Tuesday, January 01, 2008
“Did you hear that bird?”
My grandfather sat in a green, metal lawn chair that was rusty in places, and cocked his head slightly toward the field the call had come from. He was relaxing in what he would have called the cool of the evenin’. Cool, perhaps, in comparison to the blazing hot summer day that had preceded it. It was that less miserable, mysterious time at the end of the day in mid-summer with the sun getting low and the light constantly changing, after the day’s work was done but before the encroachment of mosquitoes and eventual darkness. It began when my grandfather went to sit in the yard after dinner while my grandmother did the dishes before joining us and it ended when he slapped the first mosquito on his forearm or the back of his neck. In between, we talked about anything and everything.
“That’s a quail over in that field,” he explained. “Some people call ‘em Bob White’s because it sounds like that’s what he’s saying. . . Bob Whieeet! Bob Whieet!”
His cabin sat within waving distance of the gravel road. Perhaps tonight a rusted car, more likely a pickup, would pass and the driver leaning out the window on his armpit would smile and wave to “Brad” as he left behind a cloud of gravel dust, but probably not. “That was Delbert Johnson’s oldest boy”, he’d tell me, as if I knew Delbert Johnson or his children. The rural south of my youth felt like gravel dust and sounded like quail.
Quail and whippoorwills seem to call when everything else is quiet. I remember them in the late day and early evening, before the bullfrogs and cicadas interrupted and they had the entire soundstage to themselves.
And I remember my grandfather relaxing in that chair in the front yard of his cabin, or many other chairs in many other yards, trying to beat the heat by sitting nearly motionless in his wool slacks and short sleeve, button collar shirt.
Smells are a strong trigger of memories, but sounds can be, too, like the call of a quail or whippoorwill that instantly transports me to those childhood conversations with my grandfather in the cool of the evenin’.
My father and my uncle, Norris, stopped suddenly in front of me and stared through the trees toward the tipple where the sound had come from.
“What was that?” my Dad asked.
We stood high on a hillside covered with golden brown grass that reached their knees and my waist. We looked down into the clearing through the bare oak trees toward the base of the corrugated steel and grayed wood structure that rose three or four stories and, despite our position on higher ground, continued another twenty feet over our heads.
“I think there’s somebody in the tipple”, my Dad asserted with a noticeable lack of confidence.
They carried shotguns lazily drooped over their shoulders, like infantrymen but without the discipline, and walked deliberately, hoping to flush quail on a cold, late autumn Saturday in the western Kentucky strip mine fields.
“Working on a Saturday?” My uncle was skeptical. My father worked for Peabody Coal Company as an electrician. Most of the men in our family worked the mines at one time or another, as a miner, an electrician, or occasionally as an owner.
I had traipsed along a few yards behind them all morning, a twelve-year old trying to keep up with grown men, over steep hills and across wide fields. Years later, I would remember that as they walked up the steep hills ahead of me, their shotguns slung over their shoulders, the muzzles would occasionally point directly at me for a few seconds. It was frightening, the knowledge that they most certainly had their safeties on was somehow not convincing, and the terrain was tough for my short legs, but I didn’t complain because I felt honored that they had offered to bring me along at all. I didn’t want to say or do anything that might give them second thoughts next time, so I kept quiet, pushed on and tried to walk a few steps to the side when they walked uphill.
As we stood there, another gust of wind blew a loose and bent sheet of corrugated steel on the tipple’s exterior and we heard that sound again, like quiet thunder.
“Maybe they’re tearing it down,” my Dad suggested. The mine did appear abandoned and the structure looked ancient.
“Nah”, my uncle replied. “I think it’s just the wind blowing that loose sheet of metal.”
We moved on toward a fence line across the field. When farms were small with rectangular fields divided by wire fences, the brush along the fence line would continue to grow each year after the rest of the field was plowed. It was great habitat for quail and the first place a quail hunter explored. Nowadays, farms are larger and fence lines less common and this evolution is blamed in part for the scarcity of Bob White quail north of Georgia.
Quail are beautiful and unusual birds, and quite tasty; grilled quail with blackberry sauce is still my annual request for a special birthday dinner, though we buy them at the supermarket now instead of hunting them. And they’re wily. They live in heavy underbrush on the ground and when threatened, prefer to run along the ground through the brush rather than expose themselves by flying. You need a good bird dog to hunt quail, not just because they are hard to find, but also because you have to flush them into the air to get off a shot.
I’ve also read that a bad winter in the early seventies pushed their range back southward, they’re having expanded into Kentucky and Virginia after several mild winters. Quail are not equipped to scratch through snow and ice for food. Whatever the reason, the good quail hunting is now in Georgia.
“What’s a tipple?” I asked.
