Michael Pearce

Memory of first deer seen never fades

Fifty years ago the sight of a deer, in Kansas was worthy of mention in small town newspapers and good for at least five minutes of excited conversation at the barber shop. Most over 50 still remember the specifics of where and when they saw their first deer in Kansas.
Fifty years ago the sight of a deer, in Kansas was worthy of mention in small town newspapers and good for at least five minutes of excited conversation at the barber shop. Most over 50 still remember the specifics of where and when they saw their first deer in Kansas. The Wichita Eagle

I don’t remember a thing about my first dance or my first hit in a ball game.

But I recall the two whitetail bucks as vividly as if I’m staring at them in a photo. From the white rings all the way their white tails waved good-bye, it’s all still there 50 years later.

That’s because back then, in 1965, we still had people who believed in Bigfoot and black panthers yet they swore we had no deer in Kansas. Even though it was the year of Kansas’ first deer season, the creatures were rare enough in many areas that people made plaster casts of their tracks, and sightings were often mentioned in the small town newspaper.

If we really had enough deer for that first season was a hot topic down at Thompson’s Barber Shop, Tonganoxie’s supreme court of “Well by gosh....” and “...and that ain’t no guff” debates on the town’s football coach, “kids these days,” and all things hunting and fishing. And if anybody actually saw a deer, that’s where it usually was announced to the world. I had the slickest head in town I got so many haircuts, so I could be at the barbershop to hear the stories and the debate.

Twice dad showed me tracks in the soft mud near ponds where we fished. I ran my fingers over those tracks until the were the size of an elk’s. I was obsessed.

Time dragged so slow as I awaited my first sighting. I’m sure there were nose prints on the side window of dad’s old ‘53 Ford pickup from me staring out over the countryside day after day, week after week.

I almost envied my grandfather, a serial deer doubter, the first time he saw a deer. It was in Wyandotte County and coming over the hood of his car. Grandpa had to eat his words, and an insurance deductible because of the collision.

Proof came to my Uncle Herbert in the form of a shed antler stuck in the tire of his old International H tractor. I put on a heck of a pout when I learned he gave the antler away to a neighbor before I even got a chance to see and hold it. Give away an antler? I’d have traded my entire baseball card collection for the horn. He didn’t even count how many points were on it.

Those who had hunted and shot deer in the Missouri Ozarks or Colorado Rockies ranked higher in my world than Mantle or Mays

Back then all things deer-related were just so special in Kansas.

Families took evening drives out around Leavenworth County Lake, looking for where others had seen deer in nearby fields. Back then only about half of the farmers would let someone with a tag hunt “their deer,” they were so happy to have them around.

In the mid-60s the concept of deer someday being considered vermin, as they are now, with talk of a need for wide-spread eradication, as has gone on for the past decade, would have seemed as uncommon as someone cursing a gorgeous sunset or being disgusted at the brilliant foliage of the fall. Talking about a time when Kansas hunters could shoot two, let alone today’s five or six deer per season, would have seemed a foreign language.

But back then my only concern was to see even one deer. Buck, doe, spotted fawn it made no difference. Speck in the distance or darting inches in front of our truck, it made no difference. That I’d see a pair of bucks together, less than 30 yards away, was far past my seven-year-old imagination.

Dad and I had headed west of town one Friday evening, to check the pets and place for Sam, a hospitalized friend. As soon as we pulled off the road, I saw a buck. It seemed surreal, like a scene from movie or the cover of Outdoor Life. I was so mesmerized by the first buck I didn’t see the other buck standing 10 yards away until dad brought it to my attention.

The scene couldn’t have been better, the deer standing on mowed grass, dark green forest behind them. They seemed to glow in that special last hour of daylight. The next day, while standing center-stage at Thompson’s, I spread my arms above my head when asked to show the size of the antlers. Looking back, they were probably a pair of book-end yearling eight-pointers.

After a few beloved seconds the bucks trotted towards the far end of the lawn. “Watch, watch, watch,” Dad hissed as the bucks neared the five-strand fence. I will never forget how effortlessly, and by how far, they cleared the fence that was then well above my head. As they crossed the neighboring pasture their long whitetails waved slowly good-bye.

The place where I saw those bucks is between our family farm and town. A paved county road, which seemed as foreign as high deer limits in ‘65, passes within 100 yards of where we saw those deer.

Heading through town I zip right by the school where I had that first dance, and the ball fields where I had that first hit, with nary a look or consideration. I actually smile a bit as I look at the little building where Mr. Thompson once clipped hair, and deer debate went on for hours.

Several times I’ve actually slowed as I passed Sam’s place over these past 50 years, and have turned down that gravel road a few times to look at the lawn. Within a fence post or two I can remember exactly where those deer jumped that fence.

I can never help but smile and remember those two young bucks about every time I pass

They weren’t Bigfoot, and they weren’t back panthers, they were honest-to-gosh deer in Kansas. That made them far more special then, and now.