( a version of this story will appear in the Jan/Feb issue of the Pennsylvania Game News.)
When you first hear that Tom Strang, a Vietnam Navy War Veteran, is paralyzed from his waist down, you assume it is probably a war related injury. Not so. Except for a 40% service-connected hearing loss, he miraculously got out of that drama relatively unscathed, only to be injured during a very freaky accident at home.
When he was 47, he took a Benadryl for pain (instead of Darvaset) for an injury he incurred from a recent truck accident. His body reacted strangely. It sent him into a sleep walking state one night. Tom habitually sleeps soundly and very still, as he was stationed on a submarine during the war. He usually falls asleep in one position and wakes up in that exact same position come morning. But that dark night, Tom went for an unconscious, Benadryl-induced walk, and pushed right through the temporary banister he had erected on his second-floor log home loft that he was building. He plummeted down to the living room, where he fell onto his coffee table, which had a metal candy dish siting on it, which penetrated his back between vertebrae T11 and T12 and severed his spinal cord. What are the chances?
Tom went through the expected periods of anger and self-pity a paraplegic would go through and moved onto embracing the fact that he might not have been able to control something as weird as his accident, but he could control how he reacted to it afterwards. One thing he never stopped doing, even from the beginning of his paralyzation, was hunting. He just did it differently.
Over the decades, Tom was gifted a handful of free “injured Veteran hunts,” and bagged cow elk, deer and antelope in New Mexico and Wyoming. His true hunting love, however, remains racoon hunting, which he does with dogs at night in the fur season, ever since he was a five-year-old boy.
In September, I received a call from my hunting buddy, Bill May, a retired PA game commission food and cover supervisor. He is now a certified elk guide in Cameron County, and operates a company called Quehanna Outfitters. He told me of a phone call he received from a paraplegic hunter who had drawn an elk tag. Would Bill guide him? Tom heard that Bill’s reputation as a guide was spectacular and he also had permission to hunt on the private land in his tag’s zone. Bill, whose parents were both WWII Veterans, and is not known to shrink away from any challenge, not only accepted the challenge, but considered it a great honor to do so. Bill, in turn called me, as he is familiar with my work with Veterans through my non-profit, River House PA, where we take Veterans into nature to heal. I, too, would consider it a great honor to accompany a Veteran on his bull elk hunt. Tom, was coming from Washington County with his wife Agnes, who is strong and saintly “to put up with Tom all these years.” They stayed at the old motel “The Willows,” which advertises on a sign, “Color TV,” to lure in customers.
Of course, we all know that it isn’t necessary to bag game in order to make a hunt worthwhile, but it is extra nice to take home a harvest. Bill would do his best to make that happen but there are some interesting challenges connected to hunting with a paraplegic.
First off, mobility is greatly reduced. Tom owns a chair at his rural home that crawls over brush and goes through mud like it were roving the moon, but a large-enough vehicle to drive it to the elk range was not available. Tom’s fiend, Randy Smith, owns a large Polaris Ranger that can also transport Tom’s manual wheelchair. The 4-wheeler would also act as his blind. Any person who draws an elk tag is permitted to bring friends and family along, and in Tom’s case, is permitted to assist the hunter himself but not in the hunt. Bill needed Tom’s buddie’s help to get him to where he needed to be in order to place his sight on a bull. It was Bill’s job to scout the elk and then select the place to position Tom.
Although Tom, at the age of 76, is a beast of an athlete as he is the national champion wheelchair racer as well as a shooter, the Pennsylvania woods present obstacles. Like mud, after a three -inch saturating rain the night before opening day. Like steep sided hollows, in the Sinneamahoning/Driftwood drainages. But on Bill’s last evening scout, he did see a “very nice” bull and a monster bull, lying in the grass behind the Driftwood Church. He knew the animals’ habits enough to assume that after it was finished with its breakfast, it would probably make its way up the mountainside through the thick stuff to a safe, comfortable spot to bed down for the afternoon. An open woods road on some private land across from the church was about the best place to position Tom’s Polaris Ranger. The land owner, Denzo Potteiger, when hearing that a paraplegic Veteran requested access to hunt, generously allowed the men onto his 60-acre property.
It’s no small feat to get Tom out of the handicap van Agnes drives him around in, and into his wheelchair. A slide board of thin plastic assists helpers in moving him from one mode of transportation to another. Nothing happens fast. “You learn tremendous patience with Tom,” Agnes laughs. A bull elk might not necessarily oblige in that department. We would have to see.
Tom came with his two buddies, Ray Fiscus and Randy Smith, who’ve taken Tom fishing and racoon hunting for the past twenty-five years. They are big and strong and patient too and right there whenever Tom needs them. They load their comrade into the machine, snap off the windshield, and hand over Tom’s 300 Winchester Magnum. I look at him and ask, “How do you feel?”
“I am excited. I plan to harvest this animal this morning,” he informs me. “I am wearing my lucky orange vest, you know,” his pale blue eyes sparkling and we begin to follow our elk guide up the steep mountainside.
When we arrive at a long open stretch of woods road, the guys take some time to position the 4-wheeler at just the right angle that will allow Tom to shoot with his right hand. It needs to be jockeyed back and forth for the optimum shooting angle. With the aid of a tripod that he positions on the floor of the 4-wheeler, he gets his gun in place, while the helpers congregate behind the vehicle, hiding.
