Clarke County Virginia 12/15/2011.
Ben Stafford is a man to be respected. I met Ben in medical school at Jefferson. The first block of most medical curricula is anatomy. Medical school begins with much fanfare and ego-stroking. The first few weeks are spent getting to know your classmates and deciding which area in the library you will “claim” as your study spot. The novelty takes center stage. Bright eyed and optimistic we plunge our scalpels into our first cadaver. Weeks pass and the first test is handed out. It’s at this time that most of us get a reality check as we are handed some of the lowest percentage scores we have ever seen. The reality that more than we ever thought possible is expected of us is a hard pill to swallow.
Not so for Ben. He finished the first block of medical school at literally the top of the class of 255. But Ben had more on his mind. Medical school can be attended at any point in life, but the military places an arbitrary cut off on when you can participate. Our country was at war in two locations and Ben could not escape the call of his country. In early autumn, Ben left the luxurious post of second year medical school for his first training assignment at Officer’s Candidate School.
I have always admired Ben’s convictions and courage. Physicians in training love to complain. It is a universally accepted self defense mechanism in the trenches of residency. How superficial and sophomoric these complaints seem when compared to two tours in Iraq. I have never once heard Ben complain. His dedication and perseverance continues to inspire many of classmates he left behind for far less greener pastures.
Fortunately, the Marines have a base within two hours of Charlottesville, VA. Now visiting Ben and his family no longer requires a four hour flight to San Diego. As an aside Ben’s wife’s blog Alexandra Cooks was the inspiration for this blog.
It was in this vein of newly acquired proximity and mutual interest in harvesting some tasty meat that Ben and I left our families in the middle of the holiday season. Our destination was the family estate of our classmate Welles, Chapel Hill Farm.
We arrived around 1630 and spent the remaining forty five minutes of light scouting the various blinds on the property. We picked out our blinds for the following morning. That night we dined on a delicious venison tenderloin which had been harvested earlier in the week. The tenderloin had been marinating in olive oil and Rosemary grown right outside the kitchen window! Our host Joe pan seared the tenderloin and then cooked a tawny port reduction sauce. Coincidentally, Ben’s wife has a fantastic recipe for a port wine reduction sauce .
I spent the first morning in a blind alongside an idyllic limestone spring creek that meanders through the property. One spike buck and one four pointer walked under my stand, followed quickly by a very small doe. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a shot at any since of these deer since we were only shooting mature does and antlered deer which were 8 points or greater. Ben had a more active morning in a blind aptly called “Lookout” His blind was at the top of an open field with a great 360 view. Ben had a mature (125lbs dressed) doe with two yearlings come with in range. Anyone who has ever hunted with a highly trained Marine knows exactly what happened next. Ben’s biggest regret was that a fox also passed under his blind while he was waiting for the doe to come into his shooting lane. He passed on the fox for a chance at the doe. This was Ben’s first time field dressing his own deer. He made quick work of her and we had a lot of fun working together and sharing tips.
As we drove back to the stables, we discussed how much we enjoyed the camaraderie of hunting and fishing. Anyone can read about hunting or fishing in a book, but actually getting out into the field and successfully bringing home quarry is a totally different ballgame. It is best done with a mentor; someone who can share insights gained through successes and more importantly failures. We thoroughly enjoyed field dressing the deer together and talking about how we would plan our afternoon hunt based on what we observed that morning of the deer’s movements.
The afternoon found us in two blinds within 400 yards of one another. Ben’s blind commanded a view of a field planted to attract dove’s and mine was on top of the opposite ridge line from the aforementioned “Lookout” blind. Ben saw the most activity. Groups of three and four constantly moved within range of his .308. His dispatched two with surgical accuracy. Both dropped within yards of the shot.
Four years prior, I had been sitting in the same blind I was sitting in that day. I was still in the earlier throes of learning to deer hunt. I made a common early mistake and shot at a deer that was just slightly out of range. I missed the vitals but wounded her. A sickening feeling most deer hunters have unfortunately experienced at one time or another. This time, a nice doe and her yearling came within easy range of my .243 Winchester. She dropped forward and to the right and quickly disappeared into the nearby Egyptian grass. I knew I had a good hit, but I didn’t see her drop. I gave her some time to die and climbed out of the stand to begin tracking her while Ben collected the 4×4 and came up to join me. The initial blood trail was heavy but the blood at the initial site had a hint of paunch. The trail crossed a field about 50 yards wide and went down into a nearby grove of trees. Ben and I decided that if there were a chance she was gut shot and we pushed her too early we would never find her.
We took the 4×4 and drove back to Ben’s blind to collect his prey which bought us another 30 minutes. The blood trail was heavy enough that we decided to push ahead into the grove hoping that the exsanguination was complete. Sure enough, about another 75 yards into the grove we found her.
After field dressing her, we noticed the shot went through one lung and the liver. Now we both had an imprint in our minds for what a lethal lung/liver shot blood trail looks like. It was like a combination of mostly arterial blood in the initial trail followed by periods of lighter darker blood. In the grove we found two large pools where we think she lay down for a moments rest before reaching her final resting place. These shared learning experiences are what help make hunting with friends so much better than going it alone.
We spent the remainder of the evening processing the afternoon’s harvest. This was time originally reserved for travelling home to our wives and families. Fortunately for us, we married very understanding women who constantly put up with our addiction. Somehow I think they both knew that when we said we would be home Wednesday night they would see us Thursday morning.