The April Specter

Calvinism, consequence, and the pungency of desire.

[By Reid Bryant]

I WASN’T RAISED A HUNTER, least of all a turkey hunter, though no doubt my Calvinist forefathers sluiced a few beneath the pines of Plymouth. I grew up on the outskirts of Boston in a town that was the very soul of restraint. We dressed in gray flannel, delivered firm handshakes, and spoke in crisp sentences. Children spoke only when spoken to. The ivy-covered houses were proportional to their manicured lawns. The silver-haired gentlemen played golf, their wives played tennis, and if any of our neighbors hunted, they never publicly revealed such recklessness of spirit.

I say all this to clarify that I was raised on restraint, with defiance swiftly punished. I remember one Sunday when I informed my mother, using locker-room slang learned in the all-boys primary school I attended, that I was opting out of my duty as an acolyte at our Episcopal church and would continue my spiritual journey from the comfort of our TV room, substituting for the sacrament a bowl of Frosted Flakes. My mother summoned my dad, who plucked me from my tassel Weejuns, plunked me onto the kitchen counter, and emptied a bottle of Tabasco sauce on my tongue.

I never missed another Sunday, and I still come undone at the sight of Tabasco.

Over the years I wended away from those ivy-clad walls and sought environs less suppressed. Somehow, after dodging the temptations of puberty and the enticements of college-era hippiedom, I came to hunting, where I found something primal and unrestrained. I muddied my boots and bloodied my hands and rejoiced in the rawness of it all, the absolution of loss and the desire to be good at something so seemingly ignoble as killing. And then I ran afoul of that April specter, the Eastern wild turkey.

In the beginning, our relationship was convivial. Turkey hunting was a pleasant bridge between the end of duck season and the first predictable mayfly hatches. Faced with the prospect of a new sporting endeavor, I traded most of a bank account for a 1906 L.C. Smith 12 bore, choked full and fuller; a suit of waxed cotton in muted colors; and a pair of leather-lined rubber boots of the kind favored by European royalty. I looked good in the preseason sunlight, though I had, perhaps, wandered beyond the bounds of restraint.

I mentioned this to my wife one evening, over our fifth consecutive dinner of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.

She laid down her fork and smiled at me gently. “Excess? Really? You?” Then she reached for her hidden bottle of Tabasco.

That first year in the turkey woods was an education. I assumed that turkeys were stupid and easy, incapable of dodging even a slow-moving sedan. I assumed there was little to learn. I looked sharp, there were turkeys about; how hard could tagging a turkey be?

The turkeys seemed to sense my rising ethical turmoil. Gobblers began haunting the road I traveled to work. They appeared in the yards of neighbors who I knew were gone for the day.

My first sense that matters might be more complex came during preseason scouting in April, when I watched a roost a few miles from my hilltop home, where four gobblers had taken up residence in some twisted, towering wolf pines. I heard their dawn chorus. I had them pegged. I was confident of taking my limit of longbeards within the first days of the season. The night before the opener, I watched it all transpire across drooping eyelids. The birds would fly down across the tar road, alight in a hardwood strip, and work out into a cow pasture in the rising mist. And there I’d be, well before dawn with an oak at my back and my toes wiggling in my Le Chameaus. I could already smell the roast turkey and morel gravy.

But at my first call the birds disappeared downhill and into the ether. As days passed they grew increasingly wary. I rose earlier, set up with more caution, called less and less. Light filtered through the pines, waves of morning birdsong broke over a sleeping world, and the turkeys never showed. I sat there, morning after morning, thinking about wanting—wanting to shoot a turkey, wanting to shoot one real bad, willing to do almost anything to achieve success.

The turkeys seemed to sense my rising ethical turmoil. Gobblers began haunting the road I traveled to work. They appeared in the yards of neighbors who I knew were gone for the day. They puffed and clucked and strutted before picture windows. They materialized in wide-open spaces right after the 11 a.m. cutoff. And every time I’d stop, the truck idling, a pair of No. 5 mags jiggling in my hand, and I’d wonder: Would anyone see? Would anyone hear? Would it really be so bad to just go ahead and get that first bird out of the way?

And every time I couldn’t do it. You can take the boy out of the starched shirt, but you can’t take the starched shirt out of the boy. Or the taste of Tabasco.

Season one closed without a scent of success. Only the pungency of desire rising from waxed cotton.

Season two was even worse. As was season three. I grew weak with disappointment. I was calling well, getting responses, and still not sealing the deal. By season four’s end, I even looked like a turkey hunter, with a vest-slash-seat, decoys, and a camo-dipped semiauto with a red dot. Still, nothing fell. I was so morally feeble that when a hill farmer neighbor mentioned that the barnyard tom he’d overwintered went rogue, I volunteered my services. I’m ashamed to say that my first gobbler was a hissing, guano-stained travesty that I killed mostly from self-defense. He was tasty, but I was still a failed turkey hunter.