From the time when we swung out of African trees, human males have been hunters. It ensured our species’ survival. Even as we’ve evolved and civilized—domesticating our food stock—hunting has remained a connection with some primal element within us. Hunting is so important to human psyche that successive Western cultures have developed “Mighty Hunter” archetypes. Nimrod. Orion. Hemingway.
Generations of fathers have passed these skills down to their sons. Not so in my family. There was a time in the early 1960s, when he was stationed at Ft. Knox, that Dad went deer hunting. I was six. I recollect my three sisters and me running to greet him when he came home from a day in the woods. “Did you get anything?” we’d squeal. Each week he responded in the negative. (I think Dad used hunting as he uses golf: as an excuse to commune with nature. My father is a closet contemplative.)
One winter evening we rehearsed our ritual homecoming: “Did you get anything?”
“Yes!” he answered, evoking shouts of glee from us. Then Dad produced a small, inflated Rudolph-the-Red-Nosed-Reindeer from behind his back. It was the only deer he ever put on the table.
Mike, the first of my two brothers, arrived that same month. I never recall Dad hunting thereafter. Life interfered. There were two tours in Southeast Asia and a couple more moves. But by the time Matt, the youngest, came along, we had settled permanently in Virginia. Matt grew up with the sons of Good Ol’ Boys, and they—not our own father—influenced him to embrace hunting. So—among us three brothers—one of us became a hunter, one a Master Tradesman, and one a scholar, of sorts. A thousand years ago, I would have been the brother who became a monk.
I have always remained open to new experiences, though, and this once allowed me to participate in that most primeval of all human endeavors. Here, then, is the story—in a roundabout fashion—of my one and only hunting experience.
It begins when my buddy, Paul, returned to Poquoson for a visit, having hitch-hiked from Southern California. It was 1978: a time when kids could still hitch-hike coast-to-coast in under a week, without too much fear of disappearing forever in a clown’s crawlspace.
Paul bore a superficial resemblance to the rock star, Peter Frampton, whose popular “Frampton Comes Alive!” album hit the airwaves at the end of our junior year. As he fancied himself a guitar player, Paul reveled in that. For a while. But it grew tiresome. The last straw was when he went to a concert and a group of teeny-boppers squealed “Peter Frampton!” as he passed them. After that he was pretty much over the comparisons. Though not enough to cut his long, blond hair.
Paul and I had graduated from high school the previous spring. A week after Graduation, I moved into the townhouse Paul shared with several other people. What followed was a summer of irresponsible hedonism. The townhouse hosted anywhere from five to twelve people, depending on what day it was and what was happening that week. None of us were on the lease, the original tenets having long since drifted elsewhere. There were long stretches of time when no one had a job. We weren’t concerned with eviction or paying bills or any other mundane adult responsibilities. None of us ever seemed strapped for cash. I know I had about a grand in savings when I arrived. We always seemed to have enough alcohol and pot to share.
Near the end of the summer, Paul and another roommate, Bobby, loaded their guitars and other meager belongings into Paul’s van. They were headed for an endless summer in the Promised Land of Laguna Beach. The rest of us threw them a going-away party lasting 72 hours. Before he drove away, Paul told me, “Next time I see you, I wanna hear that you’re getting plenty of p—y,” using that crude expression for sex that reduced it to genitalia.
He flashed his idiosyncratic smile. Everyone we knew always called it his “shit-eating grin.” But there was no grin about it. Paul had a smile so broad that it made him squint—with teeth so straight and white that when the sun hit them it made you squint.
Paul always thought I should be getting laid more than I was. Steady relationships were anathema to him. He always encouraged me to play the field. At the beginning of summer—when I broke up with my girlfriend of two years—he went out of his way to set me up with a girl from school whom he knew I liked. He liked her, too, but gave me the first crack at her (so to speak). I took her to a Ted Nugent/Nazareth concert, but was too inapt to “close the deal.”
Not long after his return from California, Paul invited me to go duck hunting. The invitation probably served two purposes: Paul was looking to do those things he wasn’t able to do out west, and it was an excuse for old friends to hang out together.
I had never been much of a sportsman, but Paul had taken me out clamming a couple years previous. Clamming was one of the many ways the industrious youth earned pocket change when we were in school.
