|By O. Victor Miller
It helps to know that grandmothers are still in charge in the Deep South, that hunting bobwhite quail is still a rite of passage, that future sons-in-law and trade associates still have their virtues weighed by dogs and guns before sober investments of cash or daughters. Our folk have been a matriarchal lot ever since Clovis nomads squatted down to grub a root. Muskogee princesses, absentee Spanish queens, frail belles, spoiled brats, and dusky mistresses—all conspired for power while males ranged out to drag home protein.
In Southern climes, egocentric Mother Nature bestows a seamless transformation on her daughters, who say their childish prayers and wake up as women and running things. Her sons, however, must re-smelt imperfections in cauldrons of puberty, swollen glands propelling meat into hormonal battles and idiotic wars. Girls simply have mothers and then become them, creating an omnipresent matrilineal network of grandmothers without whose temperament we Southern males would’ve exterminated ourselves 400 years ago.
Though generally disinclined to train the dogs or hunt the quail, these true rulers of the South rule roosting territories. Outliving mates, they hold title to hunting lands and impose etiquette. A careless hunter in some other venue may gain some “hubris of empire,” even to a Vice Presidency of the Union, but down here in Georgia, an ill-bred thug who fires his gun with greedy disregard for dogs or fellows can’t hope to reproduce himself. Without the blessing of grandmothers, these men must wander north or starve.
Patrick’s grandmother, Barbara, whose daddy was our grocer, impressed me indelibly in the 1950s by laying rubber in the family Cadillac. Now, her grandson has moved down here from Iowa to live with her and the boy’s father, her son, and she spends her days monitoring a police scanner. Chagrined that Patrick plays Mortal Kombat—a diversion she feels deemphasizes firearms safety—she told me to take the boy hunting, which was what was done with 14-year-old boys when she was, as they say, a girl. In keeping with time-honored caveats, I wasn’t to let him get him chilled, hungry, or shot. Plus, he couldn’t miss any school.
“School? Damn, Barbara, I’m a college professor!” I say. “Or was before I quit.”
“I know,” she trumped, “and I’m his grandmother.”
The law allows Patrick a choice of parents, and that’s it. He can’t drive, vote, work,
or drink whiskey. He can’t stay out past curfew, and unless courtship has drastically changed since I was, as they say, a boy, his female contemporaries won’t pay him much mind until he gets his photo on a wanted poster or a driver’s license.
Down here among the gnats and Spanish moss, hunting behind dogs of finer pedigree than their owners’ remains, largely due to grandmothers, the most gentlemanly and least sanguinary form of venery and the best fun adolescents can legally engage in fully clothed, but for mortal consequences from a bungle, hunting ranks right up there with bullfights and juggled hand grenades. The etiquette of safe gun handling underlies Southern traditions against causing the death of somebody who don’t need killing, and endorphin-laced teens must be regimented like bred pointers to throttle instincts primordial. Patrick’s grandmother wants him to learn to manage his mettle before 21st-century media technology transforms him into a psychopath with a mail-order AK-47.
When Jimbo, Patrick’s father, brings him by, I’m astonished to see a normal teenager, tall and handsome with broad shoulders and basic manners. We take him out to Triple Creek Plantation to meet the Plumber, a pal of mine for almost 60 years. We find him at the trap range sitting on a plastic bucket on a grassy knoll between a new lodge and a sparkling lake, teaching grandkids home from college to shoot trap without encroaching on each other’s slice of firing line.
Poleaxed by déjà vus, I first mistook his granddaughter Augusta, cocked on one hip, a broken shotgun balanced backwards across a shoulder, for her mother, Beverly. It takes a long moment to get back to where and when I am. I’d taught these youngsters’ parents and coached (if loosely put) Augusta’s future dad in Spanish, but Gary “Plumber” Flanigan and Corinne Beverly go back even further, being the first of our high school class to get married without having to.
