A few years back, my father's associate, Barney Rickshaw, persuaded him to go down to the boondocks of Argentina to go hunt doves. That's right, doves: the birds of peace.
At first it was hard for me to swallow. My dad—whose knowledge of shotguns was reserved for golf tournaments—was no killer. I laughed at the prospect of him doing anything so rugged. So manly. I figured it was probably just a good business move, as Rickshaw was one of Dad's best America-fleecing clients.
Surprisingly, my dad came back from the trip a bon-a-fide killer. Apparently, Argentina for dove season is unlike hunting anywhere else in the world. As the birds fly to and from their roost, they fill up the sky, turning day into night. There are no regulations as to how many birds you can shoot or how many shells you can load. So for those two hours, it's a hunter's paradise—a veritable dove genocide.
My dad showed me a picture of him and Rickshaw, guns in hand, behind a wall of dead doves. It was appalling, from a PETA standpoint. Yet I somehow also felt a tinge of pride. Who knew one of my own could be so … so manly?
To my further surprise, a few weeks later, Dad bought a shotgun. And just like that, we were different; we were gun owners. It felt rebellious. Out of control. And completely out of character.
See, we are not the handy, able, manly, gun-toting type. We don't even know how a gun works. Or a bike. Or a wrench. We don't know how to pitch a tent or build a fire. The only knots we know are for neckties.
Neither my grandfather nor his building's superintendent could bestow such manly secrets upon Dad. So he could never pass such vital knowledge down my way.
I think that's always upset Dad just a little bit—that other than being a fantastic provider, he hasn't been able to show his kids how to be very manly. Because of this deficiency, my dad's been trying since I was a kid to cast off our hereditary injustice.
His first attempt at defying nature was to move the family from the suburbs of Chicago to the wild mid-west of Denver, Colorado. Unfortunately, we didn't fit in.
In Colorado, men are men of the world. Men who sleep outdoors! Men who climb mountains! Who not only climb, they climb ice! Then sleep out in the snow! Real men. Men's men. Real American tough-guys. Not us.
In Colorado, my new friends we're corn-fed and blonde. Their parents were contractors, pilots, and military. They all fished and hunted with their dads. They all knew what a carburetor did. They all whittled their own soapbox derby cars, with barely a watchful eye from their able-handed, thickly mustachioed fathers.
When my dad and I tried to make my own soapbox derby car, I had a vision of the Starskey and Hutch mobile, but the wobbly thing we "crafted" turned out lopsided, the wheels didn't spin, and the paint job bled like a scream queen. I won the Most Creative Car trophy out of pure sympathy. It's still my only trophy.
No, Colorado was just way outside of our natural environment. And so nature, the world of men, has somehow always seemed unnatural to me. Always given me this uneasy feeling that I might not survive such a rugged world.
So maybe that's why my dad jumped at the chance to be a dove killer. Not just to show himself that he could, but to show nature—and all the manly men who run it.
And maybe that's why I agreed to go with my father when he invited me to go on the next hunting trip. This time to the Willamette Valley of Oregon, to go hunt turkeys.
In spite of my own nature, or to spite it, I said yes. Why couldn't I be the tough guy for once? After all, what could be more tough-guy then bringing home Thanksgiving dinner?
Or maybe I just thought there'd be Pinot tasting involved.
We landed in Portland around noon. It was well past dark by the time we'd gotten our bags, our rental car, our lunch, and gotten predictably lost in an unpredictable forest. We finally got to the Kesterman Ranch around 7:30pm. The girl at the lodge told us that we had missed the hunting party. They'd all gone to bed a good hour back. "Ain't no party like a hunting party," I mumbled.
We were shown to our sparse cabin, without a bottle of Pinot in site, or even a TV.
The next morning started innocently enough, with me asleep in bed, like a morning should. Thunderous knocking shocked my slumbering senses. It was a warning knock.
We were under attack! My most savage of survival instincts kicked in. I rolled lithely out of bed and immediately beneath it. A dust ball met my nose. I sneezed violently.
A voice on the other side of the door gleefully announced, "Guess what gentleman? It's raining."
"Fuck," I grunted audibly. I was in the Willamette Valley. With fucking Rickshaw. Fucking turkey hunting instead of Pinot tasting.
At least we weren't under attack.
After the initial shock of not just waking at 4am, but being violently shaken at that ungodly hour, I suffered the further shock of seeing myself in the mirror all dressed up in camouflage. Dad came over and checked his own camo-decked self out too. The camouflage actually made us stick out.
