“I am, beyond a doubt, the last of the old-timers.”
– Jack Crabb, from the movie Little Big Man,based on the novel by Thomas Berger (1924-2014)
Last of the old timers
Bird hunting isn’t what it used to be. But then, it never was.
Except in the stories of the old timers. The curmudgeons.
Of course the true reason for our abiding belief the world was better forty years ago is that we old timers were better forty years ago. Life can be hard, the decades of toil and tears have worn us down and worn us out, and we are not the men we used to be. But again, as I say, we never were. Except in our stories.
I did not ever intend to become an old timer or a curmudgeon, and I certainly never tagged myself with those labels.
The first time someone called me an older timer I resented it. He may have been stating a simple truth based on objective observation, maybe even complimenting me, but I didn’t appreciate his candor and told him so. I crossed paths with this stranger a few years ago while we were both hunting the edges of a huge cattail marsh on a state-owned wildlife area. He was about twenty or twenty-five years of age and had a fat Labrador retriever and an automatic 12-gauge shotgun.
He admired my dogs and my gun. I was tactful and did not mention his. He told me pointing dogs were not the best choice for hunting pheasants in cattail sloughs. I mentioned that I had two birds in my vest and he had none. Then he said the fateful words:
“You know, old timer, I think you’re the oldest pheasant hunter I’ve ever met.”
“Listen, sonny,” I said, “I’m not that old, and I’ll still be hunting birds when you have given it up for golf. Or maybe knitting.”
We went our separate ways without another word. Although it almost killed me, I refused to quit hunting the rough and marshy ground of that slough until I bagged my third rooster. The next day I lay on the living room couch, reading Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa, drinking beer, and taking ibuprofen and potassium pills as needed to calm the muscle spasms in my back and legs. Old timer! Humpf!
I told this story to one of my co-workers a few weeks later and she said, “My, you’ve become quite the curmudgeon.” So there it was. In what seemed to be the blink of an eye I had gone from age thirty to sixty, a certified old timer and a curmudgeon, and I had acquired all the grumpy old man baggage along the way.
Now that I have reached that “certain age” in life, I understand and accept the wisdom of a proverb attributed to tribal elders of the Australian Aborigines: “In the end, the only thing you really own is your story.” My story is all entwined with game birds, bird dogs, and bird guns. Maybe I own the story, but most days I think the story owns me. I’ve been at it so long I can no longer separate the singer from the song.
All of us old timer curmudgeons enjoy telling our stories, so frequently and in such detail that we drive family and friends to distraction – or worse, to glassy-eyed boredom. Called up from the vaults of memory, the stories do not always adhere to the actual facts and figures of historic events, but little matter. A story gets better with each telling as we take it out of the file, handle it and polish it a bit, show it off to admiring people, and then put the prettier and shinier version of the tale back into the vault for the next time.
One day, for no good reason I can remember, I decided to write some of those stories – the pretty and shiny versions, of course. A few dozen are published in this collection. There may be more in the making; I’m still hunting birds and started training a puppy last year. If all I will own is my story when my days are over and done, I want it to have an exciting final chapter and a really good ending.
This bog post is a reprint of the introduction to my book Crazy Old Coot, a compilation of essays about hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns; plus memoirs, social and political commentary, and other pieces of creative non-fiction. Crazy Old Coot is published in paperback and Kindle editions, both available at amazon.com.
For a more ribald and raucous story about bird hunting friends who get tangled up in a small town murder mystery, take a look at my novel Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine Country Rod, Gun, Dog and Social Club, also available in both paperback and Kindle editions at amazon.com.