Squirrel Hunting

The man on his way out of the store did not hold the door for me. This was in spite of the fact that a one second hesitation in his step or a even a polite stretch back before letting go would have allowed me to catch the handle. Perhaps he was still starry-eyed over his purchase of a new quiver for his compound bow and oblivious or maybe he was too focused on repositioning the wad of tobacco in his jaw in preparation for releasing the gallon or so of spit that had accumulated in his mouth during his forty minutes of shopping.

I imagined a buzz cut, pimply-faced clerk in the camouflage t-shirt showing this shopper product after product:

“This one has a built-in reel for those fishing arrows you bought last season.”

“Hmm…”

“This one has the latest in silent, quick-release technology. Bow Hunter Magazine tested it in their laboratory tree stands and said that even the most sensitive bucks couldn’t hear it.”

Nod.

“How about this one here? The broad head guard over the top has a built in fox urine dispenser for masking your scent. Pretty cool, huh?”

Nod with thoughtful squint.

“This is the one I use. Just came out. The camo pattern comes from the military and that mounting bracket is carbon fiber. You ain’t gonna hurt it when you throw it in the back of the truck.

“Hmm…”

“Of course, this one here was designed by Fred Bear hisself. My granddaddy’s got one just like it. Been using it his whole life. It’s old school…”

Inside the store I found myself under the watchful glass eyes of scores of once-majestic animals—elk, bear, bobcats, bighorn sheep, antelope, and white-tailed deer—lots of white-tailed deer. In the back left corner of this fifteen-thousand-square-foot Mecca for those given to their primal urge (and Biblical command) to subdue and conquer the most beautiful of earth’s creatures was the department I sought: firearms.

This trip was one I had never thought I would make. I haven’t hunted since high school, haven’t handled a gun since I was in the Army and a week ago I couldn’t stomach the thought of anything but live traps for the eleven-or-so squirrels hell bent on the systematic destruction of the trees and shrubs with which I had so lovingly landscaped my yard this spring.

In the first day of my little rodent war, I easily trapped three squirrels which I quickly moved a couple miles away and released on the far bank of Chattanooga Creek in what I thought to be a cute, little, fuzzy rodent paradise of tangled honeysuckle, privet and riparian trees of all sorts. What I found myself unable to determine the following day was whether I had trapped the only three squirrels dumb enough to wander into my trap or the only three squirrels smart enough to figure out how to get to the peanut butter-laced corn cob in the end of the wire mesh box. Either way, in the ten days since, I had caught no more squirrels and one more tree had been attacked—severed just below the ground and left to die. They weren’t even eating their prey.

Then came the idea. I received, via email, a forwarded article from the online news source http://www.chattanoogan.com, which read: “City Attorney Randy Nelson said the city has not had an ordinance against firing a gun inside the city limits since the late 1970s or early 1980s.” He went on to say that “the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency has the authority to grant hunting licenses within the city.” Nelson went onto say that, “Nothing precludes a person from shooting a gun within the city limits. Just be sure you know what you are shooting at and aim carefully.”

I had made the decision to escalate the war. I would end the destruction. I would aim carefully.

Before visiting the firearm department I stopped at the information desk.

“Hey, Buddy. What can I do for you?”

“I need a copy of the Tennessee hunting regulations.”

“Sorry, they ain’t out yet.”

“Do you have a copy of last year’s?”

The young man searched through several file cabinets, detouring after each drawer to spit in a trashcan under the time clock (which was obviously dedicated to such action as every other clerk behind the counter did the same after each customer.) He then disappeared for several minutes to check in a back office, returned with an extra large spit and announced that they were all out but, he added, “Come back in July, Buddy. We’ll have one for ya then.”

I thanked him and headed back to the gun department. A long counter set six feet from the wall protected customers from yards of shotguns, rifles and pistols—bolt action, single action, lever action, single barrel, double barrel, over-under, side-by-side, rim fire, center fire, wood grain, camouflage, stainless, blue, automatic and semi-, designed for targets, clays, birds, mammals, collections and self-defense. In the middle of the counter, three salesmen were gathered with a middle-aged customer examining the custom stock on a double barrel twenty gauge which they all agreed was the perfect first shotgun for a twelve-year-old.

