Here in the South, many boys consider killing their first deer a necessary step toward manhood. And, oftentimes, the celebration that follows is as memorable as the hunt itself.
Sunday afternoons at the deer camp always left the woods feeling empty and lonely. It was the last hunt of the weekend, and many of the club members had gone home that morning. But some of my friends had already killed their first deer, and I was determined to take advantage of any opportunity to join their ranks.
Dad led me to a tree stand in a hardwood bottom alongside the Alabama River. He left me there with his .30-30 rifle and assurances that he would be back just after dark.
As the sun slipped low in the trees, I saw nothing but a few squirrels bouncing over the forest floor and some robins pecking in the leaves. An armadillo snuffled past and an opossum climbed down a far-off oak. Then dusk was upon me, and the squirrels and robins disappeared and grew still. Three deer appeared like ghosts slipping through the hardwoods. I shifted the rifle in my lap and began to tremble.
It wasn’t until they were nearly beneath me that I heard the faint sound of their footfalls in the leaves. At first, I thought they were all does, then, straining my eyes, I saw small yellow spikes on the head of the second one. I raised the rifle and tried to find it through the scope. Working against the grainy darkness and my shaking arms, I found what I thought was its shoulder, held my breath and squeezed the trigger.
The rifle shot echoed for miles, shattering the silent river bottom and leaving me breathing hard and worried that I’d missed. Then I saw the white of the deer’s belly lying not far from me. And I figured I’d just become a real man.
It wasn’t long before Dad returned and stood over the deer, sharing my own mixed feelings of pride and disbelief. Then we drug it out of the woods and waited for the rest of the hunters to arrive. A few minutes later, all of the men stood about on the dirt road admiring my small buck in the headlights while I swelled with pride.
“I guess it’s time we bloody him up, ” Mr. Walter said. I’d witnessed this ritual for years and long prepared for the moment. Mr. Walter cut open the buck’s stomach, stuck his arms inside and came away with bloody hands. He wiped them over my face. All the men laughed, and I was proud. “We have to make him the necklace, ” Mr. John said.
I looked at Dad with question. I hadn’t heard of the necklace. He shrugged and grinned like he too was enjoying it all for the first time.
Mr. John knelt beside the buck with his knife and cut off its testicles. “Now take off one of your bootlaces, ” he told me.
I did as he said and gave him the string. In a moment he had the testicles strung around my neck.
“Now, ” he said, “everybody’ll know. Gotta wear the necklace.”
I didn’t question it. They could have told me I had to climb inside the deer, and I would have. I wanted to participate in whatever they suggested to the fullest extent.
Typically, everyone is anxious to get home Sunday evening. However, Dad said we needed to stop at Delchamps to get a few groceries. And Mr. John and Mr. Walter said they needed to purchase a few things, too. I thought this was unusual, but I was eager for any opportunity to make a public appearance following my victory.
As I strolled the aisles, I saw other men and mothers and their children staring at my necklace. I figured they all knew exactly what it meant. And I imagined the looks on their faces couldn’t have betrayed more envy.
After the grocery store, the men decided to stop at Wal-Mart and take care of some early Christmas shopping. It was still November, and I’d never known Dad to holiday shop more than a few days ahead of time. Nonetheless, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I followed them about the store, walking tall, meeting the stares of the patrons with a steely confidence. The men didn’t seem to find what they were looking for, but I found plenty of what I wanted.
That night I washed the dried blood from my face and climbed into bed still wearing the necklace. It wasn’t long before Dad came to check on me. He studied my trophy and chuckled.
“I’m proud of you, son, ” he said.
“Do I wear it to school tomorrow?”
“Well, I think it was just for today, ” he replied.
“Can I wear it to school tomorrow?”
He leaned over and took it off me. “I better put it someplace safe, ” he said.
I didn’t know where he put it, but I assumed it was the same secret stash where my best art projects and other memorabilia went.
A few years later, I had a younger friend in another deer club who killed his first deer. To my surprise, when I asked him about his necklace, he had never heard of such a tradition. It occurred to me that a deer testicle necklace was part of a bygone era. That perhaps I had been the last kid to wear one. It later occurred to me that I might have been the first as well.
Text by Watt Key