A Certain Slant of Light

"Two on Two", By Brett James Smith

An illumination of the opening of pheasant season, and that time of life when roles reverse.

[by Gerard H. Cox III]

Thinking about fathers and sons recently, I’ve come to realize how wrong Tolstoy was about families inAnna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Granted, it’s a memorable line—we’ve all quoted it for years—but like any antithesis it leaves out the much larger and potentially more interesting undistributed middle.

My own family was the classic nuclear one of the middle 20th Century: a father who went to work and a mother who stayed home and took care of the two children, a boy (me, born in 1938) and a girl (my sister Alice, born in 1941). I was the good boy, very much hewing to the family line, including learning how to hunt birds and to fly-fish; Alice went her own way and thus was the odd person out.

Relations could be a bit strained when the four of us were together, but that changed when my parents and I went off on a hunting or fishing trip. One of the happiest times for the three of us was the October weekend that opened the pheasant season. Hunting that opening weekend was a longstanding tradition in my family. When I was a boy, my parents had always gone out on the opening with my paternal grandfather. The first time I was allowed to go along with my father and grandfather is still vivid in my mind, 65 years later.

“In the years since we’d hunted together, I had consciously worked at becoming as good as he was. In the back of my mind, I saw this trip as my opportunity to prove to him that I could shoot just as well as he could. “

I must have been about nine, too young to be trusted with a gun. The three of us went out near our house in New Canaan, Connecticut, and in one of those mental snapshots we carry around I can see my grandfather’s English pointer Jimmy in a classic stance as my father and grandfather walked in to flush the bird. They are very tall in my mind’s eye, significantly taller than their actual heights of six feet. I was quite a small nine-year-old, and I had been told to crouch on the ground for safety whenever the dog went on point, so my father and grandfather stood outlined against the sky.

What happened next I don’t recall. Jimmy was good on pheasants, so I don’t imagine that the bird ran out on him, as they often do with inexperienced dogs; it may have been a hen pheasant and thus illegal to shoot; it may have been a cock, and they could have shot it or missed it; I simply don’t remember. What remains in mind is just the stop action frame of Jimmy pointing on the first day I was allowed to go pheasant hunting with the two men I loved.

Some years later,we moved to Seattle, Washington. Although I used fall breaks in college to hunt pheasants with my mother and father, our differing schedules prevented us from hunting pheasants together again for nearly 20 years. But one year everything came together, and we were able to plan a trip to the ranch of a friend of mine in eastern Washington. When my parents and I packed for our trip, I didn’t immediately think about my first hunt, long ago. Too much was different, I suspect. The country we would hunt wasn’t the hillsides of Connecticut but the gullies and draws that interrupt the rolling wheat fields surrounding Walla Walla. And my own son was still too young to come along.

But as we packed my station wagon, I noticed that my father was taking the Francotte Eagle-grade 16-gauge that had belonged to my grandfather, and that made me think that I must be about the same age that my father had been when the two of them took me along. Time had come round, and now I wanted him to have good hunting—or so I told myself. I also recognized uneasily that I was feeling some covert rivalry. Having grown up in the 1920s, when game was abundant, my father was an excellent wingshot. In the years since we’d hunted together, I had consciously worked at becoming as good as he was. In the back of my mind, I saw this trip as my opportunity to prove to him that I could shoot just as well as he could. I wanted him to enjoy himself and get his limits of birds, certainly . . . But in my heart of hearts, I really hoped he’d shoot his limit minus one while I spectacularly shot my limit plus one.

After an uneventful drive to Walla Walla, we went out before the noon opening to stake out a field to hunt. I had exclusive permission to hunt from the ranch’s owner, but I knew from bitter experience that on opening day other hunters appeared not to notice No Hunting signs. Having to wait until noon adds further pressure to a day already charged with anticipation. It’s easy to fall into a kind of possessiveness: groups stand guard over their fields, truculently warding off any encroachment as they wait until the arbitrary moment when they can get their birds. And time can pass all too slow: a single shot or two maybe heard half an hour before noon, more at intervals there after until a barrage sounds in the last 10 minutes. As he had in years past, Dad suddenly decided his watch was five minutes slow at precisely 11:55.

It had rained a few days before, so for once the cover wasn’t terribly dry, making it difficult for the dogs to scent. My parents’ Brittany spaniel Cy, and my English setter Val worked well, and we had good shooting.

Yet at the end of the afternoon, as we walked back to the car in that soft light that burnishes the wheat stubble to gold, I felt obscurely ill at ease. Looking at our shadows lengthening before us, I recalled that opening day so many years ago. Everything seemed different now. I had the feeling, not that I was a boy again going out with my father but that we had at some point that afternoon exchanged roles: he had become me, and I had somehow become him.

This reversal made me indignant: I didn’t feel prepared for this. Yet, had I been alert, I would have noticed certain aspects of that afternoon signaling this reversal. I’d been keeping a close eye on my father to make sure he was handling his gun safely—all those literally vital habits like keeping the muzzle pointed either up in the air or down toward the ground, or unloading before crossing a fence, or always knowing exactly where everyone is—that he had drilled into me before he let me carry a gun afield.

But not until we began to walk back to the car did I realize that I’d been watching him as much as he must have watched me when I first began to carry a gun. This realization frightened me. I didn’t want to assume responsibility for my father. Still vigorous in his mid-70s, he didn’t seem all that old, and in my mid-40s I was certainly still too young. Well, I corrected myself, perhaps not that young—somewhat declined into the vale of years, perhaps, but not all that much. Definitely, not all that much. But there in the slanting light was my shadow stretching before me.

I reacted by resolving to value all the more our time together that weekend. The next day, however, a succession of odd incidents made that resolution go glimmering.I had discovered in previous years that pheasants were far more likely to be in cover bordered by wheat stubble than by fields being prepared for sowing. I accordingly explained to my father how we should hunt a certain hillside of wild roses between two stubble fields. He should stay at the base of the hill with Cy, while my mother and I swung around out of sight and climbed the hill with Val. When we reached the top, we would let the dogs go simultaneously and hunt parallel to each other. I knew that most of the birds would be near the top, and I also knew that when they jumped they tended to fly down the hill, coming right over the person at the base and giving him one of the most satisfying shots in wing shooting, an incoming overhead bird. You swing through the bird from tail to head and fire as, still swinging, you blot out the bird. The shot is magical, for somehow you know you’ve hit the bird even though you can no longer see it. You look back, and there is the bird, falling to earth.

My father nodded his agreement to my tactics and went to his spot as my mother and I laboriously climbed up the furrows on the back of the hill. When we came into position, however, we were astonished to see my father wandering off in a completely different direction than the one he’d agreed to. We shouted, blew our dog whistles, and finally even fired some shots to attract his attention, but Dad remained oblivious. Fortunately, he was headed toward the car, where, after we hunted the top and watched a number of cock pheasants take off downhill, exactly as anticipated, we found him waiting impatiently for us. When I asked with some irritation why on earth he had gone off on his own, he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.