In Oxford, a borough of 4,000 in southern Chester County, life takes a sharp turn each year on the Monday after Thanksgiving, because it is the opening day of Pennsylvania's two-week buck-hunting season.
On this day, nearly a third of the town's population, fortified on the weekend's turkey and stuffing, heads out to stalk deer fattened on acorns in the mountains upstate or the hilly farmland that is Oxford's backyard. Schools close. Phones aren't answered. Car repairs wait. Businesses are short on help.
Among those absent from Oxford yesterday were the postmaster, the Amish butcher, a police officer, and at least 30 of the 100-member all-volunteer Union Fire Company No. 1.
``It's a ghost town today,'' said Cindy McAneny as she smoked a cigarette and waited for the lunchtime crowd at the restaurant of the Octoraro Hotel, which she owns. ``Everybody's off hunting. It's our way of life.''
It was that way, too, in hundreds of towns across Pennsylvania. Students in Quakertown had the day off from school. Likewise in Millersville, Perkasie and Palmyra. By the state Game Commission's estimate, more than a million licensed hunters of all ages will be in the woods before buck season ends Dec. 12. They will likely kill some 162,000 of the state's estimated 1,200,000 deer; typically, more than half the harvest is on the first day.
Cameron's TrueValue Hardware Store, on Route 10, Oxford's main drag, opened yesterday at 7:30 a.m. when the fog was still thick and the hunt, which starts at sunrise, was just a half-hour old. Out front, for $135.99, was an aluminum cart for hauling deer carcasses. Inside were safety-orange vests (the state requires hunters to wear 250 square inches worth), Remington shotgun shells, and camouflage on everything from boots and stools to flashlights and fishing poles. In the corner were ``Hot-Scrape Buck Lure'' and ``Buck Fire'' - products that promised to cover a hunter's offending human smell with a ``powerful sexual attractor'': the urine of a doe in heat.
Hunters had crowded into the store on Friday and Saturday, said manager Bob McConnell. He said many customers wanted to beat the new federal requirement for background checks on shotgun purchases, which went into effect yesterday.
By sunrise yesterday, McConnell said, serious deer hunters were armed and ready and in the woods. ``Basically, if we haven't sold it by now, it won't be sold,'' said McConnell, a graying, mustachioed man who has worked at the store for 24 years.
Hunting partners Ross Slauch, 16, and Sean Preece, 22, both of Oxford, came in early to get a replacement for Preece's hunting license. Preece said his wife had accidentally thrown it away.
Preece, who repairs tractors at a local John Deere dealership, said five of his eight coworkers were off hunting yesterday. His friend Slauch, in camouflage pants and a thermal shirt, had the day off from Oxford High School.
``It's like a holiday for us,'' said Preece, wearing his John Deere camouflage cap.
The two complained that it is harder these days to find farmers willing to let hunters on their property, because many landowners are selling hunting rights to outsiders.
Still, many farmers, weary of crop damage, are happy to see the deer population thinned.
Four miles from Oxford, in Nottingham County Park, Jim Subach, a conservation specialist and former assistant park ranger, told of the corn that pours from the stomachs of slaughtered deer when their carcasses are eviscerated after the hunt.
Last year, the Game Commission says, 1,760 deer were reported killed in Chester County, the most of any county around Philadelphia - though it was a slim harvest compared with places north and west of here.
The season always means accidents. Yesterday in Landenberg, about 10 miles east of Oxford, Ben Cook, 69, was hospitalized in good condition with a gunshot wound in the neck. Police believe a deer hunter shot Cook by accident as Cook painted a shed.
There were no hunters hanging around Oxford's commercial district of 19th-century brick-front buildings in the foggy morning, considered prime killing time. Some emerged around lunchtime, when the deer hunker down in the mid-day warmth. The hunters would return to their vantage points by late afternoon.
Volunteer firefighter Ron Griffin would be out there, too, if he could. Standing in a bay of the fire station, the ambulance captain said, ``I'm out of vacation time. That's why I'm not hunting today.'' He works the 3-p.m.-to-3-a.m. shift at the Herr's potato chip plant in Nottingham.
Griffin said the fire chief, assistant chief and deputy chief were all hunting together up north, in Potter County. About 30 to 40 other members of the 100-member fire company were also hunting yesterday. A duty roster was posted to make sure shifts were covered.
At the Oxford Diner, a 1950s silver-and-mauve boxcar number, the breakfast crowd was a dozen customers. Dishwasher Theresa Walsh said her three brothers had rented a cabin in Clearfield County to hunt. Waitress Sheri Wise said her 12-year-old son was off with his father in Lancaster County, on the first hunt of his life. The cook, Gale Wallace, said her husband was hunting; she'd gone with him in years past.
``I like to listen to the birds, the quiet, and the rustle of the leaves when I hear a deer coming,'' Wallace said.
So why didn't she go this year?
``Somebody has to work,'' Wallace said as potatoes, eggs and sausages fried on the grill behind her.
Many women remained in town yesterday, but many hunted, too. McAneny, the hotel owner, said she, her 16-year-old son Justin, her sister, her husband, father, and grandfather were all hunters. She has lamps and gun racks made from deer feet. Last year, she had a jacket made for her father out of five deer hides.
``We use everything,'' McAneny said.
On the outskirts of the borough, Amish children in bonnets and straw hats played hide-and-seek outside their one-room schoolhouse. Cattle grazed. Builders hammered on new housing developments. Fresh laundry dried on clotheslines. A handful of golfers chipped away at the Wyncote Golf Club, a year-round 18-hole public course.
After serving a capacity crowd over the four-day holiday weekend, club owner James Pepple said business was slow yesterday, despite temperatures that crept into the 70s and half-price, off-season rates.
``To be a golfer in November, you have to be an outdoorsman in that you have to be able to withstand the elements,'' Pepple said. ``But you also have to be an outdoorsman to hunt deer.''
By about 4 p.m., Tom Gartland was emerging from a thick field along Route 1, about 10 miles north of Oxford, with six other men from the Tri-State Sportsmen, a hunting club. All wore orange vests and camouflage. The hunters were red-faced, flushed with excitement. Gartland's hands were caked with blood.
Gartland, who works at Boeing Helicopters in Ridley Township, said he had killed his first deer of the season that morning on a farm in Delaware County.
On a trailer hitched to a pickup truck, the 150-pound deer was strapped down, its belly sliced open and bleeding bright crimson. Gartland said the meat of two deer would feed him and his wife for months, perhaps until next summer. He likes the taste of venison.
As the sun began to fade and 18-wheel tractor-trailers thundered past on Route 1, Gartland explained the other reason why he hunts.
``I enjoy outwitting the animal,'' he said. ``The kill is actually my least favorite part, because it is a beautiful animal and I have a lot of respect for it.''