If you are an animal-rights activist or if blood and guts and gore are not your thing, don’t read this. It’s a hunting story and gets about as bad as it gets when you have men and guns and the men with the guns have a savage thirst to be predators.
This is one of those male-bonding sagas in which tough men demonstrate their masculinity in the wild, pitting their wits and strength against nature and its beasts.
These beasts are a tiny bird – a woodcock – and a larger, highly deceptive fowl – a ruffed grouse. What they lack in threatening ferocity they make up for in speed, stealth and the ability to hide until they are practically stepped on, when, in turn, they scare the poor hunter half to death with a noisy and startling ascent.
In this case we hunt birds in the Northeast at fall foliage time. My party always includes a Texan or two.
We show up each year to show off our new outdoor catalog purchases. We have tin cloth coats so durable a bullet can’t penetrate their surfaces, boots sturdy and waterproof but light enough to perform a pas de deux, bird dogs whose education has cost us more than school for our children.
As I said, this is real back-to-nature stuff.
I’ve been reminiscing about a hunt 20 years ago. It’s a reminder to take time from busy schedules to do things we truly love and to be with friends. In this case all three of us almost canceled the trip. We had the time of our lives and now my friends have died, which makes the memory and gratefulness all the more special.
One was my longest best friend in life. I had given him a bird dog for Christmas, and his wife immediately stopped speaking to both of us. She later broke down and met us halfway. She spoke to me.
Meanwhile, my friend and the dog had bonded in an almost inseparable way. They even went to work together and, thank goodness, had each other to talk to on cold winter evenings.
Sometimes a match made at the kennel is more heaven-like than one consecrated at the altar.
The dog’s name is Jake, and the friend’s name was Flip Hamblet. The other hunter was Larry G. Smith from Waco by way of a South Dakota Indian reservation. Both were well over 6’ 5” and rugged. Men of the outdoors – or so I thought.
Here’s the way our three days of carnage unfolded:
The talk on day one around the hearth at the fieldstone fireplace on our first night together centered mostly on Flip and Jake. We agreed the previous year had not yielded many dead birds. We agreed we would have shot more if time had not been spent trying to find Flip, who was always running through the woods trying to find Jake.
Day two was a non-hunting day because it was Sunday, and the law prohibits it in the state we were in. My two burly partners’ desire to fight thick woods and shoot things became suspect when they ordered a dainty breakfast, eggs Florentine and decaf coffee. They added a croissant or two, ordering with a faux French accent.
Day three we didn’t step into the field until 11:30 a.m. – late by four hours. The boys were already discussing lunch when Jake locked on point. A woodcock flushed and we nailed it. Then something strange happened.
My partners walked from the woods to an open meadow. Both dropped to their backs, put their hands behind their heads and stared skyward, basking in the glorious sunshine, the multi-colored leaves on the trees fluttering and twirling like a kaleidoscope.
While they napped, a ruffed grouse burst from the woods and flew over to watch these hunters nap in the middle of a field.
On the way home, I received my next-biggest shock. They wanted to stop at a gourmet shop to pick up bread, cheeses, wines and – get this – a pâté.
“I’ve never seen hunters stock these kinds of provisions,” said the cashier in the understatement of the week. It was a fancy food store, but old, with warped wooden floors. I spat some tobacco juice just to, well, just to show her who she was dealing with.
That night began with martinis. We dined on steamed clams and lobster, the evening moving at a gentle pace. We were beginning to talk about hunting again when suddenly the group began worrying about the Chardonnay supply.
Day four we altered Jake’s conditioning regimen by cutting back to one hour of hunting. The excitement of this hunt, the adrenaline flow, was really getting to me.
Day five we had given up all pretense of hunting and spent the day decorating the farmhouse owned by one of the men. We converted the laundry room into a gun room with a fancy cabinet. Then things just started happening in a flurry of spontaneous domesticity.
We dusted and swept. We hung and rehung pictures. One guy did the laundry and folded it. The dog never saw the outside of the kitchen.
We ran to the store to pick up a few incidentals for more decorating when I had my most humiliating hunting experience. We were checking out of a store with 20 boxes of shotgun shells. We were wearing blaze orange hats and looking, I thought, quite deadly.
“Excuse me, sir,” said the cashier as our goods rolled along the conveyor line, “these aren’t yours, are they?” She was pointing to four bouquets of flowers bought to spruce up the old farmhouse.
“Not many of our hunters buy shells and flowers, at least not on the same day,” she said, smiling.
I wished I could have thought of a clever retort such as, “Well, yes, the flowers are ours. We send them to the families of birds we shoot.”
Things improved. We found a replacement for the Chardonnay and the gourmet shop had just baked some French bread, warm and crunchy.
The last night of the hunt we dined out at a restaurant serving the most marvelous oysters on the half-shell. Simply elegant.
Like I said, if you don’t like blood and guts and gory hunting stories, you didn’t like this one.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org