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  • December 13th, 2011


By Joel M. Vance
            September…I was born in September.  Got married in September.    It’s a month of beginnings.    Hunting season is beginning.  Doves are at the cornstubble and ragweed.  Already we’ve had a cold rain and a chilly night that sent many of them south.           

            Beginnings…ducks are uneasily eying the morning’s skim ice on the prairie potholes.  White-tailed bucks are glaring at young pine trees, as if they were rival lovers.  Velvet itches and throbs and innocent pines suffer.

                  Some of the pine trees are mine.  They are gnarled and scarred and some are dead, because of a ghost buck that comes in the night and jousts with them.  This has been going on for 20 years.  I doubt the same buck has slashed at my pine trees with bloody tines for 20 years.  The original passed on his wary genes.  I’ve never seen any of these phantom bucks.  Heard one once in the pre-dawn still of the darkest night ever.  He was no more than 20 yards from my stand and I sensed more than heard him.  Then he did the same to me–sensed more than heard–and snorted loudly.  When dawn came, the young pines bore fresh wounds, but the buck was gone.

            Many beginnings with this buck and his offspring, but no endings.  Yet.
            Young grouse are thinking about a life on their own, no more of this familial squabbling.  Quail are huddling up, tail to tail, fluffing their feathers as the nights cool and winter gets set to trim a few of them out of the covey.  Rabbits and doves and squirrels have just about given up procreating for a while.  Better to worry about the long cold that lies over the hills to the north.
            Beginnings–a time to sit and think about things out here on the back porch where we can see the far ridge and imagine what’s going on there.
            I expect I’ll get up pretty soon and go see.  Might be a few doves left to fly in to the stubblefield before fluttering to roost.    Squirrel season is open, but I’d rather wait to hunt them until the leaves fall and squirrels pounce and rattle through them for all the world like a stealthy white-tail.  Gives the old adrenal glands some exercise.
               Country has deep tap roots in me.  My father grew up on a hardrock farm in Missouri; my mother in a little resort town at the edge of the Wisconsin northwoods.  They were country when country meant dirt-poor, not some Yuppie idea of bucolic harmony.  My maternal grandmother cooked for the loggers who ripped the north woods to the ground.  My dad’s father was a sometime carpenter who would rather fish and hunt than pound nails. 

              None of them had two nickels to rub together.

             My father and his brothers looked like Huck and Tom and it wasn’t playacting.  They really were dressed in shabby overalls with run over shoes…or none at all.  When I was 13, we moved to Dalton, Missouri, a town that has been asleep for a hundred years, like Brigadoon, but shows no sign of awakening even for a day.  We lived in the Dalton Hotel, a gone-to-near-ruin heap with 17 rooms, a coal furnace that barely heated the first floor, not to mention the icy second, no indoor toilet, no indoor plumbing.

            The drummers who got off the train just across the dirt road and stayed there in the early days must have longed for a bigger town where you could count on something better than cold water and a chamber pot.  Might explain why the old railroad hotel went out of business.

            The hotel was like living in a flophouse without the usual amenities…but it had one thing going for it.  It was close to the outdoors.  It was three miles from the Dalton Cutoff, then one of the best duck hunting lakes in Missouri.  And it wasn’t too far from my father’s 950-acre farm where we could find quail, squirrels and, when a pin oak bend in the old Chariton River flooded, mallards.  No deer or turkeys in those distant days, but we didn’t know about such exotic animals anyway.

            If we wanted to fish we went to the Cutoff and rigged a trotline for carp, buffalo and catfish.  Or, as we called them “troutlines” although none of us had ever seen a trout.  My shotgun was a long-barreled, full-choke Model 12 Winchester which now is my turkey gun.  It wasn’t much for shooting at quail unless they were about 70 yards away, but it was a duck killer then and, with bismuth shot, still is.

            My only rifle was a single shot Winchester .22 bolt action which was accurate enough to shoot the eye out of a squirrel at 30 yards if I could hold it steady.  I learned the wonderful pleasure of feeling the greasy slick of a .22 long rifle cartridge.

            This life was a far cry from the south side of Chicago where I was born and raised.  I’d fished for lake perch off piers in Lake Michigan a few blocks from our city apartment and played cowboys and Indians in vacant lots, but Dalton was a new world without paved streets and multi-story apartment buildings.  This was like the Jack London novels I’d read.  I wanted a White Fang dog, but got only a sorry setter who didn’t know a quail from a buzzard. 

            My father got the dog in a swap, just as he got the Model 12.  Of the two the gun was far and away the best deal.  A better hunting dog was Chaps, a half-cocker, half-springer spaniel that migrated with us from Chicago.

            She started as a city dog but she enthusiastically bounded into the Missouri squirrel woods and became a master of the art for the rest of her long life.  Just as she shucked city and embraced country, so did I.  This was the real outdoors, not one tucked in the pages of a book from the South Side Library. 

              I leaped into it with my eyes wide open and I’ve never looked back.


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  1. Karl Miller

    December 13th, 2011 at 10:02 am


    Ahh shared memories!!

  2. Karl Miller

    December 13th, 2011 at 10:02 am


    Ahh Shared memories.

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