We made it to the lodge for breakfast with the other hunters. Manly men with boot knives rounded the table. Next to Rickshaw sat his thirteen-year-old son, Kenny, who'd already bagged six turkeys and was chomping at the bit for his next kill. There was Old Man Kesterman, who owned the lodge and property, and who looked like he may have eaten a Jew recently. Next to him sat his son-in-law, lanky Larry, who would be my father and my personal turkey-hunting guide. To Larry's left sat his 18 year-old son, Quentin, who was in his first year of employment with the ranch and training for the Lumberjack World Championships. His face was painted green. He looked how I felt.
As I was sure was often the case, Rickshaw set the tone of the conversation. "So, Mr. Kesterman, you think you're gonna call in one of them big ol' gobblers today?"
I'm not sure if Old Man Kesterman had to think about his response, or if the delay was just to intuit he was being spoken to, but after a good ten seconds Mr. Kesterman started to speak. Slowly. "Well… I… am… sure… gonna… try… you… know… those… gobblers… are… gonna… do… what… they… do… so… I'm… just… gonna… try… to… get… 'em… to… come… to… the… call… I… guess… I'm… just… going… to… have… to… romance… 'em."
Breakfast was almost done by the time Old Man Kesterman finished his sentence.
Rickshaw went back to the roundtable. "Adam, what about you?" He eyed me with a look I couldn't tell was challenging or friendly. "You excited to see some big ol' Toms?"
"Oh, yeah. I can't be sure what I'm going to do if I do see one, but I'm excited to find out."
"You just take a deep breath, pick your pattern just in front of his head, take another deep breath, let half of it out…" Rickshaw let out half a breath, "…and fire. BAM! Easy as that."
Right, blow his head off. No problem.
The meal commenced. We feasted like men, for the sake of fuel, like we needed the meat to sustain us till our next kill. Every now and then one of Old Man Kesterman's skittish daughters would come in and make sure Pa had enough bacon and butter. The rain thunked hard on the roof. No sign of light fought through the windows.
After breakfast, Larry crammed my dad and me into his dirty Dodge pickup and closed the cell bay doors. We drove and drove, with me cramped in the cab. Little did I know it was the most comfortable I would be for a long time. Larry didn't say a word, like his mind was elsewhere, perhaps in a clock tower somewhere.
After about an hour of cramped silence, Larry pulled over and let us in on his plan. "We're gonna line yous up in the trees and thickets and stuff… then I'm gonna set up on the side of the field and try and call 'em in… I don't know if they'll come, but I reckon they'll be there. I seen 'em there a few days back… heard 'em too."
Larry gave me my shotgun and told me to load it. Then he showed me how. Then he just loaded the thing for me.
Larry gave me a "chair", which was really just two pieces of nylon attached by Velcro. Dad and I followed him into a field with a huge thicket that grew along a tree line. Larry told Dad to gussy up against one of them trees and look for the birds to come in behind him. Dad gave me a thinly veiled look of manly confidence, swallowed deeply, and disappeared.
Larry and I continued down the thicket. He stopped at what must have been the perfect part, though it looked exactly like the rest of the thicket to me. He gestured for me to insert myself into this wall of barbs. I sneezed at the very thought of what was in there. Larry whispered for me not to shoot my father and moved on.
Though situated smack-dab in rain-soaked Oregon, my thicket somehow remained relatively dry. At first I deemed this to be a good thing, but soon realized I could find no possible position that afforded me the least bit of comfort. I had nothing to lean against save for the "chair", which only gave the illusion of leaning. Whenever I moved a muscle to seek any sort of comfort, I may as well have been an alarm, betraying our stealthy location to any imminently arriving wild birds whose heads we were supposed to blow off.
I sat there trying desperately not to move, failing miserably. I listened to Larry attempting to call in the birds, using a variety of noisemakers that all sounded like farts. As entertaining as that sounds, and despite the pain of my current position, I drifted off, figuring the hunt's necessity of silence would be best served by going to sleep.
I can't be sure how long I let myself drift, but my hunting instincts proved to be quite keen, as I woke up, the rain subsiding, an eerie haze clinging to the wet ground, and five prancing birds not twenty feet in front of my nose.
Too groggy to move, I stayed in my still position, even as I realized there was a loaded gun atop my very sore knee. I may very well have been dreaming.
