"The challenge at Millbrook," he says, "was just to make a better shoot than existed at that time in this country. The challenge here at Newport is to show what can be done with vest-pocket space. At Millbrook I had 350 acres. Here I have 50. Yet with only one-seventh the land area we have been able to produce a shoot that is seven times better. It's all in the planning and design. I'd like to see these vest-pocket shoots all over America, and I'd like to convince people that they do not need vast estates in order to produce superior sport. It just takes a little more planning."
Van Alen personally planned and supervised all the work at Avalon, cutting many of the paths himself. No stand is visible from another or even marginally within range of another's gunshot. This makes for exceptional safety. The birds, as at Separate Farm, are released from a point high above the hunters so that they are in full flight at high altitude before they approach a stand. Most emerge suddenly from behind tall trees, moving fast. The shots are mainly snap shots, often overheads, and there is rarely time to contemplate the action. So tricky and so difficult is the shooting that a substantial resident population of pheasant has been established in the Newport area, all the birds tracing their ancestry directly to Avalon. Van Alen supervises every phase of the operation much as a hen pheasant monitors its brood. Long before the first guns have arrived or breakfast has been served, he is out with his gamekeepers, groundsmen and young helpers determining wind direction and velocity, switching shooting stands (his course allows for myriad variations and combinations of stands dependent upon weather conditions) and making certain that no detail has been overlooked. When he has completed his calculations and decided upon the posts to be shot that day, he walks the course from station to station making a last-minute inspection. He is a sight to see in his baggy shooting suit, the hues of which range from light tan through various shades of greens and purples to dark brown and charcoal.
"The colors are for camouflage," he says, winking. "My own design. This is probably the only suit ever created specifically to fool pheasant. If a bird sees me, it thinks I'm another pheasant."
Be that as it may, Van Alen more closely resembles a beardless and outrageously attired Santa Claus as he waddles along the course, a pair of giant hedge clippers in his hands. Here and there he snips at a bush or snaps off an errant branch. Close on his heels two little boys carrying a huge reel unwind a length of yellow nylon rope. Later, between flights of birds, the shooters will follow the rope from stand to stand much as Dorothy followed the yellow brick road. Its course is often as unexpected and surprising as that circuitous path through Oz.
"The secret of a really good shoot," says Van Alen, "is the variety of the terrain. You don't want everyone standing around on level ground looking each other in the eye. For the ultimate in sport and safety you want as many different kinds of terrain as possible."
To increase the variety of his shoot, Van Alen bought the property adjacent to Avalon several years ago. Its main building, Wrentham House, a 19th century mansion straight from the pages of Wuthering Heights, stands high on a bluff overlooking much of the shooting course. Long empty, it was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the architect responsible for many of Newport's fabled mansions, including The Breakers. One of Van Alen's fondest dreams is to restore the mansion and make it into a combination Christmas museum, home for the annual "Twas the night before Christmas" presentation and a memorial to the poem's composer, Dr. Clement Moore, who lived and died in Newport. For now, however, the mansion serves as an eerie backdrop for his shoot on days when there is an east wind blowing and the course is set beneath its dark and turreted silhouette.
No less surprising than the mansion is the land the shoot encompasses. The course wanders through thickets, along ledges, around hills, up and down gullies, over brush piles, across rock outcroppings and moss-covered boulders, through semimarsh and thick stands of fir trees, across part of Avalon's front lawn and past a pond on which bob a resident flock of mallards.
"That pond is Jimmy's triumph," says Candy. "Everyone advised against his dredging a pond there because there was no spring. I told him he was almost God but not quite. He went ahead and had one dug anyway. Shortly after, we had a week of torrential rains and the pond filled up not only with water but with fish. We've had both ever since."
The mallards are off limits for the shoot, and they pay no attention to the occasional pheasant that barrel overhead or to the guns that go off all around them. The shoot begins with a single blast on Van Alen's whistle, a signal for the shooters to go to their stations with guns unloaded. At each station to be shot that day are neatly painted shell stands, a bench, a place to leash one's dog and a game stand on which dead birds are hung, to be collected at the end of the shoot by the gamekeepers.
When everyone is settled at his stand, which may take 10 minutes or longer because following Van Alen's yellow rope can sometimes be more challenging than the actual shooting, two whistle blasts signal the shooters to load and prepare to fire. At the end of each flight, three blasts mean unload and pick up birds.