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Basic Instinct

Kim Denton, a traditional archer from Fredericksburg, poses with his prey: an unidentified Styrofoam creature.
Andrea Grimes

Basic Instinct
Texas primitive archers do it Indian-style

Bill Decker eyed the fencepost carefully, sizing up its potential. Gray and decayed on the outside, it wouldn't have looked like much to an outsider, but Decker knew it was destined for greatness. Made of Osage orange wood, or bois d'arc, it was the ideal substance--incredibly strong and straight--for a handmade bow.

Decker, an eighth-grade algebra teacher from Beaumont, chopped and whittled away at the post until only the "heart wood" remained. Then came the laborious process of shaping, sanding and attaching strips of deer sinew to the back of the bow, which he secured with an all-natural glue that took days to dry. Decker used deer hide from one of his own kills to craft a quiver based on an ancient Plains Indian model. Eventually he would inscribe the word "Chee-Wa" just above his line of sight on the bow.

"That's the sound an eagle makes just before he gets his prey," Decker says. For Decker, hunting with a primitive bow is an awesome thrill. Since the bows aren't particularly accurate at long range, Decker must creep almost silently through brush and trees to get as close to his prey as possible. Like other primitive archers, Decker sees his bow as more than inanimate tool; one of his fellow hunters paints eyes on his bow, so it can "see" its prey.

Of course, he could have been a "just add water" hunter, the dismissive term traditional archers use for the guy who drives to Bass Pro Shop and plunks down $600 for a high-tech compound bow, a sophisticated sight and aluminum arrows. But Decker, who got up at 4 a.m. to prepare for today's hunt, is looking for another kind of experience. He searches for just the right words to convey the sense of closeness he feels to nature when he's on the trail of a deer or wild hog. His eyes light up when he visualizes a buck only a few feet away. "It's like me coming into your living room, standing where you can't see me and watching you watch TV," he says.

Decker and his hunting buddies are aficionados of primitive and traditional archery, two disciplines centered on the intense experience of re-creating history. Primitive archers craft bows according to centuries-old designs; some even "flint-knap" their own arrowheads the Indian way. Longbows, "like what Robin Hood used," says one archer, are the weapon of choice--one solid piece of wood bent into a graceful arc when strung. Primitive archers have their own magazine, host frequent festivals and shoot-outs around the world and use none of the sights, stabilizers and weights common in compound archery. Traditional archers don't necessarily make their own bows, but they always use a one-piece, solid-wood construction.

Mike Moore, president and CEO of Houston-based Primitive Archer, says his magazine has more than 80,000 readers and is upping yearly production from four to five issues. He calls primitive archery "the fastest-growing venue in the archery sport. It is like going back to the basics."

Rusty Craine, a Fort Worth pharmacist and Primitive Archer writer known for his arrow-making skills, tried to explain the attraction of his sport. He theorizes that some kind of innate, even genetic desire exists within man to hunt. "When you're eyeball to eyeball with an animal, you know you've got to hit that animal dead. There can't be any doubt in your mind." He adds that primitive archers make some of the most careful and respectful hunters not only because of the physical closeness necessary to kill prey, but because even the toughest guys "can't help but anthropomorphize what that animal is going through" when hit.

"One of the most dangerous mistakes modern man has made is forgetting his place in nature," says Craine's hunting buddy Mike Westvang of Weatherford, who has been making his own bows for about six years.

At today's shoot, however, Decker's prey isn't a whitetail in deep forest. He'll be stalking Styrofoam targets molded and painted to resemble woodland creatures. They look like giant stuffed animals--without the fur. Decker is showing off his Chee-Wa bow at a Saturday-morning archery competition sponsored by the Traditional Bowhunters of Texas (TBOT). Hunting season won't begin until October, so many of TBOT's 600 members spend time honing their skills in target shoots.

Battling mosquitoes, stifling heat and dense foliage, 20 or 30 traditional and primitive archers have driven for as many as five or six hours to make a 9 a.m. start. Though traditional archery uses store-bought equipment, the sport frequently overlaps with its primitive counterpart, as many traditional archers keep one or two "self-bows"--hand-hewn bows--on hand.

Out on the Navasot Archery Club's reserve near Normangee, three hours southeast of Dallas, the requisite pickup trucks line a dirt driveway bumpy enough to give a baseball bat whiplash. Bowmen warm up on targets that look like flour sacks. Some have already had an intensive online discussion, trying to determine whether the reporter who's visiting them today is on the up-and-up--or a spy for PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

 

"You like huntin'?" one man asks. "What do you think about huntin'?"

Assured that I'm not an animal-rights terrorist, he agrees to let me in on the secrets of primitive archery.

Several appreciative grunts and a "Whoo, boy!" are heard as one archer's particularly well-aimed practice shot nails the bull's-eye. Many shoots attract 100 to 200 archers at about $30 apiece, so today's crowd is small but surprisingly diverse.

Several middle-aged men in Wranglers are there, but there's also petite, freckled Natalie Payne, the young wife of the shoot's organizer, and no less than five members of the Stein family, ranging in age from 16 to grandmother.

They are an especially fun-loving bunch. Payne wastes no time in finding someone with a bow light enough for the untoned, untrained arms of a reporter. Fellow females Evon Lampman and Brenda Stein offer advice, correcting my stance and lending me a three-fingered leather glove for my right hand. I take a disastrous practice shot or two and decide to retire my already aching arm.

