This story first appeared in Shrimp, Collards, & Grits magazine.
For a Georgia boy whose hunting resume read “Squirrels Only,” I was stepping in high cotton. I had never shot a deer. The boss of bosses, John Cullar, also a Georgian, believed with all his heart that writers need to experience what they write about. I refer to a time eons ago when I worked as a scriptwriter for what’s now the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
The place of high cotton, Bonneau Ferry Plantation (We writers abridged it to “Bonneau”), exuded natural, cultural, and architectural splendor, a classic remnant of the old South. An old plantation once known as Prioli, it sat on the Cooper River’s eastern branch. The original plantation stretched 14 miles along the river and flaunted 1,300 acres of rice fields and 8,000 acres of forestlands. The sprawling site harbored a wealth of cultural resources, including an 18th-century plantation house and ruins. One such ruin is Strawberry Chapel; a chapel of ease built around 1700—the last remaining building of Childsburg, a bustling town until the Civil War came along. To see it is to imagine the ruins of Rome in a small and sad way.
All this beauty, wildness, and culture found a permanent home. The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources acquired Bonneau Ferry in 2005. Back when Westvaco owned Bonneau, it put on the dog for the media, the centerpiece of which was an autumn deer hunt. Hook and bullet columnists, photographers, feature writers, filmmakers, and wildlife department head honchos coveted this annual fete. Me? I was sent to get an education.
We departed Columbia around three on an October afternoon when sunlight pours down like golden honey and shadows fall blue across the road. Arriving a bit after five, we entered the plantation through twin ranks of live oaks drenched with Spanish moss, the quintessential South. Black gentlemen wearing tuxedos greeted us with silver trays laden with cocktails and cigars. Out back, men shot clay pigeons along the banks of the Cooper, shells ejecting as discharges reverberated across ricefields. The sun dropped fast. The air had a chill to it. Hearts filled with joie de vivre. For a moment, men lived a dream.
Our host, Westvaco’s Coy Johnston, a University of Georgia forestry graduate, welcomed us and laid out some rules for the morning hunt. “It’s advisable,” he said, “to harvest (kill) smaller bucks with unattractive racks.” Culling produced bucks with magnificent racks. Still, I had never killed a deer and that evening I considered that weighty act. “Somewhere in those deep, green woods,” I thought, “an animal may be living its last night because I am summoned here.”
With butterflies in my stomach, I made the rounds, shaking hands. The fragrance of fine cigars drifted throughout the well-appointed house. That and the camaraderie of outdoorsmen and writers evoked the kind of life Ernest Hemingway must have lived. Two words came to me. “Rugged opulence.” Many years later, a chance encounter with a fellow who had been there that night stirred up a memory. “You could open any cabinet in the house,” he said, “and it would be full of all kinds of brands of liquor, cigarettes, and cigars.”
For dinner we had sumptuous steaks as big as cedar planks. After dinner, billiards, poker, adult beverages, blue smoke, and wild stories filled the long evening. Aside from raconteurs, I find most men boring, and not one woman was there to talk to, a colossal disappointment. I retired around 1:30 in the morning, knowing I had to rise at 4:30 for breakfast before being driven to a deer stand.
Breakfast was a feast of eggs, bacon, steak, grits, biscuits, and steaming coffee. Black cooks in white aprons brandished cast iron skillets as big as snowshoes. We boarded a pickup full of real hunters and the truck dropped me off at my stand, which looked like the Tower of Babel. Up I went, pulling a borrowed and empty 30.06 behind me. Years later, I realized I never saw the driver. He could have been the Grim Reaper for all I know.
Loading my rifle, I reminded myself that I was given no choice but to hunt. Well, I didn’t have to shoot a deer I said to myself. “Didn’t see a damn thing.” That’d be my story. Still, I wondered if I could pull the trigger. I recalled that a writer long ago penned some powerful words, “A man needs to know if he can kill something or somebody.”
The east lightened. A flock of wild turkeys passed near my stand and after an interlude of birdsong a patch of trees and brush seemed to move, a grey-brown drawn-out illusion. I thought my eyes were fooling me, but, no, it was real. Materializing like a spirit, a buck with a small, asymmetrical rack came down the trail. On he came, closer and closer. The gun was in my hand, my finger on the safety. I had a decision to make. Should I shoot this animal? The rules said, “Yes, you must.”
I raised the barrel and clicked the safety off. One shot to the heart dispatched the animal fast and with mercy. Back at the plantation house I watched two men hang the deer from an oak and dress it precisely, like surgeons.
That was in another lifetime. So much has changed since then, and I, for certain, have changed. The mind, however, never lets us forget some things. Bonneau memories. They come to me whenever I see oaks dressed out in resurrection ferns and Spanish moss. They come to me now and then when I smell bacon and coffee on an early fall morn. They come to me when I see a chain hanging from an oak. Bonneau. It was the only time I hunted deer, but I left that place carrying something. A glimpse of what I knew were glory days down South, the days of bourbon, gallantry, good food, and one other thing—the knowledge that, yes, I was capable of handing out death. Once, at least.