Bill tells the men, “These are not like western elk who spook.” They are used to people, as they spend a bulk of their lives in downtown Benezette, chomping on the neighborhood succulent grass and even an occasional fall door decoration of multi-colored field corn. That is okay. A bagged big bull is still a thrill and when it comes to a paralyzed hunter, we will take all the help we can get.
Tom is no slacker and moves more as a paralyzed man than most able-bodied men. He has received gold medals as the N.R.A. 2014 National Air Rifle Champion as well as the champion in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He travels all over America and competes internationally as well. He is also the Associate Sports Director of the Keystone Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Tom has not stopped living his life, he has just led a different life, but a very full and rewarding one.
There is no action the first hour, except for Tom growing cold. His friends grab a little portable propane “Mr. Heater” to warm up Tom’s fingers as his circulation is poor. After an hour, we move to another spot. When we see no action there for another hour, we move back to that first spot as it was a good one. After another long spell of nothing, the men regroup and begin to discuss plan B. Just then, not 30 yards away, a big bull emerges out of the forest and heads right towards the 4-wheeler.
“Holy shit! Is it the monster?”
“No! It is the ‘nice’ bull but not the monster.”
“It’s your choice!” Randy says.
But his buddies and the 4-wheeler are only going to be available for these first two days of the season.
“Shoot him!” Ray advises.
“OK!” Tom agrees.
While this whole discussion is going on, the bull walks past the 4-wheeler, crosses the road and begins to climb through the thick stuff. Well that took too long, I thought. Opportunity gone. Tom has two torn rotator cuffs so he cannot swing his torso around in order to shoot, nor lift his gun up. Instead, the 4-wheeler must be turned on (and the motor is not quiet), a 5-point turn executed, and then it must travel down the woods road to a spot where Tom can get a clear shot. The bull is slowly walking away and into the brush. It does not move quickly. Sort of like Tom- slow and steady, but it is traveling away.
When the 4-wheeler is finally into position, Tom slips bullets into the chamber but has to wait until its great head and shoulders travel in between the trees and presents him with a clean shot. The tripod is not in a good position to aid Tom’s arms so that is tossed and both Ray and Randy cram their big bodies into the cab. One lays his back down in front of Tom’s skinny knees so he can rest his gun on his body, the other offers his strong forearm as another rest. From fifty yards away, Tom fires. Bam! The elk flinches. Tom hit him. But he moves again. Not fast, but he moves and farther away. You don’t track an elk up a mountain in a wheelchair, following a trail of blood. It must go down and die where it is. So, the 4-wheeler moves again by a few yards. Tom takes a second shot, hits it and it flinches again. Still not down. The 4-wheeler moves forward again. A third and a fourth shot are taken and all hit their mark until it finally collapses.
Tom’s light blue eyes are soft and full of emotion. He takes a deep breath and exhales. His buddies slap palms. They congratulate the hunter who is an excellent shot.
I ask him if he was nervous. “When I first see the animal I am. But then I know how to calm myself down and just concentrate on getting my scope on the animal and getting the shot. That takes the nerves away.” Bill performs a tobacco ritual, thanking the magnificent creature who gave of his life and communicating that we are all grateful for its sacrifice. The men drag the big 6 x 7 bull down the mountainside, steering the wide antlers in-between the trees, to a broad spot where Tom can get out of the 4-wheeler, slide into his wheelchair and over to the animal. He bends way down to tag it. The men shuffle through Tom’s license case. “There’s every kind of license in there except for ferret,” Tom remarks. Then he reaches down to make the initial cut in the bull’s groin to begin to gut it.
As Tom’s buddies continue to work to open the cavity and cut out the organs, Tom sits in his chair, watching, quiet, his hands folded in his lap. The sun breaks through the clouds and turns the black gum leaves overhead a brilliant yellow. The wind flutters them and the mountain across the drainage stands high as a backdrop, guarding the valley. The place where the big bull gave its life for this paralyzed hunter is exquisite. The animal seemed to have cooperated on purpose. Walking right up to its fate, moving slowly and steadily, bravely, while his hunter got into position, offering himself as sustenance to feed the hunter and his wife all the next year.
Bill is a little emotional when he says good-bye. He tells Tom, “It was a great honor to help an old warrior bag his Pennsylvania bull elk. I could not be more proud of a hunt.”
Tom replies, “I could never have done it without these guys.” Everyone embraces. That’s the kind of thing that occurs when you take a handicapped hunter into the woods, at least it was for Bill, has been the case for me and most definitely is for Tom’s hunting buddies, who have been assisting him on his hunts for twenty years.
At the elk check station, the crowd of camo-clad admirers, applauds loudly as Tom rolls his chair over to his hoisted elk.
Watching the great effort Tom must exert to even move, fills any observer with awe for his fortitude and strength. What do we have to complain about in life? I thought of the quote, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Another’s misfortune could be our own, if it weren’t for the blessing of the Divine, or for one’s luck. One never knows when a candy dish will get us. The life we know and take for granted could be snatched from us in an instant. We must live with gratitude, and be there for one another.
Indeed, Tom could not have done this hunt were not for the help of his friends. Still, it seems humble and small, this help, as we assist him in harvesting his game. The handicapped hunter gives us so much more than we can give him.
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