The day of chasing Iowa pheasants in the fields of standing corn had ended. The hunters had scraped off most of the globs of sticky mud that were plastered on their boots—now lying in a pile outside the door to the old farm building. Inside, the four stocking-footed hunters, in various attitudes of repose, were relaxing and enjoying their first post-hunt libation.
Major Nathaniel Peabody (USA, ret.) and two of the other hunters were old friends. The fourth man, someone’s nephew, was new to the group. He was young. Peabody guessed him to be about 25. During that first day’s hunt he had behaved well, never yelling, “I got him!” when others also shot at a particular bird, or committing some other violation of acceptable hunting etiquette.
Now as they relaxed and bragged about their dogs and joked, the young man watched and smiled and didn’t say much. During a lull in the conversation, he asked a question. “How old are you, Major Peabody?”
Young men think anyone who is more than one-and-a-half times their own age is over the hill. This particular young man presumed that anyone over 35 had passed his apex and was on the downhill side of life. He thought it was remarkable for a man as old as Major Peabody to still see well enough to identify a flying rooster and, in addition, be able to shoot it. That day the Major had more than once proven he was capable of excelling at both of those things.
Men over 40 never ask the age of their elders. The “questioned” may interpret it to mean: You are so old. You will soon be dead. That interpretation is not a rarity. It explains why older men seldom bother to answer the question.
But the inquiry did not disturb Peabody. He took a tolerant view of youngsters. He knew he had an advantage over them. It is called “experience.” Peabody had been 25 once. The young man had never been 65. In the fullness of time, young men mature and eventually snort at young men who question their age.
“My memory is a bit faulty,” Peabody explained. “I have trouble with simple things—like when I was born. Even if I were sure of the date, mathematics has never been my strong point and I might make a 10- or 20-year error in subtraction.” The other hunters rolled their eyes and slowly shook their heads, but the young man apparently believed him. He persisted in his line of inquiry. “What was it like going hunting when you were young?” he asked. “I’ll bet it was even more fun back then than it is now.”
The Major flicked an inch of cigar ash into the tray on the end table beside his chair. He picked up his drink and continued speaking. “You may not believe this, young man,” he said, “but we had already progressed from matchlocks to flintlocks to caplocks and on to weapons that shot shells. Moreover, in the 1930s modern technology had already advanced from blackpowder to the smokeless variety.
“In the latter half of the 19th Century, shotgun shells had brass casings. The wooden gun cases built for 1870 Parker shotguns had places for storing both the empty shells and the reloading tools. In the 20th Century, way back before the advent of plastic, shotgun shells had paper casings. If they got wet, sometimes they expanded and wouldn’t fit into the chamber. In the South Pacific during World War II, shotguns loaded with double-ought buck were good tools for use in thick jungle fighting. Brass shotgun-shell casings were again manufactured and used to avoid any paper-shell degradation that might be caused by wet and humid tropical climates.
“Before the 1930s there was no chill designation on the nose of the shells. Instead, words like ‘duck load’ and ‘grouse load’ were printed on them. At that time there was no uniformity in duck hunting seasons and no federal regulations of bag limits. Those matters were all regulated by state or local governments. In some states the job was assigned to the county boards. It was the hunters who forced the feds to take control and make order out of chaos.
“By the late 1920s and early ’30s outdoor magazines were in the forefront of the battles to protect the ethics of our sport. Those were days when editors published pictures of game hogs and had the guts to identify and chastise them. They wrote editorials demanding that the government establish uniform migratory-game laws and pleaded for the establishment of bag limits. The hunters were a large-enough voting bloc to force the Roosevelt Administration to act. Ding Darling, a Chicago newspaper cartoonist, was appointed to the government board that undertook the job. He also was the artist who produced the first federal duck stamp.
“In 1931 Outdoor Life ran a multi-page article attacking the politicians and other maniacs who were trying to force a gun-control law through Congress. The arguments used by today’s hunters are the same that appeared in that ancient article. Logic is stable and doesn’t change over the decades—in spite of the transitory anti-hunter fads and hysterias that grip the weak of mind who wouldn’t recognize Mother Nature if she knocked them down and sat on them.
“On the other hand,” the Major mused, “The good old days had their limitations. Duck hunters, for instance, didn’t have leak-proof plastic boats. In the good old days they had wooden skiffs. Every winter, spring and summer after the duck season, the wood dried out and the floorboards shrank. Every fall the skiffs had to be soaked until the floorboards swelled up again. Then the lake water was supposed to remain in the lake. However, more than occasionally it seeped into the skiffs and kept the duck hunters company.
“In the ‘good old days’ hunters weren’t burdened by today’s windproof, weather-proof, lightweight clothing or by our modern textured boots that come very close to being waterproof. On cold days the old-timers wore heavy long johns, wool pants, a few layers of wool shirts, a thick wool coat and thick socks to help absorb the water that entered their below-the-knee lace-up boots. The term ‘bundled up’ was, in fact, descriptive. It’s a wonder that the good-old-days hunters were able to lift a shotgun and swing its barrels at a flying bird.
“Other outrages occurred. The Lefever people stopped manufacturing their shotguns. World War II happened, making it difficult to find shells and cartridges.” Peabody looked at the younger hunter. “Let’s see,” he said. “You wouldn’t happen to remember much about poliomyelitis? Undulant fever? Smallpox? Mumps?” The young man looked blank.
“Well,” the Major continued, “suffice to say the good old days, on balance, were not the good old days. For one thing,” he said, pointing at the bottle of 30-year-old Macallan, “the contents of that particular bottle weren’t around.” He rattled the ice cubes in his now-empty glass.
Without a word, the young man rose, took the Major’s glass and proceeded to refill it.
He’s a nice kid, the Major thought. I think we’re going to get along fine.
Galen Winter’s favorite Major stories have been collected and anthologized in The Best of the Major, available for $25 (plus shipping) from 800-685-7962; www.shootingsportsman.com.
- By: Galen Winter