Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Squirrel Hunt


The year before I joined the Navy I dated a woman that had an older brother named Miles that I got along with quite well. A soft spoken guy that knew about all that his father could teach him about tools, building, and fixing things, he could keep his jeep running with duct tape, a torque wrench, and a socket set. Miles had been considering becoming a forest ranger someday, albeit a “black top” one in the hills were the illegal marijuana growers hid crops on federal land and surrounded the lots with booby traps like fishing line strung with hooks at eye level. Roaming around in woods you don’t know in Kentucky could get you into some trouble if you don’t stay alert, more than black bears, bobcats, mountain lions, and copperheads to worry about.

Like many men that grow up close to nature, particularly in the south, Miles grew up with hunting as part of his repertoire. Hunting meant firearms, as did becoming a game warden, and Miles knew a lot about both. Having drawn them and watched them for as long as I could remember, an opportunity for hands on experience had undeniable appeal. Miles seemed happy to have the company, and to let me do all the yammering, as we rode out over a few weekends to his friend’s farm to shoot targets and familiarize me with safe and proper handling, loading, unloading, and discharging various types of long barrel, shotguns, and pistols.

The Magnum nearly broke my wrist. The shotgun left my ear opposite the one closest to the butt of the rifle ringing for three days afterwards The long rifle put a hole though a can of beans at what seemed a soccer pitch’s distance away. Miles made that shot.

I learned how the muzzle of a shotgun can be dialed smaller and tighter or opened up like a camera lens iris to affect range and spread. I learned about the different sorts of loads and slugs that could go into a shotgun, my personal favorite being the one shaped like an hourglass with two plastic halves around the skinny center to keep the slug centered as it travels through the barrel before peeling off like the spare tanks from the space shuttle as the slug leaves the barrel and spirals towards its target. The hourglass begins to tumble once it hits anything, flattening out as well, the intent being that it will punch through the chest or thick neck of a deer and kill it before it has a chance to suffer.  

We’d bring a slew of empty gallon plastic milk jugs, some empty liter milk cartons, maybe some cans of beans or melons in the back of his jeep. We’d fill the jugs and cartons from a well pump on the property, pose the targets on a stump or flat top rock that had a swell of grassy slope close behind to catch the slugs rather than have any wild shots winging through the underbrush, pasture, or forest beyond.

What we never had on hand were any cans of beer or alcohol of any sort. I don’t believe I ever saw Miles drink, and I had far too much respect for what damage a firearm can do, the lesson learned from that front loaded musket my Dad let me shoot and the clear message that if I ever stepped near the shotgun he’d kept in the house I would never come up from under his resulting wrath. Curiosity never got the better of me since I never had any spark up over firearms, just some fear and a healthy desire to steer well clear.

While I don’t plan to keep firearms in the house with Otis unless a zombie outbreak actually happens, I do appreciate the healthy fear / respect my Dad instilled in me for the damage firearms can do. I could draw them all I wanted, however I never as a kid had a desire to play with any real ones.

I wish I could say the same for some of the kids I knew as a child. While I never knew any with access to pistols, I did know a kid with his own 22 caliber hunting rifle, as well as an array of pellet guns. An upper middle class kid that lived up the hill from my Grandmother’s place, he took another kid and myself for a hike through the nearby woods, by woods meaning an acre or so of scruff between a subdivision and the back side of a gas station, some trees along the perimeter, arming each of us with a pellet gun and fist full of pellets, himself with the hunting rifle, though with only one bullet, and that in hand. We roamed a bit, shot a couple slow moving tree trunks, then head back towards his house. As we neared the proper road, the densest past of the woods behind us, he made a show of carefully loading his hunting rifle, aiming it into the woods, and pulling the trigger. The rifle burped a flat pop sound that seemed to roll across the neighborhood like thunder, making me cringe and look around nervously. Really, the actual sound had been sort of underwhelming, the real awkwardness settling in is witnessing another kid having just shot an actual bullet. And then we walked up the hill towards his house.

Or began too. A woman came out on her porch and asked us if we’d been shooting into the woods. Try to act natural sometime with a stranger while you’re standing on the side of a suburban lane with two other boys all armed with wooden rifles, the two pellet guns looking as much like the real hunting rifle as law would allow and have an adult’s scrutiny showering down upon you. I tensed up, pulled the trigger of my rifle, and shot myself in the foot with a pellet. I felt the sting and heard the pellet bounce off the top of my sneaker and roll happily down the blacktop behind us. I tried not to wince and hoped she hadn’t noticed. The kid that had fired the real bullet had confidence I certainly didn’t, assured the woman we only had pellet guns, and weren’t shooting into the woods. Retrospect, she’d probably watched him do it and wanted to put some fear of god into us. Worked for me, I could not get rid of the pellet gun or out of the company of the shooter quickly enough and I avoided him thereafter until his parents took his gun away for reasons undisclosed and gave him a computer instead, one with games, particularly the one we loved to play where you traversed a cutaway diagram of the human form killing viruses and cancers. If only treating real diseases were so much fun as party games and had high scores to brag about after.

So my experience with firearms up to the point of hanging out with Miles had been fairly limited, the musket with my Dad that knocked me on my ass as a kid, a Glock 9mm versus paper targets in high school via a guy I worked with at the movie theater that also happened to be attending police academy. I learned the hard what that when the top of a pistol kicks back to chamber the next shell, your thumb needs to bow low and stay in its grove on the grip, otherwise the metal casing will planer shave an onion slice of skin off the top of your knuckle. Also learned that you don’t have to lead a static target as much, especially two dimensional flat ones printed on bleached newsprint.

