Your orders, Captain, are to find the Commander and terminate his command.
[by Kurt Cox]
I’M LOST, LOW ON GAS, AND THE ONLY LANDMARK is the Afghan village I just passed. Well, that’s not completely true. There’s a shot-up Humvee to the west, a huge column of black smoke to the east. Directly overhead five fighter jets roar by in single file, low and slow.
I get out of my truck to make sure it isn’t interfering with my compass reading. A call comes in. It’s the Major. What do I tell him? He doesn’t need more things to worry about. He won’t believe I’m lost anyway. I never get lost. Besides, what is “lost”? No, I can’t point to my location on the map and trace my route. But I still have viable options for becoming “found.” The Major begins, “Son, I’ve been trying to reach you. Are you out in the wild somewhere?”
“Yes, Dad, I am. I’m scouting, and I’m completely lost.” He laughs at that, as I hoped he would.
Maybe he can help. The Major has flown over this Air Force Base in the Deep South a thousand times during his career as a fighter pilot instructor. I ask, “Dad, do you remember the pine flatwoods between the drone launch site and the firefighter training facility where they burn jet fuel in a huge cauldron?”
“No, Son, I don’t. But if you head south you’ll eventually hit the Gulf.”
“Thanks, Dad.” He’s still laughing, thinking I’m joking. I’m still lost, but at least I’m laughing too.
I reverse course and return to some buildings that I swear aren’t on my satellite photo. Now I see that the new buildings are actually shipping containers painted a mottled-adobe color and arranged in the defensive style of rural Afghan compounds. The stripped fuselage of an F-4 Phantom is the centerpiece of one courtyard. Charred, junked vehicles are scattered outside perimeter walls bearing graffiti in a looping foreign script that reminds me of drag marks from the wings of a strutting turkey. A temporary sign near the boat ramp says Road Closed For Training. There are only two plausible explanations for the increased military activity. Either the Air Force is providing contingency combat support training to units deploying to the Middle East, or the turkeys I’m here to hunt are staging an uprising and have turned the base into a war zone.
This bird wants to take me out. I’m an intruder in his territory, and he’s going to assert his dominance. He doesn’t care if I’m a soldier or a coyote or another gobbler.
I collect more intel. Fresh Humvee tracks on the sandy two-tracks have obliterated any possible turkey sign. Orange flagging goes off in all directions from the roads, even through titi thickets that would turn back a feral hog. The hunt I’ve drawn is nearly here, and I’m apprehensive. The military has pushed the turkeys underground or into a neighboring safe haven. And if I park my truck on the side of a road, will I return to find it shot up and burned?
Next I reconnoiter a tract scorched by either napalm or a prescribed burn. All I get for my efforts are hundreds of black stripes on my pants from walking through charred palmetto stems; young grass shoots emerging from the ash have not attracted turkeys. So I drive to another clearing in the pines that appears to be an overgrown utilities right-of-way.
I park a hundred yards short of the long, grassy opening. This spot looked the most promising on aerial photographs, so stealth is paramount. I survey the loose white sand of the turnaround where the road ends. Finally, I find turkey tracks. Fresh ones. I deploy my radar, cupping my hands behind my ears. I hear yelps—the coded transmissions of my adversaries! Then I see them: turkey heads bobbing above the tall grass and advancing, just 30 yards away. All I can do is freeze in place.
A squad of hens sweeps past. I cannot flinch, retreat, or lie down. They’re the vanguard for their commander, a big, blue-headed, long-bearded gobbler. He breaks off from the hens and approaches. “Please please please,” I beg any omniscient entity of mercy, “don’t let him see me.”
No such luck. I’m going to get busted. I’m too close, not wearing camo, and my silhouette is unbroken. I’m a clumsy primate standing in the middle of a road with a pained grimace on my face. The cloud of mosquitoes and no-see-ums that have been following me all day now catch up and land on my neck, and I begin bleeding out. But if I want any chance to capture this bird on Saturday I have to let the parasites drink until they’re full because I must not move.
A jake subordinate emerges from concealment to march in on the Commander’s flank. Now two toms are gathering intel on my operation. The jake’s stubby beard looks insulting, the way it points more toward the sky than the ground, like a gangly teenager wearing a ball cap sideways. I can’t take him as seriously as I do his leader, the huge black hog of a gobbler that keeps drifting closer to me like a contact mine.
It’s no coincidence. I know he sees me. He’s in a half-strut, and I can hear him thrumming. He leaves the field to walk the road—right at me. This bird wants to take me out. I’m an intruder in his territory, and he’s going to assert his dominance. He doesn’t care if I’m a soldier or a coyote or another gobbler. He’s now five feet away. I can’t exaggerate this. I’m on the edge of the road and he’s in the middle of it, a two-track only 10 feet wide. My eyes are glued to his spurs, the long sharp lances that may be the source of my newest scars. If I twitch he’ll gash my thighs with those spurs while his wings and beak assault my head. I choose not to twitch. Imperceptibly, I tense my leg muscles in anticipation of a defensive punt and a sprint for the truck. I wait for the attack.