One Saturday this past fall, I was sitting on my parents’ back porch watching college football with my dad. After an especially untimely interception thrown by our quarterback, I had to avert my attention from the disaster unfolding on the TV. So, I turned my back to the train wreck and lit a cigar hoping it would soothe my frustration with the game.
A gorgeous, slightly cool fall day witnessed dry leaves falling from the sweet gum trees in the backyard and several gray squirrels sifting through the leaves, scavenging for anything they could eat or store away for a winter meal. Watching the squirrels tiptoe along the top of the fence triggered a pleasant memory from my childhood.
I was about 10 the first time Daddy took me squirrel hunting and let me carry my .410 shotgun, a single shot, Springfield, bolt action that had not lived a pampered life. The plain wooden stock showed signs of use with its dull finish and random dings, as did its barrel with its pitting left by rust that had long since been removed, shiny spots where the bluing was worn off, and its missing bb that most shotguns use as a front sight. Daddy got it from somebody he worked with in a trade, but he could have commissioned it to be built by a master English gun maker as far as I was concerned. Although I’d walked many miles and spent many afternoons carrying my Daisy Red Ryder, following Daddy through the woods around our house listening for rustling leaves and looking up for any movement that might be a squirrel, this was the first time that I got to be a real participant in the hunt. In my 10-year-old world, this was a major stepping stone on the path toward being a man.
We were at my dad’s family’s farm in the rolling hills of east central Mississippi on a fall Saturday afternoon not long after October 15, the usual opening day of squirrel season. On the inside, I was wild with excitement, but I tried my best to remain cool to show how grown up I was. I put on my camouflage pants, jacket, and hat that, up until that time, had only been worn when playing army with my friends. A front pocket of my little jacket was filled with the green plastic Remington shotgun shells that I picked out at Fred’s Dollar Store earlier that week. Daddy was procrastinating, talking to Granddaddy inside the house and cutting into the time I was going to need to shoot my limit. Finally, Daddy came out of the house wearing blue jeans and his faded green army field jacket. I was worried that he needed to put on camouflage like me if we were going to be able to have any success, but we were finally headed afield, and I decided to not say anything that would result in any further delay. He removed his 12 gauge Remington 1100 from its case laid across the truck seat. I already had my gun out of the stained bath towel Daddy kept it wrapped in. After checking to make sure that in my excitement I hadn’t already loaded my gun and that the safety was on so there wouldn’t be any accidents, the two of us turned and headed to the woods. I remember feeling excited, but nervous. The gravity of carrying a real gun mixed with the anticipation of something that I’d been looking forward to for as long as I could remember had my insides dancing the jitterbug.
We walked into the field behind the house, down the hill toward the pond. Then, we ducked beneath the low, sprawling limbs of an ancient oak tree before crossing through the barbed wire gap in the fence. From there, we traversed the bare dirt of the pond dam with its minefield of cow patties and unavoidable, ankle-breaking circular holes left by cows’ hoofs in the hard-packed clay. There, across the spillway at the far end of the dam, were the dark woods. They were the same woods in which I’d spent many hours before with my cousins building forts and exploring. But, as I approached them this time, they were different. They weren’t a playground anymore; they were where I was headed to begin my transformation into manhood.
As we approached the spillway, I trod as softly as if I were stalking the Viet Cong through a rice paddy. Those squirrels weren’t going to know I was in the world if I had anything to say about the situation. Then, there it was! My first target was on the ground just 20 yards in front of me. All in one motion, I threw my gun up to my cheek, flipped off the safety, closed my eyes, and pulled the trigger. Bang! That first shot filled the air with the manly smell of gunpowder and left my ears ringing. Unfortunately, in my rush to draw first blood, I didn’t bother to take proper aim or make sure that the butt of the gun was firmly planted on my shoulder. (I mean, Rambo never bothered with those details. Why should I?)
I missed! Holy crap, I missed! Even worse, in my rush to shoot and my failure to ensure proper shooting form, the shot knocked the butt of the gun off of my shoulder and the metal bolt smacked me in my lower lip. The beginning of my first foray into manhood just Lee Corso-ed me with a hearty, “Not so fast, my friend!” and pantsed my confidence. Daddy made sure I wasn’t hurt and reminded me of the power of my little gun while encouraging me. He said that it was just my first shot and I’d surely get a bunch more chances. He didn’t make me feel like a dumb little kid as he gave me one of those sort of manly, paternalistic side hugs as he reminded me to take my time, pull the gun firmly into my shoulder, aim, and pull the trigger before we continued on.