I had spent the night before our clamming expedition at Paul’s parents’ house, a two-story cedar home, custom built on a finger of Lamb’s Creek. We rose considerably before dawn and loaded a couple of empty buckets into his jonboat. Our tee-shirts and Levi’s cut-offs were scant protection from the chill morning air, and we both shivered as Paul started the motor and navigated the channels into the Poquoson River. We passed empty duck blinds and the quiet docks of recreational boaters, steering beside long stretches of Tidewater’s characteristic reedy marsh grass. (Poquoson is an Algonquin word—spelled “pokoson” in some early documents—which translates as “great marsh,” although I sometimes translated it “shit-hole.”)
There are several methods of gathering clams. Professional watermen often prefer “tonging.” From inside their garvey boats, they work long-handled tongs, scooping muck and rock and clams from the floor of the waterway. Others use a shinicock rake to scrape the riverbed and pull clams into their boats.
Another method—the one most people probably imagine when they think of clam-digging—uses a scratch rake, which resembles a garden rake. Donning waders, the waterman wades into waste-deep water, raking back and forth until he finds the shellfish.
Paul practiced a method called “treading.” After finding a promising spot, we jumped into chest-deep water and felt around for the shellfish with our bare feet. Once I found one, I clutched it with my toes and lifted my leg until I could grab the clam with my hands. If it was good, it went into the bucket. Sometimes what we found were smooth stones. Sometimes the clams were just empty shells. Our buckets slowly filled.
When he determined we had picked the area clean, we jumped back into the boat and Paul steered for another location. I shivered as the air hit my wet torso. At the next place he anchored the boat, we jumped back into the water.
We repeated the slow, methodical search for the elusive shellfish. Our buckets inched more full.
The third time we relocated, I waited in the boat, drying in the sun and trying to get warm. Paul just laughed. As we trawled homeward, he commiserated with my discomfort. “You’re the only one I’ve ever taken out who got back in the water,” he told me, flashing his broad smile. It was a high compliment. I felt as if I had been competing with every other friend he had ever taken clamming, and had, somehow, “won.”
When we got back to his house, we loaded our buckets into the bed of a pickup truck. We rode in back as his mother drove us down to Amory’s Wharf to sell our clams to one of the local seafood dealers. We split the cash and headed home. As we wended through the old area of Poquoson known as Messick, we saw a wall of rain driving toward us down the road. Paul’s mother stopped the truck. We jumped out of the bed and into the cab just as the edge of a driving rainstorm moved over us. It was one of the most bizarre natural phenomena I have ever witnessed.)
Three years later, the night before before our planned duck hunt, we again slept over at his parents’ house.
That night Paul and I drank until last call at The Scene, a Hilton Village nightclub. It was 1978: a time when Virginia kids could still legally buy and drink three-two beer (so called for its 3.2% alcohol content) before MADD Mothers brought the wrath of God down on teen drinkers. There were no bars in Poquoson in the late 1970s. The closest ones to the tiny city were The West Gate, a redneck dive beside the Langley Speedway, and an African-American jazz club called The Silver Dollar. Local kids were constantly looking for someplace to congregate. The Scene was just the latest in a long series of establishments which opened and closed in that Warwick Boulevard strip mall. Several of our former classmates made the same trip.
Once upon a time, “Happy Hour” meant quarter draughts, so we began with a couple of pitchers. Paul took me there “looking for strays,” as he put it. I have already mentioned how concerned he was with my involuntary celibacy. It was a constant theme with him. The last time I ever saw him, he was ribbing me about the same even as he laughed about his own anonymous encounter the previous evening. I was currently pining over Bernie, a woman I knew from the Theatre Department of my college. She and I had gone out a few times, but she wasn’t interested me as more than a friend.
It wasn’t as if I had boundless opportunities at the moment. I was in a body cast, recuperating from a femur shattered in a head-on car wreck. (There was an irony, in that I was on the road where the accident occurred after failing to deliver a poem to the aforementioned Bernie.) My parents set up a hospital bed in what had been their dining room. They arranged my books and stereo within arm’s reach and placed a television at eye-level. I received visitors in this make-shift hospice.
Paul was a frequent visitor. This particular afternoon he recounted partying with some people at the Sandy Bottom barrow pits. This was a secluded area off Big Bethel Road in Hampton. The pits remained after contractors removed soil for various construction projects on the Peninsula. They were filled with water, and area youth used to skinny-dip there.
