About That Deer I Shot …

In writing a previous essay about flooding on the Musselshell River, I said that I shot my first deer on the Musselshell. Since the essay was about the flooding and not about hunting deer, I didn’t check that sentence for historical accuracy. But after I thought about it I realized that my first deer had to be harvested in Philips County, not Rosebud or Musselshell Counties. I didn’t turn 12 until after we moved to Malta, and once in Malta, we never travelled that far south to hunt.

And this brings up the subject of memory and how it works. Based on other memory debacles (for instance, here and corrected here) I’ve thought about this quite a bit and have developed some theories. Certain memories are particularly vivid while others tend to fade into the scenery of one’s life. When something triggers a recollection of an event, that recollection naturally gets drawn to one of the vivid memories even if it properly belongs to some other context or time frame.

I have very few memories of Sheridan, Wyoming where I learned to toddle, to balance on porch railings, to tumble off porch railings, and even break my arm. (Yep, I remember that itchy cast.) I also remember the sledding hill (which I was not allowed to sled down, at least from the top). But my most vibrant memories of Sheridan were trips to Ranchester and Decker, two towns where my dad preached regularly. Ranchester, in my memory was a Norman Rockwell sort of place and Decker, with all that red dust on the roads, rattlesnakes hiding under rocks, and endless miles of open range to explore with the older boys, was a young adventurer’s paradise …

… Well, at least I think that’s the case. What I remember specifically was the gigantic slide at Ranchester burning my bottom on particularly hot days, burning grasshoppers in the hot sun with a magnifying glass (that was not my fault, by the way!! My brother, who was six years older, along with his ruffian friends instigated the whole thing – I was still swaddled in innocence, not having even started kindergarten yet), clearing the school house of rattlesnakes before we could go in and have church, and the man who ran the chainsaw store in Decker, who lived in the basement of an unfinished house, and had a Ford Bronco (or some such 4WD) with a removable fiberglass top.

Then we moved to Laurel where dad was a pastor and later an instructor and administrator at Montana Institute of the Bible. I started school in Laurel and moved to Malta halfway through my fourth grade year. Being so young, I don’t remember a lot about Laurel either. But some of the most vivid Laurel memories are associated with dad preaching in Musselshell and Melstone. Dad and my brother would take the rifles along during hunting season.

The most remarkable memory (in my mind), which is possibly my earliest clear memory, began with a false assumption. We used to go camping in the Big Horn Mountains when I was but a wee lad. I had always assumed that those trips were to the Shell Canyon on the windward side of the mountains above Sheridan. Several years ago, on a trip west Brenda and I took US 16 over the Big Horns to Worland and then to points south. It was a perfect day and we pulled into a National Forest campground (Meadowlark Lake Campground, for any nosy relatives who might want to correct this particular memory) to smell the pine-scented mountain breeze and stretch our legs. As we pulled into the parking lot I knew I had been here before. I knew which trail led to the lake and which one went to the biffies. I sat on a log fence, having a distinct impression that I had climbed up this fence and sat precariously on this log a long time ago. I went to a particular campsite and sat down at the picnic table, having a very strong sense that I had eaten breakfast at this very picnic table years before.

This experience discombobled my memory matrix, so when we got back home I asked dad where we used to take the camper when we camped in the summer. He told me we usually went to a campground on a lake to the west of Buffalo on the western slope of the mountains. That would have to be Meadowlark Lake campground. Surprisingly, I have a remarkably clear memory of that place which I thought was somewhere else.

In review, there are a couple of things worth noting. Other than the tragic grasshopper incident (which obviously wasn’t my fault!) my most vivid memories have to do with road trips. For whatever hidden psychological reason (with which a psychiatrist would no doubt have field day) my most vivid childhood memories are attached, not to where I lived, but to other places that I went. I therefore find it interesting that to this day I am not a home body. I love to travel, and if I can justify the time, I will always travel by car rather than air. I love airplanes, but I love driving far more.

And the second thing, to which I have already alluded, is that I have a handful of vivid memories from throughout my life. Those vivid memories act like magnets, and when I reminisce, I almost always attach a newly remembered event to one of those vivid memories. After that initial moment I can often redact the new memory in order to properly place it in the past, typically by a process of elimination.

I do remember several hunting expeditions, but I am quite hazy about which ones I participated in and which ones I only observed because I was too young. I’ve also heard stories around the table (such as my oldest brother’s killing two deer with one shot) and it’s easy to incorporate family stories into my own personal history. The circumstances of my first deer remain hazy enough, that I will probably never remember the details.

So in the end I appeal to the preface of a memoir written by Phil Long. His life story, as related in the memoir was truly memorable and remarkable, but he began with the following caveat that I should probably attach to this web site: Not all the stories in this book are necessarily true, although they should be.

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