For as long as Thomas Mech can remember, the Saturday after Thanksgiving was reserved for hunting. As a boy growing up in Dundalk, Mech recalled how his father and some of his neighbors would drive down to the Eastern Shore and up to Cumberland or Frederick.
"They would fight to see who could get off that week," Mech recalled.
When he was 13, Mech finally got to join them.
"It's a Maryland tradition," Mech said. "It's in my blood."
That tradition might have ended, or at least been significantly altered, for Mech earlier this month. On Dec. 3, Mech accidentally shot himself above his left knee after coming down from a tree stand on a friend's property in Monkton where he and his older brother, Norman, had spent the early morning hunting.
Mech, 53, was taken by a medical helicopter to University of Maryland Shock Trauma in Baltimore, where he spent 11 days while undergoing a series of surgeries to help save and later stabilize the leg. Mech returned home to Dundalk on Wednesday but still has more surgery ahead and expects to be in rehabilitation from six months to a year.
The accident has given Mech a new perspective on his lifelong passion and has made him conflicted about hunting in the future.
Although he doesn't know whether he will continue to shoot black powder with a muzzleloader, which he considers "an art," as well as hunt with a long bow or compound bow, Mech said he might have used a shotgun for the last time.
"I always believed that as long as I made a good clean kill, they [the deer and other animals he has shot] didn't suffer," Mech said, sitting up in his hospital bed Monday afternoon for the first time since the accident. "I believe now they do suffer. They feel what I felt. The difference is that I got picked up and taken to the hospital."
But Mech said much of the suffering is the result of inexperienced or less skilled hunters — in particular a new breed of crossbow hunters — who are not as exact in their shots.
"That deer is going to suffer," he said. "I don't want to see any animal suffer ever. Just because we want to harvest them, we don't want them to suffer."
Mech said that even before the accident, he has differed a little with some of his friends about hunting deer. While he, like other hunters, love the taste of venison, and value its economic and health benefits compared with buying fattier, more expensive meats in the supermarket, he has always appreciated the aesthetic nature of the sport and the creatures he hunts.
"They're so pretty, too pretty to shoot some days," he said. "I don't go out just to kill something. I get people who call me and asked what I did [in terms of shooting]. I said, 'There was a beautiful sunrise this morning.' It's not about killing something. One day I let seven does in a row walk right past me and every one would stop, look me in the eye and keep right on going. And afterward I felt good."
The feeling would not always last.
"The next day I would go out and drop another doe," he said.
How does he quickly go from one emotion to the other?
"Meat," he said. "They taste good."
Mech's fiancee, Roxane Winters, said that she, too, is conflicted about his hunting again, especially with a shotgun.
"He does get a lot of enjoyment out of it, and he is able to provide food when times are tough economically," Winters said. "To see him when he comes home and says, 'I got one' and hear the excitement in his voice, I would miss that. But I guess there are other things he could do outdoors like skeet-shoot or fish. Someday he'd have to give it [hunting] up anyway."
If the incident earlier this month is the last time he goes hunting with a shotgun, the details remain etched with a permanent marker.
The night before, Mech and his brother had gone to the friend's 30-acre property in Monkton to scope out the activity in the woods and and set up the tree stand. "I saw a deer, but it wasn't a safe shot so I didn't take it," Mech said.
The next morning, they went out about 5 a.m. After little or no activity, Mech had decided by 8:30 that he had been in the stand long enough. His back — the one that developed five degenerative disks after spending 30 years as an auto mechanic in Columbia — was burning.
Mech said he had been out there mostly to keep his brother company, in case of an accident.
He put aside the Mossberg 500 12-gauge shotgun that belonged to his son, put on the safety and climbed down the stand. He acknowledges now that he didn't follow the proper way to unload a gun in the stand by emptying every shell and letting them fall to the ground before beginning the descent from the tree, then lowering the gun on a rope.
"I don't like chasing shells all over the place, which is one reason, and the owner doesn't like if I lose one in the ground and he has to clean up," Mech said. "I've done it 100 times before. I put the safety on, laid it across the front and climbed down the tree. I can do it very safely, very efficiently, pretty fast. Once I got to the bottom, I reached up and grabbed it to take it off of the stand."
Mech said he held the gun pointing down by the stock and the muzzle. He thinks now that the gun might have been jostled by a loose tree branch. Mech said he wasn't holding it near the trigger, but the next thing he knew, it went off. After the explosion, Mech was on the ground, his left pants leg above the knee ripped to shreds, his leg bleeding profusely.
"I remember everything," Mech said. "It was immense pain. I looked down and saw big chunks of bone and muscle tore up and I yelled for him [his brother]. I reached down in my fanny pack and I took out my hoodie and shoved it in the hole [in his pants leg] and waited for him."
Even later, when a Maryland Natural Resources Police officer asked to see the gun, the safety was still on, Mech said.
"They grabbed it by the trigger and it went 'Click,' " Mech said, referring to the fact that the gun went off again without any bullets in it.
But according to Sgt. Art Windemuth, media relations manager for the Maryland Natural Resources Police, an investigation into the incident showed that Mech had not followed the proper procedure for exiting a tree stand and that there was no malfunction involving the safety.
Investigators also wrote that Mech told them he had gone down to relieve himself and was headed back up the tree stand when the gun went off.
"If they follow the procedure, the chance of an accident is very low," Windemuth said. "Even if there are dangers with hunting, it is one of the safest activities. It's safer than a lot of other sports [and] activities."
Windemuth said that after a mandatory hunting safety class was instituted by the state in 1977, accidents dropped dramatically from "about 50 to 60 a year, with around four to six fatalities" to around a dozen accidents with fatalities being extremely rare.
According to Windemuth, of the 22 hunting accidents this year, 18 have involved tree stands and four have involved a hunter discharging his weapon. Three accidents, including Mech's, involved were self-inflicted wounds.
Through his brother, Norman Mech declined to comment for this article.
This wasn't the first time that Mech had problems with the Mossberg 500 shotgun. About 15 years ago, a similar problem with the safety occurred when he was hunting on a friend's farm near Mount Carmel. That time he was fortunate, but he said the incident shook him up enough to go back and take a hunter safety class again to make sure he was doing things correctly.
"There might be a problem with that gun, with the way it's manufactured, that's causing that to happen because it's not the first time it's happened," Mech said. "I've used that gun this year without any problem. I've taken it to the range and shot it."
"The odds of a weapon malfunctioning like that are low, but the odds of the same thing happening twice with the same type of weapon are remote," he said. "It might indicate someone not following the safety procedure."
Initially concerned he was going to lose his leg, Mech said some of his fears were allayed when he heard he was going to be transported to Shock Trauma. He recalled how when he worked as an auto mechanic in Columbia years ago, a co-worker had been taken there with life-threatening injuries after an explosion in the shop.
"I knew this place would save my leg," he said.
Mech said doctors are treating the area around the knee with intravenous medication to regenerate the cartilage with hopes that physical therapy will help turn it into muscle and allow the knee to bend properly so he can use the leg "to make it all work again." Mech said he is lucky the bullet missed his femoral artery in the upper thigh.
"I could have bled out in three minutes," he said.
In other words, he could have been like deer he and others have killed in the four decades since he began hunting. But the incident earlier this month might have changed Mech's attitudes about hunting, especially when using a shotgun.
"I'm not rushing to get back into the woods," he said.