In those early days, Plumber and I weren’t much company for wives, snoring in our boot socks by the hearth while the ladies scraped plates and fed the dishwasher, but Corinne stayed the course. She made their home and brokered real estate. She kept the books and raised pretty daughters, with bright brown eyes and crow-black hair from Plumber’s line. Our camps were tents and campfires. Before turning in, Plumber would kick up a galaxy of sparks to Cassiopeia and Orion. “I moan have a place someday,” he’d say, “and the whole damn world can go to hell.”
“Sure,” we’d yawn. “Sure you will.”
“He’s never shot a quail,” I say by way of introducing Patrick.
“Them neither,” Plumber says. He gestures with the trap remote to Brett and Blake, Lila’s twins, and Beverly’s Augusta, who wears the Flanigan hair down past her shoulders as her mother did, the shimmer of a grackle’s iridescence, a trace of Plumber’s cowlick at the forehead.
“Put him yonder with them,” he says.
Plumber’s grandfather, a hard-drinking redheaded loco-motive engineer, settled in Albany, Georgia, the midpoint of his run. His flamboyant unpredictability at the junction earned him the nickname On-Again Off-Again
Here-Again Gone-Again Flani-gan.
Plumber’s father, an affable plumbing contractor who rocked like a penguin when he walked, was called Old Man by the crew, including Plumber. Old Man brought blackened pots of turnip greens to camps, taking his teeth out to eat. Kids were drawn to him like he was made of candy.
Unlike Gone-Again, Old Man lived for hard work, and Plumber grew up doing a lot more of it than the rest of us. For one whole summer his legs were nicked and scarred by splintered flint that a maul sparked from river rock he broke for walls.
Cursed and blessed with continuity, I taught college English in my hometown for 30 of the 60 years I’ve known the Flanigans. I taught both daughters. Pace, a future son-in-law, I tried to coach in Spanish. Teaching Pace—too wired to sit—was worse than herding cats. I marched him through the pinewoods drilling verbs only because his saintly uncle, Bill Pace, had signed me out of school to take me quail hunting when nobody, especially not girls, would’ve noticed me if I’d set myself on fire. Like other unfinished products of Mother Nature, I was an unloved
acromegalic abomination with oversized feet, a reedy voice, and a complexion like a pepperoni pizza. “Yucky,” they’d have said as I melted into a loathsome pile. “Cooties!”
Pace’s mother, when I refused more money, sighed: “All he wants to do is hunt.”
“Let him,” I said. “Maybe he’ll get rich enough to stay out of jail and sire some pretty children.” Which is pretty much what Pace did.
It helps to know: Down here we give our kids first names from maiden surnames, like Beverly, Pace, and Flannery for matrilineal continuity. In turn, our infant children’s premiere trials at speech nickname adults Pawpaw, Memaw, Bahbah, Bumpy, Doodle, and Dingdaddy, appellations that stick for life and then some.
You’re jerking off!” Plumber calls to Patrick as another ceramic disk plops into the sparkle of the lake. The boys grin sheepishly, like acolytes caught redhanded drinking altar wine.
“Do what, Pawpaw?”
“Flinching,” I translate. “You’re jerking off the target.”
“Pawpaw?” I smile.
Plumber ignores me, thick forearms resting on his knees. My son still called me Doe Doe when I turned him over to Plumber. Too young to shoot, he stumbled after Plumber and a quadroon dog, establishing a debt in all these years I haven’t paid the interest on.
“I’ve spoiled them and know it,” Plumber says, lighting a cheroot Corinne won’t let near her new lodge, “but I enjoy my grandchildren.” Speaking around the cigar, he’s as articulate as any Southerner. “I enjoyed my children, too,” he reflects. “Hell, I even enjoyed your children.”
While we watch the youngsters shoot, Beau, the overseer and the Flanigans’ oldest grandson, pulls up reporting that a backhoe patching a dam has run over a company truck.
“Lean into it, Gussie,” Plumber calls out to his granddaughter. “And keep the shotgun swinging.”