“He’ll remember this birthday for the rest of his life.”

Spit.

“I’ll never forget my first one. Still have it. The day I got that gun was the only time ever seen my old man cry—tears and all.”

Spit. Spit.

“I’ll take it.”

“You’re a good father.”

Spit.

“He’ll keep that thing forever.”

“Gimme a box of shells, too…and a cleaning kit.”

“Do you want it gift-wrapped?”

“Could you…”

The men behind the counter laughed and spit and laughed some more. The proud father joined in.

“You got me with that one.”

One of the younger salesmen peeled away from the group, spit in the can behind him, and turned to me.

“Can I help you, Buddy?”

“I need a pellet gun.”

The salesman (I guessed him to be seventeen) came out from behind the counter and led me down an aisle. Along the way I explained my need, having to convince him that I really didn’t need a .22 or a .410 and that no, I wouldn’t be better served by something I could also bird hunt with.

At the end of the aisle was a dizzying array of pellet and bb guns ranging from 450 to 1200 feet per second (fps). Some came in kits with targets, shooting glasses and ammo. Others touted greater velocity than a .22 short. I was drawn to the classic Daisy Red Rider but the salesman convinced me that at 450 fps I would only “piss off the squirrels, and wasn’t accurate enough to hit them, anyway.”

He recommended pellets over bbs and showed me hollow points for greatest damage and gold-plated ones guaranteed to “increase my velocity by up to 350 fps.” I finally settled on a simple Daisy gun that boasted a respectable 750 fps and a box of the least expensive pellets offered. As the salesman hurried back to the spittoon, I made my way toward the checkout lines at the front of the store.

Pausing at the knife counter to look at sharpening stones for the kitchen, I set the gun and ammo down on a nearby bench facing the women’s hunting apparel department. As I perused the sharpeners, I pictured myself taking a bead on one of those squirrels and squeezing the trigger. I remembered the salesman’s words: this one will have plenty of punch to stop it in it’s tracks as long as you hit it in the head. Of course, a good body shot will eventually kill it, but it might take a while…

Looking back at the gun on the bench, I struggled with the image of a suffering squirrel, gasping for breath as it feebly climbs the hackberry to die in its nest. And what if I did make a head shot? What then? Do I bury it in the yard? Do I eat it? I knew I couldn’t bear to clean it. I took a look around the room at all those animals on the wall then glanced back at the gun on the bench. I surveyed the customers around me—fathers and sons testing tree stands, teens with confederate flags on their shirts dreaming of ten point bucks and ten pound bass, men in black boots wondering how fast they could empty and replace a fifteen round magazine.

Heavy hearted, I walked to the front of the store empty-handed. I paused to hold the door for a thirty-something sporting a mullet and a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt. A few feet outside the door, I felt a splash on my sandaled foot and looked down to discover I had stepped in a dark brown puddle. I wiped my foot with the handkerchief in my pocket and got in the car.

Someone once said that, “the best offense is a good defense.” I don’t who that was but I’m guessing it probably wasn’t somebody wearing camouflage and looking for a place to spit.

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I found myself behind a truck with a bumper sticker that read: “Gun Control is Being Able to Hit Your Target.” There must be a better way, I thought. On the trip home, I stopped at the store and bought some peanut butter. 

For the Birds

It’s 7:55 a.m. and I’ve been staring at my computer screen for nearly an hour.  Somewhere close by, outside my window, there’s a Carolina wren calling.  Twice, I stepped out on the porch to see, but it hushed as soon as I opened the door and I couldn’t find it.  Each time, as soon as I sat back down, it called again.  I’ve been seeing and hearing them a lot lately, but usually from midday to late afternoon – not at first light.  They talk a lot this time of year, but I don’t hear them singing.  They only repeat a single, harsh, mono-syllabic, grunt, as if they just learned their first word and want to practice it, or maybe they just want to let each other know they’re still there, and haven’t been eaten by a cat or anything.  Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  It doesn’t sound particularly friendly, but they are polite.  One calls, then another.  They rarely talk over each other.  I could learn a lesson in manners from them.

