by T. Edward Nickens
Walter DeSales Witt was in a good place: with his back against a hemlock, green boughs dropped with snow all around, like a half-opened umbrella.
He’d wormed his way under the branches, spread out a burlap sack for a makeshift seat, and now he could watch a deep-woods edge where hardwoods transitioned to a stand of hemlocks. It was dark Pennsylvania timber, just the kind of route a big buck might travel.
It was good to be out of the house. No one would ever forget the big storm of December 1974. The snow started falling the night before the antlered deer season opener. It was a Sunday night, and the Witt family was at Grace Brethren Church, in the small town of Meyersdale, Pa., in their customary pew on the right-hand side, a third of the way back from the pulpit. Eight inches of snow fell during the church service alone. The overnight total pushed three feet. It would be nearly two weeks before anyone went anywhere in Somerset County. And in two weeks, buck season would be over.
The Witts, a family of hunters, weren’t going to let the season slip away without a try. When the roads were finally cleared enough for travel, Walt, 38, packed his red-and-white Plymouth station wagon with his two boys, Dan, 14, and Mark, 12, and his father-in-law, Roy “Pap” Brown. Now the Witt men were hunting together, on family land, on the very last day of buck season. It was an exciting day. Witt’s wife, Cathaleen, had graduated from college just the day before. She was now Christmas shopping with their daughters, Lisa, 9, and Victoria, 17. It had been a tough stretch, raising four kids on $3,500 a year.
For Walt, a ninth-grade earth science teacher and high school track coach, one of the great joys of a few hours in a quiet stretch of woods was the blessing of unfettered thinking. His true calling was sharing his Christian beliefs. In a given year, he might guest-preach at dozens of small Allegheny Plateau congregations. He talked to nearly everyone he met about his faith: the kids on his track team, a lady in the grocery store, a man picking blueberries on a mountain roadside. Tomorrow morning, Walt would speak from the pulpit of Calvary Bible Church in nearby Ellerslie, Md. He’d already started writing the sermon, titled simply, “Heaven.” The passage he’d chosen spoke of heaven’s streets of gold. Of all the blessings of his life, Walter Witt held nothing more dear than the certainty of where he would spend eternity.
Now he peeled an orange, let the rinds fall to the snow, bright orange slashes like leaves curled against the cold, on a carpet of white flecked with the dark needles of hemlock. The day was warming, and as melting snow dropped from the tree boughs the branches would suddenly spring up, dipping and dancing. Each movement would catch Walt’s eye, surely bringing a rush of adrenaline. It was just the kind of thing no deer hunter would miss.
One hundred forty-eight feet away from Walt, another hunter watched from the cover of another snowy hemlock. Something was moving in the trees up ahead. There was a patch of fur. It had to be a buck. For 15 minutes, the hunter watched. Then, in the early-afternoon hours of Dec. 14, 1974, the crack of his rifle split the quiet, dreadful woods.