I knew how the Crusaders felt, questing after the Holy Grail. Well, no, maybe I knew how Monty Python felt.
It was after 11 a.m. and I was trudging the long mile back to the car. I'd been up since 4 a.m., turkey hunting.
All right, be honest: since 4 a.m.
I was being humiliated by turkeys. Nothing new in that. It's happened for 30 years.
My face felt like the haunch of a rhinoceros. Eyeballs in laboratory specimen jars felt better than mine did. No sleep, ears plugged up, sinuses plugged up, brain plugged up. Ticks were holding wind sprints all over me. My lower spine felt like Humpty Dumpty's - after the fall.
I walked like Grandpa McCoy. Every year another vertebra gets out of synch with its fellows.
I shambled over the top of a long, steep hill and looked into the valley. There, 150 yards away at the edge of the woods, stood a magnificent gobbler, beard like a Biblical patriarch. He saw me instantly, of course leaving me no chance to circle around him and woo him with my ambrosial calling.
He trotted a few steps toward the woods, paused at the edge and turned toward me.
He gobbled at me! It was the equivalent of Ted Williams endearing himself to the fans of opposing baseball teams with a familiar gesture of contempt. Then, with magnificent disdain, the gobbler ambled into the woods and vanished.
I've been humiliated by turkeys longer than most people have been alive, but I never had one stop to cuss me out before.
It was the latest and greatest indignity visited on me by Mr. Meleagris gallopavo. What's next? They get me down in the woods and beat the whey out of me?
I used to blame my poor turkey hunting on bad luck or a Jamaican curse. Russian conspiracy was a possibility in the days before glasnost. It had nothing to do with my methods and calling, which are impeccable.
Bad luck doesn't run for 30 years, the Russians are more worried about eating than in messing up my turkey hunting, and I don't know any Jamaicans. There is only one possible explanation:
I am too good for them. There, that's it. Yes, I know that sounds arrogant, but let's be honest. Hunters who couldn't call a turkey on the telephone if they had the number stamped on the palm of their hand have stumbled into the woods and had gobblers fight each other to get in front of their guns.
I've seen hunters wandering the woods wearing bright blue overalls, carrying immense box calls which made the sounds of a chicken in the clutches of a fox. These same hunters later checked in gobblers and drove me mad with their stupid stories: "I allus heard them turkeys was hard to kill, but, shoot fire, this ol' boy come right on in when I fell over the fence and dropped the call and it made this funny sound."
Four-year-old children have called in and killed more turkeys than I have. People choking on their mouth callers bring birds at the run while I sit on the next ridgetop lofting fluted mating calls into the empty dawn and listen to the distant thunder of other people's guns.
The only possible explanation is that turkeys are such poor judges of good hunting techniques that they don't appreciate me. They sit on their roost limbs, thinking turkey thoughts: What's that bright light yonder? Reckon it's that sun thing like yesterday, or last.
I'd be hundred yards away, pouring my soul into that mouth caller, promising the gobbler palaces on the Riviera, bank vaults full of acorns, undying devotion and passion.
Meanwhile, Ethel and Agnes, the two hens next tree over start talking: "I have a headache. I've got to darn my socks. I wish I wasn't so ugly." And the gobbler falls all over himself, slobbering and panting, eager to molest them.
You ask him, "But what about the palaces, the acorns, the love?"
And he looks stupidly at you and says, "Say what?"
I use three calls like I would use the three shells in my shotgun if I had something to shoot at. There is my yelp, a Pavarottilike note that should have gobblers running toward me, tears streaming down their wattled cheeks.
My cluck is the stuff of daytime soap opera, brimming with raw emotion. And the cackle ... well, you just can't describe it in a family publication.
Once I was at a calling contest which featured the ultimate judge: a wild gobbler in a cage at the back of the hall. The gobbler paid no attention to the sweating, red-faced contestants, who hunched over their mouth callers like Louis Armstrong reaching for an F-sharp. But the bird perked right up every time the beer tap hissed.
It should have been a revelation for me. Turkeys don't care about quality. The only good strategy is to be as dumb as a turkey hen, which is pretty dumb.
I always plot my strategy like Gen. Eisenhower working up Operation Overlord. Better I should amble into the woods like Clem Kadiddlehopper. On the season's first day, I cleverly located myself near a roost (i.e. I walked into it in the dark). As the turkeys woke, the gobblers gobbled and the hens yelped. The hens sounded like a bobcat with inflamed sinuses. If I couldn't do better than that, I'd quit I thought, smirking. I did better than that, sending into the trees an assortment of seductive clucks and yelps that should have had the gobblers falling helplessly off the roost, crying, "Take me! Take me, you mad, impetuous hen!"
Instead, there was a great suspicious silence and then, with the roar of a jet leaving an aircraft carrier, the flock flew off. I heard shooting far down the hill, where the rubes and dummies were scratching their home made box calls and themselves.
It is a curse to be too good.
There's no point in being clever to an audience that doesn't appreciate it. Turkeys have a brain the size of a gnome's postage stamp. Put a million turkey brains together and you might get one human thought on the order of: Wonder what a cheeseburger tastes like.
No turkey is listed among the authors of the 100 greatest books ever written. Turkeys have not invented machines to butter toast nor to pick gristle from between our teeth. Turkeys have contributed to civilization only by lying quietly on a plate, legs in the air.
And here I have spent 30 years, not to mention countless dollars, seeking perfection in the quest for a bird that will gobble at the sound of a hog feeder banging in the distance and will investigate someone beating the dust out of a rug, thinking it is a gobbler fight.
Turkeys have fallen in love with tractors, for crying out loud! Why don't we dress up as Allis Chalmers? Who needs camouflage? Go out there in a big yellow suit, belching black smoke and dragging a four-bottom plow.
There is great satisfaction in knowing the reason I don't kill turkeys is that I'm too good. There also is relief. I'd begun to think there was something wrong with me when all the time the problem was my incredibly developed talent.
I am gratified that I've gotten so good I can't possibly kill a turkey. In fact, I don't know another hunter who is as good as I am. The rest all kill turkeys, indicating they haven't quite reached my exalted skill level. Poor saps!
In fact, I've gotten so good that I think I'll just rest on my laurels (this woodland bed of poison ivy and sharp chunks of flint). Maybe I won't even hunt for a season or two. Let my skills get rusty.
So rusty, so awkward and pitiful that maybe I can call in a doggone turkey.
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