Georgia some, and he had a big tract over by Augusta that a friend owned. He loved to hunt deer more than he loved to eat, unless he was eating venison, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us in a big way, especially me. That first year, after he’d gotten to know me and Willie a little and figured we could make the grade, he took us up to Sheriff Knob in the high mountains on our first deer hunt. Even though we were hunting on national forest land that anybody could hunt, he made it sound like we were going to a secret deer-hunting retreat that only he knew about and had access to. To a degree, he was right. We seldom saw another hunter up there, and it was every bit the paradise he claimed it was. That is, until we ran into Enoch Gooch and his two boys. I’ll tell you all about the one-eyed poacher and the trouble we had in due time, but first I need to finish telling you about the Knob.
Sheriff Knob grew to be a very special place. It became our No. 1 hunting destination during those fast-paced high school years. By the time I was a junior, I think I could have walked up all those old logging-road-switchbacks blindfolded. We hunted grouse up there in late winter after deer season was over, and in the spring we fished for trout in some of the nearby streams. We occasionally saw a bear or two. The Knob became my sacred shrine. It was a sanctuary in a way, even though some crazy things happened up there during the ’64 season that nobody could have predicted. For me and Willie, the incidents of that year would be etched in our minds forever.
That was the year “the Duke” came into our lives. The Duke, in all his glory, was a giant hat-rack buck with five long tines on each side. His brow tines alone were 9 inches long. We named him the Duke after John Wayne because of his tall, wide rack that resembled John Wayne’s ever-present Stetson. Later on we learned that the Gooch boys knew all about our buck as well, but they knew him by another name. To the one-eyed poacher and his two misfit sons, he was “White Lightning.” Once they knew we were onto him, an all-out contest began that turned two boys into men.
• • •
During our first year of high school in ’61, when we were just starting to feel that first chill in the air that spelled the beginning of autumn around the end of October, Coach called us into his classroom unexpectedly after school one day and sat us down in a couple of desks on the front row. He had such a serious look on his face we wondered if we had committed some terrible sin the day before at wrestling practice. He stared at us over his desk as if we were about to get one of his more serious sermons.
“Okay, boys, I been hearing some local scuttlebutt about you two. I been hearing that you like to shoot, and that you wanna be deer hunters. Any truth to that rumor?”
We looked at each other and nodded energetically.
“I been watchin’ you at practice, and I gotta admit you have potential. But buck huntin’ in the mountains is a whole lot different than wrasslin’ with some of them poor little Mama’s boys from Cross Keys High.”
He always liked to say “wrasslin” when he was around us instead of “wrestling.” In fact, he enjoyed talking country whenever he could get away with it. Whenever he was away from his classroom, he could murder the King’s English with the best of them.
“It’ll only be a few days ’til the cold skies of November start gettin’ ripe, and you know what that means.”
He raised his eyebrows and smiled.
“Them ol’ thick-coated mountain bucks start doin’ crazy things up on Sheriff Knob this time a’ year during the ruttin’ season. And that’s about the only time you’re ever gonna catch one with his guard down. But it takes grit to climb some of them hills and make it to the top of some of them ridges in the pitch-black dark. And I mean to tell you it gets awful cold up there in November. I’m talkin’ the worse kind of cold you can ever imagine… You think we’ve worked enough baby fat off you two these last few months to get you in shape to help me hunt down some of them he-bucks I know about up there?”
We both shook our heads eagerly.
“We can handle the cold,” I blurted.
“What’s a he-buck?” Willie asked.
Coach answered, “It’s just about the cagiest, most cantankerous, most hard-to-kill big-game animal the Good Lord ever put on this Earth. The easiest way to identify ’em is by the small trees they usually got growin’ out of their heads.”
Willie’s eyes got big and he smiled.
“Okay, then. Saturday morning, a week from this coming Saturday, is Opening Day. I’ll pick you up at your house at 3:30, and I don’t mean in the afternoon. Willie, can you spend the night at Buddy’s house?”
“Yes, sir,” Willie answered, looking over at me to make sure it was okay.
“If we can get away early enough, we’ll stop and eat breakfast at Jake’s in Dahlonega. It’s always been good luck for me to get fortified at Jake’s before headin’ up to the high country and climbin’ up to the Knob. And if you get lost, which you got about a 50 percent chance of doin’, a good bait of bacon and eggs under your belt will help get you through the day…” He winked.
We knew we’d be hunting a vast area of near wilderness mountain terrain, and the possibility of getting lost was very real. Still we didn’t mind. We never gave it much thought. We didn’t really care. We were invincible.
“We’ll be ready,” I said.