After that first hiccup, we entered the woods through a grove of scrub cedars into the world of towering oaks and gums where we were to do battle with our furry little quarry. I stepped as lightly as I could through the blanket of years of shed leaves covering the ground. The dry weather left them crunchy underfoot, making it difficult to sneak around undetected. Every step made a loud crunch no matter how weightless I tried to be.
I followed daddy around for a couple hours pulling on vines trying to make the squirrels give up their hiding places and listening for dropping acorns or raspy, high-pitched barks. I don’t remember how many he killed, but I do remember how many I didn’t. My first foray into squirrel hunting as a participant was fruitless.
As we walked back up to the house, daylight was beginning to fade. Granddaddy had been watching for us from the living room door and came out to greet us as we walked through the gap by the chicken house into the backyard. He was curious to hear the stories from the afternoon’s activities. So, I let loose with my 10-year-old perspective on the events including my first shot at a real squirrel, and I showed him my busted lip that I considered to be a war wound. It still stung, but I wouldn’t let on since men didn’t complain like a little kid would. (I’m sure there is a world of women rolling their eyes at that mischaracterization.)
While telling stories of the day’s outing, I helped granddaddy clean the kill so grandma could get started cooking them for supper. He pulled out his well-worn Case pocket knife and cut a ring around the middle of the squirrel. Then, I held one end while he pulled the skin over the other. He would always say he was pulling off either the squirrel’s shirt or britches, depending on the end he was working on. Once they were all cleaned, I took them inside to grandma who was waiting on me in the kitchen.
She took the freshly dressed squirrels, cut them into manageable pieces, dredged them in flour, and dropped them into a black iron skillet sizzling with hot oil. After frying, the pieces then went into a pressure cooker to tenderize the tough meat. While the pressure cooker jiggled away on her stove, she opened a bottom cabinet door and brought out a large plastic bowl of flour. As she had done many times before and as she would do many times after, she instinctively mixed the perfect amounts of flour, buttermilk, and shortening without the aid of measuring devices to make perfect biscuit dough. Then, she rolled the dough into balls and filled the same iron skillet that she used to fry the squirrels with as many balls of dough as it would hold before sliding it into her oven.
By this time, we were all in the kitchen, sitting around the table drinking store brand cokes, sweet tea, water, or Tang (unfortunately), talking about whatever or whomever and waiting for the evening meal to be served. Grandma placed bowls of vegetables and new potatoes in the middle of the big round table, followed by the piping hot biscuits and the tenderized squirrel, now smothered in gravy. She checked everyone’s glass to make sure nobody was running low on whatever he or she was drinking before taking her seat at the table. (Her seat was closest to the refrigerator so she could react quickly to anyone’s request for a condiment not already on the table or a beverage refill.) Once everyone was seated, we bowed our heads and closed our eyes for granddaddy’s blessing of the food.
“…and bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies and our bodies for thy service. Amen.”
We then resumed our conversations between bites of the food that, for the most part, came from right there on the farm.
Once the last bites of dessert were pressing uncomfortably against the insides of our swollen bellies, it was time to at least offer to help clear the table and do the dishes against grandma’s protestations before making motions toward going home. Granddaddy began his ritualistic, last-minute scramble to prolong our visit by trying to gather something from the garden or freezer to send home with us as we steadily tried to make our way outside to daddy’s truck.
Eventually, we made it down the driveway to the dirt road that began the journey home; the consuming darkness fought against the yellow glow of the truck headlights that revealed the bumpy, dirt road ahead of us. On either side of the road, extending all the way to the narrow, shallow ditches along our path, were eerie, black woods in which just three hours before we’d been hunting. Once we reached the smooth, quiet blacktop, I got comfortable on the far end of the truck seat, propped my head against the cold glass of the window, and fell helplessly asleep, exhausted from the excitement of the day’s big event, until daddy pulled safely into our driveway at home.
I still go to the farm and spend time with Daddy in those same woods, but like my life, those woods have been changed by storms, logging, and the cycle of life that ages and changes us all. Now, Daddy has a head full of gray hair, both my grandparents are watching over us from heaven, and many of my childhood abilities have become disabilities. But, every time I get the opportunity to take a minute to watch squirrels playing, listen to the hollow, dry sound made as a fall breeze rattles the leaves of a cottonwood tree, or get a whiff of the earthy smells of autumn, it takes me back to the days of my youth and the times I spent wandering those woods with Daddy.