Heart of a HunterJune 29, 2013
Story by John Seasly
Photos by Matthew Busch
For Tyler Lang and his brothers, hunting is life.
Billy, their father, has been taking them hunting since they were young. His passion was passed on and it did not diminish in the process. From him, the boys — Tyler and Todd, fraternal twins who are 17, Hunter, 16, and Jake, 13 — learned to set traps, track raccoons and hunt turkey, deer and smaller game. They hunt whatever is in season, and in the offseason, they fish.
The walls of their Birdseye home are covered in mounted trophies — deer heads, turkey feathers, wild boars, squirrel pelts, the works. The TV regularly plays “Duck Dynasty” on repeat. The refrigerator, usually stocked with game, is decorated with photos and newspaper clippings of the young men posing with their kills.
Their mother, Jenny, and their sisters — Isabelle Schaber, 11, and Caroline Schaber, 9 — don’t participate in the hunting, but they don’t mind it, either. A wooden placard hanging on the kitchen wall says, simply, “When I die, bury me in the woods so my husband will hunt for me.”
Tyler, a junior at Crawford County High School, has a square jaw, thick forearms and, since April 2012, a wheelchair. On March 30 of last year, he and six friends were coming home in a minivan from a spring break trip to Florida. He sat in the middle of the back seat. At a stoplight near Huntsville, Ala., a box truck rear-ended them. The sudden impact caused a burst fracture in Tyler’s L1 vertebra, near the bottom of his rib cage. No one else was seriously injured.
He was rushed to Huntsville Hospital, where he spent 13 days as doctors fused four of his vertebrae together. He was then taken by ambulance to the Frazier Rehab Institute in Louisville. He was there for three weeks, undergoing physical therapy for as much as six hours every day.
The accident took away most of the use of his legs. He still can stand on them, and he can drive a car with modified hand controls.
He was released from Frazier on May 1, in the middle of turkey season. His desire to hunt was as strong as ever and he was hunting within the week.
Jenny and Billy hired a construction crew to build a first-floor addition, off of the kitchen, to house Tyler’s new bedroom and bathroom. Until it was finished, Tyler spent most nights on the couch.
Among the challenges Tyler faced, a lack of support was not one of them. To his parents and siblings, he was the same son and brother they had always had. Nothing changed, he said, between him and his girlfriend, Forest Park sophomore Hailei Gehlhausen, whom he started dating a little more than a year before the accident.
Perhaps the hardest change was the absence of sports. In his freshman and sophomore years, Tyler was the starting junior varsity quarterback and backup varsity quarterback at Crawford County. He had been preparing to spend the fall of his junior year as the school’s starting varsity quarterback.
That was no longer an option.
He has continued to hunt, even though it’s more difficult.
“Everything’s twice as hard,” Billy said.
After the accident, Tyler would take a four-wheeler out on his own and hunt small game. Once, in the rain, he shot a squirrel but did not see where it landed. He left the four-wheeler and spent 30 minutes crawling through the mud trying to find it. He never did, and returned home caked in dirt.
Some types of hunting, like setting traps and taking dogs out to hunt raccoons, demand a certain amount of mobility over dense forest terrain. Other types, like deer and turkey hunting, require stillness, and patience.
Tyler can hunt turkey, deer and small game, and he does so as often as he used to. While bowhunting in Ohio in September, he felled an eight-point, 185-pound buck. A newspaper clipping about it hangs on the fridge.
In December, he went deer hunting in the forest near his home, with Billy and Jason Bayer, 36, a family friend who lives in Ferdinand. After Billy and Jason parked their trucks, Tyler wrapped his arms around Jason’s neck. Jason, grunting softly, carried him piggyback up a hill. On a particularly steep incline, Jason stumbled. Billy reached out his hand and pulled him up the last few feet.
They arrived at a spot that overlooked the valley and had a clear line of sight for 100 yards in several directions, the distance from which a .44-caliber rifle can hit a deer.
They cleared the underbrush with their feet and set Tyler up inside a blind.
“Good luck,” Jason said before he and Billy marched off to their location on the other side of the road. “See you at dark.”
The sound of their footsteps crunching over dead leaves faded into the distance. Then it was silent but for nature. Birds chirped. Two squirrels chased each other around a tree. A spider crawled up the blind. Tyler sat motionless, scanning the forest for movement that wasn’t the shimmering of leaves, for the sound of branches under the weight of a buck. Two and a half hours passed. The sun began to set.
In the dusk light, Jason and Billy returned. Billy packed up the blind and Jason carried Tyler back down the hill. They drove home.
On a muddy Saturday in January, Billy, Jason, Tyler, Hunter and Jake went crow hunting. Tyler, wearing camouflage and black face paint, drove the four-wheeler ahead of the group, and backed it behind a bush. Hunter planted three decoy crows in a clearing and played a recording of crows cawing. The birds arrived in groups of two and three. Tyler took two shots with his 12-gauge shotgun. He hit the same bird twice, once in midflight and again as it was falling.
“Whoo!” he shouted and pumped his fist in the air. The faintest rain fell from an overcast sky.
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon, Jenny picks up Tyler early from school and they drive to Louisville for physical therapy. On Friday, Feb. 22, Billy comes too.
Rows of specialized exercise machines line Frazier’s ninth-floor therapy gym. Floor-length windows overlook the downtown skyline. For several weeks, Tyler has been trying out a new kind of therapy, which sends a low electric current into his legs as he exercises.
“The idea being that we can try to stimulate his nerves and recover his function,” Cassidy Raibert, Tyler’s lead physical therapist, explains. In the best-case scenario, the therapy would help Tyler one day walk again. They will know whether it’s working in a few months, once he has completed 20 sessions.
Tyler exercises on a stationary bike, with his feet strapped into the pedals and 12 electrodes attached to his legs. Cassidy sits to his right, monitoring his activity on a laptop.
“You can feel his muscle contracting,” she tells Billy, who places his hand on Tyler’s thigh.
After an hour on the bike, Tyler straps on a pair of ankle-foot orthoses, braces to stabilize his legs.
Using forearm crutches, he stands on his own, and practices walking down the hall and opening doors. He places one crutch in front of the other, one foot in front of the other. Cassidy, Tyler, Jenny and Billy walk to an elevator and ride it down to the lobby. Tyler sits down in his wheelchair and wheels himself to the car.
In mid-April, the results from the first round of electric stimulation are ready. They show that the therapy did not cause any noticeable improvement, besides strengthening his right quadriceps.
Tyler decides to continue; he won’t know the results of the second round of treatment until July.
No matter what happens, Tyler says, he will always hunt.
One day during turkey season in May, Tyler and Billy drive out to Patoka Lake. Billy helps Tyler onto the four-wheeler and walks beside him down the trail. Along the way, Tyler blows a turkey whistle.
They spot a turkey dropping on the path. Billy unfolds the blind and props up a plastic hen decoy several yards away. He pulls the blind over Tyler and himself, and sits down next to his son.
They settle into their chairs and begin to listen to the sounds of nature. They scan the horizon, and they wait.
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