“It’s that tall building where they load coal from the mine onto trucks. That conveyor belt brings the coal up from the mine up into the tipple and trucks drive under it and they dump the coal into the truck.” Tipples were a common sight in western Kentucky; I had just never known what they were called.
“Do you want to shoot my gun?” my Dad asked. We had stopped for a rest and for them to smoke cigarettes.
“Sure!” I said, though I was anything but.
The gun was a twelve-gauge Browning automatic, nearly as tall as me. It sounded like a cannon when it fired and had a healthy recoil. My Dad worked in the mines to feed a wife and five children. He rented our small house and drove a dilapidated car, but he owned an expensive shotgun. Bird hunting was his one indulgence.
Dad scanned the treetops for a target and handed me the gun.
“See if you can hit that clump of leaves on that dead branch.”
I had a more modest target in mind. I hoped to shoot vaguely skyward and to avoid hitting myself or any other living creature, especially my Dad or my uncle, since that would almost certainly dampen my prospects of hunting with them again, and if I happened to hit anything remotely attached to the top of this tree, well, that would be a bonus.
Dad's Browning had a strong but nice odor of gun oil and the stock, though made of highly polished wood, had a clear finish coat that felt and faintly smelled of plastic. I took the gun with my right hand around the skinniest part of the stock. I grabbed the forestock, carved with a tiny checkerboard design to make it less slippery, with my left hand and glanced down at the gold trigger and the etched receiver.
I pointed the gun skyward and in the general direction of the branch, the muzzle waving around in a small circle because of its length and weight, clicked off the safety, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger. I missed, the explosion echoed across the field, and the recoil caused me to flinch and pull the trigger again, two shots in rapid succession, bam! bam! when only one had been expected. It felt like I was riding the gun and holding on for dear life. The scent of gun oil and polyurethane gave way to the acrid smell of spent shotgun shells and my ears rang as the echo died.
“Damn!” my startled Dad yelled and giggled nervously. “Why did you shoot twice?” He and my uncle glanced at one another, wondering, I suppose, if handing a loaded cannon to a twelve year old had been as great an idea as it had initially sounded.
“I don’t know”, I said sheepishly as he took the gun from me and checked the safety. We started walking toward another fence line, them side by side, me bringing up the rear once again.
“It’s an automatic shotgun, right?” I inquired. “Does it keep firing if you hold the trigger down?”
“I don’t know, son. Will it?” he asked his younger brother. A long discussion of guns followed and, although my question had started it, I was no longer a part of their conversation. They were brothers, after all, and sometimes brothers go places where the rest of the world is not invited and without thinking about it, close the door behind them.
“I have a pump at home that will keep firing as long as you keep pumping shells into the chamber. I don’t know what an automatic will do. I guess we could try it and see. . . .”, I heard my uncle say.
Theirs was a club I wanted desperately to join that day, but I would never get closer than peeking through the window from a seat on the edge of the front porch, feet dangling and legs not long enough to reach the ground. Their conversation trailed off in my mind, as they shared stories and I returned to keeping up through the high grass and worrying about those muzzles.
My father died in an automobile accident later that year. He was driving home in the rain from a meeting of wildcat strikers at the mine where he worked. This was the first and last hunting trip I would take with him.
We walked side by side, my grandfather and I, down a dirt road near the cabin where he lived in western Kentucky, alongside the spoils of abandoned strip mines. Scrubby little evergreens covered the steep hillsides that were not a natural part of the landscape, but had been shaped by the giant shovels of the coal companies, and there was little underbrush to cover the ground. In fact, most of the ground was covered by shale chips separated from the coal and cast aside and giving the earth a hard, faded-gray look.
The bugs were ferocious. They bred in the many small ponds unintentionally created by the mining, ponds that were sometimes an iridescent blue from leaching copper that would make them look right at home in a painting of an imaginary Martian landscape.
After my father’s death, my family had moved into the home of my grandparents and my grandfather picked up where Dad left off. I carried his Browning Sweet 16 and for reasons I no longer remember, he was just along for the walk.
“My cousin was an awful good quail shot”, he proclaimed as we dragged our boots through the dust and autumn heat.
“Oh, yeah.” He said it slowly and with emphasis, and then paused for maximum dramatic effect.
He looked down at his feet to avoid the ruts in the dirt road, but kept talking. There was very little that could actually interrupt my grandfather when he was talking, which was most of the time he was awake. “He could almost always get a double, sometimes a triple. That’s when you flush a covey and get two or even three birds as they rise.”
“That’s pretty impressive.” I fought hard to keep my left eyebrow from arching high into my forehead, the international symbol for incredulity.
“Sometimes when the covey flushes, some of the birds go left and some right. A good quail hunter can wait until two birds cross”, he reached out his hands to demonstrate the convergence of a couple of quails as the covey left the ground, “and hit ‘em both with one shot.”
