McKean Minute: Solo Flight

It was this week a year ago that my son became a man.

There are plenty of moments that a father can point to with the same conclusion—captaining a team to an unexpected victory, or the sudden acceptance of responsibility, or a first date. But my boy earned his man card by killing a deer all by himself.

If that sounds underwhelming, or undeserving of comment, it’s because you don’t know the details, or the context.

I have identical twin boys, and in nearly every measure of appearance and behavior, they are congruent. They’re responsible, honest, reliable, and funny. And they both grew up as hunters. In my home state of Montana, young hunters are required to be accompanied by an adult until they are 15, and the eldest (by 9 minutes) of my sons showed an early aptitude for solo hunting. Even before he turned 15, he wanted to strike out on his own, to explore the next ridge, and to make his own luck.

My younger (by those same 9 minutes) son was equally happy to stay by my side, to collaborate on strategies and to rely on me for decisions about where to hunt or when to shoot. I was equally happy with his companionship, because he’s such good company, and if I can brag just a bit, an exceptional shot.

But every time his brother dropped over a distant ridge, or left me a note on the kitchen table letting me know where he was hunting and when he’d be back, I was reminded of myself. My most memorable hunting experiences—indeed, the experiences that minted me as a hunter—were when I was alone, with no one to turn to for advice or decision. I reckon I became a man as a teenaged hunter, left alone to live with the results of my decisions.

So, I was both apprehensive and excited when my then-17-year-old younger son told me, a year ago this week, that he was going to take his rifle “for a walk,” and that he’d see me after dark. I wasn’t surprised to get the text, several hours later, that he had killed a deer.

“Buck down. Might need help,” was how the message read. I took my time responding. I recalled my own first solo gutting session—all the blood and all the indecision about what comes out of the body cavity and what stays in—and my first drag-out. And how my memories would have been dulled if I had to share them with my father.

By the time I got to him, Merlin had the buck gutted and dragged out of a coulee onto a bench where we could easily drive to it. Only we didn’t. We each grabbed a leg and started dragging. As we pulled, I found myself sneaking short looks at my son, admiring the line of his jaw and the determination in his eyes.

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