Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies.
We all fall down!
Ashes! Ashes! We all fall down!
The last thing I do is look for my hat.
When I get up from a fall in the hunting field there is an established routine. First, stretched full-length out on the ground or in the muck or water, I open the gun, take the shells out of the chambers, and look down the bores to be sure they are not plugged with mud, snow, sticks, or other debris. Then I rise to one knee and check if any body parts are broken, sprained, cut, punctured, or badly bruised.
If everything passes muster, I search my vest, shirt and pants pockets to locate all my gear. I don’t care if a few shotshells are missing, but over the course of fifty bird seasons I have lost two wristwatches, three or four pocket knives, a couple dog whistles, and at least three compasses, so I’ve learned to take inventory after each tumble afield.
As I prepare to stand, the dogs will have come to help me, in their own way. Apparently, they think I do these pratfalls on purpose so that we can all have a laugh and take a few minutes’ break from the hunt for a bit of play-wrestling and affection. I have stopped telling them not to lick my face; it does no good and seems to hurt their feelings.
In my advanced years I have learned to use the gun as an impromptu walking stick to regain my feet. This might be the only time I prefer a 12 gauge to a 20 or 28 gauge; the solid bulk of the heavier gun gives a greater sense of stability. When I have finally regained an upright posture and am more-or-less steady, I hitch up my pants, re-tie my boot laces, adjust my lopsided vest, take off and straighten my glasses, then get out my handkerchief and wipe my face.
Now I am ready to look for my hat.
Sometimes I am standing on it, but more frequently it has flown off in an unexpected direction, often to an impressive distance. A few hat searches are memorable. Frustratingly memorable.
Once I fell by a fast-flowing trout stream and my hat flipped into it, upside down, becoming a little orange boat that was carried by wind and current to the deepest part of a beaver pond. Herco, my rough-and-ready springer spaniel, enthusiastically retrieved it before it sank out of sight, and the battered hat added to my “Crazy Old Coot” appearance for several years before it blew off into the depths of a Wisconsin coulee one day and I said to hell with it.
I return from most bird hunting trips with bruises and scrapes from ankles to forehead. My new rule is that after the third fall of the day I am done hunting and it’s time to go back to the motel and get out the ice bag and a bottle of cold beer.
Clearly, I am not a good faller.
On member of the Over the Hill Gang is a highly talented faller, and I envy both his athletic prowess and his technique. He trudged and limped through five or six seasons of bird hunting on knees that were completely worn out and painful, and of course he fell several times each day. Practice makes perfect, they say, and so as a necessity he developed what I consider impeccable falling style and form.
After surgery to replace both knee joints he stumbles much less, but he has retained his quintessential falling skill. He explains:
“In the split second when you realize you are not going to recover your balance and are going to fall, just go with it. Try to pick the best direction to go down and roll into it.”
Alas, I cannot master this method despite numerous tries. In my split second of indecision I abandon reason and resolve, yield to panic and despair, and plummet earthward like the flaming Hindenburg dirigible.
He, on the other hand, can lift his shotgun to a safe “fall position,” pirouette left or right as the situation demands, tuck-and-roll like a Chinese acrobat, pivot away from the obstacle that has tripped him, go down gracefully on a knee, hip or shoulder, and bounce back onto his feet in one smooth, continuous ballet-like adagio that leaves me shaking my head in admiration. I have seen him trip in the thick aspen woods of the North Country, seize a pliant sapling with his free hand, and use it like a springboard to cushion his fall and then catapult him back to a standing position as he swivels around it.
He barely needed to straighten his hat, let alone spend five minutes searching for it. For him, the whole maneuver was as routine as a veteran shortstop turning the 6-4-3 double play. I would have been flipped like a second baseman cut down by the base runner.
As the years steal away what is left of my coordination and strength, falling in the hunting fields is becoming a more-and-more common occurrence. Inevitably I will someday crash down onto a wickedly pointed sapling stump, cut off and sharpened by a beaver with murderous intent, and end my life like a skewered victim of Vlad Dracula the Impaler. Either that or drown trying to retrieve my damned hat from another muck-bottomed pond.
Won’t it be interesting to see how the obituary writers deal with that?
“…on the morning of October 14th Mr. Johnson, a local character known as the Crazy Old Coot, fell from this mortal life…”
To read more stories about bird hunting, bird dogs and bird guns, check out my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.