by Jim Eagleman
To many Hoosiers, fall means hunting and all it involves: camping, cooking on the wood stove or campfire, frosty mornings alone in leafy fields and woods, and bragging rights. I recall as a youth the high expectations my family and friends had for each autumn. By summer’s end, the beginning of school, football and Thanksgiving were all secondary to opening day. In a serious hunting state like Pennsylvania, classes were called off during the first days of the season.
Rabbit and quail were the chief game hunted on our hilly farm, but pheasants were what we pursued. Deer were still considered a rarity in the 1950s and certainly a bonus if you got one. Neighbors stopped by the lucky farm to congratulate the hunter and view the massive animal hanging near a corncrib or woodshed. My friends and I admired the buck’s antlers and thick neck, and wondered what we’d do if we saw a deer when out for rabbits.
Gun safety was stressed before every outing. My dad took the time to watch me take apart the small 410 shotgun I received one Christmas. He monitored the cleaning and reassembly then took my hands to wrap around the stock. Looking at me with stern eyes, I recall the same lecture: never aim at anything you don’t intend to shoot, never shoot at anything other than game—no songbirds, livestock, or cats—and never, never carry it loaded. He watched me switch the safety off and on (“red means fire”). Bringing the gun up to his cheek, he showed how to line up the sights, hold it steady, then to finally click off the safety. Plunking old tin cans along the fence became an annual practice session. I was to carry the gun only after “breaking it down,” and treat it like it was always loaded.
Twin beagles, Flash and Pepper, had spotted bellies, wiry tales and endless energy. Bolting out of the truck, they were on the run all day, up ahead and almost always out of sight. Rapid bellowing accompanied breaks through the bushes and we followed diligently.
“They’re gettin’ birdy”, my grand dad would say.
At night and still breathing heavy, both dogs flopped on the kitchen floor, and after homework, followed me upstairs.
Preparing for the hunt was a ritual for my dad and uncles I never missed, hoping to be invited along. Canvas hunting jackets and pants hung in the horse tack cabinet until time. New shells taken from boxes were plopped into the loops inside. Like a license plate for humans, the hunter’s card with PA bold letters and numbers replaced a faded one in the plastic sleeve sewn on the back. My grand dad pulled on his red socks and snorted something about taxes. I was told to walk by myself along a farm road with one of the dogs, and to take a shot “only if it was a good one.” By mid-morning, I could hear the barrage of gunfire coming from a distant pasture. Along the way, I turned to look at a cardinal.
The bird flitted up and in my sight. In my young mind the way to see it up close, to study it, was to shoot. A flurry of red feathers scattered over the weeds. Picking it up, it was limp like the pheasant I shot earlier that week, but tiny and still warm. Its thin crest on top of the head could be pulled up or laid down and small, bristly hairs stood out from the base of the black bill. The tiny feathers next to the skin were pale orange, tuning to red at the tips. Legs looked reptilian. Long admired from a distance, now I finally had this beauty in my hands. I studied it for some time, turning it over and over before laying it in the weeds.
Later when my dad returned, he asked, “Did you get a shot off?”
I shook my head. Afterwards, I was guilt-ridden. I had to live with both lying and shooting the bird.
Years later and asked to appear at a small, inner-city school assembly, I watched as the children admired a falconer’s bird soar through the gymnasium rafters. Squeals of excitement lofted as the bird banked, oohs and ahhs as it landed, but I couldn’t help watching two young boys in the front row. As they talked, one boy pointed to the bird and twitched his thumb, imitating the shooting of a gun. He was quickly ushered out by a teacher.
Loading up after my presentation, I saw the boy sitting in the hallway outside his classroom. Our eyes met and he looked down.
“Sammy, do you want to tell Mr. Eagleman what you did wrong?” The teacher came out from her room. Sammy looked up and mumbled something.
I said, “No, no need to explain; I know why he pretended to shoot the bird … to bring it closer, to see it up close”. Sammy nodded.
The teacher looked wide-eyed, confused. I tried to explain my story with the cardinal and the natural curiosity kids have with wild animals, thinking that maybe Sammy was a tactile learner like me, that his thought process was similar. The explanation failed, and the dialogue became complicated.
“You don’t kill something just to inspect it at close range, Mr. Eagleman… there’s too much killing anyway”; she turned away.
I half-smiled at Sammy then drove home, thinking of my time on the farm, and now hunting as an adult. I wasn’t about to convince the teacher acting as predator is necessary, or that I now hunt ducks for food. I thought she wouldn’t understand, like anyone who doesn’t hunt.
I have talked with many people about hunting since then—some supportive or neutral, others adamantly opposed. I respect all opinions and feelings.
This fall, hunters will take to the woods and fields for all sorts of reasons, and for many, it is a fulfillment of a lifelong passion. To the biologist charged with management of the animal, it is a tool. For the hunter, it may have started out with a grand pa shooting at tin cans, a holiday outing, a recall of time together with friends and family, or a need to fill the freezer.