Funerals and Feathers by Mark Dillow, 2007 ©


The call came, unexpected as all such calls…with the urging “come quickly, time is short.”  Hurried packing and calls to the airline followed, with tense foreboding of what the morrow may bring.

It is strange how funerals draw family together to the old home place from the far-flung corners of the map.  Conversations in hushed tones, hugs, tears, and even laughter after the ceremony do little to fill the single empty seat at the farmhouse dinner table.  For a boy of twelve, losing a grandfather is bewildering.  Death has an unhappy way of forcing an end of innocence… especially when it comes at Christmas.

After the burial and the obligatory meals, relatives bred of hardy Midwestern farm stock slowly began to filter back to their homes.  My family, having traveled by air from the mountains of east Tennessee, was one of the last scheduled to leave.  This allowed mom to help grandma go though grandpa’s things, and settle the paperwork.

Distractions were few, as these were the days before cable TV, internet, and video games.  The TV only picked up two channels from Des Moines.  It was an old black and white set.  Watching any program was like eating a meal without seasoning.  Hours passed slowly, and I entertained myself by wandering through the barns, with their mysterious implements and musky smells.  I clambered up on grandpa’s tractor and recalled the time he let me drive it.  The hens didn’t lay for a week after that…

The night before our planned departure, snow began to fall.  It began to pile up in the ditches and against the snow fences in ever-increasing depths.  The wind began to moan, and soon the realization came that this was a serious winter storm.

By morning, the storm was still raging, and a call to the airport verified what the adults had feared…all flights were cancelled, with no estimates on when the runways would be cleared.  Twelve inches of snow had fallen in the night.

To a boy, being stuck in a winter wonderland was a welcome gift.  Snow tunnels, snowman building, and other adventures ensued.  I was only forced indoors when my fingers began to burn with the cold.

The next day dawned brilliant, blue, and silent.  The snow muffled what few sounds of civilization might issue forth in the cold.  The storm had passed, leaving us sequestered at the old farmhouse.

My father called for a reconnoiter.  Two shotguns and a handful of shells came forth.  One was an ancient twelve bore, single shot of common lineage.  Its barrel shone silver, all bluing having long since worn away.  The second gun was a pump action .410, used to protect grandma’s hens from the local raccoons.

Warm clothing came not from a sporting goods big box store in the latest camouflage patterns and Gore-Tex, but in the form of grandpa’s insulated chore coveralls and green rubber boots.  Grandpa was a slight man, and other than being a bit longish, his clothes fit me well enough.  Dad wore his street clothes and coat.  A pair of new insulated boots was procured from a local feed store, somehow open for business.

We made quite a site that morning, as we trudged out of the warm house, two rag-tag hunters in a sea of white.  It was certain our images would never grace the cover of any respectable sporting journal.

I drew in a breath of the painfully clean air.  I had accompanied my farther on similar rambles, but this was very different.  Today, I was entrusted with my own shotgun…a single shell in the chamber.

I had become familiar with brother scattergun on a mountaintop skeet range in Tennessee and was fairly proficient.  The choke on the little .410 was full and screw-in chokes were still decades in the future.

At the edge of the farmyard, we spotted a sitting rabbit, which dad allowed me to add to the pot.  A quick shot and I had entered the brotherhood of the hunter.

I nearly retched as dad cleaned the cottontail, but I didn’t let him know it.  We hung the carcass in the barn to cool and continued on with our impromptu safari.

Cover was plentiful.  A wet autumn had prevented the timely harvest of corn, and columns of stalks stood as silent sentinels to our march.  Fields normally vacant in this season were buffets of life sustaining grain for beleaguered wildlife.

With no dog to assist us, we walked in zigzag patterns, dad teaching me the pheasant two-step…two steps, pause; two steps more, pause.

Apparently, pheasants take the pause for the calm before the storm, and throw back the covers from their previously undiscovered boudoir, erupting with the cackle that still makes me jump to this day.

As we walked up a draw, the snow before us was so trampled with avian tracks it looked like a chicken yard.  This was one of those areas of the corn field uncultivated to prevent soil erosion.  Areas of grass and dense cover surrounded by corn on the stalk…and served to condense birds into a small area.

Dad whispered the warning…”be ready!,” and none to soon.  A dozen pheasants erupted like a covey of giant quail.  My too – long gun came up, bucked, and a bird folded, ever more branding me as a brother of the chase.

I can see that bird rise in my minds eye today as clearly as it did that morning, silhouetted against the Iowa sky, above ground that my grandfather helped feed a nation from.

We moved on, my dad taking a brace of pheasants with the hair-triggered hammer gun in the upper field of standing corn.  Funny, each time I see my dad, now nearing 70, I still expect him to look like he did all those years ago.  It’s always a bit of a shock when I see him, and the age around the edges.

There have been other days with dad chasing pheasants, but too few, and too long ago.  Dad somehow knew how to get me just enough exposure to the bird so that I never got my fill.  Today, I never see a pheasant without my mind rushing back to those times…and I seem to spend my time trying to recapture the exhilaration of that hunt.  Though I have had many great times afield, nothing compares to that first Christmas hunt.

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Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.