Miles and I would shoot at the water filled jugs and cartons, and I soon found that the bigger the impact and resulting spray, the more gratifying the effort. That hourglass slug I mentioned left a hole the size of a lucky silver dollar in the front of the gallon jug, and ripped out most of the back with a splash of milky water and plastic shrapnel. We didn’t ever seem to have much ammo or many targets, so we always managed to make every one count, and always with an emphasis on safety, checking chambers were clear, keeping shotguns opened like bent arms when not being leveled against something.

Miles also taught me a bit about archery in his back yard, and after a lot of rosy forearm skin, I managed to get fairly decent with hitting the target clothes pinned to a pile of hay bales. Later on Jed would tell me about how the British gesture as seen on the Young Ones that looks like a bastardization of the V for Victory gesture is actually evolved from British long bow archers wanting to taunt the French by showing off the fingers they still had possession of, since the French liked to sever those two aiming fingers whenever they captured an archer from opposing forces.

While I felt largely content with shooting milk jugs and the occasional over ripe melon, hearing Miles talk about the deer hunts he went on with his lifelong pals made me curious to go along for one of those trips, not so much to shoot anything as to enjoy the clothing, roughing it, tracking and finding the animals, bagging something to bring home, butcher, and stock into the deep freezer for chili, BBQ, stew, jerky, and whatever else could be done with the meat. Miles deplored trophy hunters, and as well disliked people that hunt unfairly such as with spotlights at night, or out of season, or over limits. Ethics I completely agree with, if you’re going to kill something, do it fairly, legally, and use everything from it. Otherwise nix the notion and go get a bag of crisps in a supermarket.

Miles appreciated my interest but felt I should have a taste of what to expect before committing myself to a multiple day excursion into the back country for caribou or elk. So one weekend we packed a lunch, two shotguns, and a bag of shells and head off into off road squirrel country. Supposedly the best burgoos in Kentucky are made with the meat of the grey fox squirrels in the foothills we road into, off road bumping and bouncing along inside Miles’s Jeep, occasionally detouring when the creek bed we were following got to rocky or pitted.

We parked beneath a massive tree, shaded by the massive branches flung wide as though attempting to hug the sun. Shotgun opened at the breech and barrel angled to the ground, weapon draped over my forearm like a drunk Pinocchio. We pressed on through underbrush and brambles until Miles spot a squirrel bounding along branches and shimmying to and fro along the trunk of a burly old tree. I closed my shotgun and chambered a shell, raised the rifle and carefully tracked the squirrel, moving closer to the tree trunk as I did, stepping slowly and deliberately, wide yet careful paces, don’t want to trip on a root and accidentally shoot myself or Miles or anything else.

I found a position, had the squirrel in my sight. I cocked my head to see the safety and flipped it off carefully. I aimed again, saw the squirrel looking back at me briefly, before bolting for better cover. Seeing the animal begin to move, I fired, effectively shooting a burst of shotgun pellets straight upwards. Seeing no explosion of fur and gore, I lowered the shotgun and clicked open the breech. I heard Miles say, using that calm, understated, casual tone of him, “You might want to move.” And then I heard the sound of snapping and rustling above and began to quick step over to where Miles stood watching with bemusement evident on his face.

I reached his vantage and turned to watch as pellets rattled down through the branches amidst a light shower of twigs and shredded leaves. After that he lead the way and took the next shot, his so practiced and swift I remained skeptical until I found the squirrel and pointed Miles to it.

He scooped its limp form up, a form still amazingly intact, as though sleeping. Not until I touched the animal’s fur pelt and felt the pellet beneath the fur did I really concede that the animal had in fact died. And as I watched Miles put the animal into his Igloo cooler in the back of the Jeep once we’d retraced our route back down the hill, I decided that I probably didn’t have the stomach to be a hunter. I could imagine helping with the post process, just not the actual kill. And that effectively ended all conjecture about my joining the hunting party, resigning myself to instead enjoying the products of their labor, the venison or squirrel burgoo or whatever else.

Once establishing that I’d take a pass on the deer hunt, Miles opened up to share very colorful stories about hunts gone sideways, about having to field dress a huge deer in the rain and then carry it as though affording it a piggy back ride for a long hike back to the cars, opened belly against his back, muck and smell and juices and rain running down his back, getting inside his collar and running down the inside of his shirt.

As he told that story his eagle eye spot something in the road and he swerved to miss it while braking sharply to stop. We hopped out of the jeep to get a closer look and found that at some point recently someone had nicked a massive black snake that now sprawled across the asphalt, feebly trying to pull itself back into the brush. Miles said he thought it had probably been sunning on the asphalt, enjoying the heat of the pavement from the summer sun overhead. With delicate, slow moving, careful movements, Miles lift the snake’s considerable torso just enough off the ground to gently drag it off the road and into the brush off by the rain ditch. The man that had just killed a squirrel to make some snacks was now rescuing a snake, or at least, helping it to have some shelter and dignity as it died.

Miles, the man that didn’t drink, didn’t hunt out of season, and who later after I returned from the Navy would help me build the best elevated bunk bed frame mounted on 4 x 4 posts and threaded with heavy gauge wire rope a college student in their first ever rental house could hope for. His influence on my disposition towards firearms, hunting, and respectful compassion for animals on or not on the menu remains as evident now as then, perhaps more so.

And while I love a good pint, you’ll never see me anytime adding firearms into the mix while drinking is going on. Not when you’re as clumsy and over confident as I am with a bit of wind in my sails.

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