So two young wanna-be hunters were about to embark on their first great deer-hunting adventure. Willie spent the night at my house as planned, and neither one of us got an hour’s sleep. It wasn’t like we had a lot of gear to pore over and get ready. Not like today. We figured it would be cold, and the best we could do was layer up as much as possible. My total repertoire of gear included an olive drab Boy Scout knapsack with a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, some cheese and crackers for snacks, a canteen of water, a Boy Scout flashlight that worked about half the time, an extra pair of thick white socks (non-insulated), an extra T-shirt, 10 bullets in their molded plastic holder that would fit on your belt if you wanted it to, some waterproof matches, a 6-foot length of rope, and a very sharp and well-worn fold-up “jackknife” that my grandfather had given me. Willie outfitted himself about the same. I was hunting with a borrowed Marlin .35 Remington lever-action carbine, owned by Mr. Shaw, my chemistry teacher. Coach Smart and Mr. Shaw were good friends, and Mr. Shaw had graciously entrusted me with that rifle. Willie was using a Model 94 Winchester .30-30 that Coach Smart loaned him.
I had some old leather Sears-Roebuck work boots that were not insulated, but they were well broken-in and very comfortable to hike in. Since I didn’t own any type of insulated underwear, I planned to wear sweat pants under my blue jeans. On my upper body I’d wear a long-sleeved T-shirt, a flannel shirt, a hooded sweat shirt on top of that and a heavy, wool red-plaid jacket my grandfather had given me. Last but not least, I had some old leather gloves that never kept my hands very warm, but at least they helped keep the raw cold off my bare skin.
• • •
In addition to coaching football and wrestling, Coach Smart was the hardest English teacher at Briarcliff High. He’d grown up on a farm down in Pike County. Thank goodness he had a good bit of knowledge and common sense about outdoor things. He’d gotten himself educated over in England at some highfalutin’ school called Oxford. We didn’t hold that against him ’cause he told us often that the only thing he really learned over there was that it rained a lot and that them stuffed-shirt English writers who were so famous in literature couldn’t hold a candle to James Fenimore Cooper and William Faulkner. Before I met Coach, I’d probably read maybe one book all the way through. But after he started feeding Willie and me a steady diet of some of his favorite deer-hunting books, he got me hooked on reading in a big way. That first year in the 8th grade I must’ve read 10 books; all about deer hunting! My mother was almost in shock.
One of the books that was required reading in his 10th grade English class was Faulkner’s The Big Woods. He gave me a worn copy that he taught from that had writing and notes all in the margins, and I read the whole thing cover to cover in about three days. That was a record for me. Then I read it again. Parts of it were pure magic. That was the first time in my life I realized that the written word could grab you and put you right alongside those Mississippi deer hunters as if you were a part of their group. In fact, you were one of them!
Coach also gave me two other books that became my hunting bibles. The first was Shots at Whitetails by Larry Koller. Coach said he was about the best outdoor writer in the world. Koller hunted in the Catskill Mountains in southern New York State, and Coach said those mountains were about the closest thing to our own north Georgia mountains he could think of. The second book was Those Were the Days by Archibald Rutledge, a good ol’ southern boy (and teacher just like Coach) from South Carolina. Then for Christmas he gave me the greatest book I ever read: The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark. It was a collection of columns Ruark had written for Field & Stream back in the ’50s, and I read those stories over and over again ’til I just about memorized some of them. Even though only a few of the stories were about deer hunting, I loved them all. Every time I read one, I was the boy in those unforgettable hunting and fishing tales.
“These men all know a little something about how to write ’cause they’ve lived it,” Coach said. “This stuff is what the experts call true southern literature. Buddy, if a young man your age never reads anything else in his life, these books’ll make you rich in ways you never knew about before. It’s the best stuff that’s ever been written about huntin’ them ol’ crazy he-bucks that you and I worry over so much. Thank goodness, we got people like Faulkner, Koller, Rutledge and Ruark, who know how to put these stories down on paper and capture our imaginations.”
A stranger would have never guessed that Coach Smart was such a well-educated man. Whenever we were out on a huntin’ trip somewhere, he intentionally talked like some old mountain hillbilly, that is, if he wasn’t reciting some English poetry in a thick English accent. But he did that just to get our goats.
“I gotta talk proper in school,” he’d say, “because of all the girls and sissies in my classroom. But when I’m out with the boys huntin’, it’s different. I can be my real self.”
Everybody said that Coach could have gotten himself a high-paying job teaching at one of them “Ivy League” schools up north somewhere when he got back from England, and he coulda’ made a lot more money. But he always told people that kudzu was more to his liking than snow because his roots were in the South, and he always planned to stay close to the kudzu.
Nonetheless, he made his students work for a decent grade. I never had to suffer through any of his classes like poor Willie did. By the luck of the draw, I got old Mrs. Anderson for English, a sweet gray-haired lady who had been teaching for at least a couple of centuries. Her classes were fairly easy, except for one thing. While Coach Smart loved American writers and American literature and taught as much of it as he could, Mrs. Anderson was equally fascinated with English literature. Seemed like everything she wanted us to read was Shakespeare or Chaucer or Sir Walter Scott, or stories about some poor man stuck out on the heath that I never could get into. In fact, since I knew he’d been all over England, I broke down one day and asked Coach Smart, “Just what the heck is a dadgum ‘heath’ anyway?”
A sly look crossed his face. “Why it’s a candy bar,” he answered playfully. “I thought any deer hunter who knows his way around the woods always kept a couple of Heath bars stashed in his pack somewhere!”
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