Sunday, April 7, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Six: The Hunting Trip

To understand most of what follows it is necessary for this pre-Saigon1967 story to be told.

I was home on leave after graduating from OTS and having been commissioned a Second Lieutenant. It had been a never ending round of parties with my fraternity brothers. Jack had been home for the holidays also. He was finishing a year’s leave of absence from college, and from NROTC, working for the State of Oregon as a Civil Engineer.

There was a certain amount of irony in the fact that I was a commissioned officer and he, as yet, was not.

He had been in Navy ROTC his whole college career. He was always going to be a Navy officer. I was always going to be a ne’r-do-well. Somehow events had conspired to cast me in the roll of being slightly Jack’s senior in the great military scheme of things. But he was going to be a pilot so that evened things out and put him back on top.

One evening after Christmas but before New Years a group of my fraternity brothers and I were at my parents’ house where I was staying while on leave. We were drinking beer and doing whatever one did at that kind of gathering. Jack showed up about 10:00. He had said something about possibly dropping by, but it was a fairly vague proposition, so I was surprised to see him, especially that late. After a beer and some small talk he told me we were going bird hunting the next day. He told me to pack warm clothes, like for winter hiking and be ready to leave at 5:00 the next morning. He would supply everything else. I could buy a license once we got over to hunting country.

I had never been hunting. I had never wanted to go hunting. I was planning a lot more beer and conversation before the evening was over, and I wasn’t going to meet anyone for anything at 5:00 in the morning. Besides, I didn’t have any hiking boots. In fact the only shoes I had were loafers.

But jack was insistent, and I became compliant. At 5:00 the next morning I was getting into his car with some warm clothes and wearing a pair of loafers with an extra pair of socks. I wasn’t sure what the extra socks were supposed to accomplish but it had seemed like a good idea. Jack and I and Blaze, his father’s German shorthaired pointer took off toward Central Oregon. I was tired and hung over and totally disinterested in the whole enterprise. Jack was ready to roll and Blaze wanted to know who the goof in loafers was.

A few days prior to this expedition Oregon had been hit by one of those occasionally furious Pacific storms that arrive in November and December. Unlike most of that kind of storm, this one had spared the west side of the mountains but had devastated portions of central and eastern Oregon. That was my one hope. Conditions would be so bad that even a person as unreasonable as Jack would have had to admit that we had to abandon the plan, and I would be home in bed a little later that morning.

But we kept going. We had breakfast in The Dalles where I bought my hunting license and we continued east. We went around one traffic barrier warning of bad road conditions ahead. Jack chose to ignore the warning because we were going to be hunting prior to the area of the bad conditions. By this time the terrain had changed from the heavily wooded Douglas fir rain forest west of the Cascade Mountains to the desert, sagebrush with some scrub Juniper country of Central Oregon. We were getting farther from the main east-west route all the time, driving on a two-lane country road. As we drove Jack did a running commentary about what kind of terrain we were looking for, terrain that would be good habitat for game birds. He would point out a draw and explain how it would be a likely spot to find birds. And he embellished his tutorial with stories about hunting trips he and his father had had in terrain just like that which he had just pointed to. He told about what the birds had done, what the dog had done, how many birds he and his father and Blaze had actually harvested. Even to the non hunter it had begun to get pretty interesting. I kept wondering as we came abreast of each new potential bird place, and then passed it, when we were going to stop and test out the theory.

The weather was also worsening. Even though it was pre-noon it seemed to be getting darker. And it was beginning to spit snowflakes.

Then for no reason obvious to me - the place we were pulling into looked pretty much like every other place we had seen - we stopped. “OK. This is it.” Blaze began to wiggle and whine. Jack got out; I got out; Blaze got out. The sky darkened; the snow stung my face where the wind whipped it. I looked at my loafers. Surely we weren’t really going to do this. Surely we were going to find a town with a decent motel and a decent bar and have a decent day and night and then go home the next morning.

But Jack handed me one of the two guns and a handful of shells. The guns were beautiful little side by side double barrel 20 gauge Winchesters. The shells were medium load number 6 shot. I had never shot a shot gun but was a pretty good shot with a rifle, although I was not a hunter, and I knew and practiced the rules of safety with firearms. The prime rule is never point a gun, even a toy gun, at anything you don’t plan to kill. But making sure the safety is on is also one of the rules. So even though I was a novice hunter we didn’t have to waste a lot of time teaching me how to handle a shotgun.

Jack handed me his gun and went through two of the strands of barb wire fence that kept the cattle in. I handed him my gun and his gun and went through myself. Blaze was already on the other side and heading out on a few preliminary sweeps of the area. Not only hadn’t I ever hunted before, I had never seen a dog hunt. I had some idea about the end game, the “point”, Blaze after all was a pointer, but I had no idea what the process leading up to the point might be; I also didn’t know how fantastically exciting it might be.

The place Jack had chosen to start our hunt looked pretty much like everything else he had pointed out since we had arrived in hunting country. It was a flat area covered with sagebrush and juniper and heading away from and along the axis of the road for as far as you could see. What hadn’t been obvious to me, and may have been obvious to Jack – I never got around to asking – was the fact that, there was a draw once you got into the area and it gradually sloped downhill.

