From The North Woods Call, December 31, 1974
Snooker’s teeth chattered as he stumbled around the cabin loft, trying to spear his saggy longjohns with a spindly leg.
The bags under his eyes were puffed, larger than normal, like he had been injected with silicone in the wrong spot. Blonde stubble on his oval jowls reflected and diffused the flickering light from the fire in the room below, creating a halo around his face. With his ever-present squint he looked like something out of a Star Trek episode.
“Ah was sew dang culd las nat, mah span done shrunked tew inches,” he complained as he hopped around like a man with a hot foot.
The rest of the troops were beginning to stir.
M.J. Lee struggled and wiggled to escape the tight confines of his mummy bag, lost his balance, and fell backward off the cot, hitting the floor with a resounding thump — like a sack of potatoes. He cursed lightly and joined Snooker in the get-dressed rhumba.
Al Nevala dragged himself out of the sack and started hopping around. In the dim light the three looked like the first hoofers in the All-World Spastic Dance Marathon.
While the three waltzed clumsily I peeked out of my mummy bag down into the living room. I could just see the top of the picture window. It was still pitch black outside and after my previous day, there was no way I was going to crawl out into the cold, at least not until daylight.
Downstairs in the front room the Nevala Boys, Denny and Steve, were shuffling around, trying to stoke the dying embers in the potbelly stove.
Thirty minutes later all the dancers were finally dressed and downstairs sipping steaming black coffee and plotting the day’s hunt plan, regrouping for round two with phantom bucks.
Yesterday had been an Ofer-day for the camp, and a grand fiasco — terrrible, horrible, unimaginable, undrivable, unhuntable,unwalkable, with zero visbie, and newspapers around the state carried banner headlines proclaiming “Hunters Cheer Snow For Opener” Obviously not this group of hunters.
Obviously the goons who pecked out such garbage on their Royals and Olivettis never made it out to the cedar swamps or popple swales, and didn’t have to turn their eyelids inside out trying to see through a forest so laden with fresh wet snow, or risk breathing and bringing a barrel of that snow down like a 200-pound bomb. Now way were they out. Instead, they were back in the newsrooms taking phone calls, drinking instant coffee, and writing fiction about cheering hunters.
As usual, the Snooker had managed to miss most of the misery, not arriving until late afternoon of opening day and naturally he couldn’t understand why everyone was cranky and complaining.
The whole day had been bad news.
Denny and Steve had led their dad down to his blind. I was assigned to drop M.J. in a makeshift stick palace overlooking a pinched in part of the big swamp. It was only a hundred yards from the edge of a cut wheat field that served as a highway from the chow hall to the whitetails’ bunk house.
With the snow it might as well been 100 miles away. It took me almost an hour to find M.J.’s blind and by then we had pretty much kicked all over the place and assured he wouldn’t be seeing anything for awhile. I could’ve found the Northwest Passage in less time.
The snow was knee deep and still coming down when we waded into the fields and started north.
“Got your compass?” M.J. asked.
“Don’t need a compass in farm country!” I snapped.
Wrong: Learn something new every year. Lesson one for 1974. When snow’s covering the trees you can’t see for squat: Nothing looks the same. No how, no way. Even Henry the Navigator would have lost it out there.
I wandered around the snow maze like a buck in heat, glasses fogged over, bumping into one small pine after another, catching snow bombs. Thwack, dump, bump, dump, thwack. I was like a scene from a Marx Brothers film, only this was real, in a surreal way and we were soaked by the time we got into our blinds. Two different times we had gotten withith ten feet of our destination and not seen it, even with my bucket-bottom flashlight Snooker has once derided as war surplus from the London Blitz. We couldn’t tell where the ridge ended and the swamp commenced, or vice versa.
And it kept snowing. And snowing. And blowing.
But being an old navigator I refused to acknowledge the obvious: I was lost. I told M.J. several times that I was only temporarily disoriented, and only slightly at that. As a studen navigator I had been taught to make that distinction during my first week of training.
At any rate, it was bad news out there and by the time I got M.J. settled and slogged up to my blind it was daylight and I was soaked to my skivvies. After several aborted attempts to make a fire I decided to can deer hunting for the morning and head for the cabin, which though only about eight degrees warmer than the ambient air, at least promised to be dry.
It wasn’t long until everyone was back inside, the cards came out and the growsing went on all day.
Which brings us to Day Two and as the hunters prepared to head out I slid deeper into my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep amidst wafts of smelly wool socks and wet red wool zoot suits.
When I finally got up it was light, the sky covered with a thick gray overcast. Hillbilly music from the radio warbled a nasal tune about credit card blues and Mr. So-and-So pronouncing officially that computers never lie. While miseries poured out of the radio I sipped my coffee and rested my feet on the edge of the stove, hoping the heat would eventually reach the rest of my body. But my time was limited. By 9 A.M. many hunters in the woods would be restless, get up and start walking around, and I wanted to be in my blind when they started herding the deer.
A pal in the U.P. once told me that the best hunters were lazy beasts. I figured I had a pretty good line on that. Besides, I had never seen a deer at first light, not in 10 years. I did watch two porcupines trying to figure out how to mate once, but that’s another story and a pretty sticky one to tell.
