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.
Thus the foreign diplomats stationed in Prague receive each autumn a formal invitation for MM. les Ambassadeurs to proceed to the old Hapsburg hunting lodge at Zidlochovice, bringing two 12-gauge shotguns per diplomat, plus 800 rounds of No. 6 ammunition. Shortly after arriving in Prague as American ambassador, I received such an invitation.
The village of Zidlochovice lies in the Moravian plain, about 150 miles east of Prague and 60 miles north of Vienna. The battle of Austerlitz was fought just beyond the Zidlochovice oak forests, and Napoleon probably had roast pheasant and Danube grape jelly on the morning after his victory. Crown Prince Rudolph established the present estate, which, after his death in the arms of Marie Vetsera, passed two generations ago to his imperial brothers. King Alfonso shot there often, and the high score for pheasants killed on a single day by a single hunter (833) was made by the late King Carol of Rumania.
The main hunting lodge at Zidlochovice is built on a scale approximating a Chicago railroad station, and is almost equally drafty. In the halls there are more mounted stags, wolves, capercaillie, deer, foxes and pheasants than you are likely to encounter inside the Museum of Natural History, and the bedrooms feature life-sized paintings of callipygian nudes, in the Rubens (or Hapsburg) tradition. These treasures were augmented after the Communists seized Czechoslovakia by a plaster bust of Marshal Stalin, now possibly replaced by one of Khrushchev, which stood just inside the main entrance, flanked on the other side by a stuffed 450-pound boar. Uncle Joe, when I saw him, wore a benevolent expression, but the boar looked as though he had just been elected to the Politburo.
Arriving at Zidlochovice in the late afternoon of a gray November day, I surrendered my matched pair of Cogswell and Harrison shotguns to an ancient forester who must have dated back to the days of Emperor Franz Josef. There were nine of us in the party, all foreign diplomats from Prague, and the 10th man was our Czech Foreign Office host—a man with a permanently preoccupied expression. He was responsible, as it turned out, for Arrangements and Decorum.
We were routed out at 6 o'clock the following morning by the forester's trumpet, and under his tolerant eye I put on my Austrian hunting suit of gray wool trousers with a green stripe down the side, and matching jacket adorned with deerhorn buttons. This elegant costume was surmounted by a green velour hat, with a shaving brush aft. I likewise had a fine olive-green overcoat with loose shoulders and sleeves. I decided I looked like a fugitive from a Viennese light opera, and how, I wondered, was I going to lug around two shotguns, to say nothing of nearly 100 pounds of ammunition?
Our Foreign Office representative had breakfast laid on, and he made a speech in French while the gray daylight of European autumn sifted in among the staghorn chandeliers. He gave us directions for the hunt, and we were told not to shoot hen pheasants except as specifically authorized, and not to spin around in our tracks to take rear shots, no matter what the target or provocation. Breakfast over, we trooped out and embarked in three dilapidated imperial barouches, horse-drawn, apparently last painted during World War I.
The Zidlochovice estate produces 40,000 pheasants a year. The estate has both fields and forests. Sugar beets, potatoes, cabbage, corn and turnips grow on the rich farmland. There are wide stands of golden Czechoslovak oak, which make the finest wine casks in the world. They likewise provide marvelous pheasant cover.
Half an hour from the hunting lodge we were surrounded by 300 Moravian farmers armed with sticks—our beaters. Thirty government foresters were in command, but among them I identified a substantial covey of secret police in brown belted raincoats, felt hats � la Jimmy Stewart, and city shoes already caked with red Moravian mud. The secret police, with nobody to arrest because diplomats have diplomatic immunity and cannot be arrested, seemed frustrated.
A personal scorekeeper