The Thanksgiving Day Chase
I remember being excited when I found out I was going to have a little brother, but I also remember how mad I was that he arrived on the day and time that he did. He was born nearly 45 years ago now, so I guess I should be over it, but it still irks me a bit. Here’s why.
I had just turned 10 years old, and was a huge Evel Knievel fan. I watched all of his motorcycle jumps on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and was equal parts awestruck and horrified when he would first look like he was going to stick a landing, then flip and bounce and break his way down the ramp. I built little ramps in the driveway and pretended to be Evel Knievel when I would launch myself off the ramps with my banana bike. Without intending too, I even looked a bit like Evel a few times when I screwed up the jump and bounced and skidded off the pavement. Lucky for me, unlike my daredevil hero, I was only going a few miles an hour and never got more than a foot off the ground, even if in my mind I was flying over Greyhound buses or the fountain at Caesar’s palace.
I even had the Evel Knievel toy motorcycle and action figure that you could crank up. Do you
remember those? I would crank that sucker up and send Evel screaming down the road in front of the house, then chase after it before it veered into the lake or under the neighbor’s porch. In the evenings after supper I’d build a ramp in the living room with books and a checker board, and could actually jump Evel all the way from the living room, over the threshold of my bedroom door to crash land with a thud on my bed.
All summer in 1974, Evel had been in the news. He was planning the most death-defying stunt ever - he was planning to jump the Grand Canyon! Well, more specifically, he was planning to ride a rocket “bike” over the Snake River Canyon, but those are minor details. For a little boy with a pretty serious case of hero-worship, I knew I needed to see him make the jump, and as summer ground down and school started, I grew more and more excited about the big day. As I walked home from school to start the first weekend in September, I could barely wait until Sunday afternoon when I would be able to sit in front of our tv (we still had a black and white at that point – I don’t remember exactly when we got our first color tv, but I do remember the first thing we ever watched in color was a 49’s football game when another hero of mine, Joe Montana, was playing, so it must have been several years later) and watch the jump.
With that backdrop, imagine my frustration, disappointment, and yes even 10-year-old-boy anger, when my stepfather took my mother to the hospital and a few hours later, came back to the house and said:
“Your mother had the baby. She wants you and your sister to come visit”
Now, I was always a good kid and tried to be respectful and polite. Even when I went to high school and college, I was a go along to get along kind of guy. Still am for that matter. So, being a respectful and polite young boy, I simply said “ok”, got my sneakers on and followed my stepfather to the car. But in my mind, I was losing it.
“Are you kidding me?!
“She couldn’t wait ‘til after the jump?”
I obediently went to visit my mother, then peaked into the glass window in the hall at the wrinkled little creature that ruined my Sunday afternoon. While my sister and other relatives all oohing and aaahing over precious little ‘William’, all I was thinking is “Did Evel make it?” and simmering at the fact that I wasn’t on our couch watching Wide World of Sports.
As it turns out, my anger was misguided. The birth of my brother was cause for celebration, not frustration and I guess even my petulant 10-year old brain knew that. And of course, though Evel survived the failed attempt, the entire event was a disaster for him. Many claimed he never intended to make it, it was just a PR stunt, that he had lost his edge. And in fact, he only had a few more good jumps left, and within a year or so the world, and I, moved on. And ironically, though I didn’t find out until much later, it turns out that the Snake River Jump wasn’t even on broadcast television because Evel demanded a price too high for ABC to pay for the rights to air it live. Go figure.
So perhaps not the most auspicious beginnings to the relationship between my little brother and me, but even though we were separated by ten years, it was cool to have him around. When I was in high school and just starting to develop into a track athlete, Billy was very young, just five or six. Along with my mom and sisters, he would be at most of my track meets, clapping and cheering for his big brother to jump further or run faster. That always felt nice; even if I didn’t have the best day on the track, I had at least one loyal supporter who thought I was the greatest.
When I went away to college, he was only 9 or so. A few times, I let him stay the weekend in the dorm with me, took him to the dining commons, introduced him to all the guys in Oak Hall, even let him play a little football on the quad with us. I don’t know if he remembers those weekends at UMaine, but I was trying to stay connected to him, despite the gap in age between us, and despite our lives starting to follow different paths.
