By Dave O’Connor
“So you’re trying to be like Herself, just a bit of downright cussedness that runs to your core?” He was ugly. I suppose in looking back on it that he was probably right to think that I was selling him down the drain. It wasn’t that I made a practice of it, you understand, but this was to be something that would be special in years to come.
The Ole Man had a real attachment for some of his guns. The Parker, the L.C. Smith and a Purdy that he had picked up in Europe for a small tag. Each had a special purpose that he considered an essential function. The gun was called upon to shoot skeet, or maybe it was ducks, or perhaps you were to hit the upland. Each was as precious as the last.
I could remember mornings that he was up a few minutes early on the hunt, just to take care of the gun he was going to use. It was a “modified and full day”. (On some decoying duck days or on the upland, it was a “cylinder bore”. He seemed to take as much pride in shotguns as most people did in their family photo album. Not a day or pre-season or open season passed without some remark that was meant to put his guns on a higher plane, one established by him (or is it him).
When a gun got dunked in salty water or got sprayed by the freshwater marsh, he invariably treated it like an emergency case. Blood was needed (Hoppe’s Number 9). A safe room in the Holiday Inn (his gun cabinet) was needed as an immediate treatment. In a few days he would want to disassemble the gun for the second time to make sure that no infection had set in.
It got to be a fanatical association of man and gun. He was incapable of feeling neutral about certain guns, or guns in general, for that matter. He hated automatics, military pieces and anything that was poorly made. “Get one of those sloppy guns, shoot sloppy, and go home to a pig pen. No need of a man owning anything but the best. Lasts a whole lifetime too. Never need to buy another Purdy, unless you want it to be for another purpose. Parker did good stuff too. I think my favorite is the L. C. Smith with 26 inch barrels, at least on the upland.” He knew his stuff on scatter guns, they were fine pieces indeed.
I remember a day in the late fall when most bird hunters had given it up. They were home at rest when the dawn came. We were deep into the Qualey Place. It was only a mile off the Mill Road from the last four wheel drive foot hole. No one had been there all season due to the extra effort needed and a jungle of apple trees that stood about three feet apart. It made getting a good shot nearly impossible.
The Ole Man knew enough to hit the trail after everyone else had gone home. The leaves would be off and with the aid of lady, his brittany, he would be able to sneak up on a few late season birds that had not been shot at. No one needed more of a chance than that.
Down from the rack would come the Smith 20 and off we would be. It was barely light when we hit the “restin’ spot” where we would have a pipe to catch our breath after the long hike from the battered jeep. The sound of migrating geese or red squirrel heralds were a part of the morning. A sweet smell of curing that happens only in the late fall is still in the air and a crisp frost lies clearly on the ground. No one can escape without knowing that the winter is a bout to strike.
At the first tree a whirring of wings would see the Smith let fly with the first sound of morning that rose above a mere bit of sound. He was sure to be successful or else the heavens above would ring with “honest reasons to swear”. It wasn’t that he missed getting birds or minded the birds getting away, but he felt, that the best gun should be used by the best shot in the hunting party…and he was certainly the best shot. So to miss the first bird was an insult to the gun maker of old who took his time to do the best job possible. If you missed too often then you were insulating his fine work.
I don’t know that he missed very many birds either on the first shot, or on any shot thereafter, but he felt that the hunter was part of the gun which in turn was definitely part of the gunsmith who had turned out the piece. The oaths that came upon a miss were something to be heard. And yet, there were honest misses that pleased the Ole Man.
If you happened to miss five birds in a row when the hunting was “too good to last all day”, it was quite excusable. He didn’t want to limit out at any early hour, that was capital sin number one, worse than missing too many first shots. He wanted the hunt to last for most any day, especially when the Qualey place was where you were hunting, and no one else was there to bother the hunt, or say it was time to get home to go to work. Time seemed to pass as though we had captured it in a memory bank. All winter we would remember the shots, the smell, the dog’s fine work, the swing of the Smith or the charge of apples that we put under our hunting jacket.
What caused the big row I alluded to at the beginning of this story was a gun that I had recommended to Herself when she was pondering a purchase for the Ole Man on his birthday. I thought that it would fill a need, real or imagined, that he had when it came to specialized guns.
On a hunt to the Qualey Place he had mentioned that he needed a gun that could handle briars, was open bore, would not cost an arm and a leg and would shoot well. I knew such a gun that with very little modification would come up to those standards and would do him proud. The only thing was that it was still being made, and that was a cardinal error. To the Ole Man there was no rifle like the old Winchesters or no shotguns like the Smith, a Parker or smooth Purdy.
So naturally, when the lady of the house asked me for advice I told her that a nice over and under of recent vintage would be the cat’s meow. I even recommended several manufactures that would fill the bill. She called me from sporting goods store and asked if I though Brand X would be the right one. I said it was perfect, and I meant it.
Down went the cash, and home came the gun. The Ole Man’s birthday was on Saturday and she knew that he would want to try out the gun on the Saturday hunt to the Qualey Place.
Friday night we all gathered to do the Ole man a little honor for the occasion. I gave him an L.L. Bean shirt, the chamois kind, and Jake got him a pair of bass boots, the kind designed for long distance hikes. At the final moment the box with Brand X was brought out.
He was polite about it, but quite obviously disturbed by the final gift. His expression of gratitude was nearly perfect and there was a sound of near disappointment in his voice. I couldn’t understand why he was so quiet in his acceptance or why the scene was not one of rejoicement.
He said he was pleased, he said it was right thing to get, he said that he was very pleased to have something that was so badly needed. The more he talked the more I was convince that perhaps my feeling that he was displeased was all in my mind.
The outburst came at the Qualey Place on Saturday. It was the first thing he said when we finally got to the “restin’ spot”. I was shocked. It was as though he had penned up some hostility until he could hold it no more.
Finally, the story came out. He had ordered a custom made gun to fill the same bill. This A”cheap imitation?” of something good would put him in hot water with herself and the company that was doing up the custom work. It had to be either one or the other or both.
If the custom gun arrived he would need to own up to the fact that herself’s offering was only a cheap imitation of the real thing. That would not make her happy. If he had taken the order back to the custom builders, they would have been displeased, and so would he.
It was at the moment that I saved the day, and was for once a little helpful. I asked him why not keep both and hide one. That wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but it leaned in the right direction. He said he would invent a new need and that the custom gun wouldn’t be needed, or ready for delivery, until another year went by anyway, so he could get away with having two new guns by then.
That was the perfect solution. The Brand X was designated as a pinch hitter for the Qualey Place and the new, sleek custom job was made the first line gun where you wanted open bore in heavy going. Neither gun seemed to have any conflicting uses since both were first line guns in the eyes of the beholder and both were often seen to come into the Qualey Place, although he never mentioned that fact to herself. It was peaceable ending to a tragic tale.