September 23, 2010
Another side of a no-nonsense instructor is revealed on a partridge hunt.
His eyes were dark, and he wore a grimace most of the time. He was not a large man, but he was feared by his students and stood ready to administer corporal punishment by paddle if you uttered so much as a peep in his class. He was my Shop Teacher.
It was required that every male junior high school student take one year of shop to grasp the fundamentals of woodworking. Many would make gun racks, cabinets or duck decoys from sweet-smelling cedar. Oh, how I yearned to make a gun rack that when finished and polished would reflect the maker's face. Or perhaps a small wooden boat to fish small ponds or to paddle down black-water creeks to fish for bream and redbreast beneath the canopy of live oaks.
But there would be none of that for me. I had no skills with wood or tools. I settled for a hang-on-the-wall, three-tiered gun rack that was high on the right side and low on the left. I got a D-minus with a disapproving scowl from the Shop Teacher to further chasten me as he handed me my grade.
I tried much harder during the second semester to make a table lamp fashioned from a cypress knee that I had hand-sawed from a cypress tree in a black-water swamp. I did better, for this time my Shop Teacher gave me a D. This slight improvement was not due to any increased skill on my part. No, sir. Not at all. It was due to my finding out that the Shop Teacher's craving was partridge hunting.
This I learned when I overheard him and another teacher one day during lunch when the door to the teacher's lounge was open. I told him that my mother's people had some land with a considerable number of partridge on the property. I then asked him if he would like to go one afternoon after school. His eyes, those dark eyes, studied my face and he said, "Yes." Still he did not smile.
"Do you want to go this afternoon?" he asked, brushing his faded brown, long-sleeved shirt free of wood dust. "What kind of class do you have for sixth period?"
"Study hall," I replied.
"What's the teacher's name?"
I told him.
"I think I can get you out. He also likes to shoot partridge. You got a ride home?"
"No, I walk to school."
"By the way, what kind of shotgun are you shooting?" he asked.
"A double-barreled 20 gauge. The right barrel is open and the left barrel is modified. She holds a pretty good pattern."
It felt sort of sinful when I met the Shop Teacher behind the buses during sixth period study hall. But it did feel grand in an odd sort of way, knowing that even if I got caught, I wouldn't be punished.
We went first to his house, a modest home on a street corner where the street light lit the front yard at night. There was a large magnolia tree centered in the yard and pods of azaleas were scattered about. There was also a front porch swing that looked like it might break if you sat on it and rocked.
"You just sit tight while I change my clothes and get my dog," he said, exiting the driver's side.
Within moments a sturdy brown and white English pointer named Jack came tearing down the driveway.
I opened the back right door and the pointer jumped in and stretched out on the backseat among empty and half emptied boxes of shotgun shells, candy wrappers and partridge feathers.
Jack inhaled a small brown feather up one nostril and sneezed mightily to dislodge it.
Drool slipped from the corner of his mouth. But I could tell he was a good dog and was well schooled in his vocation.
"I've got almost 150 thousand miles on this '49 Ford," the Shop Teacher said as he slipped back under the steering wheel. "Keep the oil changed and you can almost drive it for a lifetime."
We drove to my house, where it took me only minutes to change from school to hunting clothes, grab my shotgun and a box of shells, high brass 71„2s.
I told him the place we were going to hunt was about a 20-mile ride into the country.
"How many coveys did you say is on this parcel of land?" he asked as we got out of the car to load up and release Jack.
"I've found up to six in an all-day hunt, but I don't have a dog." I shouldered my gun. It was a nice gun and it fit comfortably into my right shoulder as it once fit my granddaddy's right shoulder when he was a boy. But age was upon the gun and the sheen was gone from its barrels. The twin triggers were worn mostly white from years of use.
"Hunt 'em up, Jack!" the Shop Teacher commanded in much the same tone he used with his students. And this dog, not the least repelled by his owner's toughness, began to beat the land seeking birds.
Jack swept through a harvested cornfield and flushed a large number of mourning doves feeding on waste kernels. The gray birds flew into a stand of yellow pine trees, but Jack ignored them, moving swiftly and purposefully as he cast to the right and then to the left.
I crossed a drainage ditch and was now to the right of the Shop Teacher in a large broom straw field.
It was then that Jack began to make game. Down into the ditch he went and emerged about 60 yards in front of me with his belly almost to the ground. He moved another 15 yards in the brown straw before locking up.
"He's got partridge!" the Shop Teacher said as he hurried ahead and crossed the ditch.
"Careful, son€¦he's got game," he said, now slightly out of breath. When he had regained his composure, he said, "When they flush, you take the ones going to the right or down the middle. I'll take the ones to the left." His voice was a bit jittery. I had never seen this side of him before, displaying emotion.
We inched towards Jack, who held solidly.
Then, without warning, there was a loud pop. The Shop Teacher had stepped on a dried limb, and with it a covey, perhaps 15 birds, whirred up. They fanned out. The Shop Teacher's 16-gauge semiautomatic thundered twice, dropping two birds cleanly.
Most of the birds went his w
ay except for two. My 20-gauge cracked once, then again, and a partridge hit the ground with a soft thump. A few brown feathers floated in the windless air.
Jack was called off point and sent to retrieve. I looked over at the Shop Teacher, who wore a wide grin. Yes, the crusty, scowling Shop Teacher had slipped a smile. He, too, was of flesh.
"Most of the birds went into that stand of young pines," I said as the Shop Teacher gave Jack several nuggets of dog food for each bird he brought back.
"I believe so," he concurred. He sent Jack out again to hunt.
Jack worked the field and then headed into the pines. It was a juvenile stand with not much height and the trees would not prove to be an obstacle when it came time to shoot.
When we reached the trees, there was no sign of Jack.
We walked farther into the pines and still there was no sight of Jack. The Shop Teacher called his name and there was no response. He blew the whistle hard. Still no response.
"He's somewhere on point."
We began walking into the pines. About 100 yards in we found Jack on point.
"Son," he said, "this is going to be some fast shooting€¦seeing's how it is almost dark."
The partridge jumped early, and we took one apiece. Jack hurriedly found them.
When we reached the parked car, the sun was the shade of oxblood. Jack climbed into the car's back seat and promptly fell asleep. "You know," the Shop Teacher said, as we drove home, "I can't show you any favors while you're in my class. Partridge hunting is one thing€¦" he paused, "but school is another."
"It's good that you do," he said in his no-nonsense way.
After a moment he added, "You have the makings of a fine shot if you work at it. But you'll never be any good with wood and tools."
He was correct.