For 362 ½ days a year the small farmhouse sat quiet and still along a country road bordered by the Crystal River.
Occasionally during those 362 ½ days, my family attended church next door. Afterward we’d stop and visit “Grandma” Irene. I could never figure why we had to visit an old lady who wasn’t our real Grandma. Sure, she was my mother’s sister’s husband’s mother, but that means nothing to a young boy.
That all changed when I turned 10. In our family, a 10 year old boy was old enough to enter deer camp. And, for 2 ½ days a year, Grandma Irene’s house was deer camp. This tiny home would sleep 13 men and Grandma Irene.
The quiet still that normally embraced the house was replaced with an effervescent glow of excitement and camaraderie. It was also engulfed in cigarette smoke, and a bit of adult language.
Grandma Irene was busy tending to her homemade chicken noodle soup. She had a spark [you use glow above] about her like none I’d ever seen.
Her son, Roger…Uncle Rog to me…was the Master of Ceremonies. Loud and animated, he was always telling a story. His son, Greg, was the Hunt Master.
To me everything about Greg was cool. He grew a beard, drove a pickup, listened to Bluegrass music, and consistently killed bucks with the bow and arrow. While I didn’t know it then, Greg would eventually teach me how to bowhunt and trout fish. He also kissed my first date before I ever could, planting a huge unexpected one on her lips when I introduced them. And he did me the honor of being an usher in my wedding.
But that all came later. On this night, I sat there in awe, soaking it all in.
Soon the party ended. The wake-up bell would come early, and no one wanted to miss deer season.
It was then that Greg pulled out a candle with 5am printed on its label. He explained that you were to stick the candle where the sun don’t shine and light it. When it burned to the 5am line, you’d surely wake up. He joked, “just make sure you don’t pass gas.”
This is the part of camp that burns inside me. Adult men laughing and joking. Sharing stories and participating in the circle of life. I made my way to bed that night unaware that this was my first and only deer camp at Grandma Irene’s.
* * * *
A few short months later, Grandma Irene’s health suffered and several years thereafter she passed away. The service was held in the very church next to her farmhouse.
Midway through I began to cry. Stepping outside to avoid disruption, I looked next door at the old deer camp. Grandma Irene had been out of her home and in a nursing facility for almost a decade. But there on the porch of Grandma Irene’s house, the current owner had hung out his blaze orange coat.
It was there in that small farmhouse, in central Wisconsin, that the eternal deer hunting fire was lit inside me. It creates friendships, tightens families, and teaches men that it’s ok to cry.
And cry I did when Greg passed away two years ago from cancer, and when Uncle Rog passed last spring. But, this year, my own 10 year-old son will join the tradition and attend deer camp. I only hope that his passion will burn as bright as the wake-up candle.
Bryon Thompson is a lifelong Wisconsin resident, who lives with his active sporting family on Lake Kegonsa in Stoughton. In his spare time, Bryon is a businessman in the Madison area