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Darker than Night
By Tom Henderson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Tom Henderson
All rights reserved.
Deer hunting is a Michigan phenomenon. A seasonal rite of passage for fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. An economic bonanza for business owners who both welcome the hunters' money and despise them for clogging the roads, filling the woods, making it impossible to go out and enjoy a meal or a drink for the last two weeks each November.
Some 800,000 hunters pour into the woods. Caravans of cars from the Midwest fill the interstates. They jam the freeway rest stops. Some own hunting cabins. Some camp in motor homes. Others fill the motels along the state and county roads. Many pitch tents and set up camp where their dads and grandfathers have been pitching tents and setting up camps for decades.
They fill the restaurants and the bars. It's even an economic boon for the farmers, who get to take some measure of revenge for all the corn and grain stolen from them by the marauding deer of summer and fall. Misshapen carrots that can't be sold in supermarkets are wrapped in big plastic bags and sold as deer bait, to be left in clearings or near blinds in hopes of drawing a whitetail close enough for a killing shot. Huge bags of bait are wedged in between pumps at every gas station, or stacked up out front on the grass next to the driveway. Inside the gas stations, many extra cases of beer are laid in for the siege, too, stacked high and narrowing the aisles.
Whitetails love man. They thrive on the edges of his civilization. They sneak into his fields to eat his corn if he's a farmer; if he's a suburbanite, they nibble buds of the lower branches of trees in the spring, trim his lawn in the summer and snag low-hanging or fallen fruit in the fall. In the northern Michigan woods, their population exploded at the end of the 19th century, when the hordes of lumbermen clear-cut tens of thousands of acres of giant white pine, which for a generation supplied the needs of homebuilders across the U.S.
As the pines fell to the ax and were hauled off, aspen saplings by the millions with their tender, juicy leaves, and seemingly endless acres of raspberry and blackberry thickets replaced them, an endless, nutrient-rich cornucopia. As the deer population grew, the new forest that grew with them was shaped by their appetite. Voracious feeders of low vegetation, the deer kept things trimmed on the ground as the new trees grew to form a canopy.
Other species couldn't compete and left or died. By the mid — 20th century, the deer were the dominant animal. Where once a sighting of a whitetail was an adrenaline-jolting highlight of the day, something you told folks about later, they became as ubiquitous as squirrels. They spread throughout the state, finding the edges of suburbia to their taste, too.
Eventually there were so many whitetails that the hunters and the bureaucrats who ran the state's Department of Natural Resources stopped talking about them as if they were animals and began to refer to them as if they were rows of corn or soybeans. The kill during hunting season came to be called "the deer harvest."
There were millions of the things. Nearly a million hunters sitting in blinds or stalking through the woods hoping to kill one. In any given year, 300,000 would be successful. Just the rope needed to tie that many big animals to the roof of a car or an SUV was a cottage industry. Add in archery season, and the kill was 500,000 deer.
A bountiful harvest, indeed.CHAPTER 2
"WHAT TIME DID DAVE LEAVE?"
Brian Ognjan and David Tyll had grown up together, fast friends from the time Brian moved into the east-side Detroit neighborhood in fourth grade. They went to Gabriel Richard, a Catholic school, through ninth grade and then to a public school, Detroit's Osborn High, graduating in 1976. They'd taken their first drinks together, tried picking up their first girls together, had gone from being kids to teen-agers to men all the while best friends. In 1985, they were both 27.
Tyll was Irish. Ognjan was mostly Polish on his mom's side — Helen Jenusz was her maiden name — and Croatian on his dad George's side, with a little German mixed in.
David was a machinist living in an apartment in the generally upper-middle-class Detroit suburb of Troy. Brian was a mechanic in St. Clair Shores, another suburb just a few miles from where they'd grown up. Both were pretty straitlaced for 1985. They'd smoked a little weed in the 70s and might go out to the bar on weekends and have a couple of beers and shoot pool, but they worked hard, saved their money, paid their bills promptly and stayed out of trouble.
