Hunting always began with excitement. Not ordinary breath-catching, first-girl, first-love, first-success, first-child, first-time excitement.
Nothing that superficial.
The kind of hunting almost didn’t matter—just the act. To hunt.
It always started in the fall.
Summer was fishing, and then school—God, school, the great bother of it all—trying, trying to fit in, trying to be part of, trying to understand, trying to learn, trying to be accepted, trying to look right, trying to act right, feel right, say right, do right, be right.
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And failing at all, most, all. Grades bad, clothes wrong, never any money, hair that never worked into a flattop or a ducktail—just impossible. To wear wrong clothes and be from the wrong place in town and have the wrong parents and think the wrong thoughts and to feel, to suspect, to know that everyone is looking, pointing, laughing. School.
All summer, fishing, camping, looking for the best places and largest fish. Talking of dreams and some hopes and large brags, and when school started the same boys came with the same problems. School became not a place to learn so much as a way to meet, to talk. In the halls between classes, sometimes in class with notes passed back and forth, drawings, maps, all aimed at one point—hunting. To plan hunting. Study hall was perfect. Whole notebooks could be moved back and forth while the football coach who monitored study hall stared out the window or at the ceiling or dozed. Physical education was the same. Everybody had to run but it was easy to hide in back of the bleachers outside or in the gym and talk, sometimes sneaking drags on forbidden cigarettes while plans were made.
Planning was perhaps the most important thing, a constant. During school but also afterwards on the walk home or at night while setting pins in the bowling alley or selling newspapers or hiding from parents—always there was planning.
The plans varied with the kind of hunting contemplated but were still everything; where to go, what kind of equipment, expected game, how to find the game, how to bring the game home, how to prepare the game; and it was always “the game,” ever since one boy read the phrase in Sports Afield. Plans allowed the excitement to live, to continue, even when it wasn’t possible to hunt, but even planning didn’t change one other constant.
In the fall, toward the end of September, the first hunt was always grouse.
Ruffed grouse, sometimes erroneously called partridge, also fool hens, spruce hens—it didn’t matter.
They were the first.
The state picked a day when grouse season opened, a day late in September when it was legal to go into the woods after them, but it didn’t ever mean anything.
There was another day that counted more.
Summer died hard, hanging on with hot muggy days that never seemed to end, hung on well into September. Gardens came into full ripening, and the boys would “go gardening”—work around town in late August nights from one backyard garden to the next with a salt shaker to use on vine-ripened tomatoes eaten fresh from the plants, tomatoes that tasted of summer and earth and dust and night all at once, tomatoes to bite hard and make the juice run down the chin, to eat until it was hard to walk.
Summer died hard, with high-moon nights in the playgrounds, swinging and teasing Sharon or Darlene or Mary, pushing them higher and higher on the swings until they shone in the moon all pigtails and legs and teeth and laughter.
Summer died hard, going to the fair to play the draglines and pitch nickels onto saucers to get the big stuffed toys that never came, never came, or to pay the small start money at the hootchy-kootchy tent where the woman danced for half a dollar on a wooden platform outside and a dollar inside, except that the boys were said to be too young to be inside, the boys who would hunt. Luckily there were holes in the canvas that could be enlarged only a little with a pocketknife, and the inside was lighted with a large bulb hanging in the middle that made it easy to see all the parts of the dance until Sonny Burton pushed too hard and the bouncer inside saw the canvas bulge and came out to chase us away.
Summer died hard, setting pins at the bowling alley where the pits were so hot Kyle Nova passed out, and a man who had too much beer threw the ball anyway and the boys thought it killed Kyle. The man had to leave when all the pinsetters came out of the pits and started throwing pins at him even though Kyle wasn’t killed but only had a broken finger. The boys set his alley for him for three weeks until he could work again while he sat up in the open back window above the pits and talked about going all the way with Clair Severson who had big ones, which the boys found later was a lie but it didn’t matter because it was a good story anyway and got better when Clair found out about it and hit Kyle with a bicycle, a whole bicycle, and like to killed him.
Summer died hard when people sat on their porches of an evening under yellow light and listened to the moths hitting the bulb and drank basement beer out of quart jars and talked of working at the grain elevator or hatchery until the young ones were asleep in the porch swing and had to be carried in and put to bed without awakening.
Summer died hard.
But it happened in one night. Somebody would reach for a tomato or flip a cigarette out the back window of the bowling alley between balls and it would be there.