Suffice to say, as we each grew older, we didn’t spend much time together. I was starting a career and a family, and he was finding his own way after high school. But when we did find a rare occasion to spend time together, it was either fishing or hunting. But not very often, and usually not for a very long time. But one day, Thanksgiving Day in fact, we spent a l-o-n-g time together, and not exactly on purpose.
Ever since my siblings and I grew up and started our own families, we have been rotating Thanksgiving dinner. One year my mom’s house, then Chris and I would host, then to Rachel’s,
then to Debbie’s, then we’d start over at my mom’s again. It helps relieve the pressure on my mom always hosting, and helps us all stay connected. The particular year I’m thinking of was a long time ago. I’m not sure exactly which year, but Alex was just a toddler so it had to be 1995 or ‘96. My sister Rachel was hosting, and as usual on Thanksgiving I planned to hunt in the morning before heading to dinner (which if you’re from my neck of the woods is really lunch. I think that’s a Maine thing…).
Anyway, Billy wanted to hunt too, so I picked him up before daylight and we headed to north Chester to make the trip into the CP tracks. It was a cold, gray morning and had been snowing a bit. When we got out of the truck at the power line to start the long walk down to the bog, it started to snow a lot harder. We didn’t have a lot of time since we had to be at Rachel’s for dinner (lunch, remember?), but I wanted to make my normal bog push which typically took a few hours. As we hurried down the tracks and got to the edge of the bog, it started dumping snow. A couple of inches had already fallen, and it was getting hard to see more than a hundred yards or so ahead. We made the loop, though went faster than I normally like, didn’t see anything, and decided to head back. The walk back to the truck was hard – the wind had picked up and the snow was coming down in a solid sheet of white. Visibility was nearly zero, though I would have been able to see my feet if they weren’t buried in six inches of snow that now covered the ground. I didn’t say anything to Billy, but I was worried about the five-mile dirt road drive from the powerline back to the pavement.
It was slow going. I was driving my trusty old Toyota 4x4 with the hubs locked, in low range, and started creeping along. I knew if I could just keep the tires from spinning and keep the truck out of the ditch, we’d make it to my sister’s in time. We had gotten through most of the rough spots, through the big mudhole on the powerline, up the only really steep hill on the entire road, and past one narrow section of spruce and fir that was now like driving through a tunnel with branches heavy with snow bending toward the ground. The snow had really piled up fast and gusts of wind was turning everything white, so I’d roll to a stop to make sure we didn’t drive into the woods then slowly start creeping forward when the whiteout receded. I knew the last half mile was better road up behind the big fields of north Chester. My goal now was to keep moving forward and if we could get there, we still had a good shot of being on time, or at least only a little late. I was starting to relax just a little. But as we came around the last sweeping corner only a half mile from pavement, everything changed.
We rounded the corner, barely rolling. Standing broadside in the middle of the road was a beautiful buck. He was heavy chested and had a wide, high rack that seemed to glow against the snowy back drop. I stopped the truck and he stood still, maybe twenty yards from the front bumper, staring at us. We stared back. It seemed a long time but was likely only a few seconds, then he simply took a few steps and evaporated into the snow blanketed trees.
Now, as the older brother, I’m supposed to be in charge. To lead by example. To not do anything foolish. But in this instance, my kid brother was way smarter than I was. I quickly pulled the truck as far off the road as I dared, killed the engine and reached for my rifle. Billy looked at me in amazement as I climbed out of the truck.
“What are you doing?!” he said. “We need to get to Rachel's for Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Grab your gun, we can get him” I shouted over my shoulder as I trotted down the road.
When I got to the tracks where the deer had crossed, Billy caught up to me, jacket unbuttoned, gloves in hand, struggling to keep up and load his rifle. I waited for him to get ready, then sent him up the road a few yards. I whisper-yelled instructions,
“I’ll stay on his tracks. You stay beside me a few yards to my left but keep up. He’ll be
easy to follow, let’s go!”
Easy to follow. That was an understatement. We were moving through at least eight inches of light, fluffy snow. The deer tracks were just a single wide line of scuff marks.
Any time he went through a clump of trees, brilliant spruce/fir green shone in the otherwise stark white. I kept an eye ahead, as far ahead as I could anyway. The snowfall had slowed down, but in the thick woods it reminded me of playing under the clothesline on washing day. Everything was white and fresh, and you could only see as far as the next sheet of snow coating a wall of trees.
