Spring is a time of fishing rods, going barefoot in the newly cut green grass, short sleeve shirts, baseball and the sound of birds returning from their migratory sojourn. What a wonderful time it was for teenagers to also raid their worm farm and march down to the local pond to bream fish.
Spring is also the time for turkeys. To hear the mating ritualistic, gobbles of the tom turkey will make a person squirm with excitement. During this time of year, the various imitations of vocal commands from the forlorn hen turkeys could be heard from all those who pursue this favorite pastime. For teenage boys with a passion for the outdoors, patience was a hard lesson to learn. The season could not get here fast enough. Anticipation of the hunt and turkey calling was the single most important element in their minds.
Those high-pitched, spine tingling, screechy sounds these calls made sent chills when they tried to imitate a hen calling out for love. Their calls were made on old pieces of chalkboard with a homemade hickory sapling carved into a striker. Determination for imitation was the focus to learn the vocabulary of a turkey. Being wise in the bilingual ways of nature communicating was important to them.
School in the spring was a lethargic time for these best friends. They possessed a burning desire to go romping across and throughout the turkey woods. True patience was not an adoring virtue. Those three boys practically lived from one hunting season to the anticipation of the next one. Spring was a special time. It gave them time to use the pent-up energy stored during the bitter winter days and provided excuses to procrastinate chores around their respective homes.
Their fathers hunted together in a club called “The Big Hoof Sportsman’s Club.” It was a grand place extending over several thousand acres and all the hunting rights were leased. Plenty of acreage for grown men to be boys and boys to be boys. Room for riding four wheelers on dirt roads, camping at the old log cabin, and there was always a big fire burning inside a tractor hub which provided every man and boy a place to spit. It was the centerpiece of all congregations and activities.
Sitting in a classroom and looking outside, contemplating, and conniving a plan to turkey hunt consumed them. The sight of white dogwoods blooming around the neighborhoods just promoted this anticipation. Thoughts of wild dogwood blooms on the burnt umber background of the “Big Hoof” forest was too much. A plan was developed. Skipper, Hitech, and Flipper laid out the blueprint of a special turkey hunt. They could leave early one morning, skip school and be back from the “Hoof” about the time school was out. Perfect they thought.
Skipper was to be the head turkey caller. His dad had shot a few birds over the past years which elevated his level of expertise, not including the fact that he bought several instructional VHS videos. He had also bought a few low budget calls ranging from mouth diaphragm calls to slate calls. They sounded much better than the homemade ones. He practiced along with the videos, calling back at the television set, and was turkey yelping at every chance. After school and walking around the neighborhood one could hear Skipper coming. The only issue was the fact that Skipper had totally identified with the turkey and seems like every time he called out his head would jerk. These incessant head movements with every “yelp” looked more like a chicken pecking for bugs than a hen turkey looking for a lover.
Everyone had a task to complete before the hunt. Hitech took charge of the turkey scents. Each of them wanted to smell like a turkey as they had read these were such wary birds. He looked and investigated every bit of information he could find about them in the encyclopedia but could not determine whether turkeys could smell or not. There were no references in any of his hunting and fishing magazines either. So, Hitech finally surmised that if deer could smell then turkeys could also.
Wilbur Armstrong lived down the road from them about a mile and had a turkey farm. Collectively they ventured down to the farmhouse and got permission to see the turkey pens. It was there that Hitech began to develop his premium turkey scents custom made from the real thing. Skipper began bragging about the sweetness of his calling and decided to call a bluff on his technique. He opened the pen door and out flew 5 beautiful white butterballs. Once they cleared the ridge and were out of sight, they hid in the boxwoods near the pen door and listened. Skipper finally pulled his slate call out and began sending screechy sounds slithering through the airwaves. Flipper and Hitech laughed at this new noise Skipper had invented. Suddenly white objects appeared like ghost turkeys, clucking loudly as they crossed the ridge back towards the pen. Speechless was the only to word to describe the moment. The birds would have never spotted them had it not been for Skipper’s head violently jerking every time he hit the call’s striker vertically across the slate. Still a very impressive showing for Skipper. Now dreams of a magnificent gobbler appeared in their heads with its’ tail fully fanned, strutting and drumming. Truly showing the other creatures he was the king of spring.
