“Are you feeling quick?”
Monk asked. “I mean really quick?”
“In this heat? Give me a break.”
August, in the lower regions of Alabama. It was so hot, it hurt to move.
“Well, it won’t be long now,” Monk said, sounding like a convict who’d done hard time and was thinking about his release. “But it can’t be soon enough to suit me.”
He was talking, of course, about the opening day of dove season. I suppose he could have been talking about the University of Alabama’s first football game, which a lot of people in that part of the world consider the official end of summer’s doldrums. But you don’t have to be quick to be a fan of the Crimson Tide.
We had shot a lot of doves together, Monk and I, going back to when we were still in school and sometimes couldn’t afford the ammunition we needed. Monk had turned into a great shot. Maybe the economic incentives had something to do with it. The kind of jobs we could get, after school and in the summer, paid minimum wage-if that-and burning up a couple of boxes of shells because you weren’t leading your birds enough almost felt like wasting money.
So Monk got quick. And deadly. But there might have been more to it than money. You hate to miss, anywhere, but it is especially demoralizing on a dove field where there are always witnesses. On some of the best shoots, there might be a lot of witnesses, and some might not be shy about ragging you over your missed shots. Monk has always been a competitive guy. He’ll rag other shooters when they miss. But he’s never liked being on the receiving end.
In a way, it might have been all the ragging over missed shots that made Monk care so much more about dove hunting than he did about, oh, deer hunting or turkey hunting. He is what they call a people person. The man likes a party. We fished together, once, in a tournament, and I think the most fun he had was at the big banquet the night before we started fishing and at the awards dinner when we were finished. The fishing part, alone with just one other person in a boat, was sort of tedious for Monk.
You can shoot doves in many places, but it is in the American South, among people like Monk, where the sport has become a kind of unique social event, along with the debutante ball and the crawfish boil. Most hunting is a solitary business. You don’t stalk a big buck with a bunch of your closest and best friends. You do it alone and there is a lonely joy in that. You might share a duck blind with one or two other people and hunt quail with a longtime partner. A good dove shoot, however, involves a whole crowd of people. And that is sort of the point.
It can be done in the low-rent, discount style, or you can have a high-church dove shoot that is exquisite enough to please Martha Stewart. When we started, Monk and I would just round up some friends and head to a field we knew. After we’d stopped shooting we might have some cold fried chicken and a few Nehi sodas from the cooler. We’d stand around under a pecan tree eating the chicken, throwing the bones on the ground, and ragging people about how bad they’d shot. That was the party.
A couple of seasons ago, Monk and I went to a shoot where there was a brunch served on damask linen before you went out in the field, and an oyster roast with music and dancing after you came in. “My, my,” Monk said to me, late in the evening, “haven’t we come a long ways up in this world.” We had, I agreed. But I kind of missed the cold chicken and Nehi grape under the withered old pecan tree.
August finally staggered to an end, and it was opening day at last. We weren’t eating off silver, but we had a good field to shoot and some red-hot shooters. We parked next to an old shed. Coolers, grills, and lawn chairs had been arranged for when we returned from the field. We pulled guns from their cases, put on worn camouflage jackets, piicked up our stools, and trudged out to our stands in the thick, midday heat. “Be quick now, old son,” Monk said when we split up. “Because I’m going to be watching you.” I did not feel quick.
And on the first seven or eight birds, I shot like it.
“Woo,” Monk shouted in my direction. “You’d better pick it up, son. You haven’t cut a feather.”
There was shooting all around the field as the birds poured in to feed on the sunflowers and brown top. And there was a fair amount of ragging when somebody missed. I got a lot of it.
And, then, I started to feel a little quicker. I stayed focused on the birds, got the gun barrel moving, and they started to fall.
“Now that’s quick,” Monk shouted.
He took a limit. I did not. We joined the rest of the shooters in the shade for cold beer, cold shrimp, ribs and chicken, and the usual postgame conversation. It went on for a while, and when we were packing up to leave, Monk said, “Man, this was some kind of fine. I was beginning to believe this day would never come.”