Standing tall

The boy’s name was Trey, and he had never fired a gun before. As we huddled together behind a fallen tree, I reminded him to wait until he had a clear, broadside shot, and to aim at a spot just behind the shoulder. ‘Don’t jerk the trigger,’ I whispered. ‘Hold the crosshairs where you want them and squeeze slowly.’ The rifle, resting across the log, looked like it was sitting on top of a paint shaker. I flinched when the gun went off, and looked up in time to watch several does bounding away, white flags waving goodbye. Trey looked up at me hopefully, with a big grin that said, ‘I don’t care if I missed. That was the most fun I’ve ever had.’ He had, and it probably was. Trey had come to Mason County with about thirty other boys from a children’s home to try to thin out the doe population on the Draper Ranch. For almost fifty years Operation Orphans has enabled underprivileged youngsters to experience the outdoors in a way they otherwise might never have a chance to do. Deer hunting has become a rich man’s game, but because of the generosity of local ranchers and the dream of a game warden, Trey, and many others like him, have become hunters. Gene Ashby was a Texas game warden from Austin who noticed during the late 1950s that Mason County had an abundance of deer. Ashby was the kind of man who looked for ways to help others, especially children, and this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. In 1960 he persuaded some of the local ranchers to allow kids from a children’s home to hunt on their property, and Operation Orphans was born. More than 16,000 kids harvested almost that many animals during the organization’s first forty-five years. The meat goes back to the children’s homes and into their freezers. The venison disappears fairly quickly, but the memories last a lifetime. About 20 to 25 children’s homes send kids to hunt in the Operation Orphans program, which handles around 300 youngsters per year. In the early years only boys were invited, but a fair number of girls are involved now. The kids are fed and boarded in dormitory style at Camp Gene Ashby, ten miles southeast of Mason on the Llano River. The camp boasts about 250 acres under high fence, where Aoudad, Axis, and Blackbuck are stocked, along with native game animals. All the buildings are concrete block with metal roofs, and the main lodge contains a television and ping-pong, pool, and foosball tables. Bunk beds fill the dormitories, and most buildings have fireplaces. An important part of the main lodge is the clothes room, where kids who need boots, coats, gloves, or hats can pick through the racks and shelves looking for items in their size. The clothes are donated, and the children can take what they need, for keeps. Since many of the kids show up in tattered jackets, thin sweaters, and ragged tennis shoes, the donated clothing is a necessity. Food for the kitchen is also donated, and various groups, from the Boy Scouts to the local fire department, take turns coming out at 3:30 a.m. to cook breakfast for the hunters. An early start is required, as some of the kids travel over an hour to their hunting venues, which are not always located in Mason County. The children are paired with experienced hunters, who act as guides, mentors, and sometimes cheerleaders. The guides always carry the firearms for safety, and do their best in the limited time available to impart as much advice as possible to their charges. One of the most difficult jobs a guide has is to impress the need to be as quiet as possible. There are few opportunities more rewarding than serving as a hunting guide in the program. And because more girls show up at Operation Orphans every year, there is a great need for women as guides. The most important commodity we can give these children is our time. The camp is also constantly in need of food, boots, and warm clothing, such as coats, hats, shirts, pants, gloves, and socks. Building materials and monetary donations are always welcome, as are deer rifles and ammunition, preferably in smaller calibers. Jerry and Lyla Crouch, who oversee the camp, also remain on the lookout for host ranches. The day I spent hunting with Trey was one of the most difficult days afield I ever had, but it was also one of the most rewarding. The only times that surpassed it were the hunts in which my own children took their first deer. Trey missed three deer before he finally connected. His doe was not overly large, but you would have thought it was a state record buck, the way he shouted and laughed. Seeing a kid that happy is not something you can buy, you have to earn it. Gene Ashby had it right when he said, ‘No man stands so tall as when he stoops to help a child.’ To get involved with Operation Orphans call Jerry or Lyla Crouch at 325.347.6745, or visit www.operationorphans.org.

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