I don’t do it anymore, but once upon a time the day after Christmas was as special to me as Christmas itself. My dad, his brothers, and a family rabbit hunt became a tradition that’s still fresh in my mind.
Many of them are gone now. Uncle Charlie, Uncle Joe…my dad. But one of the best Christmas (holiday) memories I have is about not Christmas itself, but the day after Christmas 50 years ago when they all got together on the family farm in southern Ohio to hunt rabbits.
My Uncle Charlie, at that time, lived and worked outside New York City as a special agent for the FBI. But he came home annually for the holidays and that was ‘big time’ for me. I loved the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and Charlie was cool – special. The stories he told about deer hunting in Maine and the people he’d met always garnered the attention of a 10-year-old boy.
Uncle Joe was a Baptist preacher, one of most popular people you’d ever meet in Lawrence County, Ohio, and just a unique guy for the variety of interests he had. Besides the Gospel…he liked music, cars, and rabbit hunting. Terrible shot with a shotgun, but he was fun, nonetheless, to just tag along with.
But to the story itself, every one of Dad’s eight brothers…Charlie, Joe, Leland, Dan, Ross, Claude, Frank, and Jeff, usually made it home for Christmas, and while that usually made for a gay time on Christmas eve (back when ‘gay’ was known by its holiday definition), what I looked forward to most was the day after Christmas.
For on that day most of the brothers would meet at a specified farm and go rabbit hunting, a renewal of a favorite pastime they enjoyed when they were all young, single, and at home on the farm. Back then they’d hunt for meat – food – and took seriously the ancillary challenge over who was the best at finding game, who trained the best beagles, and who actually shot best.
It was fun for a youngster like me, and I vividly remember those days, getting together at Dayton Williams’ farm because he had a south hillside with a lot of thorn thickets on it. Rabbits loved to sun themselves in those thickets and it made for a wild afternoon of action.
There were a lot of wild quail back then, as well, and I remember my dad was always the best wingshot of the bunch. Everyone, it seemed, could shoot a running rabbit, but it took a steadier hand to withstand the startling flush of a covey of quail, pick out a bird, and bring it down. Dad was the best, and that was a point of pride for me.
They all had, it seemed, legendary shotguns. Not legendary from the modern sense of being Parkers and Foxes, brands that were well-known and famous for their value. No, these were guns famous for the stories of how they were obtained – through trades – a milk cow for a Remington pump, and a pair of old Ithaca doubles that my grandfather bought during the Depression for the princely sum of $20. Uncle Charlie kept the 20 gauge, and my dad ended up with the 12.
Uncle Leland had one of the first Browning ‘Sweet 16s’ seen in that part of the country.
Uncle Dan had one of the early Remington autos, a Model 58, and later one of the new Model 1100s. My dad always teased him for needing the extra firepower of an autoloading shotgun to kill a limit of rabbits, four in that day.
Uncle Joe had an old Remington Model 870 pump, and one of the favorite stories told was about him being made to post up and wait for a running rabbit to pass. He had a nasty habit of tripping when he walked…and dropping that shotgun, and on more than one occasion it accidentally went off. No one was hurt, thankfully, but everyone kept a wary eye for Joe with a loaded shotgun after that.
I distinctly remember the lessons taught to me, specifically, on those hunts. I was too young to actually carry a gun, but gun safety was always impressed – how to keep the muzzle pointed upwards, safety on until ready to shoot. And no one ever shot more than their limit. In fact, it was usually agreed upon before the hunt about how many were needed for a meal then, or later. Only kill what you intended to use.
And later in life, after they all reached the age of being too old to walk the hills, the ‘uncles’ would gather in the summer at reunions and share the stories of their days in the fields. Uncle Charlie would smoke that big Macanudo cigar and laugh, slapping his knee for emphasis when telling about Joe dropping the shotgun, or someone missing an easy shot…or about the day when Grandma got her first modern washing machine and they missed hunting altogether to install it and watch it work.
Uncle Dan continued to hunt, and hunts to this day…in his 80s. He was also the one who raised the beagles back then, and stories about “Honey”, and “Mindy”, and “Rena” (his wife’s name, coincidentally…if Uncle Dan loved something he really loved it) became legendary.
And the beagle that was stolen – a story about a dog my grandfather owned believed to be stolen on the roadside back in the forties because it was such a good-looking specimen. The funny part of the story was…it was an absolutely useless hunting dog. It never left the comfort of the barn.
I smile when I think now. My heart breaks for one more day in the field with those guys because they cared for me and taught me so much…about safety, character, and responsibility. Yes, you can still learn it today, but somehow back then…..
And always…on the day AFTER Christmas!
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