There’s a rite of passage I was fortunate enough to experience as a boy on my way to becoming a man.
This ritual educated me in some of the most important cornerstones of life: family, friends, and firewater. Me, my dad, his best friend Clay, my brother Anthony and an ever changing cast of characters, would set out every fall with guns, bows, bologna and booze. For a week we would immerse ourselves in the Jemez Mountains wilderness of New Mexico, emerging only for more beer and maybe some mustard.
During the hunt we were treated as men. The fact that we were barely teenagers was of no importance way out in the middle of nowhere. When you’re thirteen years old and a man who you have great respect for puts a beer in your hand you suddenly stand taller, your shoulders become broader and you feel like you can take on the world. The twin rituals of hunting during the day and drinking at night became so entwined in my mind, that I can’t think of one without reflecting on the other. As soon as the first beers were opened, the great stories of hunts past would emerge and we would sit transfixed by entertainment far more captivating than any television show we’d watched. Paul Schmaltz and Clay Hatley became our heroes. Rugged men with an unspoken code, full of bravery, wit and adventure, men who together had tracked the greatest of beasts, brought them down, skinned them, quartered them and hauled them back to camp on their backs. Two hours later they’d be washing part of the day’s hunt down with a cold can of Coors. Clay drank Bacardi and Cokes as well. Huge plastic cups of the stuff you’d have to order a quintuple tall in a bar to match. After a few beers, if we had done well during the hunt, we knew we’d be reaching for the rum too.
My brother and I didn’t understand it then, but during those nights, drinking beer with my father around the campfire, when we should have been doing homework or reading comic books, we were slowly being dragged into manhood, one beer at a time.
As with any manly pursuit that happens outdoors and outside the society of women, drinking around the campfire after a long day of pursuing game is steeped with code and honor. First off, if you were underage, you couldn’t have a beer until your dad spoke the magic words. Anthony and I would practically hold our breath, waiting for the words to drop from our father’s mouth: “Now you boys don’t tell your mother, but why don’t you two go over to the cooler there and grab yourselves a beer. And get me one too while you’re at it.” Now you boys don’t tell your mother preceded nearly every step I took into manhood.
Another important rule was you couldn’t finish your beer before your father. You drank slowly, you stared into the fire, you made quiet proclamations about the day’s work. You drank like you stalked: creeping up on the bottom of the bottle, not rushing toward it like a amateur.
Thirdly, if someone brought out a bottle of hard liquor, it was first offered around to his camp mates. Just because you spotted the prey first, didn’t mean you took the first shot.
And finally you didn’t giggle, no matter how young you were or what your brother just whispered in your ear. Giggles and loud talk would be met with baleful, manly stares of reproach that suggested you might be better off back at home, making gingerbread cookies with your mom. Loud noises scared the game during the hunt and queered the atmosphere around the fire.
Hunting always came first, it was the necessary work, drinking came later, it was the consequential reward. Drinking while you had a gun in your hand is not only very stupid but also very dangerous. The cliché of the drunken hunter stumbling through the bushes and shooting his buddy in the butt because he thought he saw Big Foot is a stereotype we were forbidden to find funny. You respected your weapons as much as you respected your fellow huntsman.You didn’t drink the rest of your brother’s beer without asking. You respected the power of booze. You didn’t drink so much you couldn’t get up at 5am and make your shots, lest you get called a candy ass for the next week. You respected the land, the alley behind your apartment is one thing, but don’t leave the campsite littered with beer cans and rum bottles. Pack it in, pack it out. You respected your prey, killing only what your hunting license allowed. Not everyone follows these rules and on occasion some of those dishonorable men found their way into our camp.
This chap has every hunting/survival gadget known to mankind stuffed into his backpack and pockets from solar powered can openers to glow in the dark compasses. All day long in the field he tinkers with this crap, diverting his attention from the reason he’s there—hunting. After the hunt you’ll find him by the campfire displaying his elaborate set of coozies. One from each state in the nation to keep his beers cold. He’d try to get everyone to use them, to which my father would reply: “I ain’t gonna have this beer in my hand long enough for the sumbitch to get warm. What the hell would I need a coozie for?”
The Poser approaches drinking much the same way he does hunting. He fucks around with all kinds of trinkets like battery operated cocktail blenders and voice activated beer cooler lids to avoid engaging in the actual activity at hand. The four of us would instinctively know this man was a coward and we’d gang up on him. To insult him even deeper, Clay and my father would use me, the kid, to sound the bastard out. I personally outdrank the Poser on three different occasions before I was seventeen. He’s neither a hunter nor a drinker which is absolutely fine. Just so long as he didn’t pretend to be either. Which brings us to our next type.
