A Sixties Grouse Hunt

And other surefire cures for the dour doldrums of divorce.

by Richard Yatzeck

If you began teaching in the 1960s—teaching Russian is my way of buying shotgun shells and kibble—you encountered the temptation to join the youth of that time in their partially successful remake of the United States. My bow to the youth culture was inviting my student, Walter Dambrowski, to go hunting.

If this doesn’t seem like much of a gesture, you must realize that, for me, hunting represented an activity opposed to academia, even a revolution against our civilization. Between classes, small talk with Walt led to a rapid realization that we both lived, basically, for bird dogs and double guns. (I should admit that, ideology aside, Walt had a car and, just then caught in the throes of a divorce, I didn’t. But I swear on a big gray ruffed grouse that I meant well.)

I was aroused from thoughts of New England coverts only by the clangor of passing Canada geese.

As that was a particularly cerulean and amber October, we shortly found ourselves snorting north in Walt’s lovingly restored Model A coupe. Walt, Pete, and Pete’s Brittany–collie, Old Teague, all sat in the cab. I shared the palatial leather rumble seat with three cased double guns along with a severe case of divorce depression.

Nevertheless, as the autumn air whistling by made repeated grabs at my mildewed hunting hat, the passing aspen thickets took me out of myself and made me wonder what the ruffed grouse would be feeding on this day. I wondered, too, whether the wind was strong enough to make the birds flush wild, and if today, for once, I might be able to wait the drop-your-cigarette-grind-it-out-and-then-shootinterval suggested—well, commanded—by Bill Foster in his New England Grouse Hunting. 

I was aroused from thoughts of New England coverts only by the clangor of passing Canada geese. Then I noticed that the aspen thickets had ceased to trundle past. We were stopped. I vaguely remembered, as through dreams, the sharp wheezing cough of the four-lunger giving up the ghost. Walt, Pete, and Teague (he wasn’t “Old” yet) said, alternately, “Hey!” “Wake up!” and “Woof!” I clambered out of the rumble seat aided by the neat, round rubberized footrest thoughtfully placed by Ford.

Out of gas? No. The gauge registered nearly full. (I had shared that expense.) 

Generator, wiring, gas line? Walt soon had the Ford’s relatively simple innards spread across three jackets by the roadside. 

Teague, wagging and false-pointing enthusiastically, did his best to entice us into the nearest aspen clump. Pete and I, automotively clueless PhDs, lit Camels and waited for revolutionary youth (Walt) to point the way. 

Revolutionary youth, having doused his Havana in advance, blew gasoline out of every available motor opening. Precisely, by the numbers—for Walt knew his Model A as a contemporary marine knows his M16—he reassembled the neatly simple engine, folded the black hood into place, fastened the ingenious snap-catch, and sprang to the crank. Whuppa, whuppa . . . Nada.

The Orchard by Chet Reneson

Teague’s persuasive tail might well have led us into forbidden thickets, past close-set no trespassing signs. The October afternoon’s red, gold, and blue would all too soon be fading. We were still a good 10 miles from the public hunting ground. That excited tail . . . 

“Eureka!” said Walt. (Or maybe he said “Dammit”). “I forgot the manual gasoline switch beneath the dashboard. Teague’s tail, maybe—” 

And so it was. Teague’s persuasive brush had struck the manual witch. A turn of the wrist, an infinity of turns of the crank, and we were practically grousing.

We pulled smartly into the parking field beside the railroad tracks. Detaining with some difficulty the now-manic Teague, we crossed north into legal, public aspen and birch, and even better into a light but scent-bearing northerly breeze. 

Teague, breaking trail, obligingly tacked east and west, ahead of Walt and me, in the grassy but (at least for ruffed grouse) walkable brush. Aspen, chokecherry, and popple, prime cover, hadn’t then been shaded out by the taller ash, maple, and oak. 

That day, Teague pointed regularly and we hastened forward to flush, each in his turn, a plethora of grazing ruffed grouse (defining plethora as “six”). I use the word “grazing” advisedly, for the birds flushed almost exclusively from the still-unfrozen emerald patches of grass that marked the well-used deer trails. We found the grouse crops stuffed mainly with clover.

I didn’t learn how the birds were feeding through personal experience. I have described Teague’s pendulum swings, the points that he allotted severely among the three of us. I haven’t yet noted that Pete had three grouse in his hunting coat, Walt had one in each side pocket of his Levi’s jacket, and I had zilch. 

My first try, leveling across after a great gray bird that floated up and away like a blown bubble 25 feet ahead, went agley, as a certain poet from red grouse country might have said. At 35 feet (a third part of a reasonable range), that grouse was home free because I’d already blown both barrels. 

My miscue seemed to be having its usual predictive effect: first shot, no bird; whole day, no bird. Not unlike throwing back the first small bluegill of the day and catching no more, but worse, because in the first case one is sparing the small but legal panfish, while in this case I had simply missed the grouse. “I might as well shoot with both eyes shut,” I said, cursing.

While Pete and Walt hunted on after Teague, I sat down on an inviting white pine stump, a feature of that cutover country. Wreathed in grump and smoke, I soon lost any sense of the whereabouts of my companions. Teague’s bell had become faint, then ceased. There were no immediate shots. Walt and Pete, having hit a fallow patch of cover, struck more rapidly forward after the speeding Teague, whose energy seemed to promise another lode of grouse.

I don’t know how long I sat on that stump. The little glade where it stood, upholstered with deer fern, was warmed gently by the westering sun. A brown creeper, chickadees, even a pileated woodpecker were unable to relieve my hopeless torpor. I felt, rather than thought, that I would never drop a ruffed grouse, never put my lonely life in order, never find equilibrium again. 

Finally, gratefully, I snored. Later, I jerked as if falling, as one does in early sleep, and awoke. Right before me, through the mists of slumber, I caught the familiar hindquarters and stiffened tail of a big Brittany–collie mix: Teague.

I had heard that bell approaching in my sleep. Its sudden silence must have awakened me. Still tranced, I wavered upright. Teague looked askance and telepathed, Now! 

I took one giant step, as we used to say, playing Captain, May I? in the evening yard. Another, bigger gray bird floated up. I said to myself, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” Then I knocked that ruffed grouse fan over teakettle. 

Teague, who generally retrieved only for Pete, obligingly brought my prize. No flutter, as of a windup toy overset. Stony. One ruby bead in front of the eye. 

So Walt and Pete found us as they hastened to the shot. They’d thought both Teague and me lost. “That’s the way!” said Pete, inspecting, as he always does, the bird. Yes, that is the way.

It’s now 50 years since I stroked the speckles and spackles of that immortal bird on the ride back to town; 45 years since Pete’s wife, Marlys, handed me a cold roasted pheasant in aluminum foil and a bottle of burgundy to share with Walt. Pete and Marlys, suddenly invited for an academic command performance, generously saw to the creature needs of a divorced colleague and a relatively mild student rebel. 

It’s a half century, too, since Walt, maybe warmed but by no means blasted by the burgundy, replied to some self-pitying moan of mine: “You do have us, you know. And if that’s not enough, there’s Teague!” 

And that, suddenly, was quite enough. 

Dick Yatzeck teaches Russian at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. His Hunting the Edges can be ordered from the University of Wisconsin Press.