BOYS TO MEN...deer hunting can help

By Zeke Pipher

 Remember the days when men were men? They dressed with self-respect and style. They honored their elders. They opened doors for women and greeted each other with a strong handshake. They often wore beards and rarely scarves and skinny jeans. They worked hard and took pride in their careers. And they weren’t afraid to move out of their parents’ house, get married, remain faithful to their wife, have children and teach their children how to grow up big and strong. Remember those days? You might not. They were quite some time ago.

Today, more boys are refusing to travel the ancient paths of masculinity. This isn’t merely a phenomenon in our culture. Boys who refuse to grow up have earned some creative labels in many first-world countries. In Germany, they’re called residents of “hotel mama.” In Italy, they’re called bamboccioni, which means big babies. In Japan, they’re called parasaito shinguru, which means single parasite. Here in America, they are sometimes called “kidults” and “adultescents.” Whatever you want to call these grown-up children, we can agree they haven’t entered manhood very well. We can also agree that fathers, grandfathers and father figures need to help reverse this trend by doing a better job passing the torch of masculinity. Only men can teach boys how to become men, and this is where deer hunting can help.

Deer Hunting and Torch-Bearing

My son Aidan is 13 and on the cusp of becoming a man. In the past year, he’s grown about six inches, started to talk in a deeper voice and has asked me to teach him how to use a chainsaw, butcher knife and gas pedal. He’s eager to become a man, and I’ve been using the deer woods to show him some of the basics. Specifically, our sport is helping me teach him how to take responsibility, support his friends and family, push past challenges and display integrity.

Take responsibility:When you’re a child, you don’t have to work for your meals, clothing, air conditioning or transportation. Other people take care of everything for you, and when you’re young, they’re glad to do it. However, when you hit your late teens, 20s and 30s, they’re not so glad to do it anymore. When Aidan was young — between 5 and 10 — I did everything for him to get him outside and into the deer woods. I built the stands, trimmed the lanes, washed his clothes in scent-free soap and packed his snack packs (with quiet treats). When I shot a deer, I field-dressed it, dragged it to the truck, butchered it and put it in the freezer. Aidan mostly watched, occasionally jumping in to help wash the venison or hand me a piece of tape for a package. That was when he was a child. Now, he works alongside me in every field-to-freezer task, and this past year, he got a taste of the payoff. One Sunday afternoon in November, I drove Aidan to a stand that he had helped me assemble. He climbed up the ladder and got situated. Then I drove away. It was the first night he sat in a tree stand by himself, and what a night it turned out to be. Just a few minutes before quitting time, a 5-year-old buck came trotting down the trail with its head thrust forward in typical rutting fashion. Aidan stood, waited for the buck to present his side and then grunted to stop him. He centered the reticle on the front shoulder and made a good shot with his crossbow. The buck ran into the woods, and Aidan thought he heard him fall about 20 seconds later. We picked up Aidan’s mom and sisters, and then Aidan led the way in tracking the deer. When he found it, he offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God. When he finished, we each grabbed a side of the rack and dragged it out of the trees together. He helped me hang, process and package it. At the end of the night, when the deer was in the freezer, and we had sore backs, Aidan hugged me and said, “Am I a deer hunter like you now, Dad?” He stood tall, and his eyes were bright. I could see his joy and pride. “You absolutely are, man. I’m proud of you.”

Support friends and family: The same night Aidan shot his buck, his 11-year-old sister shot her first deer ever. After we dropped Aidan off at his stand, Claire and her best friend, Grace, helped me tuck a ground blind into a row of cedar trees. Just before sunset, a year-old buck stepped from the trees and browsed toward our blind. When he was 40 yards out, I gently squeezed Claire’s knee and whispered, “You ready to shoot?” Her little body started shaking. She nodded and whispered, “I think so.” Claire lifted the crossbow and made a great shot. The bolt flew through the deer’s chest. I spun around and said, “Claire, you did it. You got him for sure.” Pandemonium broke out —Claire and Grace were squealing, the blind was shaking and I was hugging and high fiving both of them. We waited until dark to climb into the pickup and drive to pick up Aidan. At that point, we had no idea Aidan had punched his tag. When we pulled up, I hopped out of the truck and walked to the base of his stand. The first thing Aidan asked was, “How did Claire do? Did she get a deer?” That was my proudest moment of the night. Aidan, who had just shot a 140-class whitetail 15 minutes earlier, wanted to know how his sister’s hunt went. He knew she had hunted hard for two years without punching a tag. He knew how many hours she’d spent practicing with the crossbow and looking through recipe books for what she would do with her venison. He was genuinely more excited to hear about her hunt than to tell us about his. This world is so competitive. People seem to need to outperform others to feel good about themselves. I’m fortunate, because many of my closest deer hunting buddies are not this way. My children are getting the chance to watch me and my friends celebrate each other’s success, and they’re picking up this vision for themselves. I’m thankful for this sport for giving my son this picture of what it means to be a supportive brother, son and friend.

Push past challenges: Anyone who has hunted more than one season knows that you won’t find success in the woods if you don’t greet challenge with a smile and a firm handshake. For the first four years of his hunting career, Aidan used a crossbow. A crossbow doesn’t kick or make a loud noise, but it requires him to learn how to get close to a whitetail before he takes a shot. I love the challenges that hunting deer with a crossbow have posed to my son. He’s had to figure out scent control, wind direction and deer vocalizations. He’s had to learn how to dress warmly so he could sit on a stand for a couple of hours when it’s cold. He’s had to practice patience and get used to the fact that he will not shoot — or even see — something each time he goes out. He’s even had to hone his abilities to move slowly and quietly in stands that aren’t perfectly concealed, or that have noisy creaks and pops. If you’re looking for an easy way to acquire meat, go shopping. But if you’re looking for a way to challenge your son and occasionally pack some crazy-healthy venison in the freezer, put a bow or crossbow in his hand, and point him toward the deer woods.

Display integrity: When I was a young sportsman, I made a few mistakes and “pushed past” a few game laws. I regret each of those choices. I didn’t do anything severe, but those moments were enough to bother my conscience and teach me that I don’t enjoy breaking laws. The air smells fresher and the venison tastes better when my integrity is intact. Deer hunting is giving me a chance to teach Aidan about integrity and the pleasure of having a clean conscience. We’ve had long talks on the tailgate about ethical issues such as not crossing a fence if you don’t have permission, never buddy-hunting on someone else’s tag and not killing something just to kill something. I’ve encouraged him to honor his landowners and leave their property cleaner than when he arrived. And I’ve told him to do his best to observe game laws and the rules of the sport, and if he messes up, to be honest about it and set things right. There’s nothing the grace of God can’t see us through if we have integrity and humility. These are deep and important values, and I’m grateful to deer hunting for giving me a chance to pass them to my son.

Guns, Bows and Torch-Bearing

Back when men were men, boys often entertained themselves with a .22 rifle, a longbow and a patch of trees under a big blue sky. Today, we’re putting joysticks, smartphones and remote controls in the hands of our sons. We’re keeping them inside, surrounded by screens, and then wondering why they’re not learning to work hard, overcome challenges and enjoy creation. This isn’t complicated math, and it all adds up. It’s on our shoulders as men to teach our boys how exciting, abundant and multifaceted manhood can be. Women play equally important roles in boys’ lives, but women can’t teach boys how to become men. Only we men can do that. And deer hunting can help — if we’ll get them out there and pass the torch.