Coming of Age
A new hunter finds direction from behind his grandfather’s rifle
Gerald Giebink is 23 years old, and he has no idea what to do next. He just graduated from college in his hometown of Billings, Montana, and he’s been unable to land a job for the worst and most universal reason: prospective employers tell him he’s inexperienced, but they won’t give him the chance to get the
experience they require. He’s living back at his parents’ house, taking shifts at Home Depot for spending money, and restlessly planning for a future that doesn’t have a clear place for him.
Maybe that’s what made him ripe for a news release I distributed to Montana newspapers last year. It was an invitation from my local sportsman’s club for beginning hunters in my part of the state to match up with an experienced mentor—someone to take them out in the field, show them the ways and means of hunting, and assist in the collection and butchering of wild meat.
Gerald’s first communication with me was uncomfortably candid. He had never hunted, he said, because he didn’t have anyone to take him. His grandfather had always told Gerald that he’d mentor him, but the grandfather had died, leaving Gerald his Browning rifle, his Buck knife, and an unfulfilled desire to hunt.
“I’ll take you,” I told Gerald. What I didn’t tell him: If someone is so eager to learn to hunt that he would call a random number in the newspaper, then I won’t be the one to not take him hunting. If I had any questions about Gerald’s commitment to this cause, they were answered when he bought a ticket on the little turboprop commuter plane that flies between Billings and my town. I picked him up at the airport, his grandfather’s .300 WSM in a case and a daypack over his shoulder.
LEARNING TO CRAWL
Hunting is equal parts art and science. The science is knowable and largely repeatable. Knowing where your bullet will hit at 400 yards.
That’s science. So is calculating how far away a mule deer will see a silhouetted human on a prairie skyline. Bellycrawling through sticky gumbo? That’s art. Waiting is art too, whether you’re waiting on a whitetail to turn broadside for a clean shot or abiding years to experience just such a moment. Art is changeable. And utterly unrepeatable.
It’s this mixing of the two, the knowable and the unknowable, that holds the magic of hunting for me. But the art is hard to explain to someone who has never hunted, so our first days in the field were all about the science. And it turns out, Gerald has an uncanny ability to judge distance and detect animals, and to reach conclusions based on the available evidence.
At one point, after a difficult creek crossing during which Gerald had to pull himself up the steep bank using willow saplings for purchase, he asked to stop to catch his breath and scrape heavy mud off his boots.
“I have to get in better shape,” he told
me, a little sheepishly. “I want to be able to take my buddies hunting, and they’re going to count on me to be in charge. I can’t lead from behind.”
That’s when it hit me. Sure, Gerald was interested in obtaining venison for his family and proving his capability in the field. But what he really wanted was confirmation that he was the rightful heir to his grandfather’s legacy. I realized that a successful hunt might move him out of the post-college crossroads funk and toward a new identity. And I realized that although Gerald had never hunted, he defined himself as a hunter. Even more, I began to see that Gerald is a mentor by nature, but he was understudying with me as a way to log time and experience in order to grow confident in the role.
With my realizations came responsibility. For better or worse, a beginning hunter’s value is measured by success, and I knew Gerald needed an animal not only to certify the experience, but also to serve as a passport to his future identity.
On my home hunting grounds, I can usually conjure a deer at any given time, and because Gerald didn’t care if it was a buck or a doe, I figured we’d be moving on to the gutting and skinning part of his tutorial before long. Only we couldn’t buy a shot. The deer were skittish and veered long, or they were in range but running. We arrived at our final mornto ing together deerless. The wind was wrong, but there was a place we could set up and hope that mule deer might move toward us. If we could make a shot before the deer got dead downwind, we might be able to score.
AN OLD RIFLE MAKES MEAT
The first thing we did when Gerald arrived in my town was go to the shooting range. I wanted to see him shoot, to assess his gun-safety skills but also the capabilities of his rifle and his aim. His gun was off by 18 inches at 100 yards, but shot by shot we got him on paper, and then in the bull’s-eye. Eventually, he printed a decent group at 200 yards, which I reckoned be his maximum effective range.
As we sat together that final morning, the wind at our backs and the cold creeping into our clothes, I had Gerald dry-fire at bushes and fence posts. He was dead-calm, and his barrel didn’t so much as twitch as he pulled the trigger. When legal light arrived, he chambered a shell and waited.
An hour later, a young muley buck jumped the fence from the neighbor’s land, pushed a doe, and then turned toward us. I ranged him at a little over 200 yards.
“Wait until he turns broadside,” I whispered. “Hold halfway up his body, just behind his shoulder. Shoot when you’re…”
The muzzle blast took my words. The bullet took the buck.
Art. Science. Graduation. If I were to distill the essence of satisfaction in the field down to a single image, it’s the picture of Gerald, holding his grandfather’s Buck 110 knife and making the first, tentative slice into the belly of the still-warm buck, cutting a clean path to the vitals.
WHAT HE REALLY WANTED WAS CONFIRMATION THAT HE WAS THE RIGHTFUL HEIR TO HIS GRANDFATHER’S LEGACY.