September 23, 2010
Home can follow you anywhere.
The phone rang one night and my daughter said it was for me. The man on the other end introduced himself as Denton Stewart from down around Madisonville, Ken-tucky, and he said he often reads this column. He made note of a particular story in which I had revealed that I'm a native Kentuckian. As we talked, we discovered that he knew of my mother's family from Beaver Dam. A man is not quite a total stranger if he knows your people. Denton said he'd be pleased if I would hunt pheasants with him and his relations when they came to Iowa, where I now live.
The old schoolhouse where the Kentuckians hide out every autumn.
So, on a cold, damp, windy November morning, I followed Denton's directions to a one-room schoolhouse on a gravel road in western Iowa, less than 50 miles from my present home. The lights were on inside, and I could see the schoolhouse had been converted to a cozy cabin for hunters. A tall, broad-shouldered man with graying hair came out to the porch to greet me. He shook my hand and said he was Denton.
I followed him inside and found six other men lounging about the kitchen. By my estimation they ranged in age from 18 to 80. The aromas of ham, gravy and baking biscuits filled the warm building, and a rotund shirtless man was scrambling eggs in a big skillet. He looked over his naked shoulder, smiled and nodded.
"So, is Faith Devine your aunt or your second cousin?" Denton asked.
Taken aback by the mention of a familial name so far away from its origin, I hesitated before I said, "My aunt."
"Then one of your other aunts married Butch Hill, right?"
"Yes, that's right. Phyllis married Butch."
"Man, that Butch was some basketball player."
"Yes, he truly was; a real star at Murray State."
I told him that I was raised at Nelson Creek, between Martwick and Central City, off Highway 62 in Muhlenberg County. He said he remembered an old country store at the Nelson Creek junction.
"Fields' Store, I believe it was," he said.
Indeed, that was the store owned and operated by my great-grandparents, Jewell and Gola Fields. Their daughter Anna Fields married Lee Roy Mason, my grandfather, sometime around 1945. The Fields Store was locally famous for its homegrown honey, produced in the Fields family apiary. I told Denton that I once helped Jewell rob the bees for that honey, which he sold in boiled Mason jars with a big chunk of honeycomb in every jar.
Denton introduced me to the others:
"This here's Chad. He's from Kentucky, and he writes magazine stories about huntin' and bird dogs," he said.
Six men nodded and said, "Nice to meet you," and then I shook their hands. The smallest hand was attached to a fellow whom the others called "Pappaw"--a short, elderly man with bright, intense eyes. His name was Jack Mastin.
Denton said grace over breakfast, thanking God for the food, the great outdoors, the camaraderie and various other blessings, and then finished with the standard Baptist mantra, "In Jesus' name, Amen." Everyone opened their eyes momentarily, but then Pappaw announced that he'd like to say a few words, too, so everyone bowed their heads again.
Jack Mastin, chef of the Battle of Midway, and a wild Iowa rooster for his Kentucky pot.
He prayed about several things Denton left out, plus a few things Denton had already mentioned. His eyes were clenched hard shut, and his voice almost broke at a couple of points. When he had finished, we fell upon the food.
"I made that ham, myself," Jack said. He seemed to be waiting for my response. It was good ham, not too salty, with a lot of smoke and a warm velvety fatness that coated the inside of your mouth and made you feel like you'd never get cold again. Its taste reminded me of the little white smokehouse behind my boyhood home, where we smoked our own hams every fall. I told him it was good, real good.
As if perceiving a logical segue that I'd missed, Jack launched into a story about the time, in 1943, when he hitchhiked to a train station and paid a dollar and ten cents for a train ride to Cincinnati, where he attempted to enlist in the military. "The Army wouldn't take me, and neither would the Air Force," he recalled, "but the Navy man said I was just the right size to work on a submarine."
He became a cook in the Navy. Donuts were his specialty, he said, and the men of his ship relished them so much, they guarded him with their lives. Between bites of Jack's homemade ham, I listened to him tell about the time when he made chocolate chip cookies right in the heat of the Battle of Midway.
I was jarred by the juxtaposition of two seemingly incompatible yet historically intertwined realities: a young man serving cookies to his companions like a mother, and young men killing each other. Home and its graces can follow a man almost anywhere, I guess, perhaps even to the lowest floor of hell. We all sat silent for a moment, pondering the stark irony of these two things--bombs and cookies--occupying the same space, until someone finally said, "Well, I reckon it's about time we went a-huntin'."
Every man donned his boots, the cook put on a shirt and jacket, and we all went outside. Only Denton had brought dogs, and he opened the dog trailer briefly for me to see them.
He had a tiny liver-and-white Brittany bitch named Missy and a bustling Boykin spaniel named Peaches. These would join my English cocker, Rascal, who has eight years of experience on wild pheasants and the scars to show for it. With the dogs crated, Denton and his brother Dallas climbed into their vehicle, and the others piled into a giant, extended-cab pickup truck with Bourbon County plates and steel faux testicles dangling from the trailer hitch. I followed in my own car.
We navigated a maze of gravel roads to a farmhouse that sat above a vast expanse of grass. The farmer, a big 40-something fellow named Jeff, came along for the hunt. He told us to spread out in a line, splitting our numbers on either side of a winding ditch. We followed this ditch for almost a full mile,
killing exactly one pheasant.
Denton Stewart and the big rock.
The dogs worked beautifully, producing numerous hens for viewing and several cocks for the gun. As for the shooting, well, it was one of those days. One long-tailed rooster flew downhill, crossed the entire party and was missed by all. This prompted a round of good-natured ribbing.
"What's the matter with you down there, boy?"
"Hey, y'all wasn't exactly tearin' him up yourselves."
"We was just tryin' to shoot behind him and scare him towards you."
During a break in the action, I conversed with one of the men and somehow our conversation turned to the table quality of various game animals. He said he loved barbecued wild hog.
"Good stuff, huh?" I asked.
"Oh man," he said, "if you put a piece of that on top of your head, your tongue will beat your brains out." I laughed under my breath as my heart resonated with his pictorial manner of speech. As a Kentucky transplant to the Midwest, I've mostly adapted to heartland ways. But once in a while I feel like a fish out of water, an alien in a strange land. Often this feeling comes after I've said something that causes my fellow Iowans to smile and furrow their brows in wonder. It's just the Kentucky talking.
Due to an appointment in town, I had to leave the hunting party at lunchtime. Denton apologized that we didn't see more birds, but I told him no apology was necessary. I thanked him for the invitation, signed a book for him and he told me to come down to Kentucky sometime and hunt deer or turkeys with him.
"Before you leave, I want to show you something," he said. We drove up the road to another farmhouse with an enormous boulder in the front yard. The rock was half the size of a house and sat on display with a tiny wooden cross above it. Such a boulder is an extraordinary anomaly on Iowa's prairies of glacial till. Its sharp, angular surfaces of creamy quartzite glinted in the light.
Apparently, it traveled here in the ice of a glacier thousands of years ago, and--amazingly--was not pulverized en route. Denton told me how the farmer had found this rock buried in his field and paid over $30,000 to have it removed by a team of engineers and contractors. "They had to wait 'til the ground froze to bring it up here to the yard," he said.
Denton is a big man, but he looked tiny beside the rock. We took pictures of each other beside the rock, and stared at it for quite a while, marveling that something so large and seemingly unmovable could be carried so far from its place of origin to end up here, of all places.