"You are looking straight ahead of the dog-never down at the ground-and you are carrying your shotgun slanted across your chest, the stock cocked under your elbow. ..The world explodes, and a billion bits of it fly out in front of you, tiny brown bits with the thunder of Jove in each wing. They go in all directions-right, left, behind you, over your head, sometimes straight at you, sometimes straight up before they level. Then a miracle happens. Out of these billion bits you choose one bit and fire, and if the bit explodes in a cloud of feathers you choose another bit and fire again, and if this bit also explodes you break your gun swiftly and load, figuring maybe there's a lay bird and you can turn to the Old Man with a grin, and when he says, "How many?' you answer, 'Three.' More likely you'll answer, 'One' or 'None.'"
Last month, the Department of Natural Resources met with a group of local landowners to promote the Bobwhite Quail Initiative. When I read about it in the Courier Herald, it reminded me immediately of Robert Ruark's collection of stories centering on an adolescent boy, a grandfather and their love for quail hunting that was first published over fifty years ago. Even though the events in the book took place in
, during the 1930s, they could just as easily have happened here in
. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is complete by themselves which allows the reader to pick and choose by his own taste. The titles arouse your curiosity and draw you with the hope of their natural humor and warmth. Ruark's stories range from training a young dog how to point birds instead of chasing rabbits to the importance of exercising good manners while hunting. Sandwiched around the quail scenes in the fields are sections on fishing, deer and pheasant hunting, and of course the joy that comes with eating what is shot or caught. Equally part of the outdoor adventures are the wisdom and philosophy provided by the "Old Man" as he seeks to tutor "the boy" into manhood.
In "November Was Always the Best", Ruark describes the first hunt of bird season along with the following definition of a man:
"A man don't start to learn until he's about forty; and when he's fifty, he's learned all he's going to learn. After that he can sort of lay back and enjoy what he's learned, and maybe pass a little bit of it on. His appetites have thinned down, and he's done most of his suffering, and yet he's still got plenty of time to pleasure himself before he peters out entirely. That's why I like November. November is a man past fifty who reckons he'll live to be seventy or so, which is old enough for anybody-which means he'll make it through November and December, with a better-than-average chance of seeing New Year's."
Old Dogs and Old Men Smell Bad is the canvass Ruark uses to paint the picture of the boy's first solo quail hunt. The boy achieves success by closely observing the old man's two experienced pointers and allowing himself to be "educated" by the dogs. Terrapin Stew Costs Ten Bucks a Quart portrays the old man and the boy's visit to see the old man's best friend, Mr. Howard. Set against the restricting background of Prohibition, the boy shares a meal of terrapin stew and duck with his grandfather, accented by his first taste of illegal whiskey. The old man admonishes the boy concerning the excesses of alcohol by commenting that "Any friendship goes sour if you overdo it." Regardless of the time of day, the chapter Even School Can't Hurt October, stimulates my palate with its culinary delights of venison cooked on hot coals; eggs, grits, and redeye gravy in an iron skillet; steamed oysters dipped in melted butter and pepper vinegar, accompanied by hush puppies, all washed down by your favorite liquid. As you might imagine Not On Opening Day closes this classic by bringing the boy to the point where the old man prepares for death. The grandfather's final promise is that he won't leave the boy on the opening day of quail season.
The Old Man and the Boy is a beautifully written tale of that special relationship between a grandfather and grandson. Although time, technology, and the erosion of our environment keeps some of the scenes from being duplicated today, the spirit of Ruark's book can be found whenever the essential ingredients of the outdoors and friendships are brought together.
One of my goals in writing these book reviews is to try and entice a non reader into finding a book in the library they might enjoy. The Old Man and the Boy is probably my best shot since it so appropriately depicts the sights, sounds, and smells that appeal to some who are not inclined to substitute a book for a gun, bow, or reel. Happy Thanksgiving.