In my brief instruction back at the lodge, Rickshaw showed me a stuffed turkey and told me to look for the long red beard and big black spurs of a Tom, the term for a male turkey. The lodge bird had a longer beard than Billy Gibbons, sharper spurs than the Pale Rider, and was damn near bigger than me. If it came down to it, he could probably serve me for Thanksgiving dinner.
But in the mist of this cold morning, the five birds in front of me didn't look anything like that big stuffed gobbler in the lodge. The three birds leading the pack had brown heads and no beards at all. Like huge pigeons.
Then I focused on the two birds strutting behind. They weren't big, but they weren't brown. They both bore the red head of a Tom, but without the pronounced tail feathers and hanging gullet I'd seen on the beast stuffed in the lodge. Then I looked at their chests. The one closest to the huge pigeons had the makings of a miniature beard, or at least pronounced peach fuzz, no more than an inch long. But a definite beard. And the bird behind him had a beard three times that, maybe not ZZ Top quality, but he at least looked like he was a couple months into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It was all the recognition I needed.
I raised my gun, immediately alarming the birds to my presence. While the rest of his friends fled, the bearded bird sadly stalled, distracted by the prospect of some easily attainable tail. Oh, he had intentions of running, but those intentions met squarely with my reaction to fire. Without thinking, without waking really, I pointed, not aimed, at the too-slow bird, and unloaded in his general direction.
The boom instantaneously jostled my grogginess as it swept the turkey soundly from his feet, blasted to the ground.
Reacting, I ran to the felled beast as he gasped for his last labored breaths. His bare head turned from red to blue, then quickly to grim, ghoulish grey. His laboring stopped as quickly as it started. I could see his soul rise as the dead air escaped from his lungs.
"Aha!" I heard my dad scream as I hovered over the carnage. I looked over to see my camo-covered father emerging from his hiding place, gun in hand. "You did it!" He came over and patted me on the back. He looked shocked, like he didn't know I had it in me. Or like the deafening blast cutting the silence of the peaceful morning had just woke him up, as well. I looked at him like I just broke a window with another errant lacrosse ball.
"That was worth the price of admission right there!" Dad's initial shock was replaced with pride.
Larry came over to have a look. He extended his right hand and I shook it, tentatively. "Well, you did it. That's a fine Jake."
"A Jake? What's a Jake?"
"A male turkey… who's not quite a Tom."
Nobody told me about Jakes. "What do you mean not quite a Tom?"
"Not quite growsed up enough."
"Like a boy?"
"More like a teenager."
Great. Not only was I a killer, I was a baby killer.
It was only about seven o'clock in the morning by the time I murdered my Jake. Since I only had a license for one turkey per day (one more than I deserved), I didn't have to hang out in any more thickets. But my Dad still had some killing to do.
As the morning became optically official, we set up in four different spots with no success. On our fifth attempt, Larry situated my dad in someone's bushes – someone who apparently was used to live firearms going off in the general vicinity.
I was jarred from another nap by another shotgun blast filling the quiet peace of a rainy Oregon morn. I got up in time to see my dad standing over another dying Jake; this one had less of a beard and a life less-lived than my own.
When I saw the super-sized Toms the rest of the hunters brought home, I knew we'd killed in vain. Rickshaw said I couldn't be picky; it was my first hunt. He was just glad my dad and I both got a bird. Of course, Rickshaw also said that if it weren't for hunters, the globe would be overrun by wild beasts.
As we flew home, with a cooler full of BB-crusted turkey stowed safely below, I looked over to my father. "Well," I said, "that was about the dumbest thing we've ever done."
"Son, you know we could have just golfed Pebble Beach for what we just spent?"
"We didn't even drink any Pinot."
"Well, now we know."
"How did we get ourselves into this?" I asked.
"I don't think I had a choice. I'm just glad you came with me."
"At least Thanksgiving will be good."
Of course, Thanksgiving wasn't good. Karma wouldn't allow it. About two weeks before Turkey Day, the downstairs freezer just up and broke. Nobody was home for a couple of days, and by that time our slain Jakes had turned rotten to the core. Like my soul.
And so, our hunt turned out to be solely for the sake of slaughter. I did not feel manly.
But my father didn't panic. We still had thanks to give, so my dad did what any good provider must: he made reservations. We went to a very nice restaurant. I had the duck. My dad had the prime rib. And the whole family gave thanks for a delicious bottle of Pinot Noir, straight from the Willamette Valley.
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