Born Too Late

One of my favorite outdoors authors once noted that sooner or later in a man’s life, he’ll either go fishing or do something worse.
Or, put another way: Give a man a fish or a quail and you feed him for a day; give a man a fly rod, a shotgun and a bird dog, and he won’t amount to a damn. (I don’t remember who said that one, but credit is hereby given!)
Those gentlemen lived in a world that was vastly different from this one. In our world, you shop for something on Amazon and an ad shows up on your Facebook page trying to sell it to you. Our world is a world where playing outside at the neighborhood park is a terrifying ordeal for parents; who can imagine setting loose a twelve-year-old boy with a shotgun and a bird dog? Or give him his first boat?
I’ve always said I was born half-a-century too late. I am far, far better suited to have lived in the 1930s onward, the absence of affordable air-conditioning and better than Dark Ages health care notwithstanding. Yes, if I had been born in, say, 1920, come of age in the 1930s, somehow managed to avoid the draft and get killed by a Messerschmitt 109, and I lived in the South, I would have been quite a different lad.
I would have roamed a Dixie that only exists in the memory of elders. Or in the words of Gene Hill, Havilah Babcock, Archibald Rutledge and Robert Ruark.
Ruark wrote, “This little bobwhite, the Old Man told me, was a gentleman, and you had to approach him as gentleman to gentleman. You had to cherish him and look after him and make him very important in his own right, because there weren’t many of him around and he was worthy of respectful shooting. The way you handled quail sort of kicked back on you. The little fellow doesn’t weigh but about six ounces but every ounce of him is pure class. He’s smart as a whip, and every time you go up against him you’re proving something about yourself.”
But it’s not just the outdoors. I’d like to have seen the first-run of Casablanca on the big screen, and go hang out at the bars Bogart was known to frequent. Maybe run into the Rat Pack, too. Or Cagney.
I’d like to have driven a car that the bumper weighed as much as a compact Toyota does today. A Packard or something. Or maybe a farm truck. I’d have made a great farmer, back when you didn’t have to tend 100,000 acres to make a living.
Oh, and the days when men were men, and women were glad of it, as the Three Stooges once said (which gives you a clue of how much wisdom was involved.) When Groucho was top-billing, and so was Glenn Miller’s band.
Best of all, I’d be living in the South, though. Not the city. I don’t like cities, not at all. I’d rather live among the oaks and magnolias, in the reflected sunlight from stately old antebellum homes.
I’ve come to think of bobwhite quail as the signpost for the fading of the world that was the South, all its blemishes and bruises inclusive, the shadow of its sins but also the glory of its greatness. It is said that in Hill and Babcock’s southern landscape the quail were thick as mosquitoes. Today, though their numbers have rebounded somewhat, they are rare as hen’s teeth. Where the quail was but a minor species pre-colonialism, it was European agricultural practices that allowed it to flourish and multiply.
Back in 2008, I wrote here: “What was the South without Bob? As empty as a Jack Daniels bottle turned on end. As silent as a burned-out plantation home. As lonely as an elderly statesman, the landed gentry, holed up in a rest home.”
I have read and re-read Fielding Lewis’ Tales of a Louisiana Duck Hunter, though I was never a duck hunter, and it is filled with memories I never lived. My old friend, whom I dearly miss, told me many stories about those days, stories that were not in the book, and I keep them all close to my bones. As I do Ruark, Hill and Babcock and Rutledge.
I drive along the backroads at dawn, or at the twilight of dusk sometimes, and I see the little bobwhites flee from the passing of my truck from the side of the road. I wish them well, hope they survive in a world where our values have lost importance, or worse, become the subject of mockery and scorn. I see the news on television and cringe at the way Southerners are ridiculed and belittled. Do we have our problems? Yes! But no more so than any other geographic region, any other population of culture.
There’s nothing constant anymore, I guess. But a bobwhite call in the distance, under the golden rays of a setting sun spreading dragonfire across the heavens, yeah, it makes me long for simpler times, quail swarming like mosquitoes, and sound reason.
Remnants of Bob, here and there, hither and yon, I wrote back then. Like a pair of magnolias standing roadside at the entrance of a long-vanished plantation, or a rusting and rotting sugar mill in a thicket of Chinese tallow, or a dried-up marsh and silted bayou, Bob is a vestige of a South that has folded itself up and withered. Fast retreating to the way of memory.
It’s not Confederate flags or the pages of our history, which include the sin of slavery, that defines us. It’s our strength, our fortitude and our ability to rise above our past, and continue to be a proud people; perhaps not a perfect people, but then who is? I am a descendant of Native Americans and Acadians. I take a smug satisfaction in that, but I know where I came from. The sins of our fathers do not define us. What we do here, now, today, does.
I’ll leave you with Ruark again, and a fond salute:
“I ain’t got to tell you that I am going to die,” the Old Man said. “You would know it. You’ve had the best of me, and you’re on your own from now on. You’ll go to college next year, and you’ll be a man, with all a man’s problems, and there won’t be no old man around to steer you. I raised you as best I could an’ now you’re the old man, because I’m tired and I think I’ll leave.”
My eyes blurred to tears, and I said all the things young people say in the presence of death. “Leave it. Leave it,” the Old Man said. “Like I always told you, if there was a way to beat it, I would have heard about it. It’ll even happen to you, unlikely as it seems.”
“But how, when, why?” I said, for lack of anything better.
“I promise you,” he said, “on my word of honor, I won’t die on the opening day of bird season.”
He kept his promise.

1 comment to Born Too Late

  • walt thompson

    Good to see your thoughts and musings in print again!
    I would think Robert Ruark was probably the greatest outdoor writer there has been. His Field & Stream columns were and are priceless.
    And re Bob White….never hunted the gentleman, but as a 14 year old, loved to hear him calling when slogging back home across muddy cornfields coming back from the woods on bayou about a mile back of house trying to scare up a couple of squirrels or a rabbit. And nothing like when a covey would jump up from the fencerow. Now all that is gone…to subdivisions and concrete.
    Keep up the great writing.

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