Nearly an hour ago, a cardinal filled the thin morning air with a rich, eager call.  Peterson calls them northern cardinals and describes their call as What-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer, what-cheer! But I’m certain these are southern birds.  No northern bird would pronounce “cheer” with two  syllables like these.  It’s more like, What-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er, what-chee-er! 

Yesterday, for the first time in several weeks, I saw a pair of Turtle Doves on my street.  Not since November 7th, have I seen two turtle doves anywhere in my neighborhood.  That was the day I found the pile of feathers just north of my front porch – right outside my office window.  Before that, the pair made  daily appearances.  They would land on the porch rail, fly over to the fence between my yard and Miss Lucy’s property, then on to Miss Lucy’s tree and finally, to the bird bath.  After a drink, they would stop one more time on my porch rail before flying south to spend most of their day down on 19th street either in the vacant lot or on one of the telephone lines that cross Mitchell.

Immediately after the murder, I didn’t see either bird for several days.  Then, one morning, I heard the soft, telltale call.  Hoo-hroo, hoo-hrooo.  I ran to the porch to see a single bird flying to a telephone pole two doors down from me.  A single bird.  I had never seen a turtle dove alone before.  They are always in pairs.  I had to fight back the anger I felt toward the cat in order to fully feel sorrow for the dove.  Anger is powerful that way, and as a result, I think that we humans sometimes miss out on the depth and richness of sorrow – a beautiful emotion when anger isn’t drowning it out. 

It’s strange but even now, several weeks later and after he has found a new partner, I still get that heavy feeling in my chest when I think about him out there alone.  And I still get a little angry when I see the black and white cat I pegged for the deed.

I have referred to the lone turtle dove as “he” ever since the murder, but of course I don’t know what sex it is.  Male and Female turtle doves look identical.  I tried calling it “she” but it just didn’t feel right.  I’m sure Freud or Robert Bly could explain why I’m that way.  Of course they would probably also have something to say about my thoughts on anger and sorrow. 

Yesterday there was a hairy woodpecker across the street in one of the big, old trees on the alley.  I wish I could plant big, old trees in my yard to draw the woodpeckers over here.  I talked to the folks at the nursery but they don’t sell “big, old trees.”  I told them that they should.  I think there would be a market for them.

The northern mockingbirds are singing now.  I love their varied, melodic songs and having almost never seen them in Chicago, always associated them with the south and home.  Given my associations with them, I would love to cast them as southerners too, but I don’t really have a good argument for changing their name – definitely not as solid an argument as for the cardinal.  In fact, I could more easily argue the contrary.  They certainly don’t exhibit good southern manners – always making fun of the other birds, chasing after the crows, talking out of turn.  Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing northerners.  I’m just drawing a contrast between acceptable southern behavior and the behavior of mockingbirds.  That’s all.  Some of the best mannered people I know are northerners.  Linda O’Callahan, for instance and Gail Permenter.  Lovely, northern women with delightful manners… 

There are three empty lots across the street from me.  All three are owned by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises and all are for sale.  Yesterday, men with chainsaws and a chipper cut down nearly every tree, bush, and hedge on all three properties, reduced them to chips and drove away with the remains.  The sparrows loved the hedges and the grackles and starlings filled the trees.  Mockingbirds and cardinals frequented the bushes.  If I were building a house on one of those lots, I would want the habitat.  I’m relieved that they at least left the two biggest, oldest trees.  The new property owners will be able to plant bushes, but not big, old trees.

The wrens are calling again. Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!  I wish they would say something else.  When they want to, they are capable of singing a beautiful song. I think they might be sad about the missing trees.  Or, perhaps they’re mourning murdered neighbors. Or, maybe all they’re saying is “Hey! Hey!Hey! Hey! Hey!”