Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Red In Tooth And Claw

Last Monday night on my way home, I hit a deer. I realize that recent posts have been all about the fun I've been having, and/or the stress of getting the rest of my life in order, but it's not that I'm self-involved.

That is to say, this is a blog, so yes, of course it's self-involved. It's the captured thoughts of a writer doing whatever he feels like, at the moment he feels it. That's the nature of the beast. But the nature of this other beast has been on my mind lately, and it's taken a few days to ponder. So here's the story.

I was coming home, having wrapped up the first part of my first draft of my essay. I worked in the coffee-shop-esque part of the student center for a while after leaving the Hall of Science, because nothing is less productive than three post-baccs with individual laptops and WiFi at 10pm. But by 10:40, with one mocha on-board, I was ready to head.

10 or 15 minutes later, I was tooling along the winding, mountainous road I enjoy so, so very much in my V6, and I noticed: hey look, some deer. I see deer all the friggin' time out here. They were majestic and special at first, and I didn't believe it when native New Englanders said they would soon become a nuisance, like raccoons but with more body mass. Now, I totally get it. But that's skipping ahead.

I saw three of 'em over on the right side, in somebody's yard, and they stayed still as I ripped by. Good deer. And now I was on alert, because apparently it was a good night to be a out and about for our local cervine-American* population.

A few miles later, after slowing to 40 through the little town with the volunteer fire station, I came back up to 55 or so, and as I crested a hill I saw another one, about a hundred yards ahead and down the hill, standing in the other lane, close to the shoulder. Hmmmm. I slowed down. It had tan fur, about the color of my Carhartt jacket.

It was facing the other way, and looked at my car over its shoulder. The long axis of the rectangle formed by the deer's hooves pointed diagonally away from me and across the road. It started out acting more or less intelligently, taking a tentative step straight forward and off the road in the other lane, as I slowed down on my approach. I thought for a moment it was going to be okay.

Then, the dumb beast apparently decided the grade was too steep on that side -- they leap something like 15 feet over, onto, and out of the embankments on either side of my road all the time, up at the farm, so this one was either crazy or just a total wuss -- and decided to dash directly in front of me instead. All I could think was "no no no no no," as my reflexes took over.

If I hadn't slowed down, maybe I would have plowed into it with the kind of force you hear about, Emergency Department-grade force, the kind that brings people into my workplace on a long spine board, escorted by medics bearing Polaroids of starred windshields and indented A-columns**. Its head might have been even with my left headlight, and the speed would have bounced its body right up over the hood and on top of me, the lone occupant of the car, with only a thin film of glass between us. That image, frankly, I don't need -- but the one I got sucked pretty badly, too. In the imaginary scenario, at least the deer's neck might have been broken instantly, painlessly, mercifully.

Instead, what we both got was a textbook-perfect broadside. Obviously, my part of it was scary and depressing, but painless and ultimately harmless. I don't even think my tires squealed, and my airbag didn't deploy. I nailed the deer's right side flatly: its shoulder and hip fit perfectly in the space between my headlights. The plastic front grill shattered, and the hood buckled only slightly; this must have been at about 40 mph. I stopped, hit the blinkers, and turned on my cell phone. The deer had skidded, bounced really, forward and over, finally making it to the ditch on my side of the road, and went about five feet downward and 25 feet away, where it stopped and laid down.

I called 911; I was fine. Controlled stop. No issues among the humans involved. The dispatcher had a category in his computer program for "car/deer accident," and got me through to the New York State Patrol.

It was the saddest thing in the world, hearing the tall grass thrash around and then become quiet, as the deer discovered it couldn't move well. I was afraid it was dying right there and then. I shined my ludicrously-bright tactical light toward the faint orange glow of its eyes, and saw it was breathing, but had a bloody hind leg. Since my white car was a little dented but spotless, I knew this was probably a secondary injury from sharp broken bone cutting the deer's hip from the inside. I switched off the light when the deer seemed to think I was coming down there and started thrashing again, its legs making swimming motions on the grass.

My car was only cosmetically scrunched, and had tufts of hair in a corner of the hood closure. The VW insignia in the center of the grill was gone, never to be seen again. My real damage was hopefully just as minor, but it's psychic, because I stayed with the poor thing until the trooper arrived. I talked to it. I apologized, over and over again. I kept my voice even and tried to calm it, from my place up on the embankment. It was either a female or an adolescent male, with big radio-dish ears, and black markings on its face. Eventually, an SUV with cherry lights came up the hill, passed, and turned around.

The trooper, a smallish, 30-something woman with a remarkably Midwestern demeanor, verified that I was okay, and I told her what had happened. I indicated where the deer was. After a moment, she got out of her car, paused to retrieve and put on her Smokey hat, and we started walking. She told me how she'd seen deer all over the place that night. We talked about how often this kind of thing happens, and I said I'd figured a near-miss would pretty much have to happen eventually, considering the sheer numbers of the things on and near our property. The trooper kept going, down into the ditch, and the back part of my brain sort of gave me a little tap on the shoulder, saying "naah. Stay here." So I stopped at the top of the embankment above the deer, as she continued.

I didn't expect we were going to splint the deer's leg and take it to a petting zoo; there is obviously a reason the State Patrol responds to these calls and the local volley-fire guys don't. And furthermore, I know (and knew) perfectly well what that reason is. But it was still a shock of sorts when the trooper walked calmly down into the ditch, still talking to me, and drew her weapon in mid-sentence.

It would be logical to think the expression "pop a cap" is just the bravado of street thugs and rappers who want to sound worldly and unimpressed by dangerous things. But the weird thing is, it's accurate. If you've heard a .45 caliber handgun fired, and/or fired one yourself, you know. It doesn't boom, it doesn't go "pa-whoomp" like in the movies; it pops. It sounds exactly like one of your more powerful firecrackers, sure, but nothing worse than what you can buy on the roadside in some of our more civilized states.

I last discharged a handgun something like 15 years ago. The first thing that surprised me was the heft of the thing. The second was the sharpness and bite of that unexpected noise, and the kick was close behind that. It's not back, like a hunting rifle; it's straight up, as if the gun is trying to escape you. It feels to me like holding the beginnings of a summer thunderstorm in your two cupped hands. For me, this power-to-size effect comes across as a basic, instinctual, almost preternatural sense of wrongness. The order of things is either altered, or maybe just mocked, by this apparatus of springs and levers that doesn't seem to belong in the world.

The point is, I did know, and I agreed completely and fervently, when after the first shot, the trooper sighed with regret and true sympathy, saying, "man, these .45's just don't have the right kind of power. You really need a magnum."

And so she shot the deer a second time, again in the head, to still its twitching front legs. She kept the gun raised, in case it would need a third before we would be able to say we had been merciful.

* Cervine: adj. Deer-related. Like "porcine" is for pigs, "murine" is for mice, and "bovine" is for cows. I heart the Internet for letting me find that. I used to know an awesome horse-racing guy, and he half-jokingly refused to call the horses "horses." They were always "the equine athletes."

** A-Column: n. The part of the frame of the car that is the front corner between the windshield and the forward part of the driver- and passenger-door windows. The B column is between the front and back windows, and if you don't have a truck you probably have a C column too, where the back window meets the frame.

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