At 8:30 A.M. I topped an oak ridge and spotted Snooker below me, decked out in his snowmobile suit and a blaze-orange hat, propped against a tree in his blind overlooking a shallow ravine that led into one of the thickest parts of the swamp. I whistled to let him know I was there and he whistled back.
“Ain’t seen nothin’ ceptin the back a mah hands,” he complained when I joined him to deliver a thermos of fresh coffee.
He stuck his cigar stup in the crook of a limb near the blind, and poured a cup, which he immediately spilled on my boots, the ones itg had taken me all night to dry out.
We made small talk for a while, but I could tell he wasn’t happy to have a visitor, so I said goodbye and continued on my way.
Just about the time I go my abundant behind settled comfortably into my own blind and got the bumps smoothed out of my red Whoopie Cushion, I heard a shot. A single. From Snooker’s cannon. Then I heard him yell to M.J. for help. It figured. If luck was handed out as grains of sand Snooker would need the Orange Blossom Special to carry his share. Lunkwe bass. Bucks. Birds. Where would this end?
I fidgeted in my blind for nearly twenty minutes, figuring that if he had just winged the buck it might try to circle and come by me en route to the pines and swales at my back. But nothing happened.
I was overwhelmed by curiosity. Finally, I dumped my gear and slid down the hill toward M.J.’s blind. No sign of him, but almost immediately I heard what sounded like a giant redwood log snap in the swamp in front of me, and saw M.J.’s orange vest and hat bobbing along under the tag alders as he snaked his way toward me.
“Lost the s.o.b.,” he said as he crawled into the blind.
“No, the buck.”
Too bad, I told myself. I asked him to tell me what had happened.
“Snooker hit him. I tracked him into the pines, but he looped on me back into the swamp and headed north. M.J. pointed toward a pine stand on a ridge to the west of our valley.
“Steady. He’s hit good. Leaving puddles when he stops.”
Just as I started to ask why he had given up the track, five shots erupted from Finn Island, a small knob of hardwoods in the middle of the swamp. It had been named for the Nevala boys who loitered on either end of the high ground every year.
I laughed. “I’d say Snooker’s buck just moseyed into the middle of our Finnish sharpshooters. They ought to hit him with the next volley.”
A lone shot sounded from the island.
“Coup de grace,” M.J. observed.
“Yep. Where’s Snooker?”
“Last time I seen him he was sittin’ on a stump nest to the creek. Said he couldn’t cross on account of his low-cut boots.”
“Bull. He’s afraid he’ll melt in the water. Texans are like that.”
We smoked for awhile before I drifted over to Snooker’s blind and stood around waiting for him to return. While I stood there I heard a sound behind me and looked up to see a fat doe and her spring fawn lope down the ridge toward me. They stopped twenty feet away.
I stuck out my tongue, but they ignored me. The old lady then led the youngster throught the blow-downs and slash. At one point the doe stopped suddenly and the fawn, which had been watching mom’s footprints, bumped into mom’s rump. She was not forgiving and nipped at the youngster and sent it scampering ahead with a stern look.
The doe followed, no doubt mulling over the degeneracy of today’s youth. The pair went right by Snooker, who ignored them, and plodded steadily toward me, shaking his head and muttering.
“Thote thet somebitch was down. Fell raht own his snoot, laigs buckled up lahk they’d been taken down ofe with a double-bit axe. Hail! Never seen no deer flop so hard afore.”
“How far away was he?”
“Reel close. Raht next to me. Standin’ still, just a lookin goofy-eyes at the boonies.”
“Never seen won fall lahk thet. Just Whop and down he went. So ah put mah safety own, stepped outta mah bland, looked up and there’s thet muther a hot-footin’ it lickety split toord the big swoomp.”
“You didn’s shoot again?”
“Hail no. Ah knowed he was dead. Only thank was, I reckon, he din’t know it. Ah jes stood there on ma two flat feet waitin’ for ‘im tah flop agin, only he kep own smokin’ — prolly got himseff all the dway ta Big D by now.”
Snooker kicked a tree to punctuate his frustration.
“Don’t sweat it,’ I told him.
“Mike git thet devil?” he asked.
“Nope. I think he pushed it over to Finn Power over on the island. That’s what all that shooting was about.
The squinty smile retuned to his puckered face. “Damn, Comon, Joe-boy, les us go hep them fellers.”
“Cool it. If they need us, they’ll call.”
Later that day, after we hacked out the tenderloin for dinner and took all the traditional photographs, we paced off Snooker’s shot — just for the record, such facts being critical to future story-telling. We couldn’t believe it. One hundred and twenty three paces, stretched down a hill, across a ravine and up the side of the facing ridge.
“Ah guess ah jus plumb forgot ah weren’t in Texas,” Snooker said. “Down home we use them keen ole thirty-thirties, so ah jes leaned own mah tree here n squeezed of a shot at thet bugger. Still cain’t figger how he done got back up. Ah never missed afore. Never.
He hadn’t. The 12-gauge slug hit the four-pointer just under the heart. That night Snooker was muttering about losing his shootin’ eye.
I slept until 8:30 A.M. Sunday morning. It was not a restful sleep. There was this nightmare bout a strange-looking Texan directing people in red wool suits to hook up another big railroad car to the Orange Blossom Special.