Happy Hunting Ground

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By Tank Hoover

Seventy-four year old Mason Gradinski sat down to the familiar oak wood kitchen table. It was 4:30 in the morning and the coffee was percolating. His wife, Lucille, was frying bacon in the Griswold cast iron skillet she received 54 years ago as a wedding present from her parents. When the bacon was done, she swiftly cracked three eggs one-handed into the hot, splattering bacon grease. As the eggs cooked, she put two pieces of toast in the toaster and then expertly flipped the eggs, keeping the yolks intact.

Today was a special day for Mason. It was opening day of buck season! To celebrate, he was having a real breakfast, not some mushy oatmeal his doctor had ordered him to eat to lower his cholesterol. It was Mason’s 62nd buck season and he had 57 sets of horns stuck in the rafters downstairs in the basement, in chronological order. It was only the past four years that Mason didn’t get a buck during hunting season, and one off-year too long ago to remember why he didn’t get his buck.

Fifty years of working the steel mills had taken its toll on Mason. Mason worked in the foundry, where he would pour 2,700 degree molten steel into sand-formed molds. Despite wearing heavy safety glasses, the exposure to the bright molten steel left him nearly blind with cataracts. He was proud of his work and still wore his well worn faded green utility work clothes most of the time in his retirement.

A lifetime of hard work didn’t leave a whole lot of time for entertainment. Hunting was the one “luxury” Mason allowed himself to enjoy. He bought a Savage Model 99 in .300 Savage when he was 20 years old, along with a Pennsylvania tuxedo — a Woolrich plaid wool coat — vest and pants for hunting. After 54 years, the outfit still fit him, maybe even a little looser now.

Working in confined spaces most his life, Mason wanted (needed) some elbowroom, and bought 10 acres at the base of Bear Mountain in western PA. With the help of family and friends, he built a four bedroom home and raised six children in it. Every opening day, Mason would make the trek to the top of Bear Mountain, to his spot, “The Throne.”

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“The Throne” was an outcropping of rocks in the Alleghany Mountains which had worked their way to the surface a thousand years ago. The formation made a perfect seat for someone overlooking a thick patch of mountain laurel below. When Mason sat there, his arms rested on the sides of higher rocks, just like a king. “The Throne” was on a south-facing slope, so it had the sun most of the day to warm both a chilly hunter and deer. It was the perfect spot for a buck hunter.

The only problem was Mason’s eyesight and arthritic knees. He could no longer creep to his perch atop Bear Mountain unannounced. Nor could he make out the deer in the thick laurel like he used to do. Yet he went year after year.

Finishing up the last of the yolk from his dippy eggs, Mason kissed Lucille goodbye as she worriedly wished him “good luck.” Sensing the worry in her eyes, he jokingly told her, “If you fed me like that every morning, I’d live to be a 100!” as he stowed his Stanley thermos of coffee and two sandwiches in the back pocket of his Woolrich coat.

Mason hit the switchback trail behind his home hard, remembering how in his youth he would just go straight up the mountain like a mountain goat. He finally reached his rocks and swept leaves from his throne. His glasses were fogged-up and steam rose from his sweated head as he removed his hat, knowing he had 40 minutes to catch a catnap, cool off and wait for the first ray of day.

A bright light woke Mason up as he slowly opened his eyes. Putting on his glasses, he couldn’t believe how sharp his vision was. Wow! This is great he thought to himself. The bright sun had warmed Mason and he was feeling revived, invigorated. No aches. No pains. He was ready for a devious deer to make his appearance as it slithered through the mountain laurel.

It sure didn’t take long. Mason could smell the rutty buck before he picked him out through the tangle of mountain laurel, sneaking in after a long night of carousing hot does. The huge 10 pointer slumped at the shot and Mason had just shot the largest deer of his life! He quickly gutted the gorgeous gift of nature with the Case trapper knife his father had given him for high school graduation.
He then started the drag home and was surprised at how easy it seemed, as if he were in his prime once again. “Guess I’m still pumped up on adrenalin,” thought Mason. Finally making it home, Mason showed his buck to Lucille with the enthusiasm of a 10 year old. After much celebration Lucille took a photo of Mason with his buck.

Mason decided to take a nap on the sofa before a late lunch.

In a deep sleep, Mason had the weirdest dream ever. “Mason, Mason!” as Lucille tried to waken her husband. Mason could see Lucille trying to shake his lifeless form perched in “The Throne.”

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