SOMETIMES, SURPRISES IN your life pop up when you least expect them. Reckon maybe that’s why they call them surprises?
Last week, coming home from an afternoon of skiing, I found what turned out to be a very nice surprise waiting for me. It was a cardboard box propped up against my garage entrance door. Inside was a beautiful wooden plaque cut in the shape of Wisconsin. It was an Outstanding Involvement Award earned by me for “Dedicated Service as a Volunteer Hunter Education Instructor,” marking my 20 years as an instructor.
There was no shipping label on the box, return name or address, nothing, so I don’t know who delivered it. What I am guessing is that since I retired as an instructor nearly 20 years ago, this was an award that somehow got set on the bottom of someone’s shelf, went unnoticed for a long time, and finally was found and delivered.
Doesn’t matter to me; I feel honored and proud to have it. Holding the plaque in my hands brought back many memories of my teaching days. My hunter education career began with taking the course from the instructors at North Lakeland School, assisting as a volunteer with them as well as taking the class. The next year, with one of those instructors mentoring me and serving as lead instructor, I held my first class in Sayner. Then, I passed an instructor test; following which I was certified as an instructor.
After that were 20 enjoyable and satisfying years of guiding new students through a course that would allow them to buy their first hunting licenses.
Most of my students were children. Although each year, along with several parents sitting in to observe what their children were learning, I would have a few adults taking the course.
Not all of my students planned to hunt or get involved with shooting sports. Each year, during the first session of five, I would ask each student why they were taking the class and what they hoped to learn. Most of them responded with wanting to be certified so they could hunt. There were a few notable exceptions.
One year, I had two women take the class who were very upfront that they were basically antiguns and hunting, but wanted to learn more about both. They went through the same things all the other students did including handling various firearms, learning basic safe carrying and shooting positions, learning to identify the various common parts of a firearm, learning the need to respect wildlife and the land, and so on.
At the end of the class, they made it a point to tell me they had thoroughly enjoyed the class and even though they had no future plans to hunt or shoot, they now had a new, positive attitude toward guns and hunting. That made that year’s class a total success in my mind.
Another year, a teen-aged boy was forthright in telling me and the class that he had no interest in the class and was only taking it because he had pled guilty in juvenile court of doing something bad; probably something to do with guns though he didn’t say so. The judge had ordered him to take the class as part of his sentence. Reading his eyes and body language, I didn’t expect much cooperation from him, but again, some surprises are very pleasant ones.
At the end of the class, after successfully completing it, he too made it a point to tell me he had learned some valuable lessons. He added that I could count on him to not see his name in a future court action. I never did; another successful class.
Along the way of my 20 years of teaching, I worked with other great instructors. Together, I estimate — relying on my memory which is very good, but not too long — that we processed about 400 students through my classes.
Whether children or adults, they were a pleasure to have in class and to my knowledge, thankfully, not one of them has ever been involved in a hunting or shooting sports accident.
I should mention that aiding my teaching efforts each year were local game wardens who came in for a session to have a talk with the students. Usually it would be part scared straight talk, but a good deal of it simply dealt with the joys of hunting and target shooting while safely and reverently carrying on rich American traditions.
Those wardens included Ben Bendrick — in my book the greatest Wisconsin warden of all time — whose imposing figure by itself held the complete attention of the students. Duane Harpster — who each year, spoke the longest and told the best stories of all — was next followed by Mike Sealander — recently retired from the warden force — who offered up talks that conveyed his deep concerns and hopes that those new generation hunters would spend the rest of their lives enjoying the outdoors, hunting and all that those two things encompass.
The plaque that made a surprise appearance at my door this week now hangs on my living room wall, where each time I look at it I will remember the good and satisfying times I had helping to prepare new hunters for a lifetime of pursuing a great outdoor activity.