Family / Muse / Sporting Life

1983: A Dove Memoir

I woke up hard in the corner with my neck pressed up into the bed post and knees in my chest. I was dressed and embarrassed that I was asleep. I had dressed myself already in anticipation of leaving early. He spun the flashlight into the wall from the nightstand and swung me around to tie on my boots. They were the same ones from last year but now tight instead of loose. 

Julep- Oil on Canvas by Will Kelly

We were quiet going through the house. His light aimed at the floor. The dog just barely shook and a tink of his tags as we passed. It was like the time I snuck in to see if Santa had come and I was just as excited. The kitchen was dark except for the dim vent light over the stove. He flipped off the gas eye and poured boiling water into his thermos and some coffee straight from the can into it. He had orange juice in a jelly jar for me.

The old door on the truck lurched open like two pieces of rusted metal rubbing. A ping pang when he put the the keys in the ignition. When the key turned the lights on the floor went off and WSOC Charlotte country came on. It was just a big voice talking. It was the first thing that wasn’t trying to be quiet anymore. He turned it down to a mumble and you could hear the engine pulling. The headlights broke through a low hanging fog and he said he would just as well drive without them so he turned the orange ones on. 

I could just recognize the song coming from that dash speaker. I remember all the construction men that sawed and hammered at our house liked to eat at Hardees and listen to country music on their radios. They were really nice people. That was their kind of music. They had big yellow teeth. Big hair and hair on their face. They ate biscuits in trucks. They used chewing tobacco. they talked about Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison. They were like the men in the Boar’s Nest on the Dukes of Hazzard.

There was just enough sun coming through the backs of the trees. The sky was becoming a pale silver and he turned on headlights again on the bigroad. Just in front was white mist. He tapped hard on the brakes and put his hand across my chest and asked did you see that. 

Repositioned, I could only see the sky and the dash. I did not see the deer. The floorboard was full of things that interested me. My feet could reach them now. Old styrofoam cups. Dried up coffee. Dried up tobacco. Bailing wire. Crushed cans. Some tools. I liked the hat on the dash and he told me I could wear it. I leaned up to get it. My ears folded sideways.

He turned off the radio. He finally was ready to talk to me. 

Did you do you homework like we promised?

Awake now I thought he would never ask. 

Do you want me to say them from first to last? I know all forty of them both ways.

Start from the beginning and if you can make it through without any help you can have a Hersey Bar for breakfast like we promised.

Carter . . . Ronald Reagan with came off my lips with perfect cadence. The tires crushed into gravel as they sprayed a wake we turned into the farm branch road. We stopped at a gate and he told me that the shotgun man has to open gates. I swung that old truck door open and then the farm gate made the same sound. I held it proudly as he drove through. 

A long white down town car drove in behind us with his lights off and the man didn’t look at me.

I closed the gate jumped in and he gave me the chocolate.

This is exciting.

The air was getting a little thinner and the sun just enough in the trees that he turned off his lights again. We drove really slow behind the down town car. I think they drove slow because they didn’t want to bring the city in behind them.

When we parked along a little culvert by the trees the engines turned off. I stayed in the car and could hear them mumble. 

I picked at the seat with my finger nail. It was itchy and woven and had little bird dog hairs in it. It reminded me of the word Honky Tonk or those hats men wear with feathers on the front. The colors were the same as those feathers brown and tan and specks of blue and wine.

He let me hold a shotgun shell while I waited. It was the size of my finger and yellow. I rolled it around in my hand and felt special to have it. Mom took away the one I keep last year that was empty. I liked the way it smelled.

The white down town car drove off. He waved me out of the truck and put me up in the bed of it. We loaded his gear into a square wheel barrow. 

His metal lawn chair. A leather gun sleeve and a canvas one. A wooden Budweiser crate that was too heavy for me to lift. 

We walked down the edge of the trees. It was between the lumpy middle and too close to the trees were the sticky stuff was. It was just becoming day time now and light was coming through the tops of the branches. The air smelled like the farm smells like the inside of a hardware store but all outside.

My legs were getting wet and sticky. Things were getting stuck to my pants and boot laces. They were starting to hurt but I didnt say anything. And my feet were getting damp too. It wasn’t raining all week it was weird. Even my boots got muddy. Being prepared was very important. He wouldn’t hear me complain.

For morning it was a little hot after all that walking. 