A hunter can tell fish stories that are the equal of any fisherman’s.
Lady in Black
Before my wife and I had children, about three million years ago it seems, we traveled to Europe several times. One of my favorite memories is a trip to Germany, Austria and Italy in the fall of 1982.
We began the trip in Germany, after visiting my sister, who was in the army and stationed at Fulda. During the Cold War, this was the place where the Soviets would most likely initiate a conventional attack with hordes of tanks streaming through the “Fulda gap”. And my sister sat there waiting for them. Of course, at the time we weren't yet aware that most of the Soviet tanks would have broken down from lack of maintenance, fuel and spare parts before they reached the border. Even so, things appeared under control at the gap, so we left Fulda for a trip along the Rhine, through the Austrian Alps to Italy, Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome, then back to Germany for the flight home.
Vicki’s foodie friend had recommended that we eat at Passetto when we reached Rome, so we made dinner reservations not long after arriving. Ristorante Passetto sits at the end of Piazza Navona, and probably more recognizably near the Pantheon, and has served customers for more than 150 years. When we were there in the early eighties, there were elegant indoor dining rooms but al fresco was the preferred way to dine on a warm night.
The maitre d’ led us through the mostly empty interior dining rooms and out onto a terrace that was busy, but not crowded. We were seated at an elegant table with a white tablecloth that afforded views of both the piazza and the clientele. We ordered wine and watched both.
As we enjoyed the wine, we glanced at our menus. Vicki had difficulty choosing an entrée, but I noticed grilled quail and set my menu aside. A large party of six or eight people sat at a table on the edge of the terrace, in my line of sight of the piazza. I imagined that they were Italian, not tourists like us, perhaps because they seemed more comfortable with their surroundings.
A lady in a little black dress facing in my direction across the patio particularly caught my eye. She was simply but elegantly dressed, with sparkling, dangling earrings and dark hair that hung just above her shoulders. She had a magnificent smile, which she used constantly, and her conversation was quite animated, perhaps another clue that she was Italian.
When our entrees arrived, I self-consciously picked at the two quail breasts. I tried to cut the fleshiest parts of the breast with a knife and fork, but mostly I chased them around the plate. Quail are small and lend themselves to being eaten with one’s fingers. But I am far more comfortable doing that in my home than in Ristorante Passetto, imagining that at any moment one of the local patrons will shout, “Il mio dio! He’s eating with his hands!”
As I struggled with the quail and my self-consciousness, I happened to glance up at the lady in the little black dress. She, too, was eating quail. But she ate with her fingers, the ends of the small breastbones held between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, she smiled and talked as she ate, biting off small pieces of meat from the bone, then talking, smiling and laughing with her friends, now taking another bite as she nodded in agreement, showing not a hint of unease.
I stared for a few seconds at this woman who owned the self-assurance of beauty and youth and grace, and I hoped that sometime in my life I might be able do something, anything, with such poise as she ate quail.
Burton grew up on a farm in Casey County. Bud, his oldest brother, went to college and later taught college, becoming the head of the physics department at the University of Kentucky and later, while my wife and I were in college there, Dean of Student Academic Affairs. Tom, his other brother, went into real estate, but stayed close to home.
Burton became a farmer, after a stint in the navy in World War II, and lived his entire life near his boyhood farm. He also became my father-in-law many years ago. Though we don’t always see eye to eye on many political matters, he believing that George Bush has a detectable I.Q., for example, we are of a single mind on the topic of fishing, the primary point of our agreement being that we should do it every chance we get.
We also share a love for drives in the country in his pickup truck, an old Toyota that barely accommodates my long legs. I spent countless hours on similar drives in the country with my grandfather when I was growing up, me standing on the seat next to him while he carried on a travel monologue befitting the best double-decker bus tours of New York or London, except that our trips were down gravel roads past abandoned cabins where people he knew as a child had once lived. Burton and I have taken many such trips over three decades, though nowadays he prefers that I drive in deference to his weakening eyesight.
On a recent trip to visit the grandparents, he asked if I would like to drive down to Black Pike to see a hunting preserve being built near his boyhood farm. He pointed out where the farm had been and showed me the length of the valley and the small stream that ran its length.
“There was good quail hunting down here when I was a kid, and Daddy was a awful good shot. He’d hunt along the fence lines and could always come home with a mess of quail.”
“Sounds good to me,” I replied. “You know, every year Vicki asks me what I want for my birthday dinner and every year I ask for grilled quail with blackberry sauce. I guess it’s probably my favorite meal.”
Pa had a different perspective.
“I ate about all the quail I wanted when I was a kid. We didn’t have a lot of money and Daddy was a good quail shot, so we had quail until I was about sick of it.”
