My friend David invited me to a private dove hunt on the opening day of dove season, September 1. I haven’t gone dove hunting in fifteen years. The last time I tried to bring down one of those aerial acrobats, I need a note signed by my parents to get out of school. My sunscreen failed before lunch, and I went home with tender skin the color of boiled lobster. Sleeveless camouflage t-shirts are only good in theory.
Now that I run my own business and a day away from work always means a pile-up, I have to find ways to make time off seem like the smart, responsible choice. For example, I ask myself, “Can I afford to miss this experience?” rather than, “Can I afford to take a day off work?”
The smells of burnt powder and hay in the sunlight rejuvenate the work-weary soul.
I drove to David’s house where Greg, our host, picked us up. We ate a quick, greasy breakfast of hashbrowns—scattered, covered, smothered—at Waffle House. I felt worse immediately. You can rely on Waffle House for a punch in the stomach, and three hours later, a punch in the sphincter. The only thing more consistent at Waffle House is the appearance of mustaches and goatees on women.
As Kolby walked in, our waitress smirked and nicknamed him, “Daisy Dukes.” I guess that’s the cost of wearing short shorts to America’s favorite heart attack factory.
Aside: Who orders steak at Waffle House?
We caravaned out to Sweetwater, Tennessee, where Greg had leased a couple of fields from a farmer who was sick of opening his land to a public hunt and listening to complaints from his neighbors about shot pellets raining on their roofs.
Guns do funny things to people. They throw one’s character into high relief. They are a litmus test for honesty and, of course, machismo. If you want to figure out whether you can trust a man, take him hunting and count how many times he unthinkingly swings the barrel in your direction. Many shotguns default to safety after a reload, so you probably won’t get shot. You will discover who is, despite all trappings of salary, education, and manner, an idiot.
Don’t go hunting with idiots.
You’ll also see which friends fudge their numbers.
“How many birds did you shoot?”
“Ten or twelve.”
Only the most experienced hunters don’t keep a precise count of their birds because they have nothing to prove. They’re not in it for the competition or even the meat but for camaraderie, good exercise, story swapping, and the simple pleasures of warmth on their backs, the aromas of grass and earth, and the absence of phone calls, emails, and other relentless technologies and communication.
Back at the trucks at the close of shooting hours, languid conversation replaces shotgun blasts: “The birds flew high sooner this year, don’t you think? They were acting like late season birds. But at least they started moving sooner. It really picked up around 4:30, which was a surprise.”
This can go on for a couple of hours at the end of the day as dusk drops, and the only birds still flying are the Killdeer whose silhouettes resemble that of a dove. Unlike doves, they shriek almost like gulls, and their flight patterns lack the dove’s characteristic wheeling and careening—the flight pattern that thwarted me for eight hours straight. At least the shells cost only a quarter each.
But back to some men’s willingness to stretch the truth for the grand cause of sportsman’s pride:
“I shot fifteen or sixteen but could only find nine.”
When this impressive individual who claimed to have bagged his limit dumped his birds on the ground to begin cleaning them, you might then only count six or seven. A bird in the hand is better than two in a bush because a hunter with an inferiority complex can always turn that one bird into three or four.
Who knew that dead birds could replicate!
I didn’t have anything to hide because I didn’t have anything to show. I didn’t hit a single dove all day, at least none that fell within a hundred yards of me.
Every other time I’ve gone dove hunting, I’ve brought down at least one bird. One bird doesn’t signify much, except holding on to one’s pride, however tattered. As the time passed four o’clock, and five, and six, and as I burned through sixty-six shells, my frustration grew.
What was wrong? I hadn’t hunted in fifteen years, but the statistics were still on my side. Sixty-seven ounces of 7 1/2 shot should have touched a wing or two. My vision has changed, and my dominant shooting eye, the left, is weaker than the right. This introduces some problems, but I shouldn’t have been that far off. I’d had shot clays more than once in the past twelve months and had hit a respectable number.
As the sun began to set, my frustration gave way to humility.
My friend David encouraged me, “Go and get you one!”
Walking away from him along a spine that separated two fields and then downhill, roughly east, I found a single dove lying dead in the stubble. Its eyes had closed, but the small, soft body was still warm.
I walked back up to David.
“You got one!” he said, his face lighting up.
“I got one. But I didn’t kill it,” I said, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice.
The poet in me said that more beautiful creatures went on living because I had shot so poorly. The pragmatist in me said that the one dove I found had cost me $75 in my share of the hunting lease and shells, plus whatever profit I lost by missing work and burning gas.
The poet usually wins these internal debates. What price tag could I put on a half dozen memorable conversations, a mild sunburn, mown cornfields, and the kick of my friend’s 12-gauge Beretta on my shoulder.
Missing sixty-six times—failure teaches us what we value: accomplishments or the experiences themselves; the destination or the journey; comparison or conversation.
I have matured since my first duck hunt in Arkansas at the age of twelve or thirteen. I remember feeling a huge surge of relief when Steve, one of the men in the blind, pronounced that the second shot, not the first, was the one that brought down the female mallard. Will, who was four years younger than I, had pulled his trigger first, and was standing up to go retrieve the bird.
I didn’t want to bicker with a younger kid about who shot what, but that was my first duck! Steve saved the day. The giddiness soon gave way to the unpleasant reality of ringing the duck’s neck. It wasn’t dead.
Killing from a distance was easier to stomach than tightening my fingers around the duck’s neck, which felt like a dog’s tail and slingshotting its body. Bile crept up my throat, and my walk back to the blind, steps crunching on the ice, was much slower.
Perhaps I should have let Will claim the duck.
Can you desire success for yourself, fail, and yet congratulate the person who achieved your goal? Can you give a sincere smile to the friend who shot the twelve-point buck you hunted all season? Or is the worm of jealousy wriggling in your heart even as you say, “Congratulations!”?
I’d rather learn the largesse of true celebration than the practiced veneer. I am slowly learning how to celebrate other people’s success, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t experience a momentary twinge of envy after sitting in 90˚ heat with no shade for eight hours only to watch a fellow hunter shake out a bag of fifteen birds. I want that generosity of spirit more than I want a dozen dead birds.
In the meantime, I need to figure out the problem and shoot more clays.