Augusta tilts, hind leg in elegant tiptoe, returning the clay pigeon to charcoal dust, it seems, before it gets out past the muzzle. She’s a competitor like Aunt Lila, and her cousins love her for it. They’d rather see her beat them at a game than win one themselves.
Beau shrugs and smiles, returning to the work. It’s Plumber’s way to take things one on one and easy, skirting enterprises that require new clothes. I never know if he’s broke or flush, and if he doesn’t peek into Corinne’s books he may not either. His work and play and life are fused into one seamless kinetic—the relentless, easy gait of who he is—a single, measured, perpetual motion that will go on while Plumber does.
When construction flat-lined, instead of laying off he brought his crew and backhoes out to make this place. For three years now they’ve carved dirt roads, dug fishing lakes, and groomed habitat from scrub and thicket. Corinne made them mark and spare a thousand native dogwood trees.
“All these years he plods along, looking too laid-back to suck air,” says an employee since Old Man was
running things. “Now he’s done got rich as four foot up a bull’s ass, and it couldn’t happen no better.” But it’s
clear in large part his success derives from monomatriarchy, the uninterrupted rule of one good woman. His bulk has settled some upon his bucket, but essentially he’s the same young man who kicked the fire and said, “I will.” The thatch of hair he passed on to daughters, and they to the grandkids, has tarnished some with hoar and thinned through distribution, receding past the foremost cowlick of his youth, flaming hair of Gone Again having surfaced only once, in a great granddaughter.
“Well, Pawpaw, how’d you come to sire this pretty progeny?”
The mute answer: Corinne, strolling from the full-length porch of her lodge, checking on her grandchildren. Lila’s boys, the twins, are shooting trap with Patrick out of Barbara’s Jim and Beverly’s Augusta.
After a safety DVD in the great room of the lodge, Plumber says, “Patrick, you’re a big, fine boy, but if you shoot one of my dogs or grandchildren, I moan take my belt off and whip your ass. You understand me?”
“Yessir.” Patrick grins.
“Or the guide!” adds Keith, the guide.
“The guide is CYOA,” says Plumber.
We leave the young hunters at the lodge to fetch the dogs and a hunting truck, like something out of Africa, with high bench seats mounted above dog boxes. At the kennels, two dozen pointers bounce on hind legs, hurling themselves against the chain-link gates, howling like they’ve treed us. Beau threatens them with the high-pressure water hose that cleans the pens, producing an immediate and uncanny silence, but as he drops the hose, the nozzle cracks open. We hoot louder than the dogs, jumping lashing loops and ducking icy spray.
“What y’all doing wet?” Augusta wants to know when we return.
From the high sway of the hunting truck, Gussie and I watch Patrick hunt beside his father. More birds fly to Jim. He kills them almost apologetically with a humpback Browning knob-grip passed down from his father.
For birds that come his way, Patrick errs on caution’s side—the right stuff—taking shots too late, about the time the quail shift gears from afterburn to sail, watching them angle through the pines among dogwoods, fanning down into the paisley hardwood and cypress bottoms of Muckalee Creek, doing Grandma proud. Finally a single hooks to Patrick’s side. He shoots a little late, but the bird drops a leg and wobbles down into the sedge for Jack. The boy’s first quail, his daddy on the spot, the way things should go and almost never do.
“Well done!” Keith takes the bird, slaps Patrick’s shoulder.
On the wagon, Augusta’s knee is jerking up and down, her daddy’s Boykin blood. To tame it she stands up. “Good shot, Pat!” she calls, sitting down, the knee cranking off again with a life of its own.
“If you believe in the hereafter,” I whisper to Jim as he and Patrick climb up. “That there’s what we came here after.” With eyes glazed over, he stares out where a lot of birds escaped, beatific smile stamped in a face flushed red as his cap. A boy’s first bird has some great sway upon a father.
