I have been bird
hunting since I was 10 years old. I was not much good at it when I was 10, and
20 years of experience have not made me any better. Sometimes, when asked about
the results of my shooting, I am ashamed. Sometimes so ashamed that I lie about
it vividly and recklessly.
I have a
7-year-old pointer. When she was a puppy she was wild, flushing birds far from
the gun. She ran deer and often didn't come home at night at all. My dog has
six hunting seasons under her belt now and, if anything, she is worse than
ever. Her remote barking in the deep forest is the sound of bird hunting to
But this was to
be the year when my dog Molly and I would get it all together. We were starting
out clean. She doesn't blame me, knowing I have worries. And I, who despise
negative reinforcement and the electrical collar, have come to see my dog as a
person as rich in neurosis as Oblomov or, in fact, your reporter himself. Like
me, though, she aims to please.
I always have a
kind of private opening day, simply because my vague orientation as a hunter
keeps me from getting the news. My opening day is liable to be weeks into the
season. This year was no exception. The first hard frost wiped out what was
left of our garden. Last year the horses beat the frost by three weeks, moving
brutally among the tomato vines and oak-leaf lettuce plants with their
pie-plate-size hooves and yellow piano-key teeth. Anyway, the garden was shot.
Jack Frost was in the air and the departure of a long list of summer
houseguests and a long line of sour-mash dead soldiers was enough to send this
sojourner into the field.
There is an
unsuccessful motif that has long threatened to eclipse my hunting life. I feel
it began one late-fall day long ago in a duck blind with my father at the mouth
of the Detroit River. We'd had a good morning's pass shooting. (Those were the
days when blacks, redheads and canvasbacks were not the sort of thing one was
inclined to send to the taxidermist.) It was very cold, and my father kindly
offered to pick up the decoys, with their icy lines, if I would clean up the
While he rowed
around in the blowing sleet, I tidied up. We had a Zenith radio to listen to
the Lions' game and a chaste little briquette fire upon which to smokelessly
prepare various snacks between flights. I put the empty tins and papers in a
neat pile next to the radio to take home. I leaned my 20-gauge in the homeward
corner of the blind next to our limit of ducks. And, just how I shall never
know, I set my father's 12-gauge butt-first in the fire.
Then I went
outside and dawdled. Our blind was on a long, old dike of dredging from the
construction of the Livingstone Channel. It spanned the U.S.-Canadian border.
The inner-sanctum duck gunners in my hometown took licenses in both countries,
owned 100 cedar decoys, a sneak boat and usually a layout boat. The prestige
gun was a Winchester Model 12 with a 30-inch full-choke barrel that was as
close to riflery as shot-gunners ever get. There was a mild kind of disparaging
rivalry between Canadian and American hunters, and not much more fraternization
between the lines than there was in the First World War between the Hun and the
doughboy. We knew in our hearts that Canadians slaughtered ducks on the water,
shot gulls and guzzled weird diuretic ales in their Ontario public houses.
When my father
brought the boat ashore and tilted the Evinrude down against the transom, I
helped him pull the bow up against the granite dredging. He climbed out on the
rocks and went into the blind. Then he came from the blind and asked me why I
had done it. In his hands was his Winchester. Much smoke poured from the wrong
end. The buttstock extended about 2� inches behind the trigger guard.
"I would have
thought," said my father without rancor, "that you could have smelled
the recoil pad burning. It's rubber."
I don't suppose
either of us could have known on that day, there in the driving sleet on the
American frontier, that in some way the most resonant chord of my life as a
hunter had been struck.