A wingshooter looks back at 70 years of snapshots.
[by Roger Pinckney]
DOWN AT LA PLAZA DE MAYO, the Argentinians were beating each other with sticks. The Peronists stormed their own headquarters and wouldn’t come out until they called in a bomb threat on themselves. Throaty, concussive thumps rolled over the rooftops, and the breeze carried the bitter bite of teargas.
I was three miles away from the civic discourse, at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, bound for Santiago del Estero, which is hard to say with a nose full of Argentine politics. Héctor Perin invited me bird shooting, and his invitations were the subject of fireside conversation from Australia to Zambia. Héctor didn’t speak English, so he hired a señorita for the subtitles: “While you may shoot still unlimited palomas, it sorrows me much to tell you we can shoot now only fifty ducks per day. We hope this does not affect adversely your plans to shoot with us.”
But the Aerolíneas pilots hadn’t been paid in a month and were fixing to strike. Nobody knew if the Chileans would honor the strike or fly in and scoop up the business. An unmarked and decrepit 727 taxied to the gate, wings patched like a homesteader’s quilt. Hail Mary, full of grace, Santiago del Estero, here I come.
Seventy years, 50-odd behind the gun: single shots, doubles, over-and-unders, pumps, automatics. Feathers, powder smoke, and memories on the wind.
Pitchfork Ben was running for governor of South Carolina back in my grandpappy’s day and stump speaking at the Coosaw Mine. Pitchfork’s given name was Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and he was missing his left eye and told folks he got pitchforked in a fistfight, not least among the many lies he told. They strip-mined phosphate at Coosaw, big steam dredges working the river bottoms and marshes, and if an island got in the way, they’d cut clean through it. No EPA in those days. Washed, crushed, and loaded onto schooners, the phosphate went around the world, a basic ingredient in fertilizer and explosives.
So Pitchfork Ben was speaking when the mine boss started in on him, hooting, hollering, and heckling. Never long on patience, Pitchfork Ben came down off the stump and threw a punch, and there was a fine dustup in the Coosaw dirt. But a one-eyed man is at a distinct disadvantage at fisticuffs, and he got his ass whupped good. Struggling to his feet, spitting dust and blood, Pitchfork Ben waved at the broad array of lights from dredges and schooners out in the Coosaw River. “You may have won this fight, you SOB, but I’m gonna be governor, and a year from now there won’t be a single light out there!”
Pitchfork Ben was right, almost. He got elected governor in 1890, goaded the legislature into passing a two-dollar-per-ton extraction tax, and then the 1893 storm busted up the dredges. What was left of the industry moved to Florida, leaving behind the old dredge cuts sweetened with rain and fresh water from the Combahee River to become wonderful duck shooting. It took 50 years, but it was a mighty satisfying end to a fistfight.
Here were my mentors: Arthur Paul, who called up ducks with his mouth, quacking like mallards or whistling like pintails, wood ducks, and teal. Robert McDowell and J. M. Koth, who stripped the engine and seats from a defunct Southwind Motor Coach; fitted bunks, gaslights, and range; and rolled it down to the riverbank for a duck camp. The destination banner still worked, and they’d get all likkered up and grab the crank and the towns whirled by: CHARLESTON, SAVANNAH, YEMASSEE, ASHEPOO, POCOTALIGO. But inside, the field mice conversed in braille all night, so I slept on the ground by the fire in a seven-dollar Sears, Roebuck & Company sleeping bag we called the Yellow Peril, its dye rubbing off while I slept.
The blinds were armloads of long-cut palmetto fronds jabbed into the mud around the boat. Come shooting light, and sometimes even before, there’d be a single shot way up the Combahee River, likely from one of the plantation rice fields. Then there’d be another, and another, until the gunfire sounded like a blizzard of hailstones on a tin roof. And then great flocks whistled overhead, too high to shoot, heading for the big water on Saint Helena Sound. But a puddle duck can’t rest easy on salt water, and midmornings they’d come back, sifting into the creeks and phosphate cuts in threes and fours. I took many a limit with my Lefever Nitro Special 16.
I grew up, mostly, and ran off to Iowa, where I reckoned to study writing and take it up as a trade. There were ducks up there, too—mallards, pintails, teal, dumb-ass ringbills down from Manitoba on the cusp of the first howling winter wind. I was toting a Winchester Model 12 by then and kept it hot, shooting from blinds woven of wild marijuana. So I was acing ducks, not to mention Twain and Hemingway, but I was flunking Pheasant 101. I just couldn’t get on the cussed things.
One day I was taking my ease on an oak blowdown in a scrubby hillside pasture, contemplating my misery, when a pickup rattled down the gravel road. The pickup stopped, with much slamming of doors, muffled mumblings, and jingling of dog collars, and then a big cock pheasant came slipping up the hill, head and tail low to the ground. From brushpile to cow patty to thistle clump he came, pausing at each to reconnoiter before venturing across open ground. I rolled him at 50 feet. From this I figured pheasant hunting was just like walking up cottontails back home.