Do I Have What It Takes? A Boy, A Buck and A Step Toward Manhood

By R.G. Bernier

Although most full grown men would never verbalize such an inquiry as, “Do I have what it takes?”, the nagging question of self-doubt remains nevertheless whenever embarking upon a trial that has yet to be experienced.
Sadly, doubt and fear of failure have prevented many an otherwise willing soul from making an attempt at what may not be so easy to accomplish. Standing up to bat for the first time and facing a pitcher 60 feet away that is preparing to throw a hard round sphere at you is rather intimidating. The stands are filled with spectators including family and peers, all of whom are expecting you to hit a round ball with a round wooden bat. As you tentatively dig into the batter’s box, the fear of being hit becomes as real as the dread of striking out, failing and embarrassing yourself. Every Major League baseball player has faced this very same situation, as has every accomplished deer hunter. Once the ball is struck or the first kill is made, all misgivings quickly fade. After all, success breeds confidence. Indeed, there was a time when the hunter’s horn was trumpeted with the call being eagerly answered, not out of a sense of obligation, but as a rite of passage. The only question being, as Robert Ruark, author of Horn of the Hunter, pointed out, not if, but when that resonating noise is heard. “The hunter’s horn sounds early for some, later for others.

For some unfortunates, prisoned by city sidewalks and sentenced to a cement jungle more horrifying than anything to be found in Tanganyika, the horn of the hunter never winds at all. But deep in the guts of most men is buried the involuntary response to the hunter’s horn, a prickle of the nape hairs, an acceleration of the pulse, an atavistic memory of his fathers, who killed first with stone, and then with club, and then with spear, and then with bow, and then with gun. How meek the man is with no importance; somewhere in the pigeon chest of the clerk is still the vestigial remnant of the hunter’s heart; somewhere in his nostrils the half-forgotten smell of blood.” Fortunately for me, I heard the horn early in life. I was a deer hunter long before I became a man. But, as you are about to read, my initiation into the fraternity of deer hunters was not without its share of doubts.

The story begins with an untested fledgling, marching down a dimly lit forest pathway, into a labyrinth of skeletal trees that would soon swallow him up like a tempestuous, hungry ocean far removed from the harbor’s familiar security. Embarking upon a pre-dawn wood is always a bit unnerving, what with the sounds and shadows of night, the inability to clearly identify what is around each bend of the trail, and the mere act of navigating in the dark is not comfortable. This is especially true for a young man who is about to be tested for the first time. This initiation into manhood, to be tested, to see if I had what it took to become a full-fledged hunter came abruptly and without warning. Following along behind the footsteps of my father, much like the many other mornings since I began my hunting career, all seemed typical.

But today would be different. A day like no other, one that comes only once in a man’s life. For some, such as myself, it comes early. For others much later and perhaps with no father to follow, and sadly, there are those that never get to this place. It seemed odd that we were stopping so soon; there was a good bit of ground left to cover in order for us to top the ridge and be in position before first light. That interruption in our trek is when my world suddenly changed completely. Without explanation, my father turned to me, pointed towards the trail and said, “That’s your hunting grounds today,” turned and continued on his way leaving me speechless and alone. There I stood on the dirt roadway, gun in hand contemplating what I should do. Uncertainty clouded my mind. It would have been easy to hike back to the safety of the car.

After all, my lunch was there and no one would be the wiser to this decision, no one except for me. In my youthfulness I could not comprehend why I was being abandoned, why I was suddenly being forced to engage into something so terrifying. Mustering all of the intestinal fortitude that an adventurous young lad possesses, I cautiously began to tiptoe down that aforementioned, dimly lit pathway — gun at port ready should any lions, tigers or bears make an attempt to ambush me. Such are the thoughts of boyhood fantasy. With each step I penetrated deeper into this cloaked abyss. The forest had swallowed me up and I had now reached a point of no return. The familiar had disappeared and I was clearly in uncharted waters. The morning star rose to the east, providing providential light to erase the darkness, and thankfully, some of my imagined fears. I pressed on with slightly renewed confidence. Believing that I had to have walked several miles by now (in reality it was probably no more than a few hundred yards), I found a good stump on which to sit that offered me a good vantage point.

Shortly into my vigil, the forest occupants came to life, much like a city filled with bustling people heading off to work for the day. Birds could be heard chirping, squirrels were rummaging through the leaf litter attempting to locate breakfast, and what I thought was someone’s feeble attempt to start their engine proved to be the drumming of a male partridge. Suddenly, above the ruckus I heard the distinct footfalls of a much heavier animal. Closer they came. My little heart was pounding. I almost didn’t dare to breathe. I certainly didn’t move as that was a cardinal sin ingrained in me during my initial hunting forays. Searching desperately for what I hoped was a deer, my eyes could not pick out any movement from the direction of the disturbance. The brush was just too thick from whence the noise came. And then everything went silent. For what seemed like hours to a pint-sized lad, it was probably no more than a few short minutes that had elapsed before the sound of movement in the leaf litter began again. Whatever it was, deer — bear, man, who could tell at this point — was definitely moving from behind the screen of fir toward an opening to my right. Sliding off the stump, I quickly got down on one knee, placed my rifle across my other knee and prepared for a possible shot. At this point, my heart was pounding in my throat, reverberating in both ears with each breath coming in short gasps.

Finally, the deer stepped out — a fine, fat buck, which was quite oblivious to my presence. He was no more than 50 yards distance and offered a broadside shot. When the smoke cleared from my shot, there laid my buck, its tongue out, his eyes dim. He was dead. As I stood straddling my buck, smiling from ear-toear, I felt triumphant. I’d done it. Alone, or so it seemed in this vast terrain, I had single-handedly captured my prize with one well-placed shot. In the scope of less than two hours, a frightened, uncertain young man became transformed into a self-confident hero that had made a huge leap into manhood. Much to my father’s wisdom, this was no cruel joke or harsh treatment as I first thought, but rather the very thing that would serve to catapult his young son into an adventuresome life of chasing whitetails with reckless abandon in some of the wildest places on the planet. Every boy, every man, everyone that calls himself a hunter must know that he has what it takes. Our masculine soul needs the trials and adventure, the experiences that bring him to this settled confidence. Failures will come; it’s part of the learning. Hunting is hard. But isn’t that the epic that we are all after? Teddy Roosevelt spoke of the thrill of the chase: “In hunting, the finding and killing of the game is after all but a part of the whole. The free, selfreliant, adventurous life…the wild surroundings, the grand scenery… all these unite to give the career of the wilderness hunter its peculiar charm. 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.” Men and boys learn by doing; we learn to hunt through experience. Although we may have fathers and mentors, we still need to discover for ourselves that we have what it takes through some trial brought on in a hunting adventure. The experience becomes a revelation revealing to you that you have what it takes. This initiation, like hunting itself, is not a spectator sport. It is something that each of us must enter into — face head-on — and conquer.