Just as our descent had begun the snow started to get heavier, and borne on one of the numerous biting gusts of wind, it was coming along parallel to the ground. I looked at my loafers; I wondered why I was doing this; I thought of making one last plea for mercy; and then I followed Jack and Blaze down the throat of the draw.

Very quickly what had looked like everything else we had seen as we had driven along became a quite different thing. The place was a significant draw or gully that headed down a hillside. It began to widen and deepen rather quickly, and its end was nowhere in sight. This was going to be a major change of terrain over what it had appeared to be from the road. In fact it already had become different. In addition to the junipers and sage brush there were dense leafless thickets of some kind of 10 foot high scrub brush. And deeper below us it was possible to catch the glint of what appeared to be water. The draw was turning into a little ecological niche with shelter, water, and food probably, for any number of creatures.

Even the wind was much less intense as we got below the crest of the land from which we had descended. Jack didn’t even have to yell to tell me what to do next like he had in the first few moments. We were able to talk at a normal conversational volume level.

Suddenly Blaze started acting oddly, at least from my inexperienced viewpoint. His tail was wagging – not really the right word, thrashing would be more like it – frantically and he was casting around in wide overlapping circles. He was up the right side of the draw; he was down in the bottom; he was across and up the other side, and then back. All of this was happening at an unbelievable pace. “Birds have been here” said Jack.

As if it were scripted two things happened immediately after Jack uttered those rather electrifying – to me - words. A huge gust of wind managed to find its way down to us, bringing a large puff of horizontal snow, filling the draw in a kind of smoky, foggy gloom. Just behind that foggy gloom, looking more like phantom spirits than what they were, followed a flock of about a dozen chukkars. It took a moment for me to realize what I had seen, or even that I had seen anything. Even when I realized what I had seen I didn’t know what, if anything, to do about it. In any event, they had disappeared over the shoulder of the bend in the draw.

Jack did know what to do though. “Get going” he said, charging down the hill and yelling for Blaze. I caught up with him, and as we pressed forward as rapidly as we could he filled me in. “I didn’t see this, but I know that they flipped over that little hump to our right and landed somewhere in there. Blaze will be tracking them, but they’re going to be air-washed of most of their scent, so it probably will take him some time to find them.”

We knew almost immediately that it hadn’t taken Blaze long at all, because almost immediately his casting and tail thrashing became more intense but more controlled. He had slowed from a semi-random gallop to a straight ahead crouching trot, to a creep and to a statue like stop. He had located the birds.

Chukkars and their cousins Hungarian Partridge, I learned from this trip, and many subsequent trips don’t play by any of the classic rules of pointing dog hunting, starting with the fact that they don’t hold to the point. They also don’t fly out of a point; they run; and they are fast. So while Blaze was locked over the scent of the birds, the birds were 50 yards gone and gaining speed toward being over the next rise. Jack yelled “shoot”. I yelled “what?” He repeated himself. I said “they’re not flying”. He looked at me with disgust and yelled something about playing by their rules and pulled off a shot, and one of the retreating birds did a cartwheel.

I had assumed that in addition to three given factors: the weather being a nightmare, my being still mildly hung-over and my suffering from a lack of adequate sleep, the possibility of actually finding anything to legally shoot had existed only in the realm of myth and fantasy, so I had not really actively considered that I would need to shoot the gun. It had just been a necessary piece of impedimenta that I had needed to carry in some sort of act of loyalty to Jack. I had assumed that, after hours of futile traipsing, I would have been able to put the gun down and have a normal evening, with dinner and drinks, having not even taken the safety off.

In spite of that it had been true that Jack was such a compelling Pied Piper that I had experienced moments of letting myself lapse into that realm of myth and fantasy by considering briefly how one shot a gun at an airborne, departing target, but I had kept putting those thoughts out of my mind. And I certainly had not given any consideration to how I would have shot at something running along the ground.

Suddenly I was a few chukkar strides away from being made to look like a fool on one of two counts. I was either going to fumble around with the gun and the birds were going to disappear over the rise like the ghosts I had initially thought them to be, or I was going to blow the top off the rise with a load of number six bird shot. That few moments became my first experience with dramatic movie black and white slow action mode.

As that phenomenon descended upon me, I saw several birds a stride or two from being gone. I lifted the gun to my shoulder, clicking off the safety in the process. I made the mental observation that this was not going to be like what I had imagined shooting a gun at a receding, airborne target would be. That, I had been told, required both eyes to be open; this was going to be like shooting a rifle at a paper target. I closed one eye, drew a bead and squeezed. And a bird did a cartwheel. I had actually gotten my first game bird. Either I had entered the realm of myth and fantasy, or it was actually possible for normal everyday people and a good dog to hunt and harvest game birds. Whichever it was, I was exhilarated.

We actually ended up getting three birds in that first skirmish of the trip. Before the trip was over Jack and I had gotten several others, all shot on the wing.

This three day adventure had succeeded in finishing out the structure of a friendship that had started with Latin home work, had grown with sea gull hinting in the fog, and had survived most of the four years of college life at different colleges. On account of that finishing out, life was to be made much more interesting due to adventures that would occur here and there and hither and yon around the world for the next twenty years. And none of them would have ever happened without their progenitor: the great Central Oregon chukkar hunt of 1964.

No comments:

Post a Comment