Short Story: A War Baby Doubles

by on November 29th, 2010
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Preface

This story is one of my personal favorites. Fun to write certainly, because as I sat at the processor the memories I had to summon seemed to progressively sharpen, to the point where I almost seemed to be living during that time again. The time was 1954 and I was 12 years old and I almost literally lived in the woods even prior to the hunt in subject here. I was either exploring, fishing for chubs in a little stream that ran through the swamp or running a trapline. In the summer, I kept a tent set-up in the woods above the house which became so rank from dankness and stale, forgotten food, skunks gave it a pretty wide berth.

Buck Budd is long dead and sorely missed, for he was one of the greatest influences in my life and one of the greatest human beings on earth — ever.

The swamp is gone, as you’ll read in “A Lesson in Time.” The German double is stubbornly being kept from me by an archetypal stepmother who, of course, doesn’t hunt, for when Pap passed on the family bonding element deteriorated.

However, if I could change the world’s place in time, it would be to the year or years flanking either side of 1954. The fifties? Indeed, they were fabulous, simple, full of love for thy neighbor and a time which all of the American youth of today should have at least a small, sweet taste… I wish I could make that happen, but this story, I fear, is the best I can do.

A War Baby Doubles

I’m a great believer in the old, profound adage, “War babies had it tough in the post-war times.” Even though I did make it up. I’m speaking, nonetheless, of that vintage of American born say, between 1942 and ’46, one of which I happen to be. Vintage ’42 as a matter of record.

And personally, I suffered greatly, albeit indirectly, because of all the activity that went by the factitious name of WWII. I was a victim of sorts, of shotgun “wound.” Not to my tender person, mind you, but to my emotional stability which even today is questionable. Those were rugged days, and what we might term, lean? Look, for example, what the war did to Lucky Strike green.

But then, we all had our crosses to bear, so to speak, and many had more than their fair share during those times. It just so happened, I was one of those who had just a little more, almost, than I could bear.

For example, Pap, my father, climbed a warbound ship’s gangplank when I was a mere nine months old and headed for the European Theater. And that, for those too young to remember, wasn’t a movie house. Now, being just 9 months old or thereabouts, I couldn’t even wave goodbye to Pap, so imagine how frustrating that must have been? And indeed, it must have taken its toll for I recall being told that months afterwards, I would waddle about the house saying, “Bye-Bye Da-Da” all day long-every day! Now when Pap brought home a German souvenir, one item in particular, a German shotgun, 16-bore choked full and full, with barrels as long as broom handles, it was, in essence, my “cross.” But, innocent and young, I didn’t realize it.

Back then, in the post-war era, homes smelled of fresh-baked biscuits, Half & Half tobacco smoldering in a father’s pipe, simmering, beef-laden, homemade vegetable soup, the Old Spice aftershave which most dads wore, a smidgen of dog essence tucked neatly behind the sofa (divan in those times but divans usually had no back or arms so smarts wasn’t in great abundance either!) and, come fall, the wonderful aroma of pippins baking beneath a blanket of cinnamon. And last, but certainly not least, the delicious odor of Hoppe’s Number 9 filled the entire abode. All of this seemed the perfect blending for any home.

It’s nice, every so often, to summon those golden memories. It kind of eases the tensions of today’s hustle-bustle world of high-tech nestled-not so cozily-in asphalt.

When Pap finally did come home from the war, I recall how he’d busy himself with gun-fondling and cleaning his shotguns and rifles for the seasons upcoming. I was nearing four-years old and Pap gave me my first bottle of Hoppe’s which he tells me had a tightly screwed-on cap, and an old Barlow knife with broken blades; looked good to me for a start I suppose? And I’d just get underfoot, literally, and often follow so closely behind him that if he stopped suddenly, I’d run into his posterior. I was in this fog of fantasy as I grew older and remember clearly, how I’d make believe I was going to accompany him to the frosty, amber field across the road from our home outside of Greensburg, PA. That field, now, sadly enough, is a par-3 golf course thanks to the whims of folks who’d rather beat up a little, white ball than enjoy the best pheasant hunting in the county. That swamp was a sort of sanctuary in those days, and three years later, I’d be right alongside Pap, knocking down ringnecks. However, for the first few years, I’d go through this bizarre training period which began when I was 9.