The date of April 15 was a most significant one as it marked the beginning of Turkey Season. Now three teenage boys did not have to be sneaky and harass any more of Mr. Armstrong’s’ turkeys. By the time turkey season had arrived, they had quite the bone pile of shot turkeys behind the turkey pen woods and buried under a mound of dirt. Evidence that they knew exactly what yardage to effectively pull the trigger and which part of the turkey to aim for.
It was too bad for educators that April 15 came on a Wednesday. The boys called it their “Teacher Appreciation Day” because they knew the teachers appreciated them not showing up for class. And besides, playing hooky for a day this month would be refreshment for the soul. This was the argument that Skipper’s dad used regularly when laying out of work during deer season.
It was cleared from a parental viewpoint to proceed and let the boys go to the “Hoof” to chase turkeys. The plan was to take Hitech’s jeep as he had a four-wheel drive-in case a back plan was needed if the turkey hunting temporarily slowed. There were always mud puddles to cruise through, new firebreaks bordering cutovers to ride around and other neat places to scout about and trample in. Hitech had an old winch on the front bumper so getting stuck and having to walk back to the cabin for help never really played into reality.
He kept his jeep in good condition and the boys felt safe riding together except for this one time. Maybe it was the big, greasy sausage and egg breakfast they ate at the 24Hour Diner just outside of town. A sickness came over all of them. They blamed it on the extra hash browns or maybe it was just caused by the tick, tick, ticking sound when the ignition failed to turn on.
Hitech noticed several deputy cars pulling into the Donut Hole a few blocks away and decided to go for help. Flipper and Skipper went back in the diner for another cup of coffee and the restroom. That time of morning is not the time to be the usual smart-aleck, pimpled teenager he usually was. Dressed in full camouflage, a large knife, and a shotgun shell belt buckled tight on the last belt hole was reason enough to be mild mannered and polite. They politely came down and jumped Hitech’s jeep. Once started they gathered and drove to the donut shop and bought a dozen to eat for lunch later.
The journey was ready to begin again. Daylight was less than an hour away. The sky began to lighten on the horizon. Several miles out of town a sudden spurting noise under hood alerted them to a possibility of another imminent delay. At first, they had thought maybe Skipper had swallowed a diaphragm call he had just purchased the day before. However, it did not take them long to realize that in their excitement they had forgotten to fuel up the jeep. Now stuck in the middle of nowhere, out of gas with a jeep full of guns, ammunition, turkey calls and glazed donuts there was only one option left. Since it was Hitech’s jeep, it was only natural that he again was volunteered to find fuel. It was still dark so a flashlight was needed, and an empty can luckily was found in the back seat. He proceeded down the dark, lonely road alone. Surely somebody would eventually pick up a scraggly teenager strolling down a county road holding a gas can. They hoped the only flashlight they had brought would last him until civilization was found.
Meanwhile, Skipper sat in the front seat and practiced imitating the voice of a forlorn hen incessantly. The shrilling sounds echoed and vibrated inside the confines of the jeep. There was only so much noise a person could handle, and Flipper convinced Skipper to chill for a few minutes. They decided to settle down, crack the windows, turn on the blinkers for safety and snooze. They knew that when Hitech returned that elusive gamebird would be theirs.
It only seemed like minutes before the sound of logging trucks and other vehicular traffic awakened them. Flipper shook Skippers’ front seat to make him move and they clamored out. No sign of Hitech anywhere. The sun was beginning a fresh new ascent which revealed no houses around anywhere. Nothing but barren woods and forest engulfed them. Tall long leaf pines reached upwards while white oaks mushroomed across the hollows and ravines draped with long wisp of yellow pollen fingers in the tiny branches. The “Hoof” was their planned destination but these woods sure look inviting to two overly, anxious, and yet bored teenage boys. It seemed to be calling their names to enter.
