As January eases into February and the days inch longer into night, I sit with a drink in my hand and remember winters (and loved ones) past, and last night a winter memory of Dad brought a smile to my face.
Dad and I became hunting buddies from the days of my early childhood, when I would walk the fields with him as he stalked pheasants. At first I walked carrying a stick, pretending it was a 12-gauge Browning automatic shotgun, just like his. Later it was a BB-gun I carried, and then finally my own Ithaca 20-gauge pump when I was a man with a family of my own.
We hunted near Dwight, Illinois, on a farm tended by a farmer we befriended, and on one snowy Saturday we began our hunt on a 40-acre patch that ran from his house down to a creek at the back of his property. The corn had been harvested in the fall, and now only cut stalks jutted up through the snow. Still, it was a prime place to find pheasants, for there were still plenty of downed ears and spilled corn lying in the rows.
But no sooner had we begun our walk than a distant crow started calling from the bare branches of a lone tree where the end of a fencerow met the creek, maybe a half mile distant. It called with urgency nonstop the whole time we walked its way.
“That bird is telling something to someone,” I said. “I’ll bet there’s a pheasant there, and he’s warning it that we’re coming.”
“Maybe,” Dad said. “Or maybe they’re not friends, and he’s asking us to come do a bit of neighborhood renewal for him.”
I laughed, and we walked on.
When we approached close enough to be near shotgun range, the crow lifted from the branch and flew off down the fencerow, where he landed on a fence post a couple hundred yards away. He didn’t want to miss the action, I guessed.
And sure enough, when we got to the base of the tree, up flushed a cock pheasant, right under where the crow had sat cawing on the bare branch.
Both Dad and I snapped our shotguns up to our shoulders to shoot—but the pheasant landed in the tree, no more than 20 feet up. We lowered our guns, because it would be unsportsmanlike to shoot a bird perched above us in a tree.
We shouted, waved our arms, clapped our hands, but the bird sat and watched us.
“OK,” I said, putting down my gun against the fence row, “I’ll flush him, and you take him when he flies.” I bent down, made a snowball, and hurled it at him.
I made another snowball and missed again. And again. And again.
Dad laughed and shook his head. “You throw like a girl,” he said, in a schoolyard-taunt voice.
“I guess I didn’t have a very good teacher when I was a kid,” I said, and he laughed again.
“Pick up your gun and let me show you how to throw a snowball,” Dad said, and he put down his gun and started throwing snowballs—and missing as widely as I had done. Now it was my turn to laugh and taunt.
“You’re going to throw out a shoulder, old man,” I teased. “I’ll do it.” I put down my gun and went back to throwing snowballs at the bird—which by now had tired of the game and lifted off from the branch to fly off with a cackle. It was now fair game for Dad to shoot.
But as the bird dashed off, I glanced over at Dad, who glanced over at me. Both our guns were leaning against the fence. The only weapons we had in our hands when that plump cock pheasant flew off were snowballs. We stared at each other stupidly.
And then we were schoolyard children, pelting each other with snowballs until tears of laughter rolled down our faces.
And off in the distance, from a couple hundred yards down the fencerow, came the sound of that crow cawing as if in schoolyard ridicule.
Dad and I picked up our guns and walked on, wiping the laughter-tears from our eyes with a knuckle. “I’ll bet they had that planned all along,” Dad said. “Fair play to them.”
Last night, as I sat just after sunset with a drink in my hand, I remembered that frosty winter day, when Dad and I got duped by a pair of wily old birds.
And as I did on that snowy day so long ago, I smiled and wiped a tear away with a knuckle.
• Tom “T.R.” Kerth is a Sun City resident and retired English teacher from Park Ridge. He is the author of the book “Revenge of the Sardines.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.