Friday, August 7, 2009

Farm and Pheasant: Sioux Falls 1960

My mother was born in Arlington, South Dakota. Her mother lived there her whole life, as did her sister (my Aunt Nancy), who married a man who became a farmer. They had a family of five kids, four boys and one girl; we were a family of five kids, four boys and one girl. They lived on a farm, we lived in the city (and in South Dakota, Sioux Falls was the Big City--even in 1960--just like in Iowa, Des Moines is the Big City to most farmers and small towners). Arlington isn't too far from Sioux Falls, so we visited pretty often. I think. I was a little kid, so honestly I don't know how often often was. But we did visit.
The trip to Arlington I best recall was a trip made when I was probably thirteen or so and we lived in Tennessee. I think that was the last time I was in Arlington and on their farm. On that trip, we were all old enough to have adventures and joke around, to ride their horses and play whiffle ball, to chase the chickens in the hen house, to kill a chicken or two for dinner by chopping off their heads (and yes, their headless bodies do run around and I recall a rooster's head, it's beak and eyes still moving after the decapitation), to play with their dog--Sarge (Sarge was a great wooly farm dog)--to take trips into town and swim at the town pool and meet their friends, to have a big picnic . . . We also went to Arlington once when we lived in Vancouver, but I don't recall the specifics of that trip, so it may be mixed in with my earliest memories of the farm. So be it. But I recall getting to ride in a big semi once, I remember the hay loft of the barn, the mud room of the house, the fresh milk with paper caps on the bottles and how the cream would settle on the top, corn fields and walking those fields to get to a pond where ducks often were (and I think they shot those ducks in season), cattle, cows that got into a neighbor's cornfield (or the other way around), railroad tracks and trains and dusty gravel roads, watching TV with my cousins, a 'horror movie' show called Midnight Macabre, in that big farm house . . . I know that they had another house first before the big farm house, so, again, I could be wrong about when and where these small memories come from. But they were all in Arlington, South Dakota. I also remember hunting pheasant.
Now, I didn't hunt pheasant. None of us kids hunted. It was my father and my uncle who did it. And my memories of it are small (except for one defining incident). My father was not a big hunter--I think he went only once or twice and only because he was invited (though, he did grow up in a small town--Red Oak, Iowa, in the 1930's--and probably hunted then, I'm sure, to some degree)--but he did own a shotgun and had a shotgun that was his father's (my grandfather's, which I own now). (Also, my father had been a machine gunner in WWII, had killed men, so it's not as if he was a stranger to guns.) Pheasant hunting is huge in the Dakotas (and in Iowa), so they didn't have to go far to find some birds. My brother, Oldest Brother, loved to joke about pheasants because they ate small rocks, gravel, to help them digest grain. (I don't remember the jokes beyond that.) But my father hunted with Uncle Lawrence and a few other men (I think) when we were there one fall, and they got some birds. We later ate them. I didn't much care for the taste of pheasant, strong dark and greasy as I recall, but maybe part of it was because we kids did the plucking. Yes, I do remember someone wringing their ring-necks and hanging them on hooks or rope outside the farmhouse and we went about the bloody and surprisingly difficult job of plucking the feathers off these formerly living birds . . . But that's not the lone incident that sticks with me.
I don't think I went hunting with them, but somehow I was dropped off with the hunters--my father, uncle and others, my two older brothers--as they were ending the hunt. I remember their guns and jackets, the long empty russet-colored fields, windbreaks of leafless or near leafless trees, the gravel road where cars were parked. I recall all of that. And the pheasants. the pheasants were dead and they drooped upside down, their heads swaying as the men walked with them. I don't know if I wanted to carry one, or my father or another wanted or asked me to carry one, but I was handed a dead pheasant. I was maybe four years old. So, I took it. I carried it by its feet and walked down the gravel road towards the car. But suddenly, the ring-necked pheasant wasn't dead. Serious. It came alive in my hand and began to flap its wings. I was very surprised. The men were distracted by something (and no doubt they'd had a few beers, I believe) and the bird squawked flapped raised its body as I held its feet and--what was I going to do--got away from me.
The pheasant flew up into the air over a stubbled field, towards the line of trees. Holy crap, it was the Jesus of pheasants. The Lazarus. Up it flew--the men started yelling--and up came the shotguns. BAM BAM BAM. But it got away. No one hit it. And, though I felt bad, some shame, that I had let the bird get away, I'm glad that it did . . .
I've done very little hunting in my life. I've fished. I've surreptitiously killed small creatures and insects, but I don't much care for it all. As I get older, I don't like any of it, really. So, I hope that pheasant went on to a long pheasant life in South Dakota, hanging along the roadsides, eating small bits of gravel to help with its digestion.

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