Friday, June 30, 2006

Chicken dinner-part 3

by Tom Gaylord

"This is a BB gun. I want you to use it because it makes very little noise, so I won't be distracted while I work. Also, the BB doesn't carry as far as a bullet, so I think you are old enough to be trusted to use it on your own. We don't want any of the farmer's cattle dropping over suddenly from lead poisoning, now do we?"

I don't remember what I said to that. Although I didn't actually own a BB gun, many of my friends did and I had used them enough to know what to do. Besides, my father had already taught me how to use a real gun the year before, so there wasn't much fear that I would do anything unsafe. But then, uncle Don said something that took me by complete surprise.

"If you manage to provide me with a bird dinner at least five nights while we are here, I'll give that gun to you with my thanks." As far as I was concerned, uncle Don had just given away a BB gun.

Then, I got my first lesson in prairie chickens. They don't abound and you could never get close enough to one to shoot it with a BB gun, even if they did. For the next three days I hunted high and low for the elusive birds, and was always disappointed. They are the wariest creatures on God's green earth.

Using your best approach, the closest you can get to a prairie chicken is about 100 feet. That's well beyond the striking distance of any BB gun. They run along the ground just in front of you then flutter a few yards if you try to overtake them. After some trials around camp, I learned that I would have to get within about 25 to 30 feet if I wanted to have a chance of bagging one. I thought my uncle had given me an impossible task.

On the third night at the evening meal, he remarked to me, "See many chickens, today?"

I said that I had, and proceeded to tell him about their discouraging habit of keeping just in front of me.

"What you should do is what the Mandans used to do when they wanted some. They used bows to get theirs, and a bow doesn't have much range, either. So, you know what they learned to do?"

I was all ears at this point. My uncle was gong to tell me how to bag a chicken with a BB gun.

"They used to put grain out for the birds to eat, then they'd hide nearby and shoot them when they came to eat."

What a wonderful idea? Grain as bait. Only, we didn't have any grain with us. Then I thought about the rice we had in a sack. Rice is a grain. Maybe the birds would like rice.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Chicken dinner-part 2

by Tom Gaylord

To get me ready for the trip, my father and uncle took me into New York City to the famous Abercrombie & Fitch store downtown, where they bought me a full set of expedition clothes and camping equipment. Since we were there, I was allowed to look at the guns they had on display in their famous gun room. Wall after wall of beautiful walnut-stocked rifles and shotguns from the most famous makers in the world. The brief time we spent in that room was the single most fascinating moment of my young life.

We left New Jersey by train in mid-April and traveled to Bismark, North Dakota, where my uncle hired a car. Our drive to the Mandan site was over some very rustic trails and sometimes even over open ground. I wasn't sure the flivver could make it, but my uncle seemed to know exactly where we were going. It was farm country now, and we were on a huge farm that he had obtained permission from before the trip.

When we finally got where we were going, he located a good place for our camp and we set about to make ourselves "at home." There were some outbuildings nearby, but he wanted to stay away from them. So we camped on the opposite side of a small pond. That was when I learned of my biggest surprise.

After the tent was up and the campfire was going, Uncle Don called me over to have a pow-wow with him. He told me he was going to be very busy in the coming weeks and I would have to take care of the camp for him. I was thrilled to think he would trust me to do that, but that was before I found out all that it meant. Not only was I to keep the fire going all day and night, he also wanted me to haul water, cover the waste pit and to provide some of our rations. I had brought my fishing pole and the small pond near where we were set up looked good, but he said he wanted more than just fish.

From the back of his trunk he produced a long narrow cardboard box that had an exciting look to it. I knew what sort of things came in such boxes because I spent all my time looking at them in the local stores at home. This was a gun box! Only, this wasn't just any gun box. It had an Abercrombie & Fitch label on the cover, so I figured he had gotten it when we were there.

"Jaime," he said, "I want you to hunt for us with this gun. This land abounds with the famed prairie chicken, and I would like to eat some while we are here. So I am giving you this gun to use."

That word "use" struck me as odd. Why buy a new gun, only to loan it to me? Why not just borrow one of my father's many rifles? Why buy a new one? Then, he told me.