I also kept an eye on Billy. We have never tracked a deer together before, and he was having a hard time keeping pace and distance with me due to the low visibility. Sometimes he’d be twenty or thirty yards to my left, other times he’d be within arms lengths and sometimes I’d lose sight of him altogether, so would pull up until we reconnected. It was one of those times when I had stopped for Billy that I saw the buck. He was no more than thirty yards directly in front of me standing amid a clump of Christmas size fir, broadside, looking back over his shoulder. But not at looking at me. He was staring right at Billy.
I could see most of the deer, but not his forward shoulder. If he took another step or two, I’d have a shot, but Billy was still moving; the deer was still staring. I was shifting my glance between the buck, hoping he’d take a step, and Billy, hoping he would stop. Billy caught my glance and gave me a little wave, that I took to mean, “oh, there you are, I caught back up”.
This was where things got interesting. Frustrating too. My buddy Mike and I can communicate visually as were move through the woods, but since Billy and I had never done this, my attempts at hand signals proved to be useless, and thinking back after all these years, pretty comical.
Billy was twenty yards to my left, looking at me as he waited for me to start moving again. I held up my palm, pointed two fingers at my eyes, then pointed a single finger in the direction of the deer to convey, “Billy, wait. I see him, he’s right there.” Billy interpreted that as the direction I wanted him to walk, and he started plodding forward. A quick glance at the deer. Yup, he was gone. Grrr…
Another fifteen minutes and a few hundred yards later, we were nearly shoulder to shoulder. I had stooped over, almost on my hands and knees. The deer had entered a tight cluster of fir trees and the only way to get through was to lower a shoulder and push. We had been on the track for over an hour. How far had we come? Half a mile? For sure. A mile? Maybe. I had no idea what time it was, but certainly we’d missed dinner. But the snow had stopped and the tracks were still easy to follow. We kept finding spots where the buck had stopped, and I knew we were close and still had a chance to get him.
Just as I was about to grunt my way through the trees, I caught the unmistakable whiff of buck. Strong, pungent, musky, And close. Like, he’s on the other side of this clump of trees close.
I waved my hand frantically at Billy to stop, and thankfully this time he understood and froze in his tracks. He looked at me, waiting. I touched the tip of my nose, and Billy frowned. I pointed and jabbed two fingers under my nose, Billy frowned again, this time with a shrug of his shoulders. I made little circles with my fingers under my nose, like a French chef pulling scent into his nose to make sure he’s added enough garlic and thyme, and raised my eyebrows, silently imploring Billy to understand.
I’m sure Billy meant it as a whisper. I know that. But the woods were silent, the snow blanket was muffling all the normal sounds of the woods - no birds chirping, no leaves rustling, no squirrels barking.
It was dead silent. So when he tried to whisper “What? it sounded like a yell. To my ears, it sounded like a fog horn, loud and long and echoing. Or would have, if the clump of trees my head and shoulders were in hadn’t exploded in my face drowning out the sound of Billy’s voice.
When Billy uttered “What” in the silent void, the deer heard it too, and literally sprang from his hiding place. When I had smelled him, I thought he was close. I had no idea. Eight feet? Five?! Branches slapped at my face, snow dumped from the trees and transformed us into a snow globe for a few long seconds. My heart was pounding, my head spinning a bit from the adrenaline dump. I spun to Billy, “He was there, RIGHT there!” I shouted. Though he didn’t say anything, the look on Billy’s face was unmistakable, “Whoops..”
I dusted myself off and pointed at the wide swath through the trees where the buck had fled.
“Let’s spread out and get back on him,” I said
Billy said,” What? We’ve been gone for hours! What about Thanksgiving dinner?”
Because I’m sure my mother will read this someday, I want to be clear on what I said next.
“You’re right little brother, we’ve gone a long way and it’s getting late. We did our best.
I know you're hungry and because you are my little brother, take my only food and eat
it as we walk back to the truck.”
In reality, I angrily jammed my hand into my jacket pocket and grabbed the only snack I had – a little pack of skittles. They may not have been frozen, but they must have been close to it, because Billy flinched badly when I fired the skittles as hard as I could and hit him square in the chest.
“Happy *%^& Thanksgiving!”