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Ramblins’ from the Hills & Hollers: The evil crossbow and saga of my uncles’ thumbs

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By Steve Oden

Several readers of this column remember 15 years ago when I wrote of a demon-possessed weapon that mangled two members of my family. When deer season gets underway in Appalachia, I am frequently asked if this narrative will be published again. Since both of the victims have now passed and dwell eternally in God’s prime hunting grounds, I feel a reprise is in order.
William Tell, the medieval archer who shot apples off his son’s head in feats of marksmanship, would be mortified by my southern Appalachian uncles who became legendary not for archery prowess but maiming themselves.
The story, absolutely true and documented by hospital admission records and eyewitnesses, starts innocently enough with my cousin, a Texas university professor, deciding to present his father, my uncle, with a special birthday present: a high-priced crossbow.
Several Appalachian states legalized crossbows for deer. This uncle happened to live in one of the crossbow-approved hunting jurisdictions. He was delighted to receive the new weapon, a model that, when fully tricked out, cost around $1,100.
He carried the fancy crossbow into the field with pride on the first morning of archery deer season. He climbed into a tree stand, pulled up his new weapon, cocked it, mounted a bolt and settled down to wait.
At 7:43 a.m. precisely, he shot off the thumb of his left hand by extending the digit above the rail of the crossbow. Why this happened after hours of practice, even he cannot fathom. Later, Uncle conceded that the thumb-up aiming style was how he sighted a rifle.
In the excitement, he might have forgotten what happens to flesh and bone when the taut string of a crossbow is released. The deer at which he shot escaped. Unscathed. My uncle’s thumb, severed above the first joint, fell to the ground. Being a true Son of Appalachia—a boy tempered by economic hardships during the Great Depression and in manhood hardened by combat in Korea — he wrapped a hand kerchief around the wound, picked up the thumb and drove himself to the hospital, where the digit was re-attached by a team of surgeons.
He swore to never again cock and shoot a crossbow, bequeathing the offending instrument (he later intimated it might be haunted) to one of his brothers, a retired state prison guard who pooh- poohed the thumb detachment as a freak accident, caused mainly by his sibling’s ineptitude. He gratefully accepted the crossbow and took it hunting without practice. This uncle of mine is an expert deer hunter, who owns a wall adorned with trophy buck mounts. He, therefore, did not worry about the crossbow’s bloody history when he drew a bead on a whitetail deer that slipped close to his tree stand . . . and shot off the tip of his left thumb!
A career prison guard imbued with stoicism and intestinal fortitude, he found the amputated nail and knuckle. After a short hospital visit for re-attachment, he again found himself in the tree stand, crossbow-equipped. His left thumb, wrapped in a thick roll of gauze, shined like a white badge of honor as he aimed and squeezed the trigger.
I wish the second chapter of this incredible saga had ended happily, but alas. My uncle who inherited the evil crossbow again extended his thumb above the bolt rail. This time, he lost the appendage below the joint!
Uncle dutifully retrieved the severed digit, this time easier to find because at least half the thumb was clad in gauze. The astounded surgeons re-connected bone, tendon, and muscles. He was released from the hospital with the admonition never to handle that mutilating weapon. It couldn’t be trusted.
Of course, he could not wait to go hunting. For the third time, he climbed the tree and ensconced himself in the stand . . . with cursed crossbow cradled in his arms. After all, what were the odds that he would extend the mutilated digit above the rail and repeat past mishaps?
A10-point buck chased a doe into the food plot, 15 yards from my uncle’s stand. He took aim, checked the elevation of his bandage-clad thumb and fired. The crossbow bolt ricocheted off a locust tree branch and missed the buck by 20 feet, but it drew blood. Uncle’s thumb was gone for good.
“You danged idgit!” commented his brother, the original crossbow owner, when physicians conceded there was not enough thumb remaining to be reconstructed. On the spot in the hospital recovery room, he repossessed the crossbow and pledged to never again allow an Oden to touch the instrument of torture.
What happened to the crossbow that deprived two veteran Appalachian hunters of their digits? Further history of the “Thumbinator,” folklore’s name for the maiming weapon, was lost in legend and rumor. However, if during deer season you walk into an all-night diner and sees cowling hunters lift coffee cups in greeting—look at their hands.
If the lot of them have one less thumb than normal, you have either entered the Twilight Zone or the demon crossbow still lurks in the shadows.

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