Life is what you make it

We sat on the low porch of the hunting cabin, talking quietly while the sun slipped slowly below the tree-lined horizon to our right. My companion had a rifle across his lap, just in case a deer wandered out of the live oaks that bordered the clearing around the cabin. Hunting, but not really hunting, just shooting the breeze and passing the time. There are few things in life more pleasant than sitting in a deer camp, visiting and watching the night creep in from the east. Our topics varied, from the problems facing the future of hunting in America, to Texas issues in particular, to weather and high fences and old friends. The salmon run in Alaska. Maybe we got into Colorado a little, maybe New Mexico. I scanned the tree line every few minutes, hoping more than my companion that a deer would appear, so I could watch him shoot. It would have been a new experience for me, helping a blind man line up a shot on a deer, but it never happened, and too soon he raised the rifle, unloaded it, and held the trigger as he closed the bolt, releasing the spring tension. Stanley McGowen is the Texas Projects Coordinator for the Armed Forces Foundation. He arranges hunting and fishing activities for veterans who have special needs. They used to be called disabled veterans, and maybe they still are, but I don’t think of them as disabled anymore. To me, disabled means you can’t do the things you want to do. That isn’t the case with these folks. Stanley, for example, can’t see, but that doesn’t keep him from hunting. His rifle is equipped with a pistol scope, for long eye relief. A spotter looks over his shoulder through the scope, and tells Stanley when he’s lined up. Other veterans who participate in Stanley’s hunts have different requirements. Some get around in wheelchairs and have to be particular about where they hunt. Box blinds with ladders don’t do them much good, but then, box blinds are for lightweights, anyway. And these folks aren’t lightweights. They’re serious hunters. Those who have lost the use of their arms and legs use special rifles that can be maneuvered and aimed by blowing or sucking on a tube. Some with limited sight use rifles controlled by special computers, their scopes’ sight pictures transferred to monitors that make it possible for the hunters to line up on game. The various processes are delicate and probably difficult to master, but we’re talking about people who face difficult problems every day. They do whatever is necessary to accomplish their goals. Stanley is a good example. As a U.S. Army helicopter pilot he was stationed in Alaska in 1990 and decided an airplane would allow him and his son to hunt and fish wherever they wanted in the land of the midnight sun. He found a Cessna in Yuma, Ariz., and was headed north with it. After a stop at an airport in Utah he lost power on takeoff and crashed. The impact threw him through the windscreen, and both his eyes were irreparably damaged. Stanley already had a master’s degree from Tarleton State University. After losing his sight he obtained his Ph.D. in American History from TCU, and taught college history for a while, before deciding to help other veterans with special needs. He went to work for the AFF, and now, as he puts it, he shows people that ‘they can do the things they want to do, things they didn’t think they could.’ I met Stanley during an annual barbecue dinner that Steve Toone holds for Stanley’s hunters at Steve’s home. Steve is another retired army helicopter pilot, and is Stanley’s local contact for an AFF deer hunt every January in Mason County. Stanley and some friends had been hunting on Steve’s ranch for a while before they arranged the first local AFF hunt in 2005, which was attended by three veterans with special needs. Steve and other Mason County ranchers, who belong to the Willow Creek Wildlife Management Association, graciously allow the veterans to hunt on their land. The hunters mostly stay in local motels, and the whole affair is supported by donations from sponsors, such as the Oglebay Norton company. Fifteen veterans attended this year’s hunt, and all of them killed at least one deer. The conversation on the porch of Steve’s hunting cabin trailed off, and Stanley and I sat in a companionable silence for a few minutes. I realized again the truth of a statement once made to me by a fellow who was missing an arm. He said, ‘Losing a limb doesn’t make someone disabled. They have to do that to themselves.’ Stanley can’t see, but he isn’t disabled. If he had to quit hunting, though, that might be a different story’ ‘Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist who would like to say “thank you” for the sacrifices made for the rest of us by America’s veterans. Write to him at P.O. Box 1600, Mason, Tex. 76856 or

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