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In our family, late August was designated squirrel-hunt month. In a nutshell, after enduring a rigorous summer working the farm, any grandchildren still standing were purchased a .22 rifle of their choice, provided it was a Marlin 100. No magazine, no pump, no semi-auto—a perfect one-shot rifle for beginners.
One of the youngest at 8 years of age, I came to the hunt later, so I was allowed a Marlin 101 with a ringbolt, which still stands loaded with memory in my safe. Hunting small, my grandfather figured, would make us better when we hunted large.
He was right, and long before Aretha Franklin pleaded for a little bit of it, Grandpa instilled in us a big bit of it for the gun, the game, and the environment. It went like this:
RESPONSIBILITY: Do your job; chores first and foremost. Grandpa cut us no slack, believing a slacker at work is a slacker afield: unsafe, untrustworthy, unwelcome. Complete what you start, finish the job, cut no corners, procrastinate nothing. The iterations of this theme were drummed into us, and nobody lazy survived.
By extension, he demanded that we care for our equipment, whether a spade, a mower, or a gun. He expected us to clean and store our tools where we found them, but not before we wiped down metal and wood after each use. My first encounter with Hoppe’s, its pungent smell lingering on my hands like fine perfume, would forever conjure memories of my first hunts on the farm.
Likewise with preparation. We personified the Boy Scout’s best, acolytes all for “Be Prepared.” The evening before, clothes appropriate for the hunt were gathered, plates and silverware set on the table, lunches packed, guns cased and ready by the door. After that we each stuffed a compass, matches, toilet paper, knife, flashlight, rain gear, thermos, and lunch into our game bags.
Precursors to adopted road cleanups, we picked-up the areas we hunted. Each of us carried a bag to collect bottles, cans, cartons, and other debris we encountered along the road or in the woods. Leaving nature better than we found it, Grandpa said, was the responsibility of everyone.
ETHICS: Less is more. Conservation and preservation were the hallmarks of our hunts. Limits were enforced. Two squirrels per day, no more. If allowed five ducks, take three. If permitted two roosters, take one. A deer a year is plenty. Let the timberdoodles go. Eat what you kill.
There was never a time when we wasted wildlife, killed for the fun of it, or disobeyed game laws. Wounding was sin; if we weren’t sure of our shots, we didn’t take them. By extension, we honored the animals we killed, the ageless irony that sobers all ethical hunters who accept the awesome responsibility of taking a life.
SAFETY: Dead is forever. It started with brooms—an army of one, two, sometimes three sweepers in any given year, boys and girls going afield armed with sticks and straw. Times were different then, and if anyone felt ridiculous, I never knew it. He made us carry the “guns” safely, broomstick pointed high or low and left or right, depending on one’s position in the group. We practiced marching in a line through the apple orchard with a scolding for anyone hurrying, lollygagging, or losing track of his/her “barrel.”
We learned how to cross fences correctly, handing the broom to one another before dipping between barbed wire, and never to lean our brooms against a tree or a truck. We were cautioned often to keep our fingers off the “trigger,” a screw he’d twisted into the underside of each broom, and to check our “safety,” a toggle switch affixed to the handle. And no one cased a broom without first unloading the .22 bullet he’d taped to the wood. (Grandpa was nothing if not creative.)
Satisfied that we were safe handlers of our “weapons,” Grandpa eventually spent two sessions apiece training us with a real rifle. Hardly a tin can survived. By summer’s end we were adequate shooters who understood the importance of safe gun handling.
PRIDE: There is no free lunch. Grandpa charged 200 hours of child labor for the Marlin and the privilege to hunt squirrels. Four hours a day, five days a week, ten weeks of heat. The bigger kids got the worst chores, but we all shared hardship. Milking cows, shoveling manure, whitewashing sheds, driving the tractor, bailing hay, feeding livestock, hoeing beans, blocking lettuce, picking pickles, busheling potatoes—we learned more about farming than we ever wanted to know.
Even Grandma’s ham and turkey sandwiches, fresh vegetables, homemade biscuits, and shoo-fly pie after each work session didn’t prevent some of the kids from quitting.
For me, the lessons stuck: perseverance during adversity, the value of work done well, and pride in myself. Holding my new Marlin for the first time, I knew I was a better boy.
EXPECTATIONS: A good hunter is a good person. Grandpa believed hunting and morality were a stone’s throw from synonymous. With training meant to shape our lives, he taught us to stay on the right side of wrong, instilling habits of good conduct to live wisely and well. Hunting his vehicle of choice, he drove us toward Aldo Leopold’s wisdom and vision that we are all citizen-stewards of the environment. To paraphrase, we were expected to do the right thing, even when doing the wrong thing was legal, and to adhere to a high level of conduct whether watched or not. None of us disappointed.
CONSCIENCE: Honor the game. The first squirrel I killed, the bullet tore off half its head and splattered blood on the base of a birch. Like Proust, I remember things past: heat, sweat, and held breaths; sun gleaming on gunmetal and the whip-crack snap of the rifle; thrashing, silence, and the aftermath of death. My grandfather studied me while I wrestled with what I had done. Satisfied, he said it’s the way you’re supposed to feel when you take a life and told me never to lose that feeling. Then he handed me a new pocketknife, a Boy Scout model I still own, to mark the rite of passage.
Picking up the dead squirrel and placing it in my palm, he guided me through the gutting and skinning while blood stained my hands and the new blade for the first time. It was humbling. Like Blake, I heard the songs of innocence and experience.
TREASURE: Rich is relative. There was a time in late October after my grandfather’s passing that stays with me still. I’d come home for Grandma’s birthday and to hunt the last afternoon of pheasant season. Sneaking along the side of a pond, I flushed a rooster from the cattails and dropped him on the third cackle. Hunting done and resting by beaver water gurgling over stones and sunken logs, I tuned into “Bird Radio,” as Grandpa called it, and remembered each of us taking turns identifying birds by their songs and sounds until we knew them by heart. Even the peent of the mating woodcock.
On a hunch and a hope, I hustled through dusk to the “ballroom,” the old orchard now choked with grass, brush, and a few stunted apple trees standing like sentinels guarding the past. At one end, the sun promised more Indian summer, a fading red balloon floating above the horizon. At the other, a Hunter’s Moon glowed golden orange in the evening sky. I was in luck.
Woodcock gathered everywhere and nowhere, bowing and rising one second and gone the next, poetry dipped in twilight as they prepared for the journey south. Singles, tens, a hundred if there were 50, bird after bird darted past, evening acrobats twisting and spinning until more twittered above in helter-skelter, awkward grace.
I watched in awe until the dance vanished at dark, come and gone quick as a hummingbird. Like Dickinson, I understood evanescence. The game vest of my mind loaded with a limit of memories, I followed the moonlit path back to the farm, grateful for my grandfather’s gifts. Forest and fields, water and woods. I am a rich man because of him.
Editor’s Note: A longtime contributor to Sporting Classics, Ted Jennings passed away on August 8, 2016. He penned this story in August 2015.