I liked my Army clothes. They felt hot. And wet. I got them at the Army-Navy surplus store on main street. It was a cool store with stuff like my granddad brought home from war. It smelled like mothballs and old guys went there to smoke cigarettes. I saved all my dollars to buy a Rambo knife with a compass and fish hook kit in the handle and mom would not let me have one. Or ninja stars. Or a Ballysong. But I did buy a real Army suit from a real soldier that was a little bigger that me. And we found a name patch to put on it with my name. A woman with a sewing machine did some things to make it my size. 

He rolled the wheel barrow back into the edge of broomsedge and it bent back a limb connected to the ground with long honeysuckle vines. They smelled sweet and there were bees around them. He opened his chair and put down the crate a few feet to his left side. He had his leather case in his lap. 

Now you can help he said.

I opened the box to hand him the things he wanted. The tan box of shells was very heavy. It had a really neat picture of a dog and a bird on it but I didnt waste time looking. He handed me his leather guncase and told me to sit on it. 

His gun was in his lap pointed away from me and I could see the pretty wood that was dark and oily. It looked like it was old and scuffed many times. The metal part was a dark grey that was almost black and had the funny rainbow swirls you see when someone spills gasoline beside a boat.

It was quiet for awhile and he said just wait. We will see what happens when the sun rises just a little more. Do you want to hold two shells for me?

I sat and made shapes in the dust with my toes and it clung like cocoa flour to my wet boots. I rolled the two red shells over and over each other in my hand. I was very anxious that he did not give me a gun. He always had. When I was little just a Red Ryder. And last year he let me shoot the one that was my granddads when he was a boy. I didnt ask but I was getting sick knowing that it was in that other case.

Boom. From across the field. A yahoo and a dog shot forward from the trees. He quartered about and ran right back.

Why dont we have a dog?

Because you are the dog.

Wrangler- Oil on Canvas by Will Kelly

We where awake and he stood up and shot once. Then twice two seconds later.

He put his hand out. I handed him the shells. He put his arm out toward a pine piling and said half a football field that way then when you get there turn back and look at me for the second one.

The dead corn stalks and clumpy dirt were not easy to walk over but they were dry. The dirt was like clay stones and smelled like blood. It was not easy to keep up with how far a football field would be. It wasn’t normal walking like a football field. Then I got to some sort of grass that had just been cut and seeds stuck all over my legs. It was wet again. It smelled like cereal.

I walked and was sure I was getting close and looked back for assurance. He just had his hand out waving as if a little farther.

I could see a flicker of brown and then white. In a few more steps a half dozen birds busted up in front of me and flew down the field away from him. I could hear him curse and then gun shots. Boom-Boom. BOOM. BOOM-boom. BOOM. I didn’t know so many people were there and they started hollering to each other. 

The flicker was still there. I walked up and the bird was there. Alive and flickering. It was a dove because it looked grey and had purple eye lids. I pulled my hand inside my shirt cuff because I was afraid to pick it up alive. 

Did ya find it?

Yep I said with a confidence that was not how I really felt.

Then I stomped on its head with my heel and picked it up first by its leg.

Now over to the left and stop when I tell you near that clump of corn.

That bird was easier to find.  After the walk over with a dead bird in my hand dangling its dead weight I reached to pick up this one. 

He was really dead, but didnt look shot or anything. The grey feathers were perfect. I reached down and picked it up and it was hot. Not warm- hot. Under it was blood and it was on my hand and feathers stuck in it and I walked back.

He had shot a few more birds since I walked out and told me since I got those just to come with him to help look. We got them.

When we got back we put the dead ones in an old textile dye bag. The canvas case was on my crate.

Now I want you to try to shoot a bird yourself. Do just like we have talked through it. I am going to give you a shell.

It was yellow and small. 

Do you remember how to put it in?

I remembered perfectly but was modest because of what happened last year. I blew smoke of the barrel after I shot like the cowboy movies and he said that’s it until next year buddy.

Those are just a bunch of queer fellows pretending to be cowboys.

I breached the gun like I had waited a year to do. It smelled like Hoppes oil. I sat erect on that crate ahead of him. The butt on my thigh, right hand on the grip, left on the forearm, ready to stand and shoot.

This is how I remember,

Cheers and be safe out there,

Will

For other journals I have written on dove hunting see:

PS: Despite how cool it looks on instagram- keep the beer closed until you guns and ammo are back in the truck. Little eyes are watching and they need daddies.

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