Two different deer, two different situations. The following “tale of two deer” tells the absurdities and calamities of my pursuit of this most coveted Nebraska hunting species:
On a backroads drive through southeastern Nebraska a couple winters back, I spotted what had to be a 400-class buck standing at the edge of a field. Stopping the truck, I greedily stared at the behemoth before he calmly sauntered into the woods. I went home but couldn’t seem to get the deer out of my head. On my next free day, I would drive back down to find the landowner and ask if I could hunt.
However, when that day finally arrived, a snowstorm had settled in on the area two days before, giving southeastern Nebraska nearly nine inches and making it the imperfect time for a road trip. Yet I went anyway, and as I pulled off the main highway onto the gravel stretch leading to the field, I rehearsed my permission speech in my head. But I never made it to the field.
Instead, my truck began to fishtail at one of the icy road’s intersections, sliding me toward a street sign, then a mailbox, back toward the street sign, and then toward a very small ditch. Perfect, I thought, an easy glide into the cutout and I would be a four-wheel drive switch from getting out of this. However, the ditch, the small ditch, turned out to be not so small.
I had never flipped my truck before, so I was quite impressed with my calmness throughout the situation. “I’m flipping again,” my mind said, a year’s worth of McDonald’s wrappers, water bottles, dental floss, socks, sunflower seed hulls and peanut shells flying in every direction of the cab. Then it stopped. Everything that had been in my floorboard now rested on the passenger door as I hung in midair by my seatbelt. I unbuckled myself, cursing the huge buck, and climbed out of the wreckage.
The temperature was in the low teens, and a north wind was ripping through the countryside. I huddled against the underside of the truck and suddenly remembered the scene from The Empire Strikes Back when Luke Skywalker, while stranded on some icy planet, is forced to seek refuge inside the body cavity of the giant dead horse/camel/dragonlike thing he had been riding on. This was his only means for survival, which meant I too had to make an important decision. I didn’t have a horse/camel/dragonlike thing to crawl inside of, much less the light saber to make this dream a reality. So if I didn’t want to become “Hatchet Jack, being of sound mind and broke leg,” I had to seek shelter.
I made my way toward one of the few farms I had passed on the road, walked down the icy driveway and reached a glass door that gave way to a view of the living room. I knocked. Someone had to be home, I thought. The Price is Right was on the TV, so I continued to knock, watching the next contestant play Plinko.
No answer. I waited, feeling heat creeping out from each corner of the door frame as I debated curling up next to the 1/8-inch crack to bathe in its radiant heat. Finally, after several minutes and still no answer, I began to walk back to what was left of my truck. That is, until I heard the 18- wheeler in the distance. Then I ran toward the road. I would not question the truck’s motive for being down this gravel road or my decision to hitchhike with this stranger in his toasty truck.
“Flip your truck?” he asked before I climbed in.
“Nope,” I thought, looking back at the undercarriage of the truck. Then, much more appropriately, “Yep.”
He took me to a tow truck operator in Nebraska City, who drove me back toward the carnage. “Be careful down this road,” I said, never shy of stating the obvious. “It sure is slick.”
When he flipped my truck back over, the shocks creaked and cracked upon contact, but no windows were broken and the only significant body damage was on the passenger side door and roof. “Try and crank her up,” he said, and the truck turned over as soon as I did. No leaks and no sparks. She was ready to drive.
I handed him a credit card. He peered at it as if I had just handed him a library card. “I don’t take credit cards,” he said. “Only cash.” I had no cash, and I imagine the look on my face said this. I also imagine he didn’t like where this conversation was going. “Do you have anything for collateral?” he finally asked.
I searched in my wallet, bypassing the library card. Now was not the time for a bad joke. “How about this?” I said, pulling out a Wal-Mart gift card. He eyed me suspiciously. “I guess that’ll do. I’ll mail this back to you after you mail me my money.” I drove my truck home that day with a little bit of pride. When other cars passed me, and several did because my truck was now making a loud screeching noise when it got above 50 miles per hour, I nodded and tipped my cap. I was a warrior, a demolition derby man, and had the truck to prove it.
