In the very long struggle to find out your own true character there is the real possibility you’ll discover a simpleton beneath the skin, or at least something deeply peculiar.
– Jim Harrison (1937-2016), American writer of novels, novellas, short stories, essays, screenplays, reviews, and poetry; from Hunting with a Friend, the introduction he wrote for Guy de la Valdene’s book For a Handful of Feathers
A man’s realization that his character is peculiar does not slowly come to fruition; it arrives in a shattering moment of clarity. Not exactly an epiphany but more of a painful and embarrassing revelation, this sudden shift in self-perception is harsh and wounding: obviously true but hard to accept. Like learning from a trusted source that the madly romantic fling of your college years dumped you because she found you deadly dull and boring.
Too many of these moments are based on something you say in the company of acquaintances (not friends), often in professional situations. Gathered around a conference table with the nine people involved in the restructuring of your department, for example, you might say: “That organization chart is more convoluted than a woodcock’s guts.” The awkward silence and stares that follow make you aware that you are the only person in the 193-employee organization who has ever seen a woodcock’s guts, and that fact alone makes you peculiar, even bizarre, in a world where the woodcock does not hold mythical status – or even name recognition.
Sadly, for me, peculiarity of character extends to the other half of my social contacts. In a beer-enhanced conversation with a half dozen hunting acquaintances (not friends), I am likely to share my opinion that ownership of a firearm should require training and certification, just as the purchase of a hunting license requires the training and certification of a hunter education course. This proclamation is greeted with the same “woodcock guts” response from the gun owners’ group because the National Rifle Association has for forty years hammered into hunter’s brains the tenet that any moron should be able to acquire unlimited semi-automatic military weapons and ammunition with no instruction in their function, use, or safe handling.
So I have achieved in two discomforting incidents the awareness that I am perceived as a peculiar character in most social circles, a creature that bemuses the three-quarters of the population that is appalled by the blood sports and an outlier who raises the suspicions of the quarter of the population that dwells in the armed and armored bunkers of paranoia. These have not been entirely negative experiences since they reinforced my “Crazy Old Coot” image and also made it easier for me to live a reclusive life. At times, I admit, I have overplayed my hand. When new neighbors moved onto the property a half mile north of my place, they were unaware their land bordered that of a Coot with his own shooting range. A mutual acquaintance told me, about a year later, “You know, the Andersons (name changed to protect the innocent) are a little afraid of you.” I could have said something mollifying, but chose to answer, “Respect, admiration, love – these come and go; but fear – fear is forever.”
It was supposed to be funny rejoinder, but we peculiar people are granted only a very narrow venue for humor. Suffice to say I am not invited to many community picnics. At the other extreme, I refuse to let anyone with a semi-automatic weapon hunt or shoot on my farm, so I do not get invitations to NRA banquets, either. As a hunting friend (true friend) once said, “It’s probably the best situation for everyone involved.”
Which brings me to the core of this rumination on peculiar characters. There ain’t a hell of a lot of us in the North Country, but we tend to flock together. I can’t decide if this is for psychological support or mutual protection against forces that would have us institutionalized. Whatever the motivation, we are fortunate to have people that we value accept our peculiarities. Some affirmations are as simple as ignoring the dog hair that coats the interior of the pickup cab, others are as complicated as understanding our need to sit outside on a cold March night to watch the rise of the full moon, drink a mug of scalding hot tea, smoke a cigar, and ponder why a few of the most cherished people in our lives have passed on and if there really is an eternity of the soul and spirit that will allow us to be with them once again.
Hunting friends tolerate these things without questions, or even a look askance. We all have our odd behaviors, many of them shared. To the extent that we do not consider them odd.
As Jim Harrison said, it is a very long struggle for a man to discover his true character, and if the person within this skin is not a simpleton he surely is something deeply peculiar. The challenge late in life, it seems to me, is to be content and comfortable in this peculiar skin.
More stories about wildlife, outdoor ventures, hunting, fishing, and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.