It had been 54 years to the day since a runty, 80-pound Grasso - three weeks shy of turning 12 - shot his first buck in the rugged wilderness of north-central Pennsylvania on Nov. 27, 1956.
Monday morning, as the opening day of Pennsylvania's two-week rifle season drew an expected 750,000 deer hunters to the predawn darkness, the Bucks County resident planned again to be walking among them.
"There are more hunters afield in Penn's Woods than some countries have in standing armies," said Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. "It is, in many ways, Pennsylvania's only unofficial holiday."
Shouldering five decades of hunting memories, Grasso wonders how many more years his body will allow him to keep returning to his beloved deer camp - a 12-by-72-foot wood-heated mobile home along the border of Clinton and Potter Counties.
For Grasso, going to the remote camp is about more than the just the hunt. It's his connection to a bygone generation in his family - forebears who first took him up to these woods - whose legacy he wants to continue for as long as he can.
"I guess it's something you just don't want to let go of," he says, a thought that makes him choke up. "I still get excited about coming up here."
It's an excitement that awakened him before dawn for a week in advance at his home in Solebury, where he runs an insurance business. It's what got his white Nissan Pathfinder fully packed three days ahead of time.
It's what prompts him, each year, to set out the morning after Thanksgiving and drive 220 miles through rutted roads and a rain-swollen mountain stream to a camp soon filled with relatives and friends. There they turkey hunt and target shoot, sighting their deer rifles just so while checking the ironwood saplings for signs of a big buck's antler scrapings.
Back inside, they await the hunt over beer and bourbon, homemade venison scrapple, and holiday leftovers, chasing bad jokes with worse language and good-natured abuse, embellishing old stories grown cherished and richer as time runs shorter.
"We keep coming up here because we're suckers for punishment," said Grasso's brother-in-law, Geoff Loughery of Upper Salford, a retired postal worker who has hunted with Grasso since 1959. He owns the second mobile home at the camp.
"The hills are steep and high," said Loughery, 68, who drove up Friday with his son Bob, 46, of Lansdale. "Every time we're up on them, we question why we're doing it, and the next year we're right back here doing it again."
Grasso wonders how long his extended family will keep the tradition going, his own son having opted for deep-sea fishing. Much has changed since Grasso's post-World War II childhood, when he couldn't wait to join the wool-clad men in his Montgomery County family as they rose each year from the Thanksgiving feast, piled into an old Jeep, and roared away upstate to prepare for opening day.
So it is throughout Pennsylvania. The state's number of licensed hunters remains second only to that of Texas, but a gradual erosion has occurred.
From a peak of 1.3 million in the early 1980s, the number of general hunting licenses in Pennsylvania now stands at about 950,000.
Development has consumed many acres once hunted, Feaser said, and people have less time on hand in an age of myriad societal changes. Fewer young hunters are drawn into the fold, distracted by other fall sports, computers, and round-the-clock cable TV.
"Hunting is a time-intensive investment," Feaser said. "Today's society just doesn't give you that luxury."
For Mike Grasso, making time for deer hunting is less a luxury than a necessity.
His father didn't hunt, but by age 11, Grasso knew he had to be in that Jeep on Thanksgiving with his Uncle Bill and his adult cousins.
Back then, the men stayed in a cheap hotel in Renovo, an old railroad town about 25 miles from the state land they hunted in Potter County. In 1956, it took about $100 for a week of lodging, meals, and expenses, beer not included.
Grasso spent hours that year unearthing spent slugs from a nearby police pistol range, collecting copper wire trims from house construction sites, and selling them for scrap. He borrowed the final $25 from his father.
Part of the draw for the boy was his adventurous, Camel-smoking Uncle Bill, a.k.a. Vincent Ciocca.
Born in 1907, his great-uncle never married or moved from his family's home in Glenside. But he had the stuff that could widen a young boy's eyes: a Harley motorcycle, a 1932 Ford roadster, and an endless supply of guns and fishing gear he was always trading and tinkering with on an almond and green enamel-top table in his kitchen. On Sundays, the table was cleared for dinners of pasta and gravy seasoned "with God knows whatever game Uncle Bill had shot recently."
The Jeep ride that first year was cold and slow, "but I thought it was wonderful," Grasso said. On opening day they all got up at 3 a.m., stuffed themselves at breakfast in Renovo, and drove up an old logging road to the edge of the hunting grounds.
