One hour into my first wild turkey hunt in four years, I was leaning on a tree trunk, panting and sweating. My digital read-out reported only two miles traveled on comparatively flat ground, but it felt like a marathon. No more run-and-gun for this old man.
I’d seen a flock of hens fly off the roost at daylight; but I was downwind, and the spring morning was gusty. My yelps and clucks were probably drowned out by the racket in the treetops: boughs whipping, and the whistling of straight line winds. Winter’s desiccated leaves scraping and rattling across the ground added to the background noise.
The sudden creak and crash of a large branch falling from a tree convinced me to retreat from the deep woods and set up on the edge of a field. Senior citizens tend to have a keener sense of their own mortality, and I did not want to be brained by a limb or flattened under an oak tree. Plus, I had no idea where those birds landed or the direction they went as a group.
I was fairly confident a gobbler was close. I had not heard a bird sound off, but a geezer like me can’t always trust his ears, especially in an April wind storm. Massive waves of Jet Stream air seemed to be crashing against the Cumberland Plateau and curling south again to roar across the Highland Ridge. Of all the times to test my mettle as a recovering hunter…
The field was not a good choice. I set up my ground blind but had to hold it down against the wind. The flapping of fabric and snap of nylon rope also made it hard to nap. So, I picked up my gear – about 20 pounds’ worth, counting gun, vest (filled with shells, calls, camo clothing, decoys, inflatable seat and snacks) – and wandered.
Meandering, I finally found a cedar glade between the shoulders of a hollow. The wind still whooshed on the higher slopes, but I seemed to be out of the worst.
Geezers also realize the need to regularly refuel the sputtering bodily engine. My smothering vest was quickly shrugged off; I gratefully removed my foot-pinching boots; and I leaned back comfortably against a fencepost to contemplate whether to enjoy sardines or Vienna sausages with my saltine crackers. I decided on both, this also being a prerogative of old age.
My father always maintained that sardines and crackers were the perfect fare for hunting lunches. I personally thought gelatinous sausages should be included, but the best meals afield are always improved by wedges of hoop cheese and hot sauce. I had it all, with Snickers bite-size candy bars and Reese’s peanut butter Easter eggs, courtesy of my granddaughter, for dessert – all to be washed down with a bottle of spring water.
As happened so many times in my more than half-century of hunting, I let my attention lapse. Concentrating on layering crackers with meat and cheese, dousing liberally with sauce piquant from a tiny sample bottle, and slowly chewing with my eyes closed… well, you guessed it.
Turkeys suddenly materialized at the far end of the cedar glade. My gun lay on the ground. Mask, hat and gloves were wadded between my legs. And I had cellophane wrappers, a tin of smelly little fish in soybean oil and two Vienna sausage cans balanced on my lap. My mouth was full, so there was no room for a turkey call. The hot sauce burned my tongue, but I dared not reach for the water bottle.
Some things don’t change, like the feeling of being an incompetent idiot.
A scouting party of jakes ran toward me, stopped to quarrel and bump chest feathers in faux combat. The hens followed, heads down and pecking in the dirt. Bringing up the rear, puffed up and rolling along to display his fan at the best angle, was the dominant gobbler.
Two other male birds were tail-end Charlies. They were careful not to impinge on the Boss Bird’s magnificence. He simpered left, took mincing steps to the right – then extended his neck and boomed out a gobble.
Cracker crumbs and sardines flew as I choked on my helplessness.
The entire parade took about 20 minutes to pass: court jesters first, followed by the sexy courtesans, next the proud, beard-wagging, spitting-and-drumming King of the Woods (or, at least, this flock’s ranking royalty), and finally his surly retainers bringing up the rear. One of those knights errant might someday challenge His Highness, but not today, probably not this spring.
Through it all, the cracker, sardine, sausage and cheese turned to mush in my mouth. I knew the taste of wormwood. The sting of failure. And it was all so embarrassing.
I gathered up my lunch, packed it away, put on boots and hunting accoutrement, and checked the shells in my shotgun. I went to stand up when movement stopped me. Another turkey had entered the grove. A gobbler.
He looked like an undertaker in tattered black feathers, bent and somber, with a funereal air following in his wake. The bird limped slightly and seemed too skinny. I knew exactly what he represented: age and defeat. The gobbler who was dethroned. He had no flock nor future.
The new King’s Court could not stand the sight of him, so he trailed discretely, out of sight and mind, and would until a coyote picked him off or he failed to greet another sunrise from his roost due to disease or injury. It was just a matter of time. Wild turkeys and old men share this eventuality.
I clicked the safety off and brought the gun slowly to my shoulder. This would be a better end for him, rather than suffer for weeks and months as an outcast and cripple.
The old bird surprised me. He shot out his red-wattled neck and gobbled. Just once. Then he painfully blew up into a strut, held for a few steps, and relaxed his ragged feathers as if the effort was too much.
There was no reason for him to display, no audience at all for his desperate gobble except a hunter who was squeezing the trigger of a gun loaded with high-powered 12-gauge shells – one of which was guaranteed to put the turkey out of his misery, and let a sixty something-year-old man reclaim some past glory.
I won’t share what happened next. Telling the story to this point is enough. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed this hunt immensely. These were the experiences I savored and missed through a self-imposed hunting exile.
It is a story to tell my loved ones in the evening of life… and a decision to explain or leave hanging. I don’t know which I will choose. But I still have time to hunt and think about whether I did the right thing.