Lancaster County hunter loses eye, gets ‘redemption’ buck

By AD CRABLE

MILLERSVILLE, Pa. (AP) — A split-second poor decision and a literal blink of an eye was all that it took last Thanksgiving for the scope of a high-powered rifle to take half of Dave Charles’ sight.

The harrowing accident briefly sent the longtime hunter from Millersville into despair and he feared the loss of his right eye might mean the end to his days afield, something he could not bear to fathom.

But, along the way, the journey has been about adjustment rather than giving up a passion. And, most of all, it’s given Charles a lesson in perspective.

Charles, 56, started hunting pheasants and rabbits when he was 16. He credits those days of tromping through the fields to instilling a deep love of the outdoors.

“The mountains are in my blood. It’s a huge stress reliever for me. Like the saying goes, ‘The mountains are calling me and I’ve got to go.’ I’ve used that many times,” he says.

As the co-owner of D&R Charles Construction and founder of Charles & Associates Real Estate, Charles comes in contact with youths he hires.

Through the years, he has introduced about 10 of them to hunting and takes them on hunts on his 100-acre farm near Millersville and a large property he owns near Lock Haven in Clinton County.

In addition to teaching them about woodsmanship and the way of the whitetail, he emphasizes making a clean kill shot and gun safety.

“Dave is the safest person I know,” says his wife, Lynda, who grew up in Potter County and hunted herself.

During last year’s archery season, Charles was bothered that he had hit a bear in Clinton County that was not recovered. Determined to make a clean kill the next time, for the gun bear season Charles took his Weatherby .378-caliber rifle that he had used to kill a Kodiak grizzly bear in Alaska. It has three times the kick of a typical rifle used to hunt deer in Pennsylvania.

At daylight on the rainy opener, Charles caught sight of a bear running. He leaned out the ground blind and tried, but couldn’t pick it up in his scope.

“The last thing I remember,” Charles says, “is I was adjusting my head which was sitting too high on the scope. I made a mistake and made a split-second decision to adjust my head downward and pulled the trigger.

“I did what I tell everyone not to do. That’s how accidents happen, you just make that one mistake even though you have done it 1,000 times.”

The massive recoil from the rifle not held squarely sent the corner of the scope smashing directly into his eye.

“I instantly knew that I lost my eye,” he says. He stayed long enough to embrace another hunter who shot the bear and headed for a hospital in Williamsport.

Charles called his wife, who assumed he must have bagged his quarry to be calling so early in the morning.

“My gosh, you must have gotten a bear.”

“I think I’ve lost my eye,” came the reply.

Ten days later, a surgeon completely removed Charles’ eye.

Charles was hard on himself for the mistake he made. But he’s not one to wallow in self-pity. He moved on, learning to shoot his guns left handed.

He received pep talks by others who had limited eyesight. Your body will adjust, they said. They were right.

Charles’ determination didn’t surprise longtime hunting buddy Alexander Bradbury of Conshohocken. “I know that he loves hunting and I know that if he could, he would figure out a way to continue doing it.”

Charles is now fully adjusted with an artificial, realistic eye that is indistinguishable from his other green eye.

Something else happened shortly after his accident that put his misfortune in clearer perspective. Within 24 hours of his mishap, Charles learned that a close hunting buddy had died of cancer.

“My friend’s family didn’t have their dad that Christmas. For me, it was like, wow, it’s just my eye.”

Says his wife, “Through it all I’m just so proud of his strength from the very beginning. Through the pain and emotions Dave said, ‘God blessed me with sight in both eyes for 55 years. I can’t complain.