The farmer behind the cue ball in the bar along Kansas' Route 36 said that there were just as many pheasants as last year. Then he made a good shot on the three-ball but scratched. He was young, perhaps 24 or 25, with blond hair almost down to his shoulders. He wore overalls and a pinstriped railroad shirt and looked like the prototype of 10,000 Mother Earth hippie farmers, except that he was real. He had been out of Kansas only once, to Denver. The farm ties you down a lot, he explained.
It was 9 p.m. Friday, the night before the opening of pheasant season. John and I had just driven into Kansas from Denver. We were stiff and thirsty from five hours in the truck and curious about who would be in a Route 36 Kansas bar, 10 miles from a town.
Another farmer took the cue ball from the scratch hole and lined up on a ball in front of a side pocket. He was 50 or 60 or 70 years old and had short hair that looked like quack grass cut too close with a power mower. He had taken off his cap and the top half of his forehead was bed-sheet white. The white went all the way around and you could see it through the chopped hair halfway down the back of his head. The rest of his face had been baked into well-tanned furrows by the Kansas sun. He said that there were more birds than last year but that last year had been a poor year. He said it to the cue ball and then ran three or four before missing.
There were six or eight other farmers in the bar, and the bartender, and they were all very friendly and curious about people who drove hundreds of miles to hunt pheasants. They were glad to get some new blood on their table, too. You could sense that there wasn't much else to do in a bar on Route 36. We had two beers, dropped $2 (at 50� a game) and got two invitations to "come on out to the farm and hunt." But there were people waiting for us in Norcatur, 40 miles down the road.
We pulled into Norcatur at 11 in a light drizzle that suggested a duck hunt instead of a pheasant hunt. There were no streetlights, and you could imagine certain of the townsfolk saying that if God hadn't wanted it to get dark He wouldn't have let the sun set.
The town had an eerie science-fiction feeling—a slow drizzle, deserted streets and three or four darkened stores. There were only a few lighted living rooms in the big two-story houses, yellow dimly lit rooms highlighted by the radiant glow of a television set. We drove around west of Main Street until we saw a lighted Coleman lantern hanging from the open side door of a garage.
"This is it," I said to John.
The driveway looked like a parking lot. Half of our hunting party were trying to sleep in the garage. They shared the floor with a shiny black Mercury and a galvanized tub of night crawlers. Some casting rods were stacked in one corner. It was a clean, tidy garage with a rough cement floor. The Lieutenant and Mary slept on foam rubber pads.
We all live in Alaska and for four years now the Lieutenant has taken delight in inviting me over to his cabin for a Christmas dinner of pheasant and quail, shot in Kansas a month earlier. Not that I am such great company but because he knows I haven't shot a pheasant or quail in the seven years I have lived in Alaska. The Lieutenant grew up in Kansas and wasn't about to miss a pheasant opening just because he now lives in Alaska, which was always my excuse. The Christmas dinners were a subtle form of high-pressure salesmanship.
"How was the trip?" the Lieutenant asked.