I am standing in a field on a cold February morning. The sky is gray and there is the smell of gun powder in the air. I’ve been looking forward to this day for a while. A chance to test my reflexes against the wily Ringed Neck Pheasant. Although I have hunted my whole life, this is my first Pheasant Hunt.
So far, this is quite the shindig. My son and I made the hour and a half drive and arrived early. The grassy field around the barn is beginning to fill with pickup trucks. Behind the barn there is a fire ring big enough to park a IH Farmall M model inside. No one can resist the urge to stand close and warm up the hinder parts. Though, with this fire, if you stand too long your hinder parts begin to roast.
Most of these men are strangers to me. Older men with gray hair to match the sky. A few younger men, and by younger, I mean not yet 50. Some of them have their sons with them. Pre-teen boys dressed like smaller replicas of their Dads. Camo pants and boots. Just smaller versions with smooth skin on their faces and sheepish grins peeking out below the brim of their caps. There are a few boys younger still in the same garb. They poke in the fire and run around chasing each other like boys are supposed to do. I smile because I see myself in another place in time.
My early years of being included in the ritual of hunting with grown men was much like this scene in front of me. The sound of dogs eager to get to work. Men who, to me, seemed like they could do anything. They drove old farm trucks and talked about cows and hogs and the best hunting dogs ever to grace this earth. I admired them and at the same time felt awkward to be included in their company.
Hunting has been a father/son rite of passage for as long as I can remember. I wish now that I had been thoughtful enough to take pictures of all those hunting trips. Somewhere in the bowels of a box of 8mm film reels there is footage of my Dad and Uncle Paul bird hunting on our farm. I have one picture of my Uncle Robert and Uncle Clem, my Great-Uncle, standing together, each holding a Beagle pup in one hand. Pipes hanging from their lips. Men connected to their dogs and who lived for a cold day of pushing through briar patches around the edges of the fields and swamps.
So, I stand here with one hand on the grip and the barrel cradled in the bend of my left arm soaking it all in. There are about 30 of us who have shown up to help raise money for a ministry in Carrollton, GA that is orchestrated by a common friend of ours. I like to call him Otis. He puts on this annual shoot because he knows that guys like us are suckers for a good time that includes blasting away at winged fowl. Bring your favorite long barrel and plenty of shells.
Some of these guys are serious game hunters. I can tell by the shoes and the pants and the well-stitched shirts with quilted shoulder pads. Everything about this scene gives “dressed to kill” a whole new meaning. Cabela’s could do a photo shoot with this crowd. $2000 Benelli shotguns from Italy. $500 field jackets from Beretta. I can only hope that the Pheasant don’t mind that I wore my work clothes and boots to this gala. I still wear the same vest for holding shells that I’ve been wearing for 40 years. I just can’t button it any more.
A gentleman walks up behind me. Old men never seem to mind talking to strangers about guns. Especially the old pump action guns.
“Is that a JC Higgin’s you’re holding? 12 gauge modified?”
This was instant kinship. “Yes sir, sure is. My Dad shot this gun for at least 40 years that I know about. Maybe longer. Look here on the barrel. Sears Roebuck and Company. He bought it out of a catalogue. Guess I’ll shoot it for a while yet.”
“Boy oh boy that brings back a lot of memories. I’ve got one of those. Mine’s not in that good of shape, but it’s about the sweetest shooting gun I own.”
“My Dad shot left-handed. The safety is left-handed. That throws me once in a while. He always complained about the shells ejecting across in front of his face, but he never quit using it.”
“Gosh, that’s a sweet gun. You better hold on to that one.”
This is not what I would call a real hunt. I pushed through the hollows of Virginia one time with a buddy of mine Grouse hunting. Hills so steep I questioned my sanity. Birds busting up and flying right at me, so I had to turn and shoot after the fly by. This is not that.
There are 28 stations that circle the field. 28 shooters more or less. A team of men with crates of Pheasant are on top of the knoll in the middle of the field. A canned air horn blows and 8 birds are released one at a time. They cluck and caw as they gain altitude headed for the tree line. Guns blast away. The canned air horn sounds and everybody rotates one station clockwise. Repeat. All in all, about 200 birds were released. It’s kinda like skeet shooting but with the flair of live unpredictable beautiful birds.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this. But I had my son with me. He made some great shots. I drank in the day, sometimes watching him rather than watching for birds. There were several father/son combos on stands around the field. Benelli shotgun guy next to me had his son with him. I eavesdropped on their conversations. His Wirehaired German Griffon working the field and retrieving birds with a soft mouth. Norman Rockwell should be painting this scene.
My buddy Otis is the one who puts this hunt together, but he’s not here today. This year he is lying in a hospital bed over at UAB in Birmingham recovering from surgery. It is killing him not to be here. This shoot is his baby. Circumstances forced him to entrust today to his sons Matt and Jutt. If you’re reading this Otis, you old goat, your boys did you proud. They have seen you at work a thousand times and some of that Howard “way” has rubbed off on them. Sons that follow in their Dad’s steps can make grown men swell with pride.
I’m glad I came. I’m glad to have spent the day with my son. To catch a memory or two. To remember that fathers need to do things with their sons, no matter how old they get. To see that sons still imitate their Dads. And to see two of them do it so well.