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Chicken dinner - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

In the first part of the 20th century, outings were an important part of American life. Magazine articles, newspaper accounts and even whole books were written proclaiming the benefits of enjoying the healthy outdoors life. Outdoor equipment was in high demand, and entire catalogs were devoted to displaying the finest grades of sporting dry goods and equipment. Companies like Abercrombie & Fitch ruled the day, and young boys, especially, looked forward to the day when they could be properly outfitted for whatever adventures might come their way. So it was with me.

I lived in New Jersey, and the opportunity for outings into the wilderness were usually restricted to local parks or the seashore. The parks were fun, but you could easily walk out of their boundaries in a few hours, and the New Jersey coastline was as well developed in those days as it is today. So, a fellow had to read stories and do a lot of daydreaming if he wanted real adventure.

One day, however, all that changed for me. My uncle Don, on my mother's side, was a naturalist who worked for National Geographic magazine. He was always off exploring faraway lands and sending back Kodaks of his adventures. I idolized him, which I guess he suspected, because whenever he would come to visit us, I monopolized as much of his time as I could. On one such visit, he surprised both me and my parents by offering to let me accompany him on his next journey.

He was going to explore the ancient lands of the Mandan Indian tribe of North Dakota to document what had become of the tribe since they were first contacted by Lewis & Clark. Since the trip was to be inside the United States and since it was only scheduled to last three weeks, he won permission to take me along. I would miss some school, but my father said the experience would help to round out my education more than long division and diagramming sentences. Since he was also the principal of the school I attended, there was no need for further discussion on that subject.

I might note that my mother was concerned about my getting bored, being in the field with her brother all that time. "It won't be like the park, Jamie. You won't be able to come home when you get tired. If you go, you'll have to stay the full time until your uncle is ready to come home." That actually worried me, as I had no idea what life would be like in the field. I imagined hunting big game and fishing for salmon; but, to hear uncle Don, it was more like a day on the farm. I wasn't sure how I'd feel after several weeks of it. Still, I wanted to go, if only to find out what it was like to be in the field.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Andy – part 3

by Tom Gaylord

I never told my folks about that because they were already suspicious of Andy's dad as it was. My mom and dad often talked about him when they thought I was asleep. They wondered where his money came from and why he had so much time on his hands. My mom thought he was a criminal of some sort, but my dad was sure he was just some sort of European with money, like a banker or something.

When I turned 16, I stopped going out to the island because my folks enrolled me in preparatory school, which took that summer as well as one full school year. After that, I was accepted at West Point, where I attended and finally graduated. Mom and my sisters still went out to the island each summer, until my older sister got married. Then they started staying nearer to home, and eventually my middle sister got married, as well.

Dad retired from his legal practice and he and mom bought a smaller home, now that us kids were out of the house. I still went back for visits, but the carefree days on Kelly's island shooting BB guns with Andy had faded into dim memories.

Then the Great War started in Europe, and, as I was serving in the Army, I was certain to go if we got in. Training took up all my time until the day came when Mr. Wilson finally gave the word to go "Over There." I served in France and was gassed early in my first campaign, so I got the free trip home to recover in a hospital in New York. I thought about Andy, as I was finally in his city, but I didn't have the slightest notion of how to find him. I didn't even know his last name!

But as things sometimes do, it worked out completely different than I expected. Andy found me. Or at least I learned where he had been since our happy days on the island. In 1921, I saw his picture in an article in the paper, with about thirty other people I didn't know. It seems his whole family had been executed in Russia when the Bolsheviks took over. You see, Andy's last name was Romanof, and that cost both him and his father their lives. That was when I finally understood what his father had meant about enemies.

But the story doesn’t end there. It ends in 1925, when I bought a nickel-plated Daisy BB gun in a second-hand shop in Cleveland. There was no doubt that it was Andy's old gun because he had scratched his name in the metal wire of the stock. Only now my mature eyes read the name Andrei R.

Isn't it funny how the little things in life often turn out to be the biggest, only we don't find out about them until it's over?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Andy – part 2

by Tom Gaylord

I had a Columbian BB gun back home in Euclid, so I wasn't as fascinated as he was. I could shoot practically any time I wanted to, so I guess I got my fill of it. I did bring it with me to the island, but I didn't shoot it all the time. There was swimming and fishing and exploring and picnics and all sorts of other good stuff to do out there.

