Cigar Smoke and Coal Oil

30 10 2010

Yesterday morning was the first official frost of Fall.  As I sat outside in my Polartec, drinking my morning coffee, the colors of the leaves and the feel of the air took me back to similar mornings over four decades ago when I would join my Uncle Bill and my cousin, David, quail hunting.  I would get up before sunrise and start the process of getting my hunting clothes on and making sure that my shotgun and ammunition were ready to go.

At this point, I need to state that three men served as the models for my core beliefs of what a man should be.  First and foremost was my dad.  The other two were my Uncle Bill and my Scoutmaster, Richard Bell.  Uncle Bill served as my grade school basketball coach for a couple of years but my fondest memories of him are those hunting trips.

My dad was not a hunter.  He took me deer hunting two or three times but still, he was not a hunter.  I never really knew why he didn’t hunt.  That is a question I should have asked him.  As I commented in an earlier post, my dad taught me to shoot and was, himself, an excellent shot.  I always suspected that growing up poor and in the country, he maybe had to hunt squirrels and rabbits to eat.  If my suspicions are correct, he may have put hunting in the same category as hauling and heating water for baths and laundry.  He didn’t need to do either and therefore wanted that part of his life to be in the past.  I am confident he never saw the sport in hunting.  He wasn’t against it, he just didn’t enjoy it.  I came to that point myself many years ago. So, in my formative ‘tween years, my Uncle Bill took on the role that might normally have fallen to a father to go hunting with a son.

On those early frosty mornings, Uncle Bill, David and I loaded the dog cage and Buck, the English Setter, in the back of an old green Chevy pickup and placed our shotguns in the gun rack against the back window of the truck.  We did not immediately head out to hunt.  Oh no, there was more to the ritual of going quail hunting than just going hunting.  Besides, the sun was not up at the time we would leave and the law prohibited shooting any game before sunrise or after sunset.

We always stopped at Cricket’s Pool Room for breakfast.  My parents warned me about going into one of the two pool halls in Princeton (not sure why, even today) so, eating breakfast at Cricket’s was forbidden fruit.  The three of us, complete with Carharts, boots and the mandatory camo hats worn in the Red Green style,  sat on the chrome and red swiveling pedestal stools that lined the lunch counter.  We always ordered fried egg-and-cheese (on a hamburger bun with pickles) sandwiches. The orders never changed–that would just not be right.  I still like egg-and-cheese sandwiches but I have never had one as an adult that compares to the ones I ate with Uncle Bill and David at Cricket’s.

After the clandestine breakfast we would all pile back in the pickup that smelled of cigar smoke and coal oil; Uncle Bill smoked cigars and worked at a local refinery. The aroma of stale cigar smoke in cold air and/or the faint fumes of kerosine/diesel fuel still trigger some of my clearest sensory images.

When we reached the designated hunting area, we would dawn our game vests, load our shotguns and open the tailgate releasing Buck to do his instinctive job.  Uncle Bill would yell, “Hunt birds, Buck!” and off the setter would go.  As we walked across harvested cornfields and bean fields we watched Buck as he ran at breakneck speed with his nose to the ground.  Rarely would Buck ever find any birds in the middle of a field early in the morning.  For protection at night, quail will usually gather into a covey and seek shelter in a wooded fencerow.

As Buck eventually zig-zagged his way across the field and began to run a fencerow at the edge, we continued our march toward what we hoped would be the hiding place of a large enough covey that all three of use could shoot at least a couple of birds each without depleting the covey too much.  When we came within earshot of the dog, Uncle Bill would yell, “There’s birds in there, Buck!  Hunt birds!”

One of the most magnificent moments in hunting is when a well-trained birddog goes on point.  From a full run, Buck would turn on a dime when he picked up the scent of the quail and go into a stance with head down, front paw up and tail out straight. One of the marks of a good birddog is the ability for the animal to stay on point for a prolonged period of time without advancing into the covey and flushing the birds.  Buck was a champ at staying on point.  Many times we lost sight of Buck for prolonged periods of time only to find that he was on point all the while.

The three of us would pump the forearms of our shotguns to insert a shell into the chamber as we took our positions in a semi-circle behind Buck; he shivered with excitement but never changed his stance.  On Uncle Bill’s command, Buck would flush the quail and all hell would break loose.  Even knowing that birds were going to fly out of the brush, the sound of their wings beating the cold morning air still evoked a mix of fear and thrill in me as the adrenalin surged through my body. Within less than five seconds it was over.  If our reactions were quick and our aim good, Buck would then shift from pointer to retriever and bring the downed quail back to Uncle Bill.  We then moved onto the next fence row and, hopefully, another covey.

Usually, by noon, Buck was exhausted and we returned to the truck.  In fact, the dog would be so expended that Uncle Bill usually had to lift him into the truck.  After we got back to town, we cleaned and dressed the quail then Uncle Bill would put them in the freezer to be part of our annual Wild Game Feed each year in January.  The main course of the meal normally consisted of squirrels, rabbits, quail and occasionally pheasant if we went to Glenview Game Preserve up around Washington, Indiana that season.

Last weekend, I had a chance to ride in an old pickup with Uncle Bill again.  We were not going hunting and we are both a lot older.  He can no longer hunt but still loves to shoot trap.  His  (not green) pickup no longer smelled of cigars and coal oil nor did we eat egg-and-cheese sandwiches at Cricket’s.  Still, it felt good to spend some time with my Uncle Bill.

Being an only child I have never had the experience of being an uncle.  I watch our children and their spouses with a bit of envy as they all interact with our seven grandkids.  Aunts and uncles can and do serve a vital role in the development of young people that the parents simply cannot because of their roles as parents.  I suspect that being an actively involved aunt or uncle is also good training for grandparenthood.  Regardless, I know that Uncle Bill certainly was important to me as a boy and still is.





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