On November 22, 1985, they left for what was supposed to be a weekend of deer hunting at the Tyll family cabin near White Cloud, a small town on the western side of the state. David wasn't an avid deer hunter, had never shot one, in fact. It wasn't one of the highlights of his year, as it is for many hunters. Most years he went, but it wasn't a religion for him. Truth of it was, sitting in a deer blind was more of a good, quiet way to get over his hangover from the night before than it was a place of stealth from which to kill deer.
Brian wasn't much of a hunter, either, though he went every year, too, mostly to drink beer with the guys and play cards. His girlfriend, Janice Payne, would joke about him and David: "They seen a deer, they wouldn't shoot it, you know?" In fact, Brian wasn't a hunter at all. He might not admit it to the guys, but he told Janice he'd seen many a deer walking by over the years but had never even aimed at one, much less pulled a trigger. He just liked drinking with the guys at night and sitting out in the woods, at peace, during the day.
The two never even bought deer licenses. They'd mistakenly assumed that if they were hunting on private property, they didn't need them. In medieval England, the deer belonged to the king. In late 20th century Michigan, they belonged to the state. No matter where you hunted one, you were supposed to buy a license.
They had planned to go hunting the previous weekend, the opening weekend of the season, when most of the bucks are taken, but David decided to take his wife, Denise, to a party instead.
So now they were going for the second weekend. A grade school and high school buddy of theirs, Daniel Jacob, who stopped by Brian's most Saturday mornings to drink coffee and shoot the breeze, was supposed to go with them, but his mother got sick and he had to cancel. Another friend, Richard Musto, had talked of going, too, but a day or two earlier Brian had run into him at a car-repair shop and Musto said he was going to have to pass.
David's father, Art, and one of his brothers, Archie, were already at the cabin hunting. Before they'd left, Brian joked with Art that he was going to get his money back from him at poker this year. Forget any thought of the old man skinning him, again.
Another brother, Matt, and three of Matt's buddies, were leaving Friday afternoon, too. Matt was getting married in the spring and wanted his friends to join him as sort of a celebration of what might be his last hunting trip with the guys for a while, depending on how his wife took to him traipsing off each fall. Matt was eight years younger than Dave, but they were close, nonetheless. They'd even worked four years together for a landscaping company owned by one of David's old school buddies — David, the responsible one, the crew chief; Matt, the college kid in need of a summer job.
To say the Tylls came from a large family was to understate it. Catherine Tyll had thirteen kids, and when she was done having babies she went back to work full-time as a nurse.
She used to tell people that, of all her kids, David was the most level-headed.
If Brian had poker revenge to look forward to, David had the new rifle Denise had bought him for his birthday. This'll be the year I finally get a buck, he'd told her when he'd opened it.
Some thought David a bit henpecked, but, truth be told, that's how he liked it.
David's father-in-law owned the tool and die shop where he worked, Deland Manufacturing. The morning of the 22nd, David called his wife, told her that her father had given him the afternoon off so he could get ready for his trip and asked her out to lunch at a nearby McDonald's.
As deer-hunting trips go, it wouldn't last long. He wouldn't need much in the way of clothes. He had his Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and a green Army jacket. He was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He'd pack a sleeping bag to keep him warm in the drafty cabin at night and a small duffel bag with some socks and hunting gear. That was about it. They'd be back about 6 p.m. Sunday night so they could get a good night's sleep before going back to work on Monday.
Over lunch, David asked Denise if she wanted to go along. Nope. He'd cashed his paycheck on the way to meet her. He gave most of it to her, keeping 50 or 60 dollars for himself, enough for a long weekend.
David drove over to Brian's house. When he got there, about 2 p.m., Janice was pulling up in her car. She worked at the Post Office and had either worked an early shift or had the day off. Brian lived in a nice corner house on Jefferson, a main street that ran all the way from downtown Detroit to Selfridge Air Force Base in Mt. Clemens. He was proud of his house, proud that he owned it, proud of how he kept it. He was a self-described "neat freak" and everything was always in its place.