"Y'all about ready to head out?" suggests some Stein or another, and the others join the clan as they trek toward the edge of the woods.

It's a little bit like miniature golf. A number of Styrofoam targets--in this case, 30--are spread throughout a tree-covered, mile-long course. Archers take off in groups of various sizes, find a numbered target, take turns shooting through the brush and branches, and record their results on personalized scorecards.

"Kids from yay-high to old folks can all shoot together and have fun," says big-and-tall taxidermist Dana Lampman, after loosing his arrow on a foam javelina. His wife, Evon, is participating in her first shoot today, finally taking up the sport alongside her husband.

"My house is like Wild Kingdom," says Evon, her blond hair gathered into a butterfly clip. After realizing that her husband had been doing all the home decorating with game he'd brought back from hunts, she decided it was time to get involved. She's shooting the bow Dana used as a child and hitting her target almost every time. Several of the men admit that while hunting is a male-dominated sport, women are generally much better shots. As their party continues on the course, things are heating up at base camp, where canopies have been set up and refreshments are available.

Shoot organizer Russell Payne, one of the younger members of the day's crowd, is there, bantering with other bow hunters and trying to keep out of the sun. Suddenly, they hear a rustling coming from nearby trash cans. The hunting instinct kicks in, and Payne is on the prowl, snatching a compound bow from behind a cooler.

Casey Baggett grabs a handgun from his truck and creeps toward the prey: a raccoon nosing around in the garbage. He crouches down low to the ground and fully extends his arm, gun in hand. He looks like an FBI agent.

BANG!

The shot reverberates through the quiet camp.

Payne swaggers back to the canopy, where he plops down in a folding chair, adjusting his "I didn't climb to the top of the food chain to be a vegetarian" T-shirt. He's not your typical traditional archer, but whatever.

"I think I got 'im between the eyes," Payne says. --Andrea Grimes

Move Over, Swifties

The controversy over the anti-John Kerry ads aired by the swift boat vets has settled to a low boil, but the issues could take on new life and a new direction on September 9 with the premiere in Washington of a for-profit documentary called Stolen Honor. "I believe this is going to be the documentary of 2004," says Charlie Gerow, publicist for the film. "Forget about Michael Moore."

Written and directed by Carlton Sherwood, a Vietnam vet and award-winning investigative journalist based in Pennsylvania, the one-hour doc focuses on the impact of Kerry's anti-war activities on POWs. Produced by Sherwood's Red, White & Blue Productions, the film features 17 former POWs, including Oak Cliff resident Kenneth Cordier, a retired Air Force colonel and pilot who spent 2,284 days in the Hanoi Hilton after his capture on December 2, 1966.

Based on excerpts posted at www.stolenhonor.com, the documentary's incendiary impact may surpass that of the swifties' campaign. Cordier and other ex-POWs claim that Kerry's statements about Vietnam vets being war criminals were used against them by their captors and that Kerry committed treason by meeting with the North Vietnamese in Paris.

 

Cordier is bracing for the media onslaught that followed the release of the swift boat vets' ad featuring him and fellow POW Paul Galanti on August 20. Dropped from the honorary steering committee of a group called Veterans for Bush, Cordier is still fielding hate mail and calls from the media.

"They really hounded me all last week about it," says Cordier, who dismisses contentions the swift boat ads were a "smear" campaign illegally coordinated by the Bush re-election campaign.

"We're not smearing Kerry," Cordier says. "We're just putting out the truth to the best of our ability so that the voting public can have all the information when they make their decision this November."

Voters can only brace themselves. --Glenna Whitley

Thanks A Lot, Pal

With supporters like state Representative Terri Hodge, the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund doesn't need critics. Hodge, a Dallas Democrat, did such a bang-up job of defending the fund last week that she may have touched off a major investigation.

Hodge appeared before the Dallas City Council to defend the trust fund from a proposed budget reduction. She said the fund, set up in 1989 to benefit poor neighborhoods, was being misused.

"You see, this has become a Porky Pig slush fund, and the senior citizens have been left out," she said.

A few minutes later, City Manager Mary Suhm startled several council members by telling them something they didn't know--that the trust fund gets most of its money from them. It gets "about $336,000" a year from the city's general fund, Suhm said.

Council member Lois Finkelman said she had always assumed the trust fund got most of its money from a 15-cent surcharge on tickets at the Smirnoff Music Centre. "I was on the park board when the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund was created, and I don't recall ever knowing that there was general fund money from the budget going to the trust fund.

"I have never seen it in a line item. I have never seen it emphasized in the city manager's budget presentation. So I was shocked when someone shared with me the fact that we had $360,000, roughly, that was going into the trust fund budget over and above what comes from the surcharge on [the Smirnoff Centre]."

Leo Hicks, manager of the fund, told the Dallas Observer the fund gets approximately $360,000 a year from the city council and something in the neighborhood of $75,000 from the Smirnoff surcharge.

Finkelman told the council she found Hodge's speech about the slush fund thought-provoking. "I would hope that we pick up on that and we spend some time looking at how this money has been spent over the last 15 years."

Right about now, the people over at the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund must be thinking, "Thank you very much, Terri Hodge." --Jim Schutze


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