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Garry’s Outdoor Kicks & Grins: Fox And Hounds

Tally ho! Garry and Ducky try some hunting on horseback.

Garry Bowers | November 1, 2020

When I was 12 years old or so, my folks occasionally dropped me off for the weekend at my Uncle’s farm-slash-ranch up in the country a couple of hours away. I have long since forgotten the excuse for doing so, but the reason was that I was 12 years old. Sane parents get away from their 12-year-old boys whenever they can if they want to remain sane.

That lesson was driven home once when I invited my friend Ducky Jones to go with me one weekend. His Mom walked him to the car and exchanged pleasantries with my parents as he climbed into the back seat with me. I noticed she was sniffling and dabbing her eyes with a hankie. I whispered to  Ducky, “Man, your mom looks like she is really going to miss you.”

He didn’t even look up and replied matter of factly, “Tears of joy.”

Those were fun weekends. Once, Ducky and I decided to parachute off of my Uncle’s barn roof. We each got an old sheet from the house attic, somehow climbed onto the top of the barn from the hayloft, grabbed two corners of each piece of linen in each hand and Geronimo’d off. It should have worked. I still don’t know how we miscalculated, but the sheets did not open. Ducky was, as usual, lucky and landed on a hay bale. I, on the other hand, landed in the pig pen. Fortunately, a rather surprised 300-lb. sow broke my fall. Otherwise, I might not have escaped with a simple concussion.

Consequently, I don’t remember a great deal about the rest of that weekend. But I recall with vivid clarity one particularly exciting weekend right before Christmas that I went without Ducky. I participated in a form of hunting I had neither done before nor since. When we pulled up, Uncle was standing on the front porch, so my folks just let me out of the car and fled. Mom said in parting, “We’ll pick you up Sunday night. Have fun and be careful.” It was a rhetorical statement. She knew I would have fun because I was spending the weekend in the country. And she knew I would not be careful because I was, well, me.

I remember thinking to myself, “Well, which one do you want me to do? Have fun or be careful?”

And then I thought quickly, “I hope I didn’t say that out loud.”

In those days, that was called “sass,” and a kid participating in “sass” was likely to be snatched up and beaten half to death. But she did not come flying through the car window after me, so I assumed I had not actually verbalized those words.

Each night at supper, my Uncle would regale me with tales from his childhood. And he had quite an imagination. I would sit in rapt attention, probably with my mouth half open, and I would listen intently. He would ignore my Aunt, who would roll her eyes and shake her head and occasionally say his first name as if she were scolding a child. On that one particular visit, I mentioned how cold it was, and he scoffed at me. He said the weather was much, much colder when he was a kid, and they had blizzards for most of the school year.

He told me he had to walk to school each day through 4 feet of snow. Six miles. Uphill. And he had to walk back home each evening through 5 feet of snow. Seven miles. Uphill. The geographic impropriety of that situation never occurred to me at the time.

Though my Aunt didn’t seem to enjoy his stories, I did. And he loved telling them.

After supper that night, we settled in front of the television. Even with the 60-foot antennae Uncle had installed, we were so far from a broadcasting station, the little black and white set only picked up one channel. There was an old movie on about the English aristocracy, and it was soooo boring. Lots of adults with a funny accent talking about lots of stuff I didn’t understand. I think mostly politics and family disputes and (yuck) romance. But there was one respite. In the middle of the movie was a British Royal foxhunt, complete with galloping horses, a slew of running hounds and the blare of hunting horns. It made quite an impression on me.

And there I was on a ranch with acres and acres of prime hunting land, horses and even a couple of old beagles. I asked Uncle if I could take one of the horses to the woods the next morning and hunt with his dogs.

“Do you remember how to ride?”

“Yessir!”

“Did you bring your gun?”

“Yessir!”

It was a done deal. I could hardly wait. I didn’t even dread sleeping in the attic that night. That was the location of the only extra bedroom in the rambling old farmhouse. It was unheated. In the winter, it was far, far beyond the simple word cold. A polar bear would have been miserable up there.

When I crawled into the old iron bedstead that night, my Aunt commenced covering me with about 80 pounds of quilts and blankets. I had to be in the position in which I wanted to sleep when she started because when she finished, I couldn’t move. When I woke up the next morning, it took a good 10 minutes to extricate myself from beneath the covers, but I was motivated, going on my first English foxhunt and all. I dressed and ran to the bathroom to check my nose for frostbite. Uncle met me in the barn after breakfast and saddled up a frisky 3-year-old stallion for me. As creative as Uncle was at telling tales, he had no such proclivity when it came to names. He called the horse “Fred” and both dogs were named “Dawg.”

Anyway, I mounted up with my .410 single shot strapped to my back. He called, “Here Dawg! Here Dawg!” And they both came running. Before I left, he warned, “Don’t shoot from the saddle. Fred isn’t used to guns. Dismount, tie him up and then do your shooting.”

I assured him I would. He then left to do some errands, and I was off on my first British hunting expedition. I thought it would be appropriate to give my mount an English name and said, “Come on Dunbarton. Let’s go slay some fox!”

We crossed the pasture, or as I called it, the King’s royal grasslands, and we were almost to the Gamekeeper’s forest, when we jumped a fox. Well, a rabbit.

It should be noted here that an adult’s memory can be measured in weeks, months and even years, according to the circumstances. For a pre-teen, memory retention on any subject is approximately 90 seconds. My Uncle’s admonition about not shooting from the saddle had taken place about 5 minutes before, well outside the 90-second time frame. So I unslung my little gun and fired. Dunbarton came unglued. He levitated a full 18 inches, turned around in midair and headed at full speed back to the barn. I lost my shotgun, my reins, my breath and all control of my bodily functions, but I managed to keep one foot in a stirrup and both hands on the saddle horn.

A terrified, galloping horse is neither a reliable nor comfortable means of transportation. Cowboys made it look easy in the movies, but I spent as much time in the air as in the saddle, behind the saddle and in front of the saddle. To use the British expression, let’s just say it was a smashing ride. I was lucky to have ever had children.

And somewhere in the recesses of my tiny 12-year-old brain, I knew that a horseback rider had to bend over to leave that particular barn door. I had done that just a few minutes before. For the life of me, I don’t know how I assumed one did not have to duck on the way back in. But the 90-second rule had kicked in again.

I woke up in a pile of barnyard manure (some of it may have been mine) with a busted forehead and Dunbarton nuzzling me, ostensibly to see if I were still alive. I swear he was grinning.

I try to garner some wisdom from each misadventure I have encountered. On that day, I learned why the Brits wear that silly hunting attire. Red jackets don’t show blood and the little black caps cover up the knots on their heads. I suppose they would say of me, “He was a bit bonkers as a wee lad.”

And they would be right.

Tally Ho anyway.

 

For a copy of Garry’s new book “Dixie Days –  Reminiscences of a Southern Boyhood,” go to Amazon.com  Enter by title and author. Soft cover ($12) Great gift idea!     

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