Lessons from Deer Camp

My dad never went to college: he went to Vietnam.  Yet, when I was 13, he introduced me to the greatest fraternity house on the planet.  The Buckeye Sportsmen Club was located in the small North Central Pennsylvania town of Morris.  This was my first experience at deer camp, and my first experience of what fraternity life would bring later.  From the outside, it just looked like a simple square building with four white cinder block walls and a green roof, but inside there was magic.

According to Wikipedia, fraternity and sorority housing refers largely to the houses where people live and work together. In addition to serving as housing, fraternity and sorority housing may also serve to host social gatherings, meetings, and functions that benefit the community.  This is also the definition of a deer camp.  At night, there were social events consisting of large meals and games of poker and pinochle.  Others would sit idly around and tell stories of the day’s hunt and drink beer, while some were busy planning tomorrow’s hunt.  Many would question the social benefit of deer camp, but look no further than the many wives and mothers who got some quality down time once the boys headed off to deer camp with dad.

Inside the cabin, there were no college diplomas or composite pictures of the classes that had come before.  Instead, the walls held antlers from deer, elk, and moose; turkey beards and spurs, and an old bear skin rug.  On many of the antlers, guys would hang hats and gloves to dry from the day’s hunt.  There were old sofas that guys had brought home before their wives threw them out, lining the long side perimeter walls for sitting and telling stories. There was an old, wide counter top that had been converted into a table with wooden benches for eating, and in my case, doing homework.  Just off the middle of the room was a large, old kitchen table where unshaven men played cards, smoked cigars, drank beer, and ate meals.  On the opposite perimeter wall facing the couches was a fireplace that had a wood insert in it that heated the cabin.  It was so warm inside the cabin that you had to leave the door open just to cool the place down.  On the wall adjacent the kitchen hung a gun rack for storing your weapon after the day afield, although many guys just left their guns in their trucks.

As you entered the main hall, you went about ten feet before you entered the bunk area off to your right.  There were two large bunk areas with military-style steel bunk beds.  Each bunk had a mattress to sleep, though you had to bring your own sleeping bag and pillow.  By the time you hit the bed at night, you basically passed out from exhaustion anyway, so comfort was not a prime concern.  There had to have been enough room to sleep 30 guys if necessary.

In the back of the bunk areas was the bathroom.  It was a big bathroom with a mismatched tile floor with two fiberglass campground showers, two sinks with mirrors, and two heads.  The showers were a welcome oasis after a cold day of hunting.  I am not really sure why there were mirrors, as nobody shaved and everyone wore hats.  There was not much to look at; that is for sure!

The centerpiece of the cabin was the kitchen.  It had two large gas stoves, numerous old refrigerators, and a large table which was used for baking and not eating.  One of those refrigerators was converted into a keg draft system and eventually found its way right next to the front door; the tap seemed to be open all night long.  Yet, somehow, no one ever appeared to have a hangover the next day.

I never remember eating at deer camp, yet I never remember being hungry either. I know we always took lunch into the woods, but I cannot recall what we ate for dinner or breakfast.  I made the mistake once of asking the cook one day if he was deaf and dumb after he failed to answer my question (I had just finished listening to a Rodney Dangerfield tape and thought I was being funny). However, nobody else got the joke, and before I got the last word out, my dad had me by the ear, and I was being slung to the ground.  I learned quickly not to piss off the cook, or you won’t eat.  Not to mention, if the cook is unhappy, everyone is unhappy.  So I apologized quickly and volunteered to help out in the kitchen for the next few meals doing dishes and making pies for dessert.  I quickly fell back into the good graces of everyone at camp.  It was a lesson in respect to my elders that I never forgot.  Not to mention that whomever cooks, whether at home, or at deer camp, has unyielding power over everyone.

Today, my dad belongs to the South Lebanon Hunting Camp, just down the road from Morris in the coal mining ghost town of Antrim.  While it is an older building that was built in the 1880s, it has all the charm.  It is built out of virgin growth forest pine, and covered in green asphalt shingles.  When you are inside you feel at home, regardless of who you are.  I recently spent my first hunting season in the new cabin.  While it did not yield the results I was looking for, it reaffirmed all the values that I learned as a young teen hunter in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

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