Several Posted signs had been shot through and were rusting, peeled back and almost unreadable. They thought that if a sign was deemed unreadable then it didn’t matter, had no meaning, and they could indeed enter beyond. A note was left for Hitech on the windshield stating they would return within the hour. The storm drain was muddy but easy to cross. Surely this new frontier would have a few gobblers close by.
Once across the culvert Skipper asked to sound off on his array of hen calls. They leaned against an oak and listened intently as Skipper decided to use his slate call first. This Stradivarius of turkey calls squawked “cheok, cheok, cheok.” The instrument is only good when there is a talented musician playing it. These sounds were close cousins of fingernails across the chalkboard song. The musical notes from the slate would make one think a person was trying to scratch all the green layers off the chalkboards. Trying to remain still was nearly impossible with Skipper moving his head back and forth with each strike of the slate.
The boys decided to follow the old logging road beside the ditch as it ventured towards a ridge top. From that vantage point it was hoped the turkey sound would echo into the ears of Sir Gobbler and he would answer with a resounding gobble. If this technique would work on the turkey farm, then surely it would work in these big woods. As Skipper continued to walk and call, the blood vessels in his neck began protruding and he was urged to cease with the neck dancing. Too much movement according to Flipper.
Getting lost was a concept they had discussed, and a master plan was devised to solve this riddle was initiated. Every few yards Flipper would take a piece of toilet paper off the roll and drop it on the ground. Then when it was time to exit this beautiful place, they merely had to follow the double ply trail back out. How ingenious they thought. It would have been except for the rain that fell the night before. The ground was still very damp which made the double ply soggy and almost invisible within minutes. After scurrying around for thirty minutes or so the boys realized their dilemma. They had walked the entire ridge top and two separate bottom areas, were out of both rolls of toilet paper and just realized they were lost. With each step a soggy slushiness broke the quiet stillness of the woods. Suddenly they noticed how heavy their boots had become with mud caked in between the vibram soles.
They reluctantly trudged forward, lost, and hungry except for two remaining glazed donuts Flipper had stuffed in his pants pocket. Most of the sugar was wiped off and replaced with bunches of pocket fuzz and whatever else had been in there before. It still looked appealing to two hungry teenagers. Skipper commented to Flipper that he would owe him for the rest of his life for saving him from starvation.
Out of nowhere came a voice,” You boys lost?” Skipper and Flipper were aghast and thought out loud, “Has God found us,” they asked? They looked so puzzled and were readying themselves to run when an apparent bush looking creature began to stand up and walk towards them. Whatever was left of the donut Skipper was holding was squeezed into a marble size hunk of sugar and dough. They were so shocked by the apparition that they became too scared to run. Their minds were already over the ridge, but their legs remained motionless.
This apparition moved forward at a steady gait and as it neared, it began tugging at its head and off came a camouflage mask. Underneath revealed an older gentleman with a crinkly face. The lines marked years spent outside weathering the elements and enjoying the woods and all the wild creatures that lived around. There was a piercing kindness in those squinting blue eyes. As he approached, he again asked,” You boys lost?”
Speechless, both nodded back and forth in the yes motion. Before the conversation continued further Skipper and Flipper knew they were in the accompany of a great Sage of the outdoors and needed to show respect and reverence. Too bad Hitech did not check out the gas level before leaving town as he would have enjoyed this adventure.
They began explaining to this gray-haired gentleman their dilemma of running out of gas early morning, were stuck waiting on their friend to return and did not know this was private land as the posted signs were old and shot up. Their guns were carried for protection purposes only. The Sage laughed amusingly and asked if they had seen anyone leaving traces of toilet paper laying on the ground everywhere. In the same breath he also asked if they had heard any toms gobble in the early morning light to which they both emphatically replied “No.” Sage then gave them instructions to follow him, and he would lead them back to Hitech’s jeep.
