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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 me.
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 blind.
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.