Credit: Terry Theiss Photography

Tradition, Turkeys…and grandpa’s

It’s the morning after and I don’t want to talk about or think about politics today.

If you never had the pleasure of hunting the North American Wild Turkey (and by hunting I mean in the old fashioned way of sitting motionless on the ground while blowing a mouth yelper- no state of the art decoys or blinds or cutting edge technology) then you won’t understand what I am about to say. There is nobility to the wild turkey. No, Franklin did not suggest him as the national bird, but he wouldn’t have been a bad choice.

The turkey is not a brilliant creature but his survival instincts, eyesight and hearing, make him a more than worthy foe and worthy of our respect. That’s exactly why I have never understood the guffawing and giggling present in most hunting shows when the hunter bags a bird. I harvested my second one this past weekend and I did what I always do. I took a knee beside the fallen, not in worship of course, and not quite in the pantheistic mindset of the American Indian, but out of respect. It sounds corny I know, but that’s my business. Then I sat down there, in that Kentucky wheat field beside the bird, and I thought about my grandpa.

It was he who took me on my first turkey hunt at twelve years old in 1975. If my memory serves it was the first turkey season in Georgia after the big and successful restoration project conducted by the Department of Game and Fish (an example of good government functionality).

My Pop woke me at 4:00 AM and had bacon and eggs on the table by the time I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I got to dress in musty smelling army surplus camo that was two sizes too big but was all the camo that was available on the market at the time. It was WWII vintage. He even had me put on WWI leggings because I didn’t have boots. I got to sit on a life preserver cushion on a wooden box behind the gearshift of his 1952 Willys Jeep. He drove that thing for forty years. I sat between him and an elderly neighbor man who was going on this adventure with us. None of the three of us had ever turkey hunted. My grandpa built a wooden box call for the occasion. We didn’t see a turkey much less shoot one but far off in the distance we heard one gobble once and declared the morning a success. It was a glorious day. I’m fifty-two and it remains one of my favorite days.

Thirty years after that day, when Pop was eighty-seven, we went again. I was the driver this time. I had planned the hunt. By then we had repeated this ritual every year since ’75. When we got out of the truck we did what we had always done, we split up. I would hunt the valley he would hunt the ridge. I called one in that day, should have killed him, but I moved at the wrong time and the turkey bolted. I was disappointed in the extreme that I wouldn’t share a harvest with Pop.

But as I walked back toward my truck to meet him, my perspective changed. Still some distance from my truck, I looked through the woods and saw Pop. He was sitting on a little stool not fifteen yards from the truck, his back to a four inch pine. He was barely hidden from turkeys at all. He was trying to call on an old timey Lynch’s Jet Slate but his hands were shaking so violently he couldn’t make it work.

I walked up to him in shock. Do you understand the magnitude of that moment? I had followed this man through the woods my whole life, we quail hunted when I was six and carried a BB gun. Into his eighties I couldn’t keep up with him. But on that day when I got close to him he nearly lunged for me. He grasped my forearms almost in desperation…his hands were so cold…too cold. I helped him into the truck and got the heat going for it was an unseasonably cool Spring morning.

Soon he was warm and sipping on a thermos cup of coffee and all was well. As we drove out toward the highway he said, “Buddy, are you going to go again in the morning?”  I said I was. “Well, I don’t believe I’ll go, may stay home next time.”

That was it. It was over. My Pop would never hunt or fish again. He went to his eternal home a five short years later.

I thought of that this past Sunday, sitting there in the wheat next to that noble bird. I used to wish I had harvested that turkey with Pop there that morning…not anymore. Now I wish I had stayed with Pop. I wish I had sat there next to that four inch pine exposed for all the turkeys to see. I wish I had let him call for me on that old jet slate…with shaky hands…just one last time.

That’s who we are. That’s what will keep us going as a nation. Our families and our traditions, no politician can take those away, we mustn’t let them.

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Chris Skates

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