The Boy’s First Solo Turkey Hunt
The father stands in front of the small cabin trimming crepe myrtles after his early morning turkey hunt. He likes this sort of thing, to be up early, in the woods, then have something to do upon his return. It’s only about eight o’clock and he expects the boy back at any minute.
The boy had seen several toms strutting in a pasture on the south end of the property and eased away on the four wheeler. “Don’t let me catch you driving that thing fast,” the father warned repeatedly.
The father is an attorney, and throughout his career he’s represented more families than he can count who lost a loved one due to an ATV accident. Mostly the unstable and unbalanced three wheeler, yet he still questions why he’d even bought a four wheeler for the farm. Heck, the boy could drive a pickup truck despite his thirteen years of age. But the four wheeler was an extra vehicle and sometimes you need an additional way to get around on the farm. Plus, driving the pickup up and down the steep hills, through the tight trails or down in the muddy river bottom leads to an assortment of wear and tear and scratches, and God forbid getting stuck out here in the middle of nowhere. The first generation of cell phones, called car phones, hardly work in a city much less the rural farmland of southern Tennessee. So he again decides the four wheeler is a good idea and goes back to trimming the shrubby tree. A few dogwoods are already blooming and it won’t be long before all plant life begins volunteering itself back. Cutting older dead limbs from the crepe myrtle will annunciate its flowers that are currently generating in hundreds of little buds.
The father stoops to remove debris from in between the plants and thinks he hears a shot down toward the pasture on the southside of the farm. He can’t be sure it’s the boy though. It is turkey season. It is a rural area where folks like to shoot guns. It is the country where country boys and girls like to install loud pipes, called Flowmasters, on their trucks. The father also has tinnitus, which messes up noise perception and causes a constant ringing of the ears. Too many guns fired, too little thought to ear plugs. The boy will one day experience the same constant ringing of the ears.
The father continues raking limbs away from the flower bed. He’ll have the boy help him carry them off to the burn pile and set fire to it later. The boy seems to like the work though he never says too much about it. At one point, in the early days of the farm, the father would hand the boy a box of fifty-gallon trash bags and tell him to fill up as many as he could over the course of a morning or afternoon. He didn’t think the boy enjoyed that too much. How could he? Many times the father would spy him down by the creek overturning rocks to catch frogs and salamanders. Being a boy. Over time the trash bags did fill, if slowly, and the land began to take a pretty good shape, the woods void of medicine bottles, whiskey bottles, beer bottles, beer cans, coke cans, coffee cans and anything else the previous owner thought of as trash. Hell, the world was his trash can. The father shakes his head and continues raking when he hears a roar. It gets closer. It’s up on the road. A vehicle, going really fast. Couldn’t be the boy. He knows better than that. Then he’s sure it’s a four wheeler. Can tell by the deep whine of the engine and the rapid popping of the muffler. He looks up at the road as the sound nears. Then the boy appears. He’s skylined to the father, who’s standing down in the bottom, and he’s what folks call “hauling ass.” The father, in his mind, has already scolded the boy, taken away the four wheeler until summer and possibly revoked the boy’s hunting privileges. How dare he defy the one thing I ask? His blood is boiling. His face red with anger as the boy races down the steep driveway to the cabin.
The father sets aside… nay, throws aside the rake and removes himself from among the crepe myrtles hoping the boy will see him and slow way down and maybe even know he’s in big trouble. The boy speeds on. The father’s anger continues to rise. Then it stops.
“What is that on his face?” the father says aloud. “Is that blood? Is he hurt?”
The father takes two giant strides, about to run to meet the four wheeler. His anger is gone; he only feels fear. The boy might have shot himself somehow. Caught a few thorns from a bodock tree in his eye. Got flogged by a turkey. It doesn’t matter at this point. Nothing matters. Until the father sees the turkey on the back of the four wheeler. And sees that the grimace on the boy’s face is in fact a wide grin. His nose is bleeding, yet he’s smiling his fool head off.