“I got all drunk,” he told me, “and started making out with this drunk chick. And I’m right in the middle of it when I realized she was really fat. And I told myself, ‘She’s not really that big …” but then I’m like, ‘Yeah, she is … but I don’t care!” Laughing, he illustrated his story with a crude pantomime of the sex act, grabbing imaginary ankles with either hand and pulling them past his hips.
He left me, for the last time, with a variation on his usual benediction: “Get better so you can get out there and get some!”
It was the same refrain that night at “The Scene.” We saw several young women we knew, and Paul flirted outrageously. Unlike others of my acquaintance, he was decent enough not to hook up with someone and leave me to find my own way home. Our friend, Jean, invited me to dance, but that proved to be “same song, second verse” from our concert date. I think Paul considered me hopeless.
The night wound down to the bar’s “last call.”
It was after two o’clock when Paul drove back to Poquoson. We staggered up to his bedroom, hoping to get a few hours sleep before trawling out to his duck blind. We chatted about the classmates we had seen that night.
Though it was about the most uncool concept possible for the hipsters we considered ourselves, we both planned on attending Poquoson High’s future reunions. Some of that was to see what our classmates made of themselves. Part of it was to rub their collective noses in what we had made of ourselves. I wanted to be a filmmaker, and—though he never told me so—Paul was convinced I would succeed. (It was something his mother shared, afterwards: “Watch for Mark,” Paul had told her, “he’ll be in Hollywood making movies.”)
I noticed a copy of the 1976 – 77 Poquoson High School annual tossed carelessly on a table. “I wonder who’ll be dead?” I asked. My sense of humor always ran to the macabre. We thumbed through the photos of our senior class, wondering which of the faces Death would absent from the first reunion. We reached no conclusion before falling asleep.
Morning came too soon. Both of us still suffered the effects of the alcohol we consumed hours earlier.
We dragged ourselves downstairs to the garage. Paul gathered the necessary accouterments. We loaded them onto his boat, climbed in and shoved off.
The boat moved through the same dark channels we had navigated those years before. When he came to his stationary duck blind, he tied off to one of the four posts holding the covered box above the water.
Paul placed a few wooden decoys in the water, then scampered inside the blind. He had me hand up two shotguns and a box of shells. Then I climbed through the trapdoor into the blind. I followed Paul’s lead, loading shells into the shotgun he lent me. We waited.
We waited all morning.
The motions of successive waves slapping the blind’s posts, swaying the structure with gentle persistence, took its toll. The alcohol stole my sea legs. I leaned over the side railing and sent a slick of bile swirling around the decoys. We began regretting the night’s last pitcher.
In the early afternoon, Paul lamented the absence of waterfowl. “I don’t understand it,” he said, “It’s never this quiet.” I was more concerned with quieting my queasy stomach and throbbing head.
“Maybe I should use my Duck Call?” he suggested.
Go for it.” I had heard about Duck Calls, but had never actually heard one used.
Paul leaned over the edge of the blind. “Here, Duck!” he called, in a wan voice. He flashed his characteristic broad smile.
Eventually, the afternoon was spent. The sun, moseying low and lazy in the south, kicked into its westward sprint. Both of us felt cold. Both of us felt tired. Both of us felt still hung-over from all that cheap beer.
Paul was ready to call it a day. (I was long past ready, but made no peep of protest. I felt as if I was competing with every other friend he had ever taken hunting … and here I try to convince people I’ve evolved beyond competition!) Paul was reluctant to leave, however, with two shells still left unspent in his gun.
On the far bank he spotted a lone, brown teal. I say it was a teal. I know it wasn’t a mallard. It might have been a duck. All I know for certain from a vantage point of nearly 30 years is it was a bird.
Paul squeezed his trigger.
A sound not unlike the sum-total of every shot fired from every firearm ever manufactured erupted from his shotgun’s barrel. For what seemed an eternity, the sound echoed in our heads. It was—more or less—as if the Tasmanian Devil donned plate mail and bounced around the inside of my skull. Judging from his pained expression, Paul concurred.
We loaded our shotguns into his boat, gathered the decoys, and headed back for the house, joking about our lack of quarry and promising to do it again sometime.
It was not to be.
Before the end of the year, we both suffered serious automobile accidents. Our injuries were almost identical. Paul crushed his right leg where I broke my left, and my skull had actually fractured from its injuries where his just restrained his swelling brain. One of us survived. The other remains … forever young.