SI Vault
 
THE PHEASANT AND THE COMMISSAR
Ellis O. Briggs
October 07, 1957
Pheasant shooting, like most other things in Communist Czechoslovakia, is strictly for utilitarian purposes. No sport is intended. But the commissars, with an irony that possibly is unconscious, maintain the old Hapsburg protocol that used to go with the imperial shooting. They invite diplomats to kill their pheasants because they regard shooting them as harvesting a valuable crop—pheasants, not diplomats—and because, while over the years the comrades have developed a certain amount of skill with machete, meat ax and machine gun, the intricacies of wing shooting, which most Communists consider a decadent capitalist sport anyway, are generally beyond them.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 07, 1957

The Pheasant And The Commissar

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

The last kind of shooting is High Birds, and that is something else again. The hunters are spaced down the middle of a wide corn field that separates two tall stands of oaks, mature trees with little undergrowth. The beaters start work half a mile away, and each flushed pheasant takes altitude, clears the trees and then makes off for the forest on the far side of the corn field. Thus stimulated, with clear air ahead of them, birds fly at 60 to 100 feet, with the throttle wide open. It takes a lead of eight feet to connect at that distance—more on the quartering angles. Moreover, unless you center your bird, it scales down into the far woods, breakfast for an alert fox, while the scorekeeper marks down a succession of zeros. Only pass shooting for geese with the wind behind them is more difficult. My production curve took a downward trend, and I thought respectful thoughts of Carol of Rumania.

At one o'clock we paused for an alfresco luncheon served in a grove of Austrian pines, with slivovitz out of little crested glasses and a display of the Hapsburg linen. Waiters recruited from Lippert's in Prague poured steaming goulash into Karlovy Vary soup plates, and there was sharp red wine from nearby Moravian vineyards. I replenished my slivovitz glass, and felt less uncharitable toward my chastened policemen. My shoulder began to stiffen, and in the afternoon I called my own shots and avoided improbable targets.

All afternoon we cruised back and forth between the fields and the forests, and, as the shadows lengthened and the sky purpled in the west, we came at last to an open space where our three barouches waited, together with wagons filled with all our pheasants and hares and rabbits. The game was unloaded from the wagons by the foresters, who carefully arranged them on the ground in rows, two pheasants at a time, with the hares and rabbits separate from the pheasants. With their plumage of gold and green, the birds made a noble display. The hunters and beaters and foresters faced the hollow square where the game lay, and everyone came to attention. This was the final ceremony of the day, without which no Hapsburg hunt is completed.

The Chief Forester made a formal speech. He thanked the game for their cooperation, and apologized if they'd been put to any inconvenience. He thanked the hunters for their participation, and he promised additional sport for the morrow. He was like a priest of old time, performing a remembered ritual. I noticed that the secret police took no part in the ceremony. Taps were sounded over the field of game, and, as the twilight deepened, we drove away in our barouches, back to the lodge at Zidlochovice.

Remember King Carol

On that shoot, 10 hunters in a day and a half killed 1,450 pheasants, and in addition we shot 700 hares and 300 rabbits. I fired upwards of 600 shells, which I took to represent considerable shooting until I remembered King Carol.

The game at Zidlochovice does not belong to the hunters. Most of the birds were shipped with all speed to western Europe and there swapped for hard currency wherewith to help meet Czechoslovakia's commitments to the Kremlin. A few, however, were sold to the diplomats, who, after having tipped the staff at the Zidlochovice Lodge and subscribed to a present for the Chief Forester and paid off the retainers, found they had a fairly substantial investment in harvesting President Zapotocky's pheasants. The hunter's privilege of buying game was furthermore conditioned by rank; and an ambassador, as I recall, had access to 10 brace, plus five hares and one rabbit, at approximately their cost on the Paris market.

On the road back to Prague the secret police finally paid off their accumulated frustration. I drove to the capital after dark, and the secret police followed in their black Tatra, 50 feet behind me all the way to the height of land overlooking the Vltava River, blinking their headlights through my rear window. For 150 miles they made our life miserable. The Embassy attach� who accompanied me wanted to do something about it—borrow the Argentine consul general's revolver, for example. I restrained him. Until we got back to Prague, I said, the slogan remained: Shotguns only!

by ELLIS O. BRIGGS/U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, former Ambassador to Czechoslovakia

1 2 3 4