License to hunt.
We were self-conscious about being there, even though it was something we wanted to do. We knew we might be hit with some questions, but our minds were made up. There would be no turning back. Besides, the storeowner had already seen us and had started to speak.
"Whaddya need?" he asked in a tone not all that impatient for a storeowner who knew most kids shopped to kill time rather than to make a purchase.
"We need to buy deer licenses," said.
"Really ... deer licenses," he said as he cracked a faint smile and eased off his perch. "Well, let's see."
He reached below the counter, hoisted a metal tackle box out of its hiding place and set it beside the antique brass cash register.
"Archery," I added.
At that, the storeowner drew a deep breath, then slowly exhaled a non-melodious whistle--something low and cold, like wind in late fall. The sound was imposing enough to make us wonder if he had the power to veto the purchase.
He wrapped his hand around the pad of archery deer license. But before lifting it from the box, he looked at my two younger brothers, then back to me, and asked, "Who ya goin' with?"
There! The questioning had started! We knew we were young, we knew we didn't know much about deer hunting, and we knew we'd be questioned about these things. There was a noticeable pause as I-dug for an honest answer.
"We're going with us," I blurted, already a little rankled by his apparent skepticism. Later, my brothers and I would scoff at his question. Why would he even ask? We didn't need to "go with" anyone. It didn't dawn on us at the time that maybe--just maybe--he was suggesting that three teenagers might benefit from having some experience in their hunting party. He'd correctly deduced that the three of us had none.
In a few minutes, all three licenses had been filled out, dated and signed. We were surprised to see that a deer license also allowed the taking of a black bear. We each plunked down a hard-earned $7.50, and the paperwork on that 26th day of September was done. Each of us also received a tag, which, in those days, was a narrow metal band just over eight inches long. It was anodized blue that year. Snapping those tag ends together around an antler would be amazing.
If the floorboards creaked on our way out, we didn't hear them. If the screen door slammed shut as we left, we didn't notice. We stopped right outside the store and stood there on the sidewalk, grinning as we examined our purchases--our first big-game licenses. Now for the easy part: getting a deer with a bow.
The season arrived, and, even though we very early in the season philosophized that "deer are just big squirrels," those bright-blue tags stayed in our pockets. But every hunter has a story, and every story holds a lesson. Hunt after hunt we compared notes on topics such as deer body language, routes we could take to and from our stands without scaring deer, and shots that were too risky to take. We discussed the timing of a shot, the reaction time of deer and arrow-deflecting branches. Throw in an occasional equipment problem and, after a few years, we were well on our way to knowing something.
It took 3 1/2 seasons for any of us to kill a deer. That's when Andy shot a small buck. After so many man-hours in the field, that little 3x3 whitetail seemed as impressive as a royal bull elk. It wasn't until the seventh year that all three of us tagged a deer in the same season. Actually, it took that long for Dan and me to tag our first archery deer.
The leaves now are falling for the 40th time since we bought those first licenses and sneaked into that Minnesota woods with our 52-inch recurve bows in hand. Whitetails are still a challenge and in that way, things are the same as when we were getting started. Buying a hunting license, however, has become an easy routine.