What a great and new discovery mission was beginning they thought as their nerves began to settle down. New scenery, new ridges to wander up and amid the expansive pine flats to roam in. As they walked the Sage never made an introduction but instead began pointing out turkey sign to them. He explained the difference between hen and gobbler tracks, the different droppings of each sex and the various dusting places these birds used regularly. The boys fired question after question to him and all were answered in a soft and knowledgeable tone.
With this new knowledge, Skipper and Flipper were now becoming experts and could not wait to share this with Hitech. As they neared a small rise, Sage motioned for the boys to stop suddenly and stop all chatter and unnecessary movements. They crawled over to a large pine on the edge of the logging road and leaned against its’ rough bark. Skipper sat to the Sage’s left while Flipper went right. He whispered for them to camouflage completely and rest the shotguns on shoulders and prop the forearm on their knees. Skipper whispered that he had left the turkey scent in the jeep and hoped they would not need it. Flipper reminded him to keep his neck still when he started hearing turkeys calling.
Within a few minutes of courtship yelping, a thunderous gobble exploded, and the throttling sound of his drumming reverberated throughout the woods. The hair on their neck stood straight up as these two boys embraced this moment. The expectation of actually seeing a wild gobbler was almost more than these young men could handle. Sage whispered again to not move a single muscle. Flipper tried not to swallow for fear of giving his position away and Skipper had to finally concede and began to breath and blink his eyes. He also confessed later sitting there so motionless made his nose itch and his eyes began to water!”
Minutes seemed like hours. It was as if time and reality had stopped. Then finally Sage whispered, “Here he comes!” Skipper saw him first. The blood red head of this regal tom, wattles shaking with every step as he picked his way around fallen logs looking feverishly for the hen that had so lovingly called to him. At that time the camouflage hid the boys sitting there shaking with excitement, almost hyper ventilating. Skipper also confessed that his heart had been beating so hard that he was worried about the bird spooking and running away.
As this grand gobbler approached, its tail became fully fanned and its chest protruded forward. His long beard brushed debris from underneath its chest. They could hear it drumming mixed with an occasional cluck. Then it would cock its head back and burst a mighty gobble which in turn would cause its entire neck and chest to wiggle, giving two teenage boys goose bumps.
The Sage sat there perfectly still. Finally, he whispered for them to shoot when the bird reappeared from behind a tree. The moment they had dreamed of, read, and studied about and longed for was finally becoming a reality. Flipper steadied his shotgun and sighted down the vented ribbed barrel waiting for the bird to make this one last final appearance. He knew Skipper was doing the same. As the bird continued its search and stepped out, Flipper held his breath and gently squeezed the trigger to only hear the sound of a snap. The disappointing sound of a firing pin hitting an empty shell cylinder. Two milliseconds later Skipper’s gun went snap too. Both old pump shotgun forearms were getting shucked back and forth quickly as they watched the bird putt twice and race back into the forest. Evidently in their haste to venture from the jeep in darkness they had totally forgotten to grab shotgun shells for their journey. The heart is truly a magnificent organ. One minute it can pump with adrenaline and seconds later it can beat with futility and sorrow.
Both boys jumped up and began a tongue thrashing dance the likes this stretch of woods had never seen before. They paraded around the tree blaming Hitech for running out of gas, not reminding them to bring shells, load their guns or anything else they could find wrong. They felt that if Hitech had been more responsible none of this would have ever happened.
The sound of traffic, logging trucks, and mufflers rode heavy in their ears. A loud banging caught Flippers’ attention and he sat up somewhat bewildered and amazingly lost. In the front seat sat Skipper, head laid against the glass, snoring, and drooling down the jeep window. Outside was Hitech banging a metal gas can against the gas cap refueling the vehicle and hitting his pocketknife against the back quarter panel hollering for them to wake up. As Skipper began to come alive, he rolled around in the seat and looked at Flipper, sheepishly grinned and asked, “Who brought the shells?”
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