It doesn’t come. He must think I’m just another piece of debris left behind by Air Force engineers. Satisfied that I’m not a threat, he returns to his squad. They recede back into the grass—unspooked, unaware that the truce ends tomorrow.
I’m stunned. I could have killed him with a walking stick. I could have lassoed him. I could have grabbed his neck, twisted it, and carried him to the truck. And if I had? I imagine being questioned by the Natural Resources officer for taking him before opening day:
“I see you got a turkey.”
“Yes sir, I did.”
“But there’s no gun in your possession, and no entry wounds on the bird.”
“Yes sir, I caught him with my bare hands.”
“You’re free to go. You can keep any turkey you can catch by hand. That should be in the rules,” he says with a wave goodbye and a tip of the hat.
I’ll definitely be bringing my shotgun to the hunt this weekend. I’m a bit shaken from this encounter, and am more than ever convinced that the Air Force has been in the flatwoods for defense rather than for training. Should I forget to bring shells for the gun, I’ll hunt anyway. I can always use myself as a decoy to pull the Commander into clubbing range.
There’s just enough daylight to scout my last prospect: an island covered with oak brush and an old sand road. At least it’ll be free of Humvee tracks; the bridge to the island has been demolished. I wade through the salt marsh and gain the road. While focusing on the tracks of a deer, I’m blown into a million pieces of food for the fiddler crabs. Or could have been. Three feet away, hidden behind a cedar, is an artillery shell propped up on angle iron with wires coming out of the base leading to a circuit board and a battery. A sticker on it reads “Combat Training Systems Inc.” It looks a lot more authentic than the container villages. All I can think is, God bless anyone whose duty it is to deal with things like this.
Unnerved by the island, I head back to where I had the standoff with the Commander, the bearded militant terrorizing this area. If I can locate his bivouac tonight, then tomorrow morning I’ll have a better chance of terminating his insurgency. I walk and listen, stalk and listen, slap mosquitoes and
listen. No gobbling.
The Commander is too busy to gobble. He’s probably setting out more IED’s for turkey hunters to trip over. Or he roosted out of hearing range. That means he probably won’t show up until mid-morning if he patrols this same circuit. I’ll be waiting.
I return to my truck by the light of the rising full moon. It’s a serene night, and I let down my guard. That’s when a raccoon goes off at my feet, exploding out of the palmettos next to my truck and scrabbling up a slash pine, sending back a salvo of bark. This last ambush of the day nearly spooks me into never coming back here again.
It’s D-Day. The turkey opener. The security guards at the gate are always so pleasant while being completely professional, even at 4:30 a.m. Today’s guard looks at my turkey permit and says in an accent free of the local saltwater dialect, “Turkeys? There are turkeys around here?”
Is this a trick question? How much does he really know about America’s secret war with Meleagris gallopavo? How much do I let him know that I know? Regardless of his security clearance, I feel it’s my duty as an American to warn him, “They’ve infiltrated the entire base.”
With a “Good Luck,” he returns my ID and permit and waves me through the checkpoint. I can’t help but notice that he isn’t armed with the usual Beretta M9 in a thigh holster but with an M16 in a three-point sling. It appears that the base is on an elevated threat advisory on this opening day of turkey season. Duh.
I walk and listen, stalk and listen, slap mosquitoes, walk and listen, on the way to my setup. I position
my hen decoys, Sassy and Tipper, at the edge of the right-of-way, and stake out Slim, my jake decoy, inappropriately close to Sassy. I hop from dry spot to dry spot into the titi swamp to hide and to wait. I can’t get very far back as the underbrush thickens quickly. When daylight comes, I’m amused to find that I’m only 15 yards from the dekes.
A hawk reconnoiters the field like a vectoring F-22 Raptor. The wind picks up. Biting gnats pick up. The sun starts to warm my back. The Air Force sets off a large explosion at their munitions testing facility. Sassy spins out from underneath Slim. It must be the wind, or my decoy is one bewitched piece of foam. Every 15 minutes I yelp. Every 30 minutes I stand briefly to shake off sleepiness, to pull at my wet pants seat, and to cast a horde of gnats off my clothes and into the breeze. Other than that periodic movement, I’m a statue. A missile in a silo. A steel target at the shooting range. I am motionless.
More turkeys materialize from the tall grass like Special Forces on maneuvers until there are four very puzzled hens around the decoys.
Then I see movement. A turkey! Don’t call; it’s already headed toward my trap. Just put more life into the decoys, pull on the fishing line tied to Tipper to make her peck the ground. The hen now sees Tipper and is changing course to intercept. Don’t move . . . don’t move . . . that’s just the hen on point. The whole squad is coming. I creep my cheek to the gun that’s been propped up and pointed at my decoys for four hours. My heart beats so hard I think it wants to burst out of cover and climb the nearest pine like that raccoon last night.
More turkeys materialize from the tall grass like Special Forces on maneuvers until there are four very puzzled hens around the decoys. My eyes are darting, looking for anything signaling the presence of the Commander. And there he is, following 10 yards behind the hens, big and round and black and red—lots of red on his head! Please don’t sound an alarm now, hens, please please please. Commander, hurry up and get here before they sense something is wrong.
Finally he sees Tipper, likes what he sees, and puffs up into a full strut. But he’s not yet in my one narrow shooting lane. He hangs up, and the hens are on the edge of panic. But then he sees Slim standing over Sassy and he doesn’t like what he sees. He drops to half-strut so he can still look big, but he can also march quickly toward Slim to give him a raking.
This is it! Where are the hens? I can’t have collateral damage. There’s a hen-free zone right next to Slim, and when the Commander’s hot breath is on the decoy: BOOM!
He drops in place. I stay hidden until the hens retreat, then I splash forward to claim my prize. Once again I’m within five feet of him. I reach down to touch the long spurs that threatened to hook me yesterday. The tips are sharp enough to slice open MREs. My hands unload the gun and muster the dekes while my mind desorbs a large amount of adrenaline. I pause to burn into memory this place and this bird on this day. I lift the Commander to my shoulder and withdraw from the theater of operations.
Stopping at the security gate on my way out, the guard recognizes me—or at least my non-military camo. He inquires, “How was the hunting?”
“Mission accomplished,” I say with a smile. I lower the rear window to give him a view of the Commander.
“Nice.” he says. He pretends to be startled by my cased shotgun, and says, “I see you have a gun in your vehicle, sir.”
I joke back, “Well I sure didn’t catch him with my bare hands!”
At least not this time.
Kurt Cox lives with his wife Denise on Florida’s St. Andrews Bay, where there is growing unrest among the mullet population.