During those years, I went along with Pap, my grandfather, Joe Number One, and my uncle on my stepmother’s side, Buck Budd. I carried the traditional weapon for a kid in those days; one I felt was a devastating hunk of weaponry. A Daisy, Red Ryder BB-gun with a strand of rawhide attached to a side-ring for only Red knew what? This gun allowed me to get familiar with the feel of toting a firearm through the fields and woodlots and was the item used for teaching me where-or more precisely, where not-to point the muzzle. I also was allowed to swing (though, of course, never shoot) on a game bird now and then, as well as cottontails. Pap would say patronizingly, “You’ll learn a little about lead and swing that way, Joey.”

One morning while out with the three of them, about one year prior to my real hunting debut, Pap said, “Well, next year, Joey, you’ll be carrying that German double I liberated from the war…” And, had I known then what I was in for, I no doubt would have run away from home. For even though I thought this upcoming affair with the shotgun would be the coming of knowledge and adulthood, it proved far more than that. Actually, I was to be placed on the very threshold of severe emotional stress, a subject which in those days carried little more weight than the Bambi Syndrome; doctors knew precious little about either.

I should point out that my carrying the gang’s game for the first few seasons afforded me some clear understanding of the term, “War baby.” I thought then, it meant in part, that those of us born during that span in time were destined to fight for-and well earn-any advancement we hoped-or expected-to make? At least that’s how it seemed when I was coming up and carrying game that, most times, weighed a great deal more than I.

I vividly remember two things that were especially difficult to come by in the fifties, for a kid anyway; these were money, respect and praise. But that’s three things isn’t it? Which I suppose brings up a fourth, we didn’t always think real straight, what with living under the pressures of forever trying to prove ourselves and having to live in clouds of pipesmoke, vapors of gun solvents and painfully having to listen to adult post-hunting chatter from the confines of a basement while cleaning the men’s heavy, daily kill, well, we didn’t have a whole lot of time for “thinking!” Thinking, then, was often a self-induced mental process for finding excuses to miss school. Nothing more.

I would say praise came hardest, thus we deemed it most precious. For example, had I dropped a changing rhino (there weren’t any in Pennsylvania!) with my model 94 Daisy, Pap may have glanced in my direction and just very casually said, “Pretty nice shot, Joey.” That, if anything, would have been the full extent of it, never again to be mentioned even in idle small talk among the adults. However, my hurrah was on a fast-approaching wind, and had I known it then, I may have been a bit more unwavering in my ways.

I may have (emphasis on “may!”) protested a little about having to clean everyone’s shotguns and game after a day of always successful hunting. I may have complained about having to chip (I almost became a geologist because of this. Imagine!) the dried mud from everyone’s boots and of having to lug the men’s game around all day in the back of my specially-built jacket. It had a huge pouch sewn onto it for just that purpose and when full, as usual, the bottom was but an inch or so above ground surface. I always looked as though someone unseen was holding me in a half-nelson! I very easily could have been permanently injured from carrying 30-plus pounds of game and extra shotshells all day: “Part of your training, Son…” Why I could even have been blinded by the close, autumn sun for I was forever forced, by the weight, to look straight up and kind of feel my way with shuffling, booted feet through the fields. But I did it and nothing showed up on the x-rays I paid for using my trapping revenues.

Still, my most treasured memories in those formative (and nearly crippling!) years as a beginning predator were of Mother’s cooking, one-pound cookies which today may easily be compared to Frisbees, and yes, my first hunt with a real gun. The German, choked full and full, which I later learned, the choke designation was symbolic of the person “fullish” enough to use it in a hunting situation.