The first time I saw the other big buck that still haunts me and my wife’s car, I was driving down 25th Street in Bellevue on my way back from Wal-Mart. There had been snow on the ground for several days, but the road itself was clear. The sun-bright moon reflected off the fields lining the road, and as I peered out the passenger window, I could see a silhouetted object walking the edge of a cut bean field. The shape was a largebodied Nebraska deer, and its gait immediately told me it was a buck. While I couldn’t see his rack, I imagined the mass he carried on his neck. I went home and told my wife Laura about the big deer.
“I’ve seen deer on that road, too,” she said. “Don’t go down that road anymore.”
“That road has deer near it.”
I told her how all roads in Nebraska have deer near them.
“Don’t go down that road,” she repeated.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to think about that buck, but hadn’t had a reason to drive down that street. Until the night I was elected to take Laura’s friend, Jessica, to the airport for a redeye flight.
Again it was a moon-filled night, and I could nearly drive without using my lights at all. Taking a left on 25th Street toward Jessica’s house, I scanned the fields around me. Empty. I reached for a CD in the sun visor and looked back down. The road had turned a dark brown. I had no time to stop, or even tap the brakes, before slamming into the deer broadside.
With heart in throat, I inched my way toward a gas station, listening to a host of new and interesting sounds belching from Laura’s car. Since we are the last people in the English-speaking world without a cell phone, I grabbed 35 cents and went to the pay phone.
“Hello,” she groggily answered.
“I just hit a deer.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, but your car isn’t.”
“Where are you?” At this point I had a decision to make, and I knew it was a critical one. I said nothing.
“You’re down that road, aren’t you?”
“Quick,” I thought, “Hang up, hang up.” I could clunk the car to the next gas station, find 35 more cents, and tell her I had lost connection. Then sidetrack her by telling how bad we really needed a cell phone.
“I told you not to go down that road,” she started in again. “Why don’t you listen to me? Why my car? You knew there were deer there. Any other road but that one…” she continued, but I had stopped listening. I had a good feeling I was going to hear this a few more times before she was done. Why listen now when I could hear the re-run later? I finally interrupted.
“It’s a big deer. We’ll get to take it home,” I said. She hung up the phone. Ten minutes later, she picked me up, again reminding me of all the other times I had failed to listen. We then took Jessica to the airport, who also agreed with Laura that I shouldn’t have driven down that road.
“What are you guys paying attention to when you drive?” I thought, thinking it harder to not see a deer driving down a Nebraska road than to actually see one. Their answer would have been, “The road,” which is why I kept the question to myself.
Later that morning, I went back down 25th Street with my newly fixed truck, whose body had been totally reconstructed after its flips near Nebraska City. The only indication it wasn’t a new truck were the 40 or so hail dents that had fallen the night after I had gotten my truck back from the shop, causing another $3,000 in damage. It hadn’t been a good automobile year. I saw the deer lying in a ditch next to the road, and loaded it into the back of the truck. It was a buck, yet one that had recently shed its rack, leaving only antlerless indentions a shovel handle wide. I took the deer home and called a state trooper, who then came to my house and proceeded to ream me for not calling the authorities as soon as the wreck occurred. He didn’t care that I had the deer, but he did care that I had left the scene of an accident
“But no one else was involved,” I told him, thinking it might help. It didn’t. I apologized profusely, saying I didn’t know any better, and ended the conversation with a long series of “Yes sir’s.”
Which brings me to my current state in life, when every time my wife’s car makes a noise, pulls to the left, or is a bit louder than it was yesterday, I have to hear the dreaded statement that will follow me for the rest of my life. “I told you not to go down that road.”
“I just knew he was a big buck,” I’ll respond, again seeing the silhouette as it walked across the moonlit field.