The alarm chimes as the clock strikes five in the morning. Before the big hand reaches five past the hour, I am pulling the last knot tight on my snake boots and walking across the creaking wood floor at my parent’s house to the door.
It has become tradition for me to stay on the farm on opening eve of Georgia turkey season for no reason other than I simply prefer to do so. I’ve not missed an opener in over 30 years and even during college and a few years of working a "real" job, I’ve always managed to make the pilgrimage.
Passing through the kitchen and into my father’s turkey call shop, the smell of varnish and wood shavings adds to the infusion of opening day reminiscence.
Normally my father would be walking out the door with me, but he’s fast asleep in bed, preferring to hunt gentleman’s hours these days.
I often parlay him for the company and while his mind says yes, his body is failing him more often than either of us would care to admit, and our hunts together are often relegated to slow evening strolls filled with stories of days past and punctuated by the occasional gobble which never fails to bring a big smile to his face.
He will put the call to his mouth, a trumpet yelper with a hen wingbone mouthpiece fixed inside a .22-250 brass cartridge – his call of choice since the late 60s. When the gobbler answers, dad lets the call drop back to his chest on the lanyard and looks at me with a, “that is plenty” grin.
Days of Youth
A bullfrog croaks at the lake, whippoorwills call, and somewhere far away a distant train whistle carries in the night. These sounds are echoes from my youth as I laid in bed the night before a morning hunt. The windows open, I would lie there and listen to the world pass through the screen as I searched for country gold on a small dial radio. Eventually, someone would request Don Williams “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” and I’d mouth the verse, “when I was young I remember well, I’d hunt the wild turkey and the bobwhite quail,” before eventually falling asleep.
The next morning would find me and dad sitting side-by-side in his old ’74 Chevrolet Cheyenne, the big engine ticking a deep guttural drone as gravel popped and the devil-red eyes of whippoorwills shone in the headlights. Sweet shrubs intermingled with the faint smell of a skunk, an odor I’ve always found less offensive than most, filtered through the open windows of the truck as the mountain laurel-choked creek bottoms gave way to stands of ancient oak and hemlock. Countless mornings we rode together on this narrow road that wound for miles, traversing a labyrinth of hardwood valleys, creek bottoms, and finger ridges that seemed to swallow time.
Now over three decades later, I return to those woods to play the game. Older now, some would say wiser since wisdom is garnered through suffering and the realization of folly, both of which I have been dealt a gracious plenty of in the turkey woods. Even with many years and seasons under my belt, I am still that young boy when I hear a gobbler and see him walking through the big woods. Heart racing, palms sweating, and wondering if I am calling too much or too little when he stops; the answer almost always being the former. I can hear dad’s voice, “that’s enough, let him come."
The great expanses of forest are smaller now, big timber having scoured most of the mountains, dollars rising above silly things like nostalgia and common sense. Still, some vestiges are left with old friends waiting for me, stoic and holding steadfast to a world neither of us fully understand. These friends pass with each successive year, claimed by the industrious, premeditatedly destined to fuel giant furnaces in Europe.
Still the turkeys survive here and I continue to chase them, both of us adapting as best we can, deserting otherwise. This opening morning finds me on a high ridge crowned with white oaks and hickory trees and another old friend perched somewhere high in a lone hemlock over a noisy mountain creek. He gobbles and I wait.
For a few minutes, he continues to gobble, rattling through the leaves and calling to that same young boy who knew these woods so many years ago. The call in my hand is the same that has hung around my neck for nearly a quarter of a century. An Osage Orange trumpet yelper with a Westinghouse Micarta mouthpiece, both crafted by my father. His signature and the date, 1996, are written inside the barrel. The ink has faded, but sound has not, and the gobbler affirms.
When I shoot him I am overcome with emotion so I remain at the base of the great oak, watching him lie there in silence, the color slowly fading from his head. This game we play is for keeps and he’d won for many years, but this morning I am the victor.
For a moment, as Ben Rodgers Lee once famously said, I wish I could breathe life back into him to play the game again, but it is simply not the case. The magnificence of the old bird, the big woods, and the memories from this place all come together in a river of sentiment that cannot be described by word nor should it be, for if that was possible, the moment would not hold what it does.
Now, I can hear the machinery laboring over the ridge, buzzing and cracking in mechanized reverberation. The birds are still singing through it all and around me, all I see are the ancient hardwoods and a few hemlocks, stragglers of a breed destined for extinction. Through my eyes, here in this place, the world has not changed even as inevitability looms just over the horizon. I think of Jim Harrison’s words, “This moment says no to the next. Now is quite enough.”
The clock stops for no one, but it is possible to slow it down for just a bit.