One Sunday, just a few weeks prior to my first season, Pap came downstairs with the German double. “Well, Joey, this is the year you’ll be hunting with the men, right? Here’s the old German side-by-side, wanna fool with it a little?”

I’d of course held it countless times before, however all of my wingshooting training came from Pap’s old Ithaca and Grandfather’s gorgeous Fox Sterlingworth in 16-bore. I got fair at smoking clays, learning lead, swing-through methods and other things that required instincts more than intellect-thank goodness-but as I stoke the memories, I don’t recall Pap mentioning the super bird; the ruffed grouse that forever fascinated me.

I recall there being a good number of them in the grape-tangled hollows near the creeks I angled but all I ever heard Pap say one day was, “I’ll show ya how to shoot grouse when you’re a little older, Joey. They’re a bit tough for a beginner and frustrate many a veteran too!” And, memory serving accurately, I don’t recall ever carrying any for the guys back then. Today, I believe he avoided the ruffed grouse subject because he knew the old German double patterned so tightly it, and the man carrying it, posed no threat to the grouse population; more about this later.

With the season not far off, the air became filled with the sweetly penetrating smell of Hoppe’s #9 and pipesmoke. Enough to move the adrenaline in any hunting man’s blood. It was about that time, too, I was permitted the occasional cup of coffee which to my young tongue was strong. Pap always said, “Now that’s coffee, Joey! Why I could probably float a few .300 Savage cartridges in it? Stuff’ll keep ya movin’ in more ways than one…” It was stout and to this day, I make it like Pap did back then.

Our hunting lunches consisted primarily of southern-fried woodchuck from Pap’s summertime hunts, which no doubt originated due to matters of economy and modest income? But mothers, special as most are, always had the proverbial ace in the hole, not to mention a little unsolvable mystery about them. Mine carried this very large key pinned to her floral apron with what had to be a Guinness-qualifying safety pin. It was, as we forced her into telling us one afternoon during a moment of rare weakness, the key to what she referred to as “the sweet box.” A large, grandfather-made affair housed in our chilly, dark pantry. The lock on which would have been large enough to secure the gates of Fort Knox. Not that she was stingy, but because Pap would go through sweets like a hot Bowie knife through fresh-whipped butter, leaving little more than smell in the box. He attributed this addiction to sweets to the U.S. Army’s giving him large rations of chocolate during WWII. And he could-and often would-eat enough peanut butter fudge at one sitting to rot the hull of the Queen Mary oceanliner. Thus, Mother was forced to ration it if we were to have any left for our hunting lunches.

Pap would sometimes retaliate for her securing the fudge as though it were the crown jewels of England; he’d always say things to me so she’d overhear, and she could overhear from the confines of a speeding tank, like, “Why I couldn’t shoot a hole through your mother’s gravy with my deer rifle!” I’d laugh; she’d wiggle the key in our noses.

Seriously, our lunches would have made a blue-ribbon caterer envious. You’d have thought we were going on safari rather than just a few hundred yards across the road. She was a paragon, however, of generosity with a touch of thriftiness. Meaning woodchuck instead of chicken, etc.

One weekend evening, Pap mentioned he was taking me to town for a new hunting outfit. I protested, to his surprise, because sentimental scoundrel I tend to be, even today, I wanted to wear the old briar-beaten brush pants and jacket he’d recently retired. And I admitted to not wanting to look like a greenhorn to any hunters we might meet afield.

Those things’ll be too sloppy on you,” Pap said, “why shoot, the pants’re a good foot longer than your legs!”

Mother intervened as usual. “I could alter them a little for him, Frank?”

Nevertheless, I wanted things just as they were, insisting, hopefully, she leave the pants alone and simply pin up the sleeves of the jacket. I used some psychology I’d learned from Pap. “Mom, you have enough to do around here. Heck, I’ll just stuff the legs of the pants into my galoshes?” That pretty much settled, I went upstairs to try them on over my Gene Autry pj’s.

