Old habits and old memories are hard to live down sometimes. For those who love the fall woods watching the tree tops for squirrels, here’s one that I’m thankful for, even though I now live it alone.
I took some time last week to renew an old habit, and an acquaintance.
Before playoff football, state tournaments, and preparation for winter basketball got in the way…I went squirrel hunting.
I took a couple of days, a couple of old guns, some shotgun shells, a favorite jacket, and headed down route 23 to the Ohio River. When I hit Portsmouth I turned east, towards Ironton. When I reached Ironton I turned north and out through the countryside of Lawrence County, to Scottown. Scottown is where my dad grew up as a boy, on the family farm along Guyan Creek and route 217. It’s hills and bottom land along the creeks. They grow tobacco, some beef cattle, and there’s still a few dairies around. It hasn’t changed a lot from the 60s, when Dad moved his family away to Miami County for a better teaching job and more opportunities.
Those hills were a lot of fun to me as a young boy. There wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment back then. Only a few had televisions, there was no social media, and fun amounted to what you could find.
My dad loved to squirrel hunt, and he took me, teaching me gun safety, but most importantly, some good life ethics. Some hunted wild game year-round for food, but not Dad. He was a stickler for the law and never hunted…never killed an animal…out of season.
He’d take me back in the hills and teach me the difference between hickories and oaks, and the part of the season when squirrels preferred one mast type over another…hickory nuts early in the season, acorns and walnuts later on.
He had his favorite spots to hunt, and favorite trees under which to sit. He’d share with me stories of hunting with his dad and his eight brothers growing up…the big red squirrel that was the color of a fox that he knocked out of that big beech tree in the “rock house” hollow one time, the one he never found. He’d never seen one of its kind prior, and he never saw another one after, the likes of that particular squirrel.
He taught me how to hunt with a shotgun, and a rifle. How to aim both so as not to tear up the meat.
Afterwards he would show me how to skin and quarter the carcass. Dad loved fried squirrel, potatoes and gravy. And squirrel is, without a doubt, one of the delicacies of all wild game because their diet of nuts and corn makes for very pleasant-tasting meat.
I thought of all these things last week as I climbed the hill Wednesday morning just after sunup. Finding a familiar old tree from my youth and days with him, I hunkered beneath it to renew acquaintances emotionally while waiting for the woods to come alive.
It didn’t take long. Two wild turkeys ventured past, within good gun range of my 20 gauge Remington. Some would have taken one just for the meat, and no one would have known because there wasn’t a game warden within miles. But turkeys are out of season right now, and I smiled as I remembered Dad’s admonitions about observing the law.
The hickory nuts had begun to fall, so I kept a close eye for squirrels that were on the ground digging, looking for their morning fare. A big gray appeared out of nowhere, quickly found his breakfast and scampered up the side of the hickory from which it had fallen. He climbed out on a stout limb, 20 yards away, and began cutting (chewing) through the hard shell and into the sweet core. It was an easy shot, but I hesitated, and eventually put my gun down. Since I had no desire to clean and eat squirrel that morning, I chose not to kill one.
“Only kill what you intend to eat,” Pop would say. So I just watched.
The gray on the limb was soon joined by two more, farther up in the tree, gnawing industriously, oblivious to my observing. As I watched I became aware of my phone buzzing in my pocket, and I quietly slid it open to read a message from my cousin, doing morning chores at the barn.
“Hey, bring in a few,” he wrote. “I’ll help you clean ’em and we’ll have a feast for supper…fried potatoes, gravy and biscuits.”
That was all the prompting I needed.
With three quick, well-placed shots I took all three from the hickory tree, and after waiting for the woods to come back to life after the report of a shotgun, I picked another trying to make an escape through a nearby buckeye tree.
My dad’s been gone now for almost five years. But I swear at that moment I knew he was around as I picked up my squirrels and made my way down the path, through the big rocks that framed the hollow, and back to reality. You hear about out-of-body experiences and this one was like coming back from a previous life as I left the hill…the hill where the man taught me all those life lessons.
My only regret was…I wished he would have taught me more.
I wish he still could.
More time in the woods…with Dad.
(P.S. Supper that night: squirrels, biscuits and gravy…spectacular!)