(Editor’s Note: We will be posting this short story in two parts. Part two will post on Friday, November 29)
The alarm clock taped to the headboard started to clang just after five am. The November 21 edition of the Memphis Press Scimitar had predicted sunrise to be at exactly 6:33 am, and I wanted to be settled into the woods at least by 6:00 am. I slipped out of bed and took my hunting clothes into the kitchen. Still dressed in only my underwear, I cracked open the back door and checked the thermometer that hung on one of my mother’s planters. It read Twenty-seven degrees; cold, but not killer cold.
I knew full well how to dress for hunting. I slipped into a pair of long underwear, two pairs of boot socks, a wool sweater and canvas hunting pants. After grabbing a glass of orange juice and two leftover biscuits, I put on my heavy hunting jacket and tiptoed back into my room. I pulled my single shot Mossberg .20 gauge out of the closet and grabbed a box of high base No, 6 shot.
I eased back to the kitchen and quietly shut the door as I went out. I took my gloves out of my hunting jacket, pulled them on, slung my shotgun across my back and pushed my bike to the street. I whistled for Nappy, my mix breed fice dog and he came charging out of his house, ready to go. Pulling my navy watch cap down over my ears, I started to Hickory Woods.
After making the turn onto 5th Avenue, with Nappy happily trailing behind me, I rode the six blocks to Hilburn’s store. 5th Avenue ended in the gravel parking lot of Hilburn’s and marked the Southern City Limits of my little town of Cleveland, Mississippi. By this time it was nearly 5:30 and it was still pitch dark. The street lights of 5th Avenue faded behind me as Nappy and I took the dirt road that led to the woods.
There’s something about riding through the stubble of a cotton field on a frigid winter morning that intensifies the cold to near Siberian levels. The sky was filled with about a billion stars and there was no sign of pink on the Eastern horizon. The slight north wind was at my back and I only had about half a mile ride to my destination. I darn near froze, but soon I was ditching my bike at the edge of Hickory woods.
Nappy and I crept as quietly as we could deep into the interior of the small patch of hardwood trees. Hickory was maybe a quarter mile wide and half a mile long. It was mostly oaks and hickory trees, the perfect habitat for squirrels.
There was a small slough along the backside that at one time had been a creek of sorts. In 1951 it had been reduced to a marshy area with a few old cypress trees, dry most of the year, and holding a little water in the winter. I had stuck three beat-up wooden duck decoys out on the little patch of water about a week before, with not much chance of attracting migrating ducks, but you never knew.
We found a fallen tree and settled in to wait for sunrise, still about thirty minutes away. The woods were still and quiet, nothing was stirring. Snuggling down into my hunting jacket, I reached into a pocket and pulled out one of the biscuits. I shared it with Nappy who was curled around my feet trying to stay warm. Soon I noticed a slight pale pink smudge to the East and some of the creatures began to stir.
A large owl flew over my head on his way to his daytime roost and some of the birds began to chirp. It would be close to daylight when the squirrels started to move about, and I knew I could depend on Nappy to let me know when they awoke. Nappy was a natural squirrel dog and there was no place he would rather be than right here, deep in the woods just before dawn.
I decided that it was light enough to check out the slough just in case some totally confused duck might have spent the night there. Nappy and I slipped to the edge of the little marsh and there they were, my three forlorn decoys, all be themselves. Time to go squirrel hunting.
It was my opinion, and one shred by many of my friends, that Hickory Woods contained the largest per acre squirrel population on the planet. One thing for sure is that there were a blue ton on them, and Nappy and I collected a half dozen before we called it quits about 8:00 am. I field dressed the squirrels; we ate our other biscuit and headed back home, hopefully in time for breakfast.
When I returned to the house, everyone was up and breakfast was over. My mother had already started cooking Thanksgiving dinner, and the house was filled with the aroma of a baking turkey and a myriad of other goodies. I was just fixing a plate of left over biscuits and bacon when my Dad came into the kitchen dressed in his usual weekend outfit; corduroy pants, shirt and sweater and raggedy-assed sports coat with leather patches on the elbows. He looked at me and said,
“I can’t believe you’ve been hunting in this weather. You have to be half nuts. I’m surprised you didn’t freeze your butt off.”
“Where are you headed,” I innocently asked.
“To the club; we’ve got a 9:30 tee time.”
“So, it’s too cold to go hunting, but just fine for a round of golf, huh? I noticed the temperature had risen to a toasty 33 degrees as I came in a minute ago. I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable.”
“Golf is different from hunting; you’re moving around and keeping your body temp up. Totally different deal.”
My mother looked up from her chopping board and said,
“Tommy, don’t try to reason with your father where golf is concerned. He sits in the air conditioning all summer playing gin rummy, and plays golf in the dead of winter. Men are strange and he is among the strangest.”
“By the time we tee off it’ll be in the fifties, and besides, we’re only playing nine holes. Everybody wants to be home in time for Thanksgiving dinner and the Lions-Packers game.” He retorted.
My mother gave one of her standard warnings, pretty much a knee-jerk reaction,
“Just be sure you’re here by noon. We’re going to eat at twelve if you’re here or not.”
“I’ll be here; I don’t want to miss the kickoff.”
After Dad left to go to the club, my little brother Stevie took off to his friend Tim’s house, while Mother stayed in the kitchen with the bubbling pots and delicious smells. I decided to go to my room and work on the model of the Sopwith Camel I had been building for over a month. I had reached the point that the balsa wood frame had been completed, and I needed to start applying the tissue paper skin.
I sat down at my desk and flipped on the radio to WCLD at 1490 on the AM band. Pattie Page was mid-way through The Tennessee Waltz as I started in on the tissue paper and glue. I’d just finished the top wing when Nat King Cole began crooning his new hit Too Young.
I had saved up and ordered a McCoy .49 engine, and this would be my first attempt to build a plane that might actually fly. This was a critical moment in the construction process, and it required my total attention. I was grooving along to Tony Bennett’s Cold, Cold Heart when I heard the back door slam and my Dad come in from golf.
I walked into the dining room where the table had been set with my mother’s best crystal, china and linen. Everything looked ready to go. I was about to go wash up when my mother said,
“Go call your brother. It’s almost time to sit down for dinner, and by call him, I don’t mean stand in the front yard a yell his name. Go down to Tim’s and get him. I’m sure Tim’s family is about to eat too.”
Now, believe it or not, we did have a telephone, but according to my mother’s rules of engagement, the phone couldn’t be used in such a trivial manner. Local calls, which by the way were free, had to be used only when it was impossible to reach a party otherwise. Long distance was reserved for births, death and a weekly call to her mother. I hit the back door and biked down the three blocks to Tim’s.
Stevie and Tim were sitting in Tim’s front yard leaning on their bikes. I rode up and said,
“Hey, dumbass, dinner’s on the table and you need to get your butt home.”
“Talk about a dumbass,” Stevie replied, “at least I didn’t get up at the crack of dawn and go freeze my ass off in the woods. What’d you kill, anything besides time?”
“Mom’s going to skin your skinny butt if you don’t get on that bike and hot-foot it home.”
I rode back toward the house having fulfilled my instructions. Whether Stevie came or not was not my problem. I parked my bike and headed to the bathroom to wash-up for the feast. And feast it was. Roasted Turkey, Cornbread dressing, giblet gravy, green bean casserole, homemade yeast rolls and cranberry congealed salad.
To Be Continued…