As I was coming back down the stairs, I picked up the old German double from the gun rack and walked into the den at port arms, at which time Pap broke into a wave of hysterical, hyena-like laughter that would have made Jackie Gleason sound like Cinderella. Even as Mother ran from the room holding her hand over her mouth, I painfully held back my own laughter. Not the least bit easy, but I knew if I’d laughed at myself, I’d be forced into a new outfit in my own size. But, even a few minutes later, after I’d gone off to bed, the laughter seemed to be in reserve status or escrow, I had to turn over the pillow to its drier side.

The next afternoon, Pap took me out back to have a go with the German side-by. He was hand-flinging them perfectly out into our buffalo grass field and I hit three, smoking them to where little hit the ground. But I’d shot about fifty! I should have realized then, but in my excitement, I was all but blind and senseless.

Grandfather phoned the day before the season to learn of our first-day plans. Pap mentioned we’d be hunting with Buck as usual and reminded Grandfather that this was the year of “Joey with the gun.” The German, choked full and full, remember. The tubes on it, I’m certain, are some 34-inches long. Adding that to the stock length made me not much taller than the gun when held at what Pap called parade rest.

Buck pulled into the drive the first morning looking like a model out of a L.L. Bean catalog. After the customary greetings and the pouring of the aforementioned, highly authoritative coffee which tasted as wonderfully as all coffee smells, Buck wandered into the den to sit, sip and compare notes with Pap. When he spied the German double lying open on the sofa, he smiled his million-dollar, but ghoulish smile and asked with a chuckle preceding, “Who in the world is going to use that beast?” At twelve, I was considerably naïve, and in this particular case, add to that gullible and vulnerable.

Soon thereafter, we left for the swamp across the road. Full of ringnecks, we should have little trouble getting our four, two-bird limits in less than two hours’ time.

Pap instructed me, “Load just the right barrel, Joey. It’ll teach ya to make the first shot a killing one and get ya used to making certain of the shot before slapping the trigger…” What he neglected to tell me, was the old German gun was bored incredibly close; to simply say it shot a tight pattern would have been a gross understatement; thing shot like a rifle up to 75-yards and farther!

I was soon to learn why Buck had snickered when he saw someone was actually going to take the German gun into the field. And lest I forget, there was another thing which was hard to come by in those “good old days.” For a kid to get serious conversation out of those making up the world of adults. No one ever said that in order for me to hit game with that thing, especially airborne game, I’d first have to allow it to get into the neighboring county. And, if I expected to mark down what I did hit, I’d need good binoculars; possibly an out-of-state license if I planned on retrieving my kill when we hunted near the state line.

By ten that morning, I’d already burned nearly a box of the old, blue Peter’s shells Pap gave me (remember the ones with the airborne mallard on the box?) without doing any damage to the Pennsylvania game population. I’d missed enough to fill a railroad coal car above the “gunwale,” and was beginning to wonder whether the number “6” on the box indicated the year of manufacture as opposed to shot size? My “hurrah” however would be an afternoon event, yet to come.

Everyone had their ringnecks except for the kid carrying the shooting broom handles. We talked things over with Buck and Grandfather and the three of them decided we should split up and hit the squirrel woods behind Roadman’s lake after a field lunch.

I, of course, went with Pap. He was sleepy as he usually was after hunting in the morning, and it wasn’t five minutes after we sat down under an ancient oak that he fell asleep. His last audible words, “Bust a few, Joey. We’ll head for home soon.” Then, off he went sawing a cord per minute, but never losing the pipe he had clenched between his teeth with at least a half-tin of tobacco stuffed into the well-carboned bowl. And to this day, I think it was his unique sounding snoring that brought the squirrels to moving about in the treetops? I know I’ve tried to emulate the sound numerous times, to no avail. Pap had a nose like no call I’ve ever seen.

