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life sound pretty good. He said you got paid for being in the Army, and you got to travel too. Not knowing what else to do, Jason signed on the dotted line for his first tour of duty. Everyone was proud of Jason for signing up to serve his Country. He was proud to serve, but there was another reason driving his decision to join the Army. He would finally get out of the house and away from the frightening instability of his mother. He felt an anxious need to separate from her violent mood swings. He had lived for so many years with his mother’s behavior alternating between yelling insults and withdrawing into absence. Nothing sounded better than to get away from her madness.
On the last day before shipping out, Jason said goodbye to all his family and friends, and promised them he would return home as soon as possible. The night before leaving, he had given a small engagement ring to his high school sweetheart, Charlene Samuel. At the going away celebration, she stood near her friends beaming with excitement and showing off her new ring. Yet, at the same time she had tears in her eyes because Jason was shipping out to join the Army. Charlene’s brother, Luke Samuel had signed up to join the Army, as well. Jason and Luke had been friends in high school. Though one year apart in age from each other, Luke had been held back a year in school, which caused Jason and Luke to graduate together in the same class. No one seemed to know if Luke was held back a year because he had been a rowdy boy, or perhaps a slow learner. Luke would tell you it was because he never much cared for school and learning from books. Thus, Charlene felt overwhelmed by a bewildering array of emotions. How could this be happening? How could both her brother and her fiancé be leaving to go to war on the same day?
At the bus station, Jason hugged his mama in a loving embrace that she would not soon forget. At that moment Jason felt both excited and wary about the future that lay before him. He could not know the things he would soon behold, as he had never heard of a place called Viet Nam.
A sure rite of passage, Haybaler’s father gave him a hunting rifle at the fledgling age of 8 years. It was a .22 caliber Winchester, which came complete with a soft case and a cleaning kit. At the local hardware store, Haybaler learned about choosing the right ammunition for hunting squirrels. Haybaler’s father taught him gun safety and respect for the weapon. They would go out behind the barn for simple target practice, and it took quite a while for Haybaler to correct his aim and mark the target with regularity. Then further practice was needed to improve his aim with targets placed at a greater distance. After all, shooting straight and true is the hallmark of a successful squirrel hunter.
Together, father and son would awaken before dawn. Winston, the faithful family dog would soon lead them towards the object of their hunting desires. His tail wagged excitedly, as the hunt for squirrels was upon them. A rugged looking affair, decked out in camouflage that was none the worse for wear, they would leave the house full of energy and high hopes for a successful day in the autumn woods. Stepping off the back porch towards the wooded trail, with the crunching sounds of fallen leaves below their feet, they were certain to find companionship and adventure.
Winston instinctively knew how to hunt. As soon as Bill said, “Get Em!” old Winston would put his nose to the ground and start tracking the scent of a squirrel. In due time, he would run towards the base of a tree, knowing that a nut stasher was aloft. In his excitement, if Winston could have climbed that tree he would have, but Bill’s command to sit would suffice to calm the restless canine from jumping up and down on the burly trunk. Trembling with anticipation, Winston would sit at the base of the tree, barely able to contain his urge to attack the chattering rodent. Winston could smell the squirrel, which triggered his most primitive instincts to survive by hunting and killing.
Bill and Haybaler would squat down on one knee, or if they were lucky they could sit on a fallen log and wait out the movement of a squirrel in the limbs above. The crafty squirrel would inevitably play a game of hide and seek with the hunters. Likewise, the skillful hunters knew that only by means of stillness would they be able spot the movements of this wary trickster. If they were quite still and lucky enough to be downwind of the squirrel, they might get a quick glance at the elusive hoarder as he moved about the lofty canopy. Of course, the wily squirrel was planning his escape and would be gone in due haste. The chance at a good shot was here and gone in a moment, if it ever presented itself at all. It is no use trying to shoot a moving squirrel, because Bill and Haybaler had no desire to wound the critter. They were only happy with a clean shot that brought down the squirrel quickly.