When they got there, Brian was sleeping, dead tired from all the overtime he'd been putting in for Michigan Bell. His shift was 4 p.m. to midnight, but he routinely worked overtime till 4 or 5 a.m. They got him up. About 3 p.m., David called Denise from Brian's house and asked her if she wanted to change her mind and go with them. No, she had plans to go shopping with her sister. It wasn't unusual for David to ask Denise along on excursions with Brian. The three of them had hung out a lot, until Brian started dating Janice four years earlier.
David asked her if she wanted him to call her later that night. The family cabin didn't have a telephone and it was a twenty-minute drive to the nearest pay phone in that precellular era, so she told him not to bother.
David called his mother and talked to her a few minutes about Jimmy, his younger brother. Despite their ten-year age difference, they were close. Years earlier, Jimmy had been really short for his age and was picked on a lot. When Jimmy was 10, David told him, "Never mind, Jimmy. When you're seventeen, we'll have a boxing match and we'll see who can beat who."
Jimmy was 17, now, and David told Cathy he had a joke in mind for Thanksgiving. He was going to wear a sling and pretend he'd broken his arm and wouldn't be able to follow up on their plans to see who could take whom.
Then he asked her to put Jimmy on the line. He asked him if he wanted to go hunting with him and Brian, but Jimmy said he had to work over the weekend.
Brian wasn't sure he still wanted to go. If they did go, he wasn't all that fired up about joining the big crowd already at the cabin. It was a little too crowded for both their tastes.
Both were worried it was going to be too much men being men, sitting around drinking beer between trooping through the woods, not shaving, not worrying if they showered or not, belching and farting when they felt like it. A little too much hale-and-hearty shit and dumb jokes.
David and Matt might be close, but close or not, hanging with Matt's friends in close quarters for the weekend didn't have either of them much excited.
Maybe they'd visit an old friend from high school, Dennis Gallop, who had moved up north to a small town — just a few cabins, really — named Luzerne a few miles east of Mio the previous February, to a place his parents owned. Jacob had been up there a couple of times and had drawn them a map so they could find him if they wanted to. He'd bragged to Brian that he was great with maps and the one he'd drawn would get them there, no problem. It'd have to, since Gallop didn't have a phone and they'd have no way to let him know they were coming or to ask for directions.
Or they could go to Brian's parents' cabin on Higgins Lake, a giant beautiful inland lake in central northern Michigan. His parents lived there in the spring, summer and fall, and down in Florida for the winter. They'd just left for Florida, as a matter of fact, so the hunters would have the place to themselves.
No, on second or third thought, they'd go to White Cloud, after all. Janice wrote Brian a check for $50 to go with the $40 he had to make sure he had enough spending money. She was that kind of girlfriend, one who'd write her boyfriend a check so he could head off for the weekend with the guys. Lately, tired of maintaining separate residences, ready for a change, they'd been talking of marriage. Brian was a saver. Had a bank account, stock accounts. If he didn't need it, he wasn't going to buy it. If he was short that weekend, it was probably because he'd put more than he should have in the bank. He was saving for a bigger, nicer house and salting away as much as he could.
Brian threw his gear together in minutes — his Marlin. .35-caliber, Model No. 336C, lever-action rifle, his sleeping bag, enough clothes for the weekend — and tossed it into David's six-cylinder, four-speed manual transmission Bronco, alongside David's clothes and his .12 gauge pump action Ithaca shotgun. He told Janice he'd see her late Sunday afternoon.
About 5 p.m., David called Matt and told him they were coming up, but it might not be till Saturday. Matt and his buddies were just getting ready to leave. Several hours later, having crossed the state on I-96, Matt and his friends dropped their gear off at the cabin, then headed out to a bar in White Cloud. They left David and Brian a note saying where they'd be if the two got in and wanted to join them Friday night.
They didn't. When Matt and the gang got back to the cabin, no sign of his brother or his friend.
They didn't show up Saturday, either.
Or Sunday. Matt and his father weren't worried. Obviously David and Brian had changed their minds. Matt knew they were thinking of going north, instead. He knew David was having second thoughts because of how many guys were going to be crammed in there. That devil, gonna go up north and do a little carousing on the side, eh? Let Denise think you're with the family?
Excerpted from Darker than Night by Tom Henderson. Copyright © 2006 Tom Henderson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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