“Yeah, Mama called it ‘bird’. She’d say, ‘We’re havin’ bird for dinner’ and I’d think, ‘Not again!’ We’d each get two birds and she’d serve them on toast.”
“Well,” I said. “We had quail when I was a kid, too, but we never had enough to get sick of it. Sounds like maybe your Dad was a better shot than mine.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Daddy was an awful good quail shot.”
Twice the Speed of Sound
My life took a dramatically different path than my father’s, or anyone else in my family, I suppose. Leaving college in Kentucky with a computer science degree, I married and moved to Washington, DC to work for a division of General Electric. Later, I earned an MBA and worked for companies in the telecommunications field, including Cable & Wireless, the London-based international telecommunications conglomerate with the anachronistic name attributed to Marconi’s wireless telegraph. The company eventually moved into the business of undersea communications cables and extended their name.
My work with C&W took me to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Jamaica and several other countries where C&W had holdings, that is to say the former British Empire, but no place more often than to the London headquarters. For a long while, I commuted between Washington and London, flying to Heathrow on Sunday evenings and returning to Dulles on Fridays. The British Air flight attendants got to know me by name.
One Friday morning, as we sat in the business class section of a BA Boeing 767, the pilot informed us that the flight would be delayed while the computer was repaired. A few of us regulars were rebooked on the Concorde Supersonic Transport and got to fly ahead to New York.
The Concorde had a highly refined interior for a commercial plane, much like smaller private jets I have flown, but I found it cramped. As I walked down the center aisle, I ducked slightly, whether from actual lack of headroom or a sense of claustrophobia I cannot truly say. At six feet five, I couldn’t stand up straight in the lavatories and the seats were a little narrow even for a skinny guy like me.
Walking down the aisle with my carry-on bag in front of me, I passed passengers wearing expensive dark wool business suits, occasionally stretching out their arm to reveal a Rolex from beneath their French cuffs. Airfare ran about four times the cost of a first class ticket on a widebody flight, so the passenger list was dominated by corporate executives whose companies would foot the bill because their time was so incredibly valuable, or more likely because their attorneys had negotiated well for perqs. A handful of “normal” people slowly amassed a few hundred thousand passenger miles for a free ticket for the experience of flying the Concorde.
I placed my carry-on into the overhead bin, small by widebody standards, and squeezed into the window seat. Looking forward, I could see the small speed indicator mounted high on the bulkhead to the left that would later display our progress as we exceeded mach two. I pulled out a novel I had been reading and, like everyone else, tried to look like I had been there before.
As we waited to be cleared for takeoff, the flight attendants handed out menus for dinner selection. Befitting the marketing message, the pretentious menu included filet mignon, Champagne, caviar and the like. One of the options was quail and I looked no further.
The seatback held a certificate signed by our pilot to authenticate our presence on the flight, along with a ballpoint pen and several other goodies that, contrary to my expectations would later fail to impress my small children.
Quail is common in two very different sets of circumstances. It frequents the menus of expensive restaurants, where it is marketed as a delicacy, but it is also common, or was at one time, on the tables of farmers and miners whose most valuable possession is an expensive shotgun, whose entertainment is hunting, and whose families need to be fed.
A few hours into the flight we were served dinner and I noticed that the gentleman sitting next to me, dressed in a striking Seville Row tailored suit, had also ordered the quail. Although we had managed to avoid conversation for the first few hours of the flight—long flights always seemed to work that way, either you avoided talking to your neighbor completely, or struck up a conversation that lasted several hours until you landed—I made some inane comment about the quail and he responded by introducing himself.
“My Dad was a quail hunter and a coal miner. I’m not sure he was ever on an airplane”, I said.
“No kidding! I’m in the coal business”, he replied.
“Who do you work for?”
“I’m the CFO of Island Creek Coal Company”, he replied. “Where did your father work?”
“Peabody Coal Company in western Kentucky. Heard of it?”
He smiled and nodded as he chewed another bite of quail from the small breastbone.
“My company bought those mines years ago, but the Clean Air Act nearly wiped out coal mining in Kentucky by the late 60's. It's bituminous coal and it burns too dirty. Coal mining in Kentucky has changed dramatically since your Dad worked there.”
What hasn’t, I thought.
I finished my quail, took the last sip of Champaign from the crystal glass, laid my fork and cloth napkin on the tray and looked out the window into the gray sameness of the air at high altitudes, miles above the clouds, and the memories rushed in like air filling a vacuum. I reached across my body with my left hand, flattened my bare palm and fingers against the acrylic window and stared at it for a moment. Despite the incredibly cold and thin atmosphere outside the plane at 50,000 feet, the air friction at twice the speed of sound makes the windows warm to the touch.