Once we shot a rabbit with Andy's Winchester .22 and proudly took our game to the cabin, expecting to be congratulated.
"What the hell is that?" scolded Charlie. "It's not rabbit season. The meat's no good, boys. Get it outta here."
When we started deer hunting alone Andy carried a Model 70 .243. Dad's Marlin wore only a buckhorn sight, so I borrowed Charlie's Model 70 .30-06 when he tagged out, something that occurred earlier every year. That fact made us jealous, which made Charlie giggle, which made us angrier. To counter his achievements we sat on stand longer, sure of imminent success. Andy shot a deer first, an 8-pointer.
We were also Boy Scouts. The troop transport was an old school bus. Painted white with red and blue stripes, there was a blue eagle with the name of every boy who ever made the rank emblazoned on its sides, front and back. "Troop of the Eagle" was boldly printed above the door. Needless to say, every boy was expected to make Eagle, and most did.
Andy made the rank first, in 10th grade. That was when Charlie came to me and said, "I'll make you a deal: You hustle up and get your Eagle, and I'll take you bear hunting this summer."
In July 1979 Charlie, Andy and I and a few of Charlie's friends flew to Eustis, Maine, to hunt with Phil Copp, a crusty guy with a New England accent. He wore dungarees and denim shirts, and he carried a .44 on his hip. Charlie said he was well-known, that when there used to be a $50 bounty on bears in Maine, Phil made a living off them. Now he had a lodge full of paying hunters.
I felt a bit outclassed in camp. For one, I didn't have any camouflage clothing-something everybody said you needed to hunt bears. Instead I wore Dad's old camo Jones cap, an olive-drab fatigue shirt, jeans and Dad's mosquito headnet. I didn't have a scoped rifle, either.
Instead I carried a 12-gauge Ithaca Deerslayer my uncle Alan loaned me. Fitted with a scope and loaded with slugs, he assured me it'd do the job. I figured to keep quiet and fit in as best I could.
"See anything?" he asked.
"Shot an old boar at about dark. We'll pick up Andy, then go get him."
How would I ever measure up?
On mornings and afternoons before heading to our stands, Andy and I kept busy honing our marksmanship with our wrist-rockets, a kind of slingshot with a bar and leather thong that unfolded and wrapped across your forearm to provide lots of leverage and enough velocity to kill a squirrel if you hit it in the head. And we could, too.
One day we paddled a canoe onto a lake to fish. The fish didn't bite, and we were bored. We'd both earned the canoeing merit badge, so we put away the tackle and put our new skills to use.
So we did. It's amazing how cold the water of a Maine lake is, even in July. As soon as we hit the drink we knew we'd made a mistake. Our breath left us, but that wasn't the worst of it. See, that canoe, unlike the ones we used in Boy Scout camp, didn't have flotation devices fore and aft, and it sunk. Luckily, we weren't in the middle of the lake, but it still took a while to drag it to shore.
By week's end only three in our party, Andy and I and one of Charlie's friends, hadn't filled our tags. Then a farmer called Phil to say a bear was killing his calves, and he wanted Phil to take care of the problem. That meant dogs. It was not yet dog season, but under the circumstances Phil was allowed to use them. And, as Charlie was a longtime customer, Phil chose our group to go with him. Charlie gathered the three of us and cupped three sticks of straw in his hand. I drew the short straw.
Bait hunting required patience, but dog hunting demanded action. Every move seemed to have purpose.
First we visited the cattleman in Farmington and examined the last place the bear made a kill. Then Phil put two dogs in the strike cage-a steel platform welded to the front of his truck-and we drove slowly so the dogs could sniff for a track. One of the dogs was a black-and-tan named Danny. I liked him.
In no time he cut a track, and the guides put all the dogs on it. The pack stormed across a field toward a distant mountain. We listened to their howls fade, then Phil pulled out a radio receiver to pinpoint transmitters on their collars. Before long the beep, beep, beep stayed put: "They've treed 'im," Phil said matter-of-factly.
Charlie explained how things would go: "We'll walk single-file: Phil first, then me, then you, then everybody else. We don't want the bear to see more than one person coming. You get a good rest on a tree, and get ready, but don't shoot until Phil gives you the word. He wants his dogs outta there before you shoot."