The cool. The fall cool. A corner of a touch of cool air, a chill on the back of the hand, a puff of breath that showed, a kiss on the temple from the north, from all the way north where it is always cool.
Fall had come.
And there is nothing else then—nothing else but hunting grouse.
But first the excitement, and the excitement begins with equipment.
The boys who hunted, the orphans of the woods, did not have money, and so many of the ways to hunt now were not available to them. Auto-loading shotguns, super-trained dogs, cars, special coats, vests to hold shells or birds, boots—all of that was not available then.
Choices had to be made. A new pair of boots cost close to six dollars, half a week’s wages setting pins and selling papers to the drunks in the bars along the river. A box of .22 long-rifle cartridges was thirty cents. A pair of boots was the same as twenty boxes of long rifles. Twenty boxes at fifty shells a box was a thousand rounds, and a boy without money could hunt an entire fall and winter on a thousand rounds; shoot cans and grouse and rabbits and hunt until spring and use any other money for school clothes or food or a book, sometimes a book. On hunting or fishing or the woods.
We had to use what equipment we could get. Most had a cheap single-shot .22 rifle. New they could be bought for eleven dollars and ninety-five cents, but it was always possible to find a used one in somebody’s garage or hanging on a nail on a back porch for two or three dollars. Work guns. Kill-the-steer-for-slaughter guns. Guns for shooting the skunk in the henhouse, the weasel in the coop, the stray cat with the duckling, the rats killing baby rabbits—utility guns for everything from rabid dogs to a needed deer. They were not necessarily good rifles. A rough maple or even pine stock and a stamped metal trigger; hard to load, with a knob that had to be pulled back to cock the rifle when it was time to fire, and a safety so crude that it practically ensured accidental discharge. First gun—no, second gun. First was a Daisy Red Ryder lever-action BB gun with the leather thong on the side, but the first real gun, the first rifle, was the .22 single-shot. And the feeling that came with the rifle; the knowing that came with it, the way of it to go back and forward in time. To go back until it was the same rifle as the Minutemen held at Concord, the same as the flintlocks used to hunt when hunting was all, and to go forward from the .22 and the boy until he was a man standing in a rank in the hot Colorado sun with other men who were once boys while a sergeant slammed an M1 .30 caliber air-cooled semiautomatic shoulder weapon into his hands and told him how it would be to kill another man with such a weapon—the same rifle. The same boy. The same man.
For the boys it was also usually the only gun. Everything else was too expensive. Some boys had even older rifles, antique rolling-block Stevens .22 rifles with an external hammer. They were loaded by dropping a small block and (usually) picking the fired cartridge case out the rear with a pocketknife; rifles that spit back every time they were fired, and left pits of powder in the eye that lasted until the boys were men, and then old men, who would be bankers or write books.
One boy had a J. C. Higgins model .410 single-shot break-open shotgun that his father had won in a raffle. He was the envy of all with the new gun but the shells were fantastically expensive—a dollar eighty a box for only twenty-five shells—and when he shot something it was full of BB shot that had to be spit out when you ate the meat. Still, the gun was a thing of beauty and easy to load and shoot, and even the boys who sneered at it and talked of spitting BBs and how it didn’t take skill to shoot things with it, even those who knew it all and could speak with the corner of the mouth lifted, secretly wanted such a gun, such a new gun to hunt with.
One boy had a Mossberg .22 semiautomatic rifle that would take sixteen rounds in a tube in the stock and had a covered front sight and a molded strip in the handgrip with places for the fingers. It was an elegant rifle—everybody agreed—and had been designed during the Second World War to teach shooting to soldiers, which gave it extra mystique. But it weighed a great deal and everybody thought it made the owner a bad shot because if he missed with the first there was the second and if he missed with the second there was the third and on and on until he had spit out sixteen shells and missed with them all. With the single-shot there was a tendency to wait just that half a second to ensure a clear hit, and generally the waiting made the owner a better shot. That was, at least, the expressed feeling among the boys who could not own the better rifle and had to stick with the single-shots because of bad luck or lack of money.
Whatever the gun, the first cool night in September, when there would be frost on the edges of leaves in the morning, the night before the first hunting morning, the world changed.
It was not slow, this change—and in some ways it was inside the boys. Summer died that night and the knowledge that there would be grouse hunting the next morning changed everything, changed the whole world.
Suddenly everything that had lain dormant all summer, every little thing about fall and hunting, became important.