But Andy was different. He just shot and shot all day long. His folks were loaded, so there was never a problem with having enough shot. I suppose he had several 5-lb. sacks of BBs when he got to the island, and I'm sure he never went home with any. He would even loan me some when I ran out, which happened weekly. Dad would always bring a few tubes with him on Friday, but I was out by the following Wednesday, and I didn't want to push my luck. So, I borrowed from Andy.

Andy had a nickname for me. It was Tovarik. He said that was the name of one of his best friends back home. I sort of went along with it, although it seemed a little strange. He never called me that in front of my folks; but when we were alone, I was Tovarik all the time.

Sometimes, we went camping. Just the two of us and Andy's dad. He was a real swell guy, too. Not like other fathers, I guess he didn't have to work because he used to do the same stuff us kids did, and he seemed to have just as much fun.

He had a thick accent, which my dad said sounded European to him. I never paid much attention because, in those days, every other adult had some kind of accent. But, Andy's dad could tell the greatest stories whenever we would get him alone. He told about kings and emperors and armies and wars and all kinds of neat stuff like that. He said when he was a little boy, his dad used to take him camping and fishing at some island very much like Kelly's island, but in his home country.

And, he liked to shoot as much as Andy. I watched the two of them snipe at pine nuts from 40 feet, a range I would have said was beyond even the best BB guns. They connected with a lot of those shots, so you couldn't say it was just luck. I tried to keep up, but I seldom connected. Not like those two, for sure.

I remember one time very well. We were all out camping near the end of the season, and Andy wanted to take a shot at a crow high up in a tree. His dad wouldn't let him because he said the BB would only hurt the bird and not kill it. That's when he told both of us, "If you ever shoot at a living creature, make sure you kill it on the first shot. There is no reason to make an innocent animal suffer for your lack of good sportsmanship."

That's when I asked him, "But what if you are shooting at a criminal? Or an enemy soldier? Shouldn't you shoot them, no matter what?" In those days, the books we read were full of tales about how some kid our age got mixed up with criminals and his own good marksmanship bailed him out at the end. Often, it was as good to simply wound the bad guy as to actually kill him, or at least that's what the stories said.

I'll never forget what Andy's father told me. He said, "Never leave an enemy alive. They will only recover to come after you again. If you shoot an enemy, always make sure he's dead." The look in his eyes when he said that was enough to chill my blood. I knew the man wasn't just saying it; he meant it. I think he even lived it.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Andy - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

When I was just a young fellow, my parents used to spend the summer on Kelly's Island in Lake Erie. There were summer cabins, and families would rent them by the week or month. Our family often spent the whole summer out there, with my dad taking the ferry to Sandusky, where he caught the train to his office in Cleveland during the week. On Friday evening, he would join us at the cabin, and we would all be together until the evening ferry left again on Sunday.

My sisters and I pretty much had the run of the island during the week. As long as the weather was good, we could swim or look for shells along the gravelly beach. I would sometimes go fishing with Tom Johnson, who had the place next to ours, but he was a lot older and liked to stay out in his rowboat all day, which I found boring. So, I suppose I went swimming on most days or just went over to look at the glacial moraines carved in the bedrock. The island was full of them. Huge gray rocks with deep grooves cut into them by glaciers or something.

But my favorite time of all was spending time with Andy. He was one year older, and his family lived in New York City. They usually got to the island around the middle of June and stayed until Labor Day, just like us. Andy's father even stayed the whole time, too.

Andy was so interesting because he always had a different perspective on things. When I told him about the circus my folks took me to in the fall, he told me about something called an amusement park that was set up all the time in New York. It sounded kind of like a circus and a carnival rolled up in one, but it also had some things I had never heard of. Like a roller coaster. Andy said they had the biggest roller coaster in the world at Coney Island, and he tried to describe it to me. Years later, when I finally saw one for myself, I could see he hadn't exaggerated. At the time, though, I wasn't too sure.

Another thing he told me was that in New York, the kids could not have any kind of guns. Now, I could see why they couldn't have .22s, because you couldn't shoot them in Cleveland, either, but he said it went further than that. He said even BB guns were frowned on by officials, and if a cop saw a kid with one he would confiscate it. That seemed pretty extreme to me, but it did explain why he was so attached to his Daisy. It seems that he only got to use the gun out at the island, so that was what he did whenever he came. He didn't swim; he didn't fish. He just used to grab that gun of his in the morning and carry it all around the island all day long. As a result, Andy got to be a pretty good shot.

to be continued...