I was apprehensive when I spotted my first squirrel high up in a nearby oak. Hunched up on a branch, perhaps sun-bathing, he had to be all of 70 or 80-feet high. And certainly, by now, I was wondering whether I could hit a barnyard bull at ten-paces with the German double. Unsure, I tapped Pap on the shoulder to ask his advice, while pointing to the stocky gray. “Put the bead just behind his noggin’ and squeeze, Joey.” Long story real short, I touched off the shot and down came my first piece of Pennsylvania game. Pap apparently heard both the shot and the squirrel hitting the ground, for he gave me a slight “atta-boy” tap on the thigh and fell back into a stentorious sleep. “Praise enough.” I thought.

I took three more grays within the next 45-minutes or so. Pap never flinched during the barrage. When I awoke him to leave, he said (without even acknowledging my kills), “Let’s work out that grove of pines on the other side of that big section of wild grape tangles. May roust a bird or two outta there if we take ‘er slow and easy.”

Pap motioned for me to work in a relatively straight line, using his shotgun barrel to point the way and also the directions which I could safely shoot-straight ahead and to my left. As I entered the thickets, I stuffed another hull into the left chamber, somehow feeling certain Pap wouldn’t mind. I, too, felt the area might produce a couple of birds and my confidence was high after shooting four squirrels at stratospheric heights-not to mention they were out better than 25-yards from our stand.

As I bent to exit the pine grove, two grouse burse from a covert of wild berry briars, one right after the other! “Bang!” went the first barrel, then “bang!” went the second barrel (choked full and full, remember.) The first of the two birds went down in a puff of feathers while the second continued flying, right wing down a bit, out of sight and into some thick brush but at low altitude. “One outta two ain’t bad.” I thought.

Just about then Pap bellowed, “What in the blazes was that?” “Grouse, Pap, two of ‘em and I hit one!”

“Well, just keep working straight ahead and I’ll meet you at the edge of that next pine grove!”

Worried that I may be in deep doo-dah as they say today, I moved along and in a stand of oak shoots, I saw what a young buck had done to a sapling. As I inspected the rub, I looked around and, in some rather high briars, I spotted the second grouse, deader than a stone! Excited I was, but more so worried about what Pap would do when he realized I’d stuffed in the second round. This brings up yet another intangible difficult to come by back then; getting away with not listening to one’s parents. Some form of punishment was inevitable.

As we approached the creek near our road, Pap took a bursting cottontail. Our hunt was over. We broke open the guns, and headed across the road to the front yard where Buck and Grandpap stood awaiting our field report.

I removed the four squirrels and one grouse from my coat. Grandfather’s eyes sparkled and widened as he smiled and said, “Well, Joey, you did real well for a young hunter. Grouse are tough critters to hunt and hit for any man! Grandpap is real proud of you.”

Pap interrupted this moment of rare glory. “C’mon now, Joey, show them the rest of what you got today.”

“You mean you know?” I asked.

“I’m your father, son. It’s my job to know everything about you. ‘Specially when you’re carrying a shotgun. Come on now, show them what else you have in that coat.”

I could almost feel my eyes wanting to explode! I was under considerable pressure here. I pulled the other grouse from my gigantic pouch and lay it on the ground next to the rest of my game, proud-but at the same time very queasy in the gut.

“Now would you look at that, gentlemen!” Pap said, continuing with, “A young man of mine using a shotgun that could easily blow out the bull of a big-bore target at seventy-five yards took doubles on grouse! A gun that if mounted on a Nazi Panzer, may well have won the war for them. Why a gun so long and awkward that once a man gets to swingin’ it, it’s nearly impossible to get ‘er stopped, let alone hit anything with it. ‘Specially if it’s moving! Yes sir, that there German job is the real king of swing. Just imagine marking down a bird then getting the second lined up and down while you’re swinging like a revolving door! And little Joey here took those four bushytails from so high up in the oaks that they were stiff with rigormortis before they touched down! Why they were so high, my son there had time to lay down that old German gun, put on a fielder’s mitt and catch the critters! And if he’s standing there shaking because he thinks I’m about the chew him out for stuffing the second shell in that beast of a shotgun, he’s worrying about something that’s not about to happen. He’s earned the right to carry two shells in the gun and hunt with the men!”

