As an Atlanta girl in the '50s, I might have looked unusual hefting a shotgun to my scrawny, narrow shoulder. Even then, Atlanta was becoming citified. The difference was my grandparents' acres south of town, and my two uncles, the same ages as my sister and I.
Through the uncles I absorbed the feel of guns and hunting: the explosion that jars your body and heats the gun barrel instantly; the smell of gunpowder; the thrill and satisfaction of a well-placed shot.
But in the years since, those feelings faded with my childhood, until I spent a recent day standing in a duck blind with a Winchester 12-gauge pump shotgun and two excellent shooters.
Years after what I had imagined was hunting, here I was on this real, organized, expensive outing. I was amazed at how good it still felt.
"If they come from your right, you take the third goose," our guide Jane was explaining to me. "If they fly in low, from the left, you take the lead. Got that?" she asked softly, patting Lochie, her black retriever.
y Summers on the farm had created two social needs: First, if I wanted any company, I had to win grudging admittance into my uncles' juvenile male bastion. Second, shooting helped fight the boredom of endless pre-TV farm days.
So I took to trailing along after the boys and their guns. The main sport was tramping the pastures, manure steaming in the heat; jumping underground creeks that burbled up by the pig pens; crunching through pine needles that deepened into the lonely slopes of Pine Mountain.
It was very casual. Almost incidentally, we dragged home colorful little piles of squirrels, partridges, rabbits -- even snakes, which Lizzie, the cook, firmly refused -- their dried skins ended up adorning the sides of the barn.
Then we all grew up. The boys joined the service, my sister and I got down to the business of raising kids. Hunting and shooting were out of my life, except for some random skeet-shooting. And now here I stood, waiting to draw a bead.
y The alarm rattled me up at 3:15 a.m. and I began to dress, feeling vaguely like something was missing between bedtime last night and this morning. I pulled on thermal underwear, fatigue pants, turtleneck, flannel shirt and fleece-lined vest for good measure. All earth tones, as instructed. Lambswool socks. "Geez, I'm gonna swelter in all this," I grumped, wondering if this God-forsaken early-hour ritual was really necessary.
By 4:15 we were on the road, heading toward the Bay Bridge. In the absolute dead of night, we rolled into an inn outside Centreville, Maryland; the parking lot was a thicket of pickup trucks. Inside, it looked like a jamboree -- hunters, all in green, all men, lolling around tables loaded with coffee, grits, chipped beef on toast and laughing, smoking and telling stories. We waded into the crowd and got the paperwork done: licenses, Department of the Interior duck stamp, Maryland state migratory waterfowl stamp, signatures all around. $35.
After bushwhacking around and taking many false turns in the thick fog shrouding every signpost and road marker, we arrived a little after 6:30 -- half an hour late -- to meet our guide, Jane Harding, at Kennersley Pointe Marina, just outside Centreville on the Chester River. Inside her lodge was a blazing fire and a huge breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits, sausage, ham, biscuits and scalding-hot coffee.
We loaded the guns and supplies into the boat. A companion handed me yet another wool shirt and a hunting cap, along with wool socks and an extra pair of good rubber boots. I put them on.
y Within minutes we were standing in the neat confines of the blind Jane had chosen for us. Tall marsh grass and feathery growth perfectly concealed the six-by-ten enclosure at the water's edge. There was a partial roof for shelter, and a low bench for stretching out.
We stood in the blackness, with the heavy fog swirling around the wooden, flat decoys that floated on the water in strange, iridescent colors that almost glowed in the dark. Overhead, beyond the fog, the geese were honking so noisily it sounded like a South American soccer game. Despite the layers of clothing, I was shaking from the chill blowing in from the water.
"What if I forget to put the safety on? I'll blow someone's head off. What if I lose my nerve and can't shoot? What if I do shoot and never hit anything? I'll look like a fool," I tormented myself for the next hour. Four cups of coffee sent me outside every half hour.
Then the sun came up, burned off most of the fog, and I calmed down a bit. There was a wide spit of wooded area in front of us and, way off to the right, another wooded patch. It looked like a thousand geese, swooping, gliding over the water. Guns were sounding in the distance. Jane watched calmly and said, "They'll be here soon."
We loaded our guns almost immediately. I loaded one shot, rather than three. Less chance of accident.
About mid-morning we were joking, chatting, still waiting for the right birds. No skybusting in Harding's blind. Then two beauties headed in our direction. "I think this may be it," Jane nodded, smiling.
They fly, almost overhead -- too high, I imagine -- then, from right beside me, a companion swings his heavy gun, fires and a little burst of feathers comes swirling down. The bird drops straight out of the air and into the bushes. He fires at the second bird but misses.
Even though I hang back and don't fire, the power of the blasts beside me and the sure hit at seemingly impossible range and angles have sent my adrenalin rushing.
A few more minutes pass; we wait as Jane makes the insistent calls. A small group flies over, the men reach for their guns, Jane for hers. I do the same. "Right to left, go for the third one," I remind myself, as I see them approaching. I raise my gun, as they fly by -- at about 50 miles per hour, I'm told later. I try to steady up on the last one, can't and so try for the middle one. One shot. Another. Two birds drop into the water. Two of us shot at the middle one. No matter, I think, at least I fired.
Moments later, another round, quickly. They're flying low and away, I take a shot after one, there's another shot a split-second behind. One is in the water and Lochie is gone like a flash.
"That was a fine hit," Jane says, smiling at me.
"You hit him really hard, perfectly. I think he was dead where he was," one of the men says. "I thought he was getting away, that's the only reason I fired," he half- apologizes. I'm bolstered by the encouragements.
The action keeps up for the next two hours as the geese mysteriously start to come our way. One of the men has two by the end of that time, the other three or five, depending on whether we give me credit for the two I tried for. (We won't know until the birds are cleaned. Copper pellets indicate my gun. Gray ones, his.)
I've relaxed enough to try the .10 gauge, though the charge and weight make me stagger. Two tries, two misses, but I peppered one on the tail, Jane tells me. I'm ecstatic and feel my confidence grow about a thousand per cent.
Almost on cue, the geese decide about 12:30 to look for another feeding ground. Suddenly the skies are quiet.
By 3 p.m. only a few stragglers have come our way; I've fired enough to get a sure sore spot on my shoulder tomorrow. We decide to head into the lodge. As we gather up the seven beautiful birds resting under the bench, someone says, "I want a beer."
The whole day has been fantastic. Suddenly, I'm feeling just like a kid again, awash in the glorious sunny marsh, my senses soaked with its smells and textures. Only this time, it's better than those old days. When we get to the lodge, I'll be having a beer with the guys.
(Oh, yes. I found copper in one goose.)