Russel, Kansas — Opening Day of Hunting Season, 2010

On Friday night before opening day of pheasant season in Russell, Kansas, there’s an excitement in the air that rivals prom night at the local high school.  The migration of several thousand pickup trucks with gun racks and portable dog kennels is truly a marvel to behold.  Normal population of Russell is 5,000, but this night, that number has quadrupled.  All the local hotels are booked solid.

I lay in my cot next to my father’s bed.  My feet stick out the end.  My 50-pound, yellow lab Tank has draped his entire body over my legs.  My dad is snoring like a horrible combination of a chainsaw and a foghorn.  It’s 2:30AM.  I hope there’s coffee in this town.

We wake up at 5, slap some cold water on our faces, throw on five layers of clothing over top our thermal underwear, pack up the guns and the dog and head out.  We walk out into the frosty morning air and drive 1/2 mile across the highway to the RV park where dad’s friend and former roommate from college is waiting for us … in his 1970’s vintage camper.  His name is Lambert.  Lambert has made Russell his home for several days now.  Dad and I were invited to join him on this special occasion.

My dad and Lambert are two of a dying breed of great men who take life by the horns, and make their own way in it.  This hunting trip is just one of thousands of similar episodes that color their life stories.

Lambert has three dogs of his own — a brittany (“Reba”), black Labrador (“Toto”), and some other kind I can’t remember (“Powder”).  My dad brought his Brittany Spaniel (“Max”) as well, so with my Tank, the dogs outnumber the humans, 5 to 3.

Lambert’s trailer is small, but cozy and warm.  He invites us to cuddle around the miniature kitchenette table while he prepares breakfast, which begins with hot rolls, juice, and – to my delight – instant coffee and creamer.  Lambert prepares oatmeal the traditional way.  Mixed with cinnamon and honey, it’s warm and delicious; a good start for the day.  We pack a lunch, check the map, let the dogs out to pee, and climb into the trucks.

I get the pleasure of riding in Lambert’s Ford pickup with his three dogs as companions.  Lambert has built a ledge just behind the front seat of his extended cab for the dogs.  They recline on their pillows just behind my head as we drive through the darkness.   Lambert turns on an interior light so I can read the map.  He’s selected a field about 10 miles south of Russell.  We arrive at the field just as the morning light floods the Kansas plain.

The air is still and chilly.  I put on my fleece-lined hat with the earflaps (actually, it’s my 11-year-old’s) to keep the chill off my ears.  I unsheathe the 20-gauge shotgun my father bought for me years ago and pop three shells in the chamber.  The gun is heavy and its barrel is cold.  I put on my left hand glove so I’ll be able to feel the fingers on at least one hand.  The other has to manage the safety, and the trigger.

We spread out in a line and proceed to march lengthwise down the field of pipegrass that rises to my chest.  Plenty of cover for pheasants.

Toto, Tank, and Max are ecstatic as they hop up and down, noses taking in every scent.  Tank hasn’t been hunting much, but it’s obvious he’s having a blast.  He stays close to us, like a good boy.

As the sun rises, the Kansas countryside lights up in a golden yellow color that spreads out for miles.  The only landmark is a grain elevator about 5 miles to the southwest.  Everywhere else I look, the land is flat, as far as the eye can see.  The sky is clear.  It’s a beautiful day for hunting.

A few pheasants get up.  I shoot a few rounds, but hit nothing.  My dad bags two birds, one was assisted by the work of my faithful pup, Tank.  He rooted it out and retrieved it for dad.  What a good dog!

In the chill of the morning, the sound of a hundred shotguns can be heard in the adjacent field, as big parties of trigger-happy rowdies unload their ammo.  When we finish in our field, we load up and head down the gravel roads to another spot.  We pass truck after truck carrying blaze-orange and camo-clad soldiers, all racing to claim that next bountiful field.  You’d think it was the Los Angeles freeway with the amount of traffic on those roads.

We find another spot, eat our lunch and rest for a minute.  Then it’s off again for more hunting.  Dad tuckers out around 2:30 and heads for the hotel.  I tell Lambert I could walk one more field.  My legs felt like rubber, but I figured, I didn’t come all the way to Kansas to sit in a hotel room.  Let’s do this.  Lambert and I drove another 10 miles and found an ideal spot north and west of our home base.  Lambert hadn’t walked more than 20 yards before he almost stepped on a hen who tried to climb up his pantleg then scurried off.  We scare up a rooster by the edge of the field — I had the best shot and commenced blasting away, only to miss again.  We search that field for another hour before returning to the truck and heading home.  My legs are so sore, and I am so tired, I can barely keep my eyes open at the restaurant dinner table.

That’s when I received a pleasant surprise.

To be continued…

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