During the day in school fall stories from the year before are taken up where they were left off the previous autumn. This grouse that was taken, that grouse that got away, six, eight shots and all misses, one impossible shot and the grouse fell. Notes are passed talking about the forty-acre stand of poplar and pine four miles south of town and how it must be full of grouse because it has been left alone all summer, how there must be fifteen, twenty, fifty, a hundred grouse in there, hiding in there, just waiting to be taken. Notes passed and taken on the state of equipment. This rifle is that good, this sight is knocked loose and needs to be checked—endless talks, notes about shells, triggers, guns, bullets.
And the day crawls, doesn’t crawl, stops right in the middle of study hall. The large white clock on the wall with the big numbers and the second hand that normally moves—slowly, but moves—stops dead.
Somebody has to drop a notebook on the floor or cough or fart to relieve the tension and get the clock moving again. The clock drags itself around, staggering toward the end of the day and still it isn’t over, still it doesn’t hurry.
At home, hidden from prying eyes, is the equipment for hunting. It is there, waiting, but there is another variable to handle first—parents. Parents who may have other plans for the next day like school or chores; or worse, parents who drink and say no to all things, no matter what is asked.
It is better to hide from them and wait while the day grinds along until they are so drunk it is safe to go home, to go inside and prepare for the next day.
Sleep is impossible.
The gun is checked, rechecked, the boots oiled with Crisco, bullets wiped and tied into the sock that holds them, then it is untied and they are rechecked again, three, four more times, and the clock next to the bunk, the old brass clock with the hammer that gongs back and forth between two bells, is still sitting on nine o’clock. Like the school clock it doesn’t move. The alarm is muted with bits of cloth so it won’t awaken the parents and no sooner are the eyes closed than they open in worry: Will the alarm be heard when it goes off? If it goes off? What if it goes off at the wrong time and it is too late to meet the boys down by the hatchery and they go alone and the first day of hunting is ruined because it will be necessary to hunt alone and it is hard to hunt alone?
What if that?
Sleep comes. At last it comes, but it is not deep, and it is not dreamless sleep. The mind works all the time sleep is tried, and it keeps waiting for the bell on the alarm. Waiting so hard that in ten minutes it awakens, forces eyes to open, forces muscles to contract, forces the body to sit up, look at the alarm.
Ten minutes have passed. That’s all.
Sleep comes again.
Ten more minutes.
And so the night goes—bouncing from ten-minute sleep to ten-minute sleep until at last deep sleep comes, deep drooling-out-the-corner-of-the-mouth sleep; so deep that it is not possible to hear the alarm when it goes off and were it not for one of the boys stopping by and tapping on the window, opening day would be lost. But Jimmy comes by on his way and throws small rocks at the window and wakens the sleeper, ends the deep sleep.
Pitch dark. Black. So dark and black that it seems incredible that day could ever come. Quietly down the hallway past the parents’ door lest they awaken, to open the back door and let Jimmy in. Quieter still, a frying pan on the stove, not scraping or clanging because, God, if they awaken they’ll ruin it all, ruin everything for the rest of life if they come out because of kitchen noise. Jimmy sitting in the corner, leaning his head against the wall with an impatient look on his face because he was on time, he was able to get up early, he had his gear and food all ready, and it was important, it was everything, to get out of town and into the woods while it was still dark, to not waste a moment of daylight non-hunting. A little lard in the pan and four eggs from the icebox, no, five eggs to fry until they are burned on the outside edges, burned and crisp and crackling with the yolks and parts of the whites still runny. Pepper dusted over them, and salt, three eggs eaten out of the pan with pieces of bread to soak up the grease and yolk while Jimmy sits in the corner glaring, angry; no talk, not even whispers, just sitting there, fuming. Two more eggs folded into bread and wrapped in wax paper and tucked into a paper sack and rolled into a jacket pocket for later.
Then gear, boots on, jacket, hat, shells—make certain of shells, check the shells twice, three times—rifle, gloves.
It is still dark, almost pitch—Jimmy needn’t have brewed up—and there is new frost, first frost lining the edges of trees and grass, the tops of propane tanks.
Air catches on the sides of the nostrils, cold, crisp, no smells—clean air—and for a moment the boys stop and listen to the town, pull the air in and listen, looking at the dark sky and the glow from the town lights.
Down Fifth Street four blocks to the railroad, walking easily, rifles over shoulders not loaded, not loaded until the woods.
