(This is an encore column from the Curt Comments archives.)
I felt something shaking my foot through the covers of my bed. I really didn’t want to open my eyes because it seemed they had only drifted off to sleep just moments before.
Then there was that foot shaking again followed by a raspy half-whisper so not to awaken by brother sleeping in the next bed over “You going to go huntin’?” my dad asked.
Immediately my eyes popped open. That was why I couldn’t fall asleep. Knowing Dad & I were going squirrel hunting the next morning had wired my 11-year-old mind better than any caffeine could have. Sleep just wouldn’t come in anticipation of my first squirrel hunt.
I threw back the bed sheet on that very early late-August Saturday morning now over 50 years ago and grabbed my hunting clothes which I had laid out the night before.
As I got to the kitchen, Dad was going through his squirrel hunting early morning ritual. “You want some coffee?” he asked as he let the hot water run from the tap and dumped a spoonful of instant coffee into a cup.
Figuring that was what all hunters did as a part of their pre-hunt, I yawned with a sleepy “Yeah.”
He put the guns in the old Dodge truck, and as we drove to Grandpa’s woods, I drank the bitter, tepid beverage hoping that maybe someday I’d get accustomed the taste.
Grandpa’s woods was near Dudleytown. It was nearly level, plenty of beech and hickory trees, and Grandpa kept it mowed to keep a good pasture for the cows he had grazing throughout the summer.
There was plenty of food for the squirrels, the walking and moving was easy and we didn’t have to worry too much about making excessive noise because the squirrels were accustomed to all the cows.
Dad used a 12 ga. pump shotgun. He handed me a .22/.410 over and under. “If you can get a good bead on one use the rifle. If you miss, bust him out with the shotgun,” he told me.
We had talked for days before and he told me the best way to hunt was to find a comfortable place to sit so I could see several likely trees and wait for the limbs to start moving or cuttings to start falling and follow them up to find the squirrel.
He went over gun safety and making sure not to shoot at anything on the ground or running up a tree and to be sure of my target before squeezing the trigger.
“Be careful and good luck” he said as he creeped through the woods to his favorite spot to hunt.
The early dawn air was thick with humidity and sweet with the smell of ripening corn just a field away. The dew was so heavy my pants had been soaked from the knees down before we got halfway from the truck to the woods.
I sat at the base of a hollow beech snag, cradled by the large sprawling roots and waited for some more sunlight to arrive. I looked to the treetops and, being new at hunting, wasn’t real sure just what I was looking for.
But I would remember over and over what Gramp and my Dad had told me: “Listen for the sound of water dripping through the leaves. It’s either a squirrel cutting on a nut or a squirrel moving through the tree branches.”
It wouldn’t be long before I heard that sound and could add another possibility its cause: birds. Birds could get a squirrel hunter’s adrenaline flowing only to end up being a fickle lover when you found their true identity.
Sometimes when you try to concentrate on the silence of the woods, listening for a faint giveaway sound of game, you hear things that aren’t there.
Like that sound of water dripping through the trees that I was hearing…or thought I was hearing. No, I was hearing it.
I searched the nearby treetops moving only my eyes looking for its source. Finally I acquiesced and moved my head around trying to see where that sound was coming from.
Then some white and green tinged shreddings of hickory nut hull fell just within arm’s reach of me. I contorted my head and eventually my whole body—at least as much as an 11-year-old who has never hunted can—to search for that squirrel.
Finally, with my body stretched out at an impossible angle to hold for a steady shot, I saw a bit of bushy brown tail.
My heart began pounding even harder. Knowing that if I moved for a better shot angle the squirrel would be gone. I decided to lie flat on my back on the ground. I could see a bushy tail flick as more and more hickory hulls peppered all around me. But with the iron sights, I couldn’t see any part of the squirrel to take a shot.
“Be sure of your target” I remember Dad telling me.
Not wanting to be embarrassed by missing the first squirrel I ever spotted, I made what I thought was a pretty logical decision for my age and experience: use the shotgun.
So I clicked down to the .410 barrel, laid back, and after a bit of wavering, drew a solid bead on the location of the vital parts of the squirrel.
It would not be for several years later in Mr. Bard’s high school physics class that I would be introduced to Newton’s laws of motion. Specifically about any action requiring an equal and opposite reaction. The ground doesn’t move with the recoil of a shotgun.
All I knew at the time was my arm, my shoulder, my collar bone hurt. But up I jumped as soon as I heard a nearby thud on the ground.
Dad said as he walked up all he saw was a broad, beaming smile picking up his first squirrel.