Hunting is, at least in part, about tradition. My grandfather was a folk hero to me, and in my earliest memories I dreamed of going fishing with the master angler or maybe, someday, even hunting with him. He taught me how to shoot at a young age, and brought me along teaching me nature’s ways. We’d walk through the woods and he’d point out various wild plants, and he’d tell me which were edible and which had medicinal value. Today I point out the same things to my kids when we’re in the woods, but it’s mostly academic. Their mother wouldn’t like it too much if I procured some Jewelweed sap to soothe a burn, and she really doesn’t care why they also call it “Touch-Me-Not”, but I teach them anyway.
When it came time for me to learn how to hunt, I was already at home in the woods and had developed many of the supporting skills. I remember my first rabbit and my first squirrel and how Gramps taught me to stretch and dry their hides. He’d show me places around town where he used to hunt and how the city had sprawled into nature’s space. He loved to show me where he had lived on Ford Road, where he kept his still during prohibition, and the favorite spot to hunt pheasants, now known as Midway Mall. My father recalls many times during the years of the Great Depression when dinner came to the kitchen still in fur or feathers with his father hefting his Winchester Model 12.
I still take little mementos of my Grandfather afield with me. Sometimes I wear his old hunting licenses on my back, with duck stamps and all, so as to feel that he is somehow still hunting with me. You can see some of his tags in the magnificent photo above Tom Mahl has put together. As I showed them to Tom one day, he pulled out a collection of his grandfather’s old tags, kept on top of the other as well, as must have been the custom of the day.
Tom’s grandparents lived in the rural East end of Broad Street. His grandfather drove a milk truck on a route where it was common for him to see a cottontail rabbit along the roadside. “And he kept a .410 shotgun in the truck for just such occasions. He could just step out on the running board of the truck, fire a single shot and viola, supper!” Tom remembers.
I have a vivid memory of my grandfather, Ben Mahl, and this pump shotgun. When I was four or five he took me with him rabbit hunting for the first time. Bill and Frank Makara owned a dairy farm on West Road and my grandfather picked up milk from them every day, but his was his day off.
I remember waiting impatiently in the barn, with all its smells and noises of the milking machines as the brothers finished chores. Finally Bill, Grandfather and I piled into grandfathers car and drove to a spot where Kipton-Nickel Pate road crosses Wellington Creek. There was a new fallen 4-5 inches of snow which grandfather impressed on me was ‘perfect for tracking.’ The Makara’s had recently cut several trees here along the Creek - but all that remained was a brush pile. ‘There are tracks here Ben and they lead towards that brush pile…have boy jump on that brush.’ said Bill.
Bill and grandfather separated 40-50 feet on opposite sides of the pile as I dutifully climbed on to it. My first weak jump produces nothing. “Jump harder,” called grandfather.
I did and out bolted a rabbit to grandfather’s side, angling away. His first shot missed as the rabbit dodged. Grandfather’s hand seemed a blur as he pumped this gun and the second shot tumbled the rabbit and echoed off the woods. Grandfather picked up the rabbit. I remember delicious rabbit and rabbit gravy made by my grandmother for Sunday dinner.
It wasn’t so very long ago that food came to us on the hoof. Even among city dwellers it wasn’t unheard of for someone to butcher a chicken in the back yard. I met a Clevelander who tells me that in days gone by he would get on a city bus in hunting gear and take a seat with a shotgun beside him. People wouldn’t shriek and run away, but more often than not they would engage the boy in conversation and ask him where they rabbits were to be found. In that day, the outskirts of Berea were “the country” and many Clevelanders hunted the area around what is now Hopkins International Airport. Get on a city bus with a shotgun today and you’re bound to make the national news.
So what happened to us to cause such a change in attitudes in such a short time? Did Walt Disney poison us that somewhere in the back of our otherwise rational minds we still believe that the fracturing of Bambi’s family was an actual crime against the animal kingdom?
The short answer is no, for the most part we still support hunting. Even those of us who think that meat naturally originates in the grocery store and comes on a sheet of Styrofoam wrapped in plastic aren’t against hunting per se, they just can’t imagine themselves actually doing it. But the little secret we all hide is that we can all identify with the hunter because we feel a nostalgic warmth for the traditions of hunting and a time when America was the kind of place where people were courteous to each other, even if they weren’t on the same page about things like hunting. We fondly but vaguely remember some uncle or neighbor who used to talk about hunting the same way Tom and I speak of our grandfathers, and we all recognize that hunting is part of our fabric and who we are as a people. With so many different factors pulling at that fabric today, we know that hunting isn’t a thing that pulls us apart from ourselves, if anything it brings us back to the place from which we came.