Now comes Augusta, down with Blake and Jack. How can I help but follow? These are my students’ kids: their daughter, sons, nephews, niece, and all. I’m kin enough. My own grandmother, like Corinne, was nicknamed Bud. She could find a blood connection to anyone in the South at will or scratch one out of the Bible. Down here, we’re kin to who we want to be, to better know each other and ourselves.
“I want the twenty gauge,” Augusta tells Keith as he hands her the .410.
“Pawpaw’s orders,” he says.
She loads red shells thinner than her granddaddy’s pinkies. We stalk the dogs, Jack squirming through a millet patch. A warm wind bullies off the chill. I carry coats back to the truck. Over pale hills stacked against each
other, a dark cloud moves in from the south spilling rain. The light softens shadows, and the distance changes
Gussie back into her mother. The bright orange cap against her hair recalls a blackbird’s epaulets, and I want this moment merging with forever—the smell of rain, dogwoods gone to berries bright as blood , the hickory’s antique gold and piebald bark of sycamore, the hectic shimmer of burnished leaves blanched by backing gusts.
“You want a gun, OV?” Plumber shouts to me.
“No thanks, I’m having too much fun.”
I catch back up to Gussie at the point—Jack, that beautiful bench-legged SOB, staunch as a bulldog doorstop at the edge of tall millet, the backing dog on shaky haunches, tail stiff as wire.
“Keep to the edge, Gussie.” With Blake and Keith across the patch, anything up is hers. I place my palm
between her shoulder blades and urge her to the dogs. The touch revives her mother, behind me on a ladder stand. I sat the footrest at her feet, my back against her knees to keep the gun out front. Beverly went with us but wouldn’t shoot. Her younger sister, Lila, mother to the twins, would scramble a tree alone in predawn darkness carrying an iron sight .30-30 with the bluing worn silver, and stay there till you came.
“I can’t shoot this gun,” Augusta whines.
“You have before.”
“I know, but now I’ve got it in my head.”
“Don’t think about it, you’ll forget it’s there. Just get the stock against
your cheek and do like Pawpaw said.” I push her close against the wall of golden millet. A cock breaks loose that must’ve grazed Jack’s nose, and Gussie, leaning into her shot, tumbles it, her back leg poised on tiptoe, suede boots trimmed in fur.
Suddenly a bat or a bobwhite quail behind her flushes in my face. I hit the dirt and roll and hold my ears.
She breaks her gun and helps me up. “You find a hole?” She smiles.
“Just giving you a shot,” I mutter.
“We don’t shoot the quail that break behind,” says the girl who’s never ever shot a quail but one.
Jack hasn’t moved and won’t until he’s tapped. She chambers two. Before she locks the breech, a third bird flushes up in front. She kills it clean before it levels off—it’s not a double, but close enough for kin. Down feathers ride the backing breeze.
I tap Jack’s head, reanimating him to snort around fetching her birds, grinning around them in his mouth, her cousins smiling wide as Jack.
“Can I please have the twenty now?” she begs.
She does. He says Climb back up, give Brett a turn. Plumber wants her moment to sink in, and mine. She
wants another moment, but her pout, if it is that, is brief as youth, fleeting as a quail-bird’s flutter. She knows that hunting’s not a game to win like shooting is, but learning what you know is twice as hard—the twins are on the ground, like, both of them at once. Jack’s slinking through the sedge and . . .
“Pawpaw!” she calls, her knee pumping faster than her heart, and he ignores her, lighting his cheroot. She takes her case to Keith and Beau, who shrug and smile. I climb back to the topmost seat and pat the restless knee her father gave her. On high seats, I am as aging monarchs are: the passing lords of all they know and see, a perfect moment in a perfect world, where everything in changing stays the same. Of fathers being heroes to their sons. Of all that is and all there’s ever been. Of quail and dogs and boys becoming men, and by God, pretty women being who they are: root, branch, and bud.
(Published in Gray’s Sporting Journal – August 2009)