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Note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., which took 27 lives. 

I wrote this column when I was executive editor at the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. It appeared in the paper on Dec. 27, 2012.

Weeks before the mass murders made Newtown, Conn., a household name, we had planned to spend Christmas Day with a friend there.

She had recently finished months of chemotherapy and radiation and we thought it a good idea to visit. Then the shootings happened and suddenly our plans to go to Connecticut took on a different meaning.

The visit became more of a mission trip: I had a calling to do something since we would be within five minutes of Sandy Hook.

My wife, son Daniel and I brought the makings of a hearty kale soup, dessert and pick-ons and spent a relaxing, affable afternoon with our friend and her cat, Joey.

I had packed a small tin of homemade cookies that I had decided I would give to whatever poor flatfoot had to work sentry duty on Christmas Day in downtown Sandy Hook.

Against the enormity of what had happened there, this would be the merest of gestures. But it felt like a tangible offering that might say something to a stranger for a moment.

After we left our friend’s, we stopped at a makeshift shrine/memorial housed in a large white tent off I-84’s Exit 10.

Just across from the Newtown Diner, the memorial was unmistakably marked by a huge American flag hanging from a bucket truck.

Meg opted to stay in the car with Dan.

I went in. I was tentative.

A friendly young man wearing an ID tag around his neck assured me it was OK to go in, that it was a place to meditate, to pray or just observe.

Inside, piled high were collections of flowers and stuffed animals. Large white posters were available to sign. A wave of grief struck me with such ferocity, it literally left me breathless.

I signed a card and scanned the displays, my eyes looking but not really seeing.

We then drove into downtown Sandy Hook. There were few Christmas lights in Newtown, but only a mile down the road, we came on an oasis of light.

Candles, notes, stuffed animals, cards and flowers over-filled the width and length of sidewalks of Sandy Hook’s downtown.

I had not seen anything like it or felt anything as powerful since a visit to Ground Zero on Sept. 25, 2001.

Live Christmas music filled the quiet street. A young man, oblivious to the cold, played a piano perched outside a storefront.

It was a scene both surreal and comforting.

And there they were: Two cops bundled against the cold wearing reflective vests, keeping an eye on traffic and visitors.

Overwhelmed, Meg opted again to stay in the car. To my admiration, my 14-year-old son flanked me, carrying the tin of cookies, as we approached the cops.

I tried to talk but, overcome by emotion, my voice cracked like a boy going through puberty.

They at first demurred when we offered the cookies, but when we said we had come from Pennsylvania, one of their faces lit up.

Where in Pennsylvania, one asked. The Poconos. Oh, he said, beautiful country. I ran a marathon there this summer and golfed there.

They graciously accepted our humble offerings, his partner taking the tin to a nearby patrol car.

Taking off his glove, the Pocono marathoner offered a warm handshake and wished us a Merry Christmas.

Maybe those cops were not exactly the shepherds tending their flock, and we were not exactly the three kings bringing gifts, but in the overwhelming darkness that had befallen us all, Sandy Hook on Christmas night offered me a glimmer of light and the promise of hope.

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A-Hunting I Will Go…

I am invisible.

You cannot see me.

You cannot smell me.

And, apart from my growling stomach, you cannot hear me.

I am dressed in camouflage, covered in scent-killing spray, perched about 17 feet off the ground in a tree stand near the Delaware State Forest in the Poconos woods of Pennsylvania.

It’s late October and my guide to all things deer hunting is Mike Kuhns, sports editor for the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa., and a lifelong sportsman.

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I am an urban urchin who grew up in New York City. My outdoors experiences were limited to visits to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, a few overnight campouts with the Boy Scouts and one memorable camping trip 30 years ago with my About Men Radio crewmates.

I am a mere Padawan to Mike, a Master Jedi of the outdoors.

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On this day, Mike is hunting deer with a compound bow. Me? I am armed with a smartphone and a recorder.

This time of year is the beginning of the “chase” season. It’s the prequel to the full-on, raging-hormone-fueled rut in which male deer will range for miles seeking a one-night stand.

Before we set out, Mike inventories various noise-making devices, including a bundle of sticks in a bag that he rubs between his palms. The noise, which mimics the sound of two bucks banging antlers for territory, is designed to arouse their curiosity and draw them closer.

As Mike outfits me in a camo jacket, he explains that he washes his hunting gear in special fragrant-free detergent. He sprays us, including the bottom of our boots, with a scent-killing spray.

“The key to deer hunting is beating their nose,” he says.

The sounds of our feet kicking through fallen leaves and the sight of our breath, illuminated by our headlamps, are the only things disturbing the predawn stillness of the forest.

We stop and Mike takes out a long cord called a drag rope. At its end are thick strands that he dips into a small bottle of pungent deer estrus.

I drag the rope behind me to mask our scent and leave an inviting, c’mere-big-boy smell for bucks. The aroma of doe pheromone faintly clings to my clothes.

I learn a lot about deer habits from Mike. It’s all very “Wildlife: CSI.”

He points to telltale signs of deer activity that I walked right past: a clearing where bucks scraped away leaves and dirt and urinated to mark their territory or where one rubbed his antlers against a tree, stripping away some of the bark.

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We’re in our perches by 6:22 a.m., a solid hour before sunrise. Although we are above the sight and scent lines of the deer, “it doesn’t mean you can sing and dance up there,” Mike says.

So I try to remain as still as possible. Hunting is not for the fidgety.

I hear the thrum of traffic from nearby Route 402. I also swear that several times I hear the heavy movement of leaves, as if something was approaching, but nothing ever appears in my line of sight.

Mike tells me later that with the way sound travels in the stillness of the woods, a deer or bear a distance away could have been passing through and it would have sounded like it was over my shoulder.

After about three hours of sighting nothing but chipmunks and squirrels, we head back.

But Mike is brimming with enthusiasm about the morning’s outing.

Hunting is not always about the kill, he says. (What he does successfully hunt goes to the butcher. Some he keeps and some he donates to Hunters Sharing the Harvest.)

Hunting is about being out in nature, he says. It’s about the chance to hear owls talking to one another, or seeing a bear or watching a fawn get milk from its mother.

Indeed, the experience is extraordinary.

The stars fade to pinpricks of light as the black sky gives way to a bluish hue and the outlines of the trees become more pronounced.

As I take it all in, I have a deeper appreciation for the grandeur of nature and the wonders of the universe.

Yes, I am invisible as I sit in the tree stand. But watching the changing sky, I am also infinitesimal.

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