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Owen Heninger is a retired psychiatrist who grew up in Utah. His father, also a doctor, taught Owen everything required for country living. In this story, Owen reflects on incidents that marked his growth toward manhood. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns
There are special times in a boy’s life when he feels the internal ratchet wheel of his developing manliness has clicked. He is then one notch closer to that longed-for stage of life called manhood.
For me, growing up in semi-rural Central Utah, the clicks were easy to feel. One such event at 10 was going away from home to pick those succulent scarlet strawberries. And then later I remember furtively riding my balloon-tired bike to the river to boldly swim in the buff with the older boys. At 12, I strained to climb an 11,750 foot mountain, hiking up its mile-long glacier in ice water, with wet, foot-freezing tennis shoes. And later, one such event was going on my first deer hunt.
On the hunt, I was to flinch as my dad initiated me to the sharp report of a deer rifle and the death of a deer. Then, timidly, I observed the grisly business of him cleaning the dead animal.
This adventure also gave me my first sight of an animal’s glistening, grey entrails. It was there that I took in my first whiff of the mysterious earthy odor of offal. Understand, where I grew up, deer hunting was de rigueur. It was one of the proper forms in which a boy was to develop and prove manliness.
The incoming tide of excitement called deer hunting season was coincident with the autumnal arrival of quickening cold, the delicious burning leaves scent of fall, and foliage turning ruby, yellow, and gold. It was then that fire-engine red hunting caps came out, as if they were umbrellas in a rainstorm.
And if you were lucky enough to own a hunting rifle, there were plenty of places just out of town to go to “sight it in.” As a prelude to the thing itself, you could set off the exhilarating sharp CRACK! and feel the hearty jolt of the kick of the gun on your shoulder.
Then there were the hunts themselves, named after their location, and evocative of the trophies taken there: Beaver Mountain, Diamond Fork, Sheep Creek, and South Fork, etc… Each name was an emblem of manly development, like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Battle of the Bulge were signposts toward victory in World War Two.
On one such hunt, Dad shot a five-point buck about a mile from where we’d parked our car. After we cleaned it, it still weighed over a hundred and fifty pounds. The rules said that you had to leave the horned head attached as proof of its sex.
We secured a long branch to use as a carrying pole. Then we tied Dad’s trophy, by its legs, over the pole. Even though it was mostly uphill through a trail-less, rugged terrain, I was able to hold up my end as we carried it out.
We sweated away and slowly struggled ahead, each waiting for the other to cry “uncle” and stop for a rest. Then we solved that dilemma by taking turns to simply call, “rest.” There was even one unique time when I outlasted my dad, because he called for a “rest” on my turn. That was when I heard and felt a “click” in the ratchet wheel of manliness.
That carry was the kind of joint muscular endeavor that both tests and strengthens the bond between father and son. It has the added benefit of demonstrating to them both that the boy is now a man and can do a man’s work.
I no longer carry out deer. Actually it has been 55 years since I went on my last deer hunt.
Nonetheless, if I can imagine the onerous heft of my half of that deer, and conjure up the weight of that slim limb on my shoulder, the soft part near my neck, while I pioneer my way uphill with a horned head lolling uncomfortably and catching branches as we climb to near exhaustion through Central Utah’s autumnal scrub brush, early manhood becomes possible again.
Published: Feb. 20, 2014 – Volume 12 – Issue 45