By law he should have been with an adult, Grasso said, but "my cousins were interested in hunting, not babysitting me." One of them led him up a mountain in the darkness and left him there, promising to return by 4 p.m.
"I'm still waiting," he said.
Clad in heavy wool, lugging his bolt-action rifle, the boy walked to stay warm, marveling at the woods and wildlife, frightened and thrilled all at once. As darkness fell, he climbed down the mountain alone, using his compass and the stream bed to find his way back, seething in silence.
The second morning, his cousin sent him up the Beech Bottom trail, alone again. Not 20 yards away, a deer appeared in the stand of huge hemlocks. Grasso fired.
"I was completely dumbfounded that the thing didn't just fall over," he said. "It was a small spike buck. It just kind of staggered off, bouncing off trees. Then it just fell."
He took a small knife, gutted the buck as best he could, then dragged it down the ravine to the stream. When the adults emerged, Grasso was waiting proudly with his deer.
In the following decades, Grasso has bagged 15 or so more bucks. He missed out on 10 deer seasons - one when he was in the Navy, nine when he was newly married with young children.
"In 1968 I had to trade my deer rifle to Uncle Bill for a lawn mower," he said ruefully. "Not one of my better days."
Uncle Bill and the older cousins stopped coming up around that time, convinced the hunting was better closer to home. But Grasso would continue to come. Over time being in these woods has become as important to him as the kill itself.
The 11-point buck he shot last year was his first since an eight-pointer in 2005 - enough of a drought that his stepdaughter started calling him "Greenpeace."
"I think, as you grow older, that the bloodlust diminishes," he says. "I still want a deer, don't get me wrong, but I love being in the woods."
He sees subtle hues where others see only brown drabness. He sees mice and mink and coyotes - even moths hatching on warmer days.
"People look at the woods in the wintertime, and they don't see anything," he says. "But there's a lot going on. I find it fascinating."
By noon Friday, Grasso had four-wheeled his SUV through the mud of the old logging road and through the rushing, bumper-deep waters of the rain-swollen Hammersley Fork of the Kettle Creek - the only access to the strip of leased, private land where his camp home sits. A few hundred yards away begins the state-owned Hammersley Wild Area - more than 30,000 acres of contiguous wilderness where he hunts.
After years of staying in Renovo, the Lougherys had lucked into the leases during the late 1970s. Bob had fallen into the creek as a teenager, and some of the nearby campers took him in, helped him get dry, and took the father and son back to town.
Through the friendships that developed, the Lougherys, and later Grasso, were able to lease their camp spots for $50 and $100 per year, respectively, and place cheaply purchased mobile homes on them as hunting camps.
"I would call it a life-changing turn of events," Geoff Loughery said.
Security has never been an issue in such a remote spot. Grasso's mobile home doesn't even lock.
The only priceless piece of furniture is the old, almond and green, enamel-top table in the kitchen.
Uncle Bill's table.
Grasso had always ribbed Uncle Bill that those unfiltered Camels would kill him. One January night in 1989, the old man had left one on a sofa cushion, catching his house on fire. He died seven months later, his lungs ravaged by smoke inhalation.
A few years later, Grasso spotted the table out in his aunt's yard. One of his cousins was cutting up deer meat on it. Grasso asked if he could have it for camp.
He replaced the rotting wooden legs and there it sits, a cherished, haunting relic.
"Sometimes when I go up alone - there's no TV, no telephone, no radio - I sit there and my mind starts going back," Grasso said, his voice growing thick with emotion. "You think of all the meals we ate at that table, all the people who are gone.
"And I realize also that I'm getting older."
The deer hunter pauses, staring hard again, as if at a grove of towering hemlock.
"So you wonder what's going to go on," he said. "You wonder what's going to happen to these places."
Rifle season for antlered deer runs through Dec. 11 statewide except for Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Allegheny Counties.
No firearms hunting is allowed in Philadelphia.
Shotgun hunting is allowed in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, and Allegheny Counties.
SOURCE: Pennsylvania Game Commission
See a video at Philly.com
of Mike Grasso preparing for the start of hunting season.
Contact staff writer Larry King
at 215-345-0446 or email@example.com.