This fellow has single-handedly killed horse-sized elk in freezing blizzards with nothing more than a soup spoon. On top of that he has stood at the mouth of the mightiest river of booze known to man, drank ten gallons, then shot an apple off the antler of a bouncing buck. This braggart weaves astonishing tales of cunning and will while stalking game, and even more preposterous stories of superhuman feats of boozing. He is the scourge of the society of hunter-drinkers, he sullies and makes a farce of the tradition of modesty during the hunt. If you nail a buck from a great distance, you quietly declare it was a lucky shot, even if it wasn’t. Though often found in close proximity to the Poser, the Liar is strangely always alone when his amazing experiences occur.
“I tell you, Paul, it’s fekkers like that make muh blood run cold,” Clay would murmur. My father forbade us from calling the man what he was, that was nearly as dishonorable as his lies, instead our gang would mercilessly test him with drinking contests which always ended with the validation of our suspicions. His unease and ensuing departure from our midst was the desired result and oh how rapid it was.
The Weekend Warrior
This jackass is singlehandedly responsible for the mainstream media’s depiction of the American hunter/drinker as an obnoxious, fat, sloppy, blithering idiot of a poacher. He doesn’t bother to learn the ways of wildlife and track his game in daylight, thus saving the evening hours for celebratory imbibing. This man and his buddies combine the two events, plowing through meadows at night in tractor-wheeled trucks shining spotlights on sleeping deer while swilling bottles of Bud Light. They shoot them at point blank range and leave the meat to rot next to discarded beer bottles. They have mullets, listen to Poison and live by the hollow ideals put forth by light beer commercials. Our gang avoided these types completely. When we crossed paths with them there was always some deliberation as to whether or not we should shoot them and take their beer. It’s lucky for them we didn’t like Bud Light.
In direct opposition to those dishonorable men are the great heroes of the hunt, namely:
The Mountain Man: AKA Clay Hatley
Bearded, wild-haired and keen eyed, the Mountain Man has seen more wild game and bottle bottoms than all the other hunters I knew combined. His stories were true, unembellished tales of pre-dusk kills; of skinning the animal in twilight and dragging it back to camp before daybreak because he understood the quicker the kill, the quicker he could get into the celebratory rum. This marvel of nature actually could kill a horse-sized elk in a freezing blizzard with nothing more than a soup spoon. He can live off that and other resources available in the wild indefinitely, so long as the supply of liquor held out. His ability to drink half a gallon at night then get up at 4:30am, start a fire, fix coffee and have us on the trail before sun up always mystified me. It was a special moment each year when he pulled into camp with just a knife, a rifle, some pancake mix and two gallons of booze. No fancy gear for this guy. He’d move silently through the trees in blue jeans and sneakers and always bag his limit. He’d give you the shirt off his back and maybe even the last sip of swill in his cup.
This man set the standard for our gang as to what friendship really was. “What’s mine is yerz, partner,” was his motto. “Y’ain’t have to ask an’ y’ain’t have to ‘splain.”
The Marksman: AKA Anthony Schmaltz
This ace shooter can put away one or two twelvers in front of the campfire and wake up with hands as steady as a rock. He instinctively knows the habits and patterns of his prey and can spot them a thousand yards away in twilight. An expert pursuer of antelope, elk, weekend warrior, pheasant, deer and, later, Wild Turkey 101, on the bleariest of mornings he can hit a sprinting antelope from 350 yards away. He prefers to bag his game early so the rest of the day can be focused on target practice and, later, drinking. A huge believer in recycling, he’ll take the 24 beer cans from the night before, arrange them on a hillside and have them demolished 24 bullets later. His keen skills of observation serve the group well, he is always the first to realize the beer supply is running low. Without so much as a glance at a wristwatch, he can gauge the position of the sun and make quick arrangements to get someone to the liquor store 20 miles away before it closes.
The Benefactor: AKA Paul Schmaltz
This man mentored the Marksman and me from a very tender age about the ways of Hooch and the Hunt. Before we were old enough to be trusted with high-powered rifles, there were fishing trips where the obligatory beer was always shared between his sons. This was our ritualistic reward on the ride home for a good day’s work. During those years when he went on the hunt without us, my brother and I would deliberate endlessly about his possible kills and just how many of his beers we could sneak from the refrigerator without him noticing. It is my firm belief that he knew exactly how many were missing, but as long as the number was slight he’d let us slide. Upon return from hunting he’d crack a cold one, sit us down and tell the tale. By the time we were hunting alongside him we knew just what to expect. You hiked a lot. You witnessed amazing creatures backdropped by even more amazing vistas. If you killed something everyone pitched in to get it gutted, skinned, quartered and back to camp. Nothing went to waste. When the hunt was over all meat was divided evenly so those who weren’t so lucky didn’t go home empty handed. We knew the same went for beer, after the traditional insults were voiced, those who didn’t bring enough were taken care of.
Someday I will take my sons hunting and I will pass down the rules and rituals of hooch and hunt just as my father passed them to me, and his father to him. There is a powerful magic in a father and his sons killing their food together, butchering it together, then eating the seared flesh around a fire while drinking ice cold beer. It is the cement of a bond that lasts a lifetime.