The boy literally skids the four wheeler to a stop. He’s breathless. Not used to driving that fast around steepish curves on a gravel road. Not used to hauling a heavy tom turkey out of the woods. Not used to a heavy tom turkey responding to his calling. And certainly not used to a heavy tom turkey walking into shotgun range. But the father doesn’t know any of that yet. He only knows his boy is safe from his first solo turkey hunt. He forgets the rage he felt minutes earlier and instead simply stands silent, knowing the story is on his way. The boy’s face with its wide grin is shuddering like the curtains on a great stage where a show is about to begin.
The boy putts along on the four wheeler. Not looking for anything. Just enjoying the ride. It was a long winter with the holidays and forced family photos shoots and rec. league basketball and school and all the other things youngins must endure. Not to mention the onslaught of puberty. What’s happening to his voice? His body? Girls, which he once thought were gross, now make his face red when they look his direction.
Are those turkeys?!
The boys pulls both handlebar brakes, the right hand operates the front brake, which you should only pull if going backward, and the left operates the back brake, which you should pull going forward. There’s also a pedal that controls the rear brake. Maybe he mashes the pedal too. The four wheeler comes to a quick halt.
The boy knows a lot about turkey hunting. He just doesn’t possess any experience. What knowledge he’s gathered derives from the pages of Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, the only two magazines on Earth worth reading in his opinion. Turkey hunting is new to the father even. He grew up an avid quail and duck hunter in North Alabama in the late 1960s and early 1970s when deer much less turkeys had yet to establish themselves in the Tennessee Valley. The boy had sat starry-eyed on many occasions while the father reveled in the tales of waterfowl’s heyday when the sky was black with ducks and geese. Or how the father would rush home from school, throw his shotgun and dog in the back seat of his car, and burn rubber out toward the fields of Guntersville where he could for sure find four coveys on a bad day.
The force of both brakes causes the boy to slide all the way forward on the seat. For an instance he’s face to face with the gas gauge. He rights himself. A wave of dust comes up and around and continues down the road. He looks again to the south pasture where several toms strut amid a gaggle of hens. The boy is excited as well as nervous. He thinks hard through the pages of the magazines but can’t recall what to do in this riding-on-a-four-wheeler-spots-turkeys-but-has-never-hunted-them-solo situation. He has his shotgun. He has a few calls that he’s practiced incessantly in his bedroom over the past three months. The mother does not abide, but she understands the boy is crazy about hunting and the outdoors. The father has even said he sees a spark of the conservationist he’ll eventually grow to become.
The turkeys are a good three hundred yards out in the pasture, which the father also at one time named the Power Line Field because there is a power line that runs through it providing electricity to the few buildings on the farm and the neighbor’s property. The field where the turkeys are is like a ridge, with a slightly sloping hill to the left that goes down to a fence line. On the other side of that fence line is the road the boy is currently on. Off to the right is a steeper grade that quickly turns into a thicket that runs for several hundred yards to another fence line. Beyond the flock the field rises slightly toward a third fence line. This side of the flock, where the boy is spying them from the ATV, is a fourth fence line that rounds out the pasture. It’s littered with heavy cedar trees. The boy’s best chance is to slip off the hill to the right, just this side of the closest fence, walk all the way to the bottom, cross the fence, enter the woods, and try to sneak around to the other side of the flock where he will be above them. That’s where they have the least visibility and why wouldn’t a gobbler who’s not getting a lot of attention from the hens want to come up there and see what’s going on when the boy sets to calling?
