A young boy takes on the first of two 'Rites of Passage.'
THE SQUIRREL HUNT
In every culture there are 'Rites of Passage.” Typically, these are predicated on a person's age but can be a part of initiations into various groups such as clubs or institutions. Rites connected with age are licenses that infer a person with privileges or responsibilities such as attaining the age of eighteen thus having the right to vote or sixteen and being able to obtain a driver's license. Traditionally, and in all cultures, there are rites that denote passage from child to adulthood. For women it is usually menarche, the time of first menstrual period at whatever age this happens. For men, beard growth becomes a passage to manhood.
My dad was stationed at Ft. Sam Houston, TX when I was seven. He taught at the Medical Field Service School at Camp Bullis and he'd take the family to Southern Arkansas twice a year, one of which was Christmas, the other when school was out so I could stay with relatives for a month or so. It was during a summer visit that I joined my first squirrel hunt.
There was and probably still is a passage rite in the south regarding a boy's first squirrel. The age is usually 8-12 when he is able to handle a rifle safely and kills his first squirrel which denotes his maturity and ability to 'bring home food' for the family.
When I was seven, I completed this rite and it was a big thing that meant I could provide, I could protect, and I could join the men and would be taken seriously by them. There used to be small country stores with sawdust on the wood floors, bulk items such as nails, salt, and flour in large barrels that a shopper would scoop into a sack for the storekeeper to weigh and determine the price. Often, there would be a wood burning, pot-bellied stove in the store providing heat in the winter and a gathering place for local farmers to idle their time during the off-work on the farm. They sat around the stove in straight backed chairs covered in cow hide and talk planting plans for spring, and swap lies about fishing and hunting.
Boys who had not yet killed their first squirrel or gone on a night-time coon hunt yet could siton the floor but NOT join the conversations. They kept quiet as they were seen as little kids with nothing of value to add. Hence, every boy dreamed of that first squirrel and coon hunt so he would get respect from his father and other men.
One of my dad's brothers, Uncle Otis, had several prized squirrel and coon dogs. He would gather 2-3 and stuff them into the trunk of a '38 Oldsmobile. On the drive through the Arkansas pine forest, the dogs would get crowded and start fighting. Uncle Otis would pull over and go back to the trunk, raise the lid and whip the dogs into quiet submission.
On arrival at my great uncle's farm about 15mi later, we all piled out of the car. My dad, Otis, first cousin Buddy (a year my senior and already a veteran squirrel hunter) plus my grandfather would go into the house to greet great uncle Lavelle, twin brother to sister Lavern. We were going to hunt on his land and courtesy demanded we inform him of our plans. He looked at me and said, “Good luck boy, come by when you leave and tell me about the hunt, ya hear?” “Yes sir.” I replied.
We drove the red dirt logging road for a bit then stopped, let the dogs out, gathered our .22 rifles and started walking. Perhaps half a mile later the dogs put up a howl telling us they had treed a squirrel. We quickened our pace and came to a huge old oak tree where the hounds were running around making noise and pointing their noses up into the tree.
My dad was the first to see it, a big fox squirrel. He pointed it out about twenty feet up where I saw its bushy tail jerking as it warily surveyed us and the howling dogs. Dad loaded the rifle and handed it to me. It was too heavy to hold up so he put his hands on his knees bending over. Otis put the rifle across dad's shoulder and pointed it up then had me step up to use it. I aimed as I'd been taught, controlled my breathing and gently squeezed the trigger. I killed the squirrel with the first shot! It fell through several branches but lodged still 10ft up! Dad thought about climbing but there were no branches on the trunk low enough to reach.
Otis loaded the .22 bolt action repeater with a full complement of shells, fifteen, and I started firing trying to dislodge the game. I hit it thirteen times out of fifteen shots! It did not move. We needed to get back before dark so, reluctantly, left going by my great uncle's place to share the sad news. He was taken aback! He spoke to my grandfather and the two of them went out to the barn returning with a two-man crosscut saw!
Yes. The tree had to come down! Back out the dirt road, walk back to the tree and the four men paired up taking turns cutting down that beautiful, 100+ year old tree. They cut it so as to fall with the squirrel up and I was told to go into the branches to retrieve it. I came out holding the thing by its tail. It had been shot so many times it was shredded! The men made a big to-do over it and we left to return the saw then home to my uncle Otis' place.
They lived in a compound with my grandparents who had a house trailer, another uncle and his family in a nice house and an aunt in another house. When I got out of the car and showed my grandmother what was left of the squirrel, she made cooing sounds and smiled and gave me a big hug. I had cleaned it already as dad had taught me and gave it to Maw-Maw who took it into uncle Otis' home. She and his wife aunt Pat cut it up and added it to the dinner fixin’s.
Grandfather had me sit in his chair at the head of the table! He sat on my right with dad on my left and the rest of the men on down the table. The women stood. After prayers were given, I was handed the plate of fried squirrel and, taking a small piece handed the plate to my granddad who, in turn did so to my dad and so on to the men in order of seniority.
I still could not sit in a chair with the men at Ketchum's store! I had completed only one of the two rites.
The night coon hunt was next.
NOTICE: This story HAD pictures! They did not translate to here and would have provided much context to the story if they had.