It’s pretty tough breaking a sweat in the chill of October when you’re just standing around, but I did! But, like I said, praise was tough to come by back in those days and this behavior from Pap was as rare as finding an emerald in a rooster crop. And as I recall, Pap was always a generous man. And today he’s no different. However, when he told the story countless times after that day, he always said, “My son, Joey, shot doubles on grouse his first time in the field.” He was merely excited then and that was something that will always be very special to me. One of those quieter gifts many of us derive from hunting.

In those days, precious and priceless as they were, kids were forced by prevailing conditions to mature somewhat early in life; in numerous and various ways. Some by doing a man’s work, others by achieving something in the autumn hunting fields which “only a veteran could achieve.” In Pap’s eyes, I’d become a man through many trials he felt were tough. I had a very long trapline which pretty much supported my wants and needs-which were many. I’d endured the many pains of not carrying a gun in three autumns prior to my 12th birthday and had carried the game and extra shells so the men could hunt comfortably. And after the hunts, took care of all the equipment, game dressing and clothing.

As I remember it, Pap, even owning a heating and plumbing business, couldn’t easily afford to free me from the pains of using the liberated German gun which shot like a varmint rifle. Times were tough, and the only other smoothbore we had in the family was an old J.C. Higgins with a terrible, terminal case of inverted acne which Grandpap said, “No man deserved!” And later on I would become solitary heir to the masterpiece, Fox Sterlingworth.

So, even though money was indeed difficult to come by in those golden times, I like to think and tend to feel in my heart, that I was quite wealthy in many ways. That is for just being a war baby in the days of hand-me-down knickers, one-pound cookies and fathers who taught using love as their main tool as opposed to the ash handle. Fathers who led by example and who displayed their deep, true feelings through twinkling eyes. My wealth was in the form of Buck Budd and a grandfather, Joe Number One, who promised me a gun I’d admired since I could walk which I never really worried about getting. What was more important was seeing that Santa Claus magic in his eyes, that twinkle which could easily shame the twinkling in God’s sky. This then, was my true wealth. Then the reality, today the memories.

As I write this, my son, Justin happens to be 9-years old. He’s already itching to walk the amber fields with his “Pop.” Times in our family won’t change with regard to life’s quality. He wants to carry that old German double his first time out and I may just allow that? Then, once he can take game consistently with that rascal, choked full and full, remember, I have a sweet-swinging old Fox Sterlingworth that will make his hunting days as easy as it will be for him to get into my old outsized hunting britches which he already has hanging in his closet. Outside that closet hangs a photo of his grandfather and Joe Parry Number One, his great-grandfather. That which is inside and outside of the closet proves his true wealth. And this old man hopes fervently to add to it all…

Epilogue: “A War Baby Doubles”

This piece was written in July 1984. Pap got to read it, Grandfather had been gone 23 years by then. Pap died 10 years after it was first published and the German gun never got to its rightful owner, the boy in this piece. But the Fox today, hangs in my son’s bedroom next to his Grandfather Parry’s (my Pap) old Savage model 99 in .300 caliber. Justin never got to hunt with his grandfather, never, of course, knew his great-grandfather or Buck Budd. Buck died when Justin was but a sprout.

I speak reverently of the three of them quite often and Justin listens with a magic glisten in his young eyes. And the youth returns to my eyes and heart as I speak. Just one thing that will forever hurt and bother this old man; Justin, as much as I love him and as much as I’d like to change the facts, will never be as wealthy as his father. He knows why, has accepted it but indeed and certainly feels cheated. He’s right about that, but as I told him, “Those days are long gone, my Son. But trust in me that I’ll forever strive to let you taste the leftovers…”


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