Across the tracks, then turn and move with them, talking in low sounds, breath “whuffing” out in front of faces, sting of cold on cheeks, the sandwiches still warm in the jacket pocket, warm against the side, and Jimmy speaking of a hunt before, last year, year before, talking about working along the river and catching mallards, something about ducks but not all clear … fuzzy words in the dark morning.
Past the coal tower where they used to store coal to fill the steam-fired locomotives, looming up like a monster in the dark, a roosting place for pigeons to be hunted later, not with guns but with slingshots using marbles, hunted in the dark and coal dust, to come home flat black except for eyes and loaded with pigeons for pies and roasting.
Then to the hatchery, where three other boys are waiting, Harvey’s face glowing as he smokes an Old Gold corktip—he is the only one to smoke steady yet, though all will try it because all agree it makes Harvey look older—and the boys set off walking in single file.
Off the tracks, walking faster now because there is grayness in the east—not light yet, just not as dark, but dawn will come fast when it comes, and light in town is wasted; light anywhere but in the woods is wasted.
Three blocks to the Fourth Street bridge, over the river with ice along the edges where the water is still. A muskrat slides off a log into the water with a soft splash. Across and then left, past a cornfield, another, then along half a mile of dirt road. Well out of town now, but still another half a mile to the woods. The first stand of woods. Walking silently now. To talk is to scare the game. One foot flat in front of the other, just walking, moving through the early morning.
Still not light but definitely gray now and the edges of things starting to show; bushes, trees, the side of the road. Frost-rimmed and colder now, just before dawn, the coldest time of the day; breath comes in spurts, and Jimmy whispers there is a hunting moon, which seems dumb because there is no moon at all but maybe that’s what he means.
Finally to the woods, the first hunting woods.
It is a stand of hazel brush and poplar, fifth, sixth growth—maybe tenth. Nobody knows. It has been logged for paper and trash wood so many times it is little more than a thick bramble covering forty or so acres. There are swamps and some balsam here and there and deer and rabbits and, of course, grouse.
The boys stop there, wait for a moment: Wayne, who is often quiet and shoots well but doesn’t brag; Sonny, who shoots well but does brag and lies, so nobody listens to him; and Harvey, who as far as anybody can remember has never hit a single animal that he has aimed at in his entire life though he has a good semiautomatic rifle and seems to spray bullets every time he sees a grouse or rabbit; and Bennie and Sam. We wear hand-me-downs. Old coats, old boots—none can afford good, new equipment—shells carried in pockets, army surplus ammo belts. Two boys wear sheepskin flight helmets though the day will probably be warm and they will swelter in them. Runny noses, half of us sniffling, hawking, spitting. Nods, greetings, hushed teases: “… I see Jimmy got your ass up” and “… spend all night pulling your pud?”
More plans are made. Plans must be made. Not original hunting plans. They were done in school, at the bowling alley in the pits, walking home from school, hiding from drunken parents in basements.
But immediate plans. Field plans.
How to hunt the woods.
It is always the same. Every year. Two boys with good weapons on either end to catch the animals that try to go around the sweep-through. The same two boys. Harvey with the semiautomatic who has never hit anything on one end, and Bennie with the single-shot four-ten on the other end because he dreams of getting a good wing shot on a flying grouse, and everybody has at least once had to duck because Bennie tracked on a grouse and let go without thinking where he was aiming. Two boys have pits from the shot that went through coats and sweaters and made it into skin. With him working the right end of the sweep, only those on his left will have to worry when a bird gets up. Sam claims to hold the record at dropping—hitting the ground flat in the split second between the time Bennie cocks the four-ten and actually pulls the trigger—but others swear to have actually ducked the shot, dropped between the moment when he fires and the one when the shot arrives. It doesn’t matter who is on the end really, because no animals ever try to get around them. It is a myth, but still it is part of the hunting plan in the early morning just before the hunt starts and must every year be discussed.
This boy on the left, this one next, this one next, everybody moving as quietly as possible, no yelling or other loud noises, lined up on the dirt road along the edge of the woods, bolts pulled back, .22 long rifle loaded, bolts in, safety on, barrel up, ready.
And it is still too dark to hunt.
So it is, standing, waiting to move, too far from the next boy to talk, watching the sun slide with agonizing slowness up over the woods to show first individual trees, then limbs, and, finally, leaves and small branches; to stand and wait, half asleep, numb with sleep, waiting for the light. To wait, to stand and wait, and try to make things happen, and they will not happen.
To hunt grouse.