Bill instructed Haybaler about the finer points of squirrel hunting. Holding perfectly still and breathing slowly were essential to outwitting a nervous squirrel. Haybaler held his .22 caliber rifle at the ready, hoping for a good shot. If luck is with the hunter, the unwitting squirrel will hold still momentarily as he curiously eyes the intruders upon his sovereign turf. This is the moment of opportunity for the hunter. Aiming the rifle at the squirrel and pulling off a clean shot, without the cleaver beast scurrying away in fear, is the goal. The hunter’s success rate in this endeavor is typically low. Only the best hunters are able to kill a squirrel with a perfect shot through the squirrel’s eye, thereby saving the best part of the meat for dinner.
Haybaler enjoyed every aspect of hunting with his father. Most of all he enjoyed listening to his father’s hill country wisdom, whether he was talking about the nuances of squirrel hunting, the perennial plans for rebuilding the old barn or the techniques and knowledge needed to operate the still. Haybaler had a certain awe and respect for his father, which had started in early childhood. Times spent hunting with his father were especially precious. He admired many, but not all of his father’s traits, and he endeavored to at least carry himself with the same penchant for manhood, which his father naturally possessed. So they walked in the woods talking about gun safety and how to improve one’s marksmanship with target practice. Hitting a moving target was altogether another matter, of no great importance during squirrel season.
Suddenly, Winston got excited and with his nose scouring the ground he ran hurriedly towards a stand of Black Jack Oak. Winston’s hair was in a ridge along his back and his tail was pointing straight up. Sure enough, in a final bounding leap Winston had treed a squirrel and was jumping up and down at the base of the trunk, frustrated that he could not chase the critter further up into the limbs. From his arboreal abode the squirrel was chattering excitedly and looking down at the primitive hunters. The cunning squirrel was hiding unseen on the far side of the tree. However, being curious to a fault, he would slink sideways around the trunk of the tall Oak to look upon the hunters, only to quickly hide again behind the bark of the rugged trunk. At that point a skillful technique was employed that only a squirrel hunter could appreciate. Bill made a half-circle gesture with his hand and quietly said, “Go ‘Round,” to Winston. Then, by command Winston slowly turned about the base of the tree, while maintaining his gaze ever upward towards the bushy tailed varmint.
As Winston slowly circled the tree, the squirrel would move around the trunk, attempting to remain out of sight of the dog at all times. Moving away from the dog around the trunk, the ever wary critter could evade being seen by his four legged predator. Of course, if all went as planned this would bring the squirrel into a perfect view of the hunter’s aim. Sitting as still as night, as the squirrel practiced its canine evasion, the hunter slowly raised the barrel of his rifle to level his sights onto the elusive prey. This maneuver gave Haybaler the moment of opportunity he needed to carefully aim and pull off one good clean shot. As many times as not he would successfully bring down his scampering target. Much to Haybaler’s amazement, his father had a very high hit rate when hunting squirrels. Haybaler aspired to be as good a shot as his father someday. “Keep practicing,” said with a smile, would be the encouraging words from Haybaler’s dad.
On this occasion Haybaler made a clean kill of the unwitting prey. The squirrel fell as a dead weight out of the tr
ee, deftly striking the leaf covered ground with a soft thud. Bill immediately said, “Fetch,” and Winston retrieved the prey from its final bed of autumn leaves, carrying the squirrel to Bill’s feet. Then, in what seemed to be a tense moment between man and dog, Bill would sternly say, “Out,” while extending his right hand to receive the felled beast from Winston’s quivering maw. After an apprehensive pause, the dog would reluctantly release the prey from his drooling jaws, followed by Bill giving Winston the highest praise and abundant stroking as a reward for such good hunting.
After being in the field for a good part of the day, father and son would return along the wooded path towards their humble home. As they walked and talked, Haybaler beamed with an inner radiance when his father put his brawny arm across his shoulders and said, “Son, you’re doing well with the gun.” This meant so much more to Haybaler than improving his shooting skills. It meant his father accepted him and was proud of him, as well. Indeed, it was moments like these that made Haybaler feel like he was a worthy man.