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My Day of Infamy

“… December seventh, nineteen forty one, a date which will live in infamy …” These famous words were part of  Franklin D. Roosevelt’sDSCN0698 address to America the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Certain dates tend to take a prominent place in history, especially those which mark a national tragedy.  Most, if not all Americans remember the date of a more recent national tragedy, September eleventh two thousand one.  Dates which mark personal tragedy are just as hard for the individual affected to forget.  For me it was December twenty eighth nineteen ninety one.  It was on that day that I took my last walk in the woods.  In fact, after that day I would never walk again.  A fall from a tree stand would leave me paralyzed due to a spinal cord injury.
I was ten years into a career in the United States Navy.  I went home for the Christmas Holiday on leave.  It was the first time in a long time that I would get to do some late season powder gun hunting with my family.  Early that morning I went down into the swamp behind my grandfather’s farm, a place I had hunted as a kid.  Dad took me to a great big sugar maple and helped me hang my stand.  I got up in the stand just about day break and sat there all morning.  It was a cold clear day and the deer did not seem to be moving.  Dad came and helped me down and we hiked out for lunch.  Over a bologna sandwich and a cup of soup we discussed our plan for the evening hunt.  I was to borrow a homemade portable tree stand from Dad and go up to that old wild cherry tree at the edge of Saker’s corn field.  It was planted in winter rye and the deer were certain to be feeding on it right before dark.  The tree stand was not the best one ever made but it was easy to hang and it was quiet to carry.  There wasn’t much to be concerned about since I was only going to be twelve or fourteen feet off the ground and I had my homemade safety belt to put on.
So, about 1:30 we left the hunting cabin and headed for our stands.  Dad’s neighbor, Phil went with me and helped me hang my stand at the edge of Saker’s field just as planned.  Once I was in the tree he went another seventy five yards or so to a briar patch and took his place for the evening.  I kept looking at my watch waiting for 4:00.  I knew that if I did not see deer in the field by then that there would be a good chance they would be coming from behind me so I would stand up and put my .50 caliber Thompson Center Scout in the crotch of the cherry tree. Sure enough, 4:00 came and no deer were in the field so I stood up and started to turn around.  That’s when it happened.  The tree stand shifted under my feet and I lost my balance.  I toppled over backwards but the leash on my homemade safety belt was too long to do me any good.  The next thing I knew I was hanging upside down.  Just as I was beginning to wonder how I was going to get out of this predicament I fell to the ground on my head.  Almost instantly, a weird tingling sensation came over my body.  I tried to get up and could not.  I knew something was bad wrong.  I began to holler for help.  Before long Phil showed up and he knew it was bad so he ran for Dad.  I remember looking up at the sky while I lay flat on my back and begging God to let me live.  Believe it or not, there was an off duty paramedic hunting nearby who came running as he heard all the commotion.  He was able to call on his radio for EMS.  They would eventually get there and carry me out into Saker’s field so the helicopter could pick me up and fly me to a trauma center in North Jersey.
I had broken the last vertebra in my neck known as C-7.  The prognosis was quadriplegia.  This would mean impaired or loss of use of all four limbs.  After surgery and four months of rehab I would regain nearly complete use of my arms and hands but not my legs.  As it turned out, my ten month old daughter would be taking her first steps as I was taking my last.  Nonetheless, I was thankful to God that I regained control of my upper body.  That means I can still be relatively independent.  I can feed and dress myself and I can push a manual wheelchair just about anywhere I want to go including the deer woods. I was back on the farm deer hunting less than a year after my accident and killed an eight point buck at ninety three yards with a twelve gauge Ithaca Deer Slayer slug gun.  I owe my dad lots of credit for pushing me through that first year.
God has been good to me over nineteen years in a wheelchair but if I had it to do over again I would do a few things differently.  I would be more familiar with my equipment.  I had never used that tree stand so I was not familiar with it.  As a result, I forgot to hook a safety catch that might have prevented my fall.  I would not use homemade safety equipment. In that time portable tree stands were just coming into existence and we thought we could build one just as good as we could buy.  Today there is a huge variety of quality tree stands which live up to a set of standards and are absolutely safe when used and maintained properly. I would use a full body safety harness and a proper lifeline.  I was trying to save a few bucks so I took cargo strapping from the ship and sewed it together with fishing line.  I wouldn’t have done that much except I was required to where a safety belt when I hunted on the naval base and I got used to it.  Now there are quality safety harnesses available form less money than most hunters put into a rifle and scope.  I would purchase one and learn how to properly put it on and learn how and where to put a lifeline. I would not use any homemade climbing equipment.
A series of minor mistakes added up to a life changing accident.  It could have cost me my life.  I thank God He answered my prayer that day.  I’ll never forget the events of December twenty eighth nineteen ninety one.  I only hope and pray the lessons I learned as a result of them will prevent others from having to learn them the hard way.

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