First, the boy backs the four wheeler down the road in the direction he came. Slowly now, that’s it. He backs off the gravel into a shallow grassy ditch, puts on the parking brake, shifts back into neutral like he’s been taught and kills the engine. He’s breathing hard as he loads his shotgun by locking back the action, inserting a three-and-a-half-inch turkey load, then quietly easing the action forward and stuffing two more shells that come equipped with the kick of a mule up into the magazine. The shotgun is a first-generation Benelli Super Black Eagle the father bought him on his previous birthday. It’s fitted with an extra full choke. The father had heard good things about Benelli. They turned out to be true. Twenty two years later and the boy, now a man, still owns and shoots that shotgun at ducks, geese, dove, pheasants, clay pigeons and sometimes real, and of course turkey, and has never in two-plus decades had a single thing go wrong with it. Today is going to be the Benelli’s worst foul-up.
The boy heads toward the first fence line at a forty-five-degree angle and turns downhill. He eventually makes it to the other side of the flock just as he’d hoped, by crawling on his hands and knees toward the rise where the turkeys would be below him. Only problem upon arriving to this spot is that there’s no cover. Zero. He’s just there, in the open field, on his hands and knees. Now what? He eases up onto his knees. Slowly, ever so slowly. He raises his head slowly-er. He hears a weird base sound putt-waaahhhhh, putt-waaahhhhh. He’s read about it but his mind isn’t on the intricacies of courting and mating rituals among turkeys. Next season he’ll experience the true origin of this sound that’ll turn on a lightbulb. For now, he assumes it’s his heart trying to bug out either his eyes or ear drums.
Just over the lip of the rise something black. The boy is back on his hands and knees. There isn’t a tree for fifty yards in either direction. The best thing to do, he decides, is to lay flat on his back and make his stand. His face mask is pulled up, diaphragm on the tongue, shotgun shouldered as well as it can be in such a position.
He yelps loudly, too loudly. Yet is acknowledged instantly by a gobble. He’s holding his head up, albeit shakily. His shotgun is aimed wide right of his feet. Fortunately the boy is cognizant of gun safety at all times no matter what. The four wheeler is another story.
Another too-loud yelp is met with another gobble in the direction of his barrel. Suddenly, the top half of a black oval comes into view. The boys shakes. He’s holding his breath without realizing it and doesn’t even notice how bad his core muscles hurt. He blinks. When his eyes open there’s a red head. That’s all he sees before it disappears.
“Next time I see that head I’m shooting,” he tells himself. The head rises again, more to the right so that the boy twists slightly, making it so the barrel is angled nearly forty five degrees off his body. The head rises higher, so red, beady black eyes, the snood dangling. It’s now or never, the boy tells himself as he pushes the safety off and yanks the trigger.
The boy lies there really still on his back, the Benelli, in both hands, rests on his chest. Flying turkeys take the place of what should have been cartoon stars circling his head. He tastes blood in his mouth. Like most boys he’d engaged in his share of fistfights and knows the metallic taste of blood well enough. He touches his face and his hand comes away red. He feels his nose. It’s not broken though it bleeds profusely. His teeth are all there. That’s good.
The boy checks the safety again on the Benelli to make sure it’s on and sits up. His vision shimmers for a second then clears. It’s the aftermath of a three-and-a-half-inch turkey load sending the full build of the shotgun, lock, stock and barrel, across his face.
Nothing stirs. He’s missed. Frustration rises. He stands up. And there just over the rise is a big black bird with a red head and a long beard, lying deader than a doornail. Frustration gives way to elation and he checks the safety on the Benelli yet again and run-walks over to the gobbler on the ground.
He’s done it. He’s so dang happy and proud that he ignores his father’s only rule for the four wheeler as he shifts into fifth gear, speeding down the road and shifting down into fourth as he turns down the driveway toward the house. He watches his father come out of the flower bed and throw the rake and charge forward but he doesn’t care. He’s taken his punishment and will reap his reward. The boy nears the house and this time pulls on the left handle brake and the back tires lock up and skid through the gravel and bring the four wheeler to a stop. He doesn’t apply the parking brake or shift into to neutral. The father is smiling and the boy notices. He'd seen the face of anger turn to joy on the father’s face. The father’s fleeting look of fear has gone unseen. The boy smiles even harder. Because there’s a story tell. And the father is about to hear it in full.