[Written @ 1995]
I”ve been thinking a lot about camouflage since taking my Flemish friend Roel to Bob’s Guns the day before last year’s deer opener.
Bob’s Guns has about everything an outdoorsman could want, including location: It’s only minutes east of the rolling hill country called Yankee Springs, an area dotted with countless small farms, hunting camps and a healthy deer population.
The hills were drenched in soft drizzle that day and alive with the reports of hunters sighting in their slug-guns.
One corner of Bob’s was cluttered with piles of camo suits and shirts and hats and longjohns. The patters were as ubiquitous as the names of Atlantic salmon flies, and equally creative: Universal Treebark, Trebark, Realtre, Brown Realtree, Mossy Oak and Mossy Oak Bottomland, a combo called Mossy Oak Tree stand, etc.
“So many habitats,” Roel said, “so close to Bob’s Guns?”
“It doesn’t have anything to do with that,I said. “You wear something orange during gun season for deer, and anything not orange for most of the rest of the hunting year. It’s about moods, and images and wallets, more than habitats. Camo is a way of life, like salemen in Countess Mara ties or bond traders driving Beamers.”
“I have a friend in Brussels,” Roel said. “He is director of Europalia, the museum. Sometimes he puts on penny loafers in the states, to blend with Americans. Camouflage, yes?”
No doubt. A wisp of a girl, twelve, maybe thirteen or fourteen, stood down the aisle from us, dry-sighting a Marlin 30-30 at the head of a stuffed bison, hanging over a glass bin stuffed with boxes of shotgun ammo. “He dad,” she called out. “How big a hole will it make?”
“Big enough,” came a voice from the other side of the gun racks. “But it won’t stop a griz.”
Roel wrinkled his nose. “This means grizly bear? Near Bob’s Guns?”
“No griz here, in fact no bears of any kind close to here any more. Someday perhaps they’ll come back. A guy down near St.Joe had a pet bear, but it killed him and the DNR had to kill the bear under the assumption it behaved badly. I think the dead owner favored chickenwire camo.”
“Why do they talk of griz, if there are no griz?”
“Figure of speech. LIke it’s powerful enough to stop a truck.”
“They shoot trucks ,too?” He seemed astonished.
“In Detroit, but not around here. By accident once in awhile is all.” I had an image of a ski mask covered with brick-in-the-side-of-the-head camo. The Teamsters could issue such stuff to union members passing through known dangerous areas. See a riot? Put on your camo and play dead. Nobody wants to clock somebody in the head who’se already been clocked.
“This child can hunt?” Roel asked.
“My son is in the army,” Roel said. “He lives at home. Marie wakes him up every morning to go off to the army. He has neither a gun, nor camo.”
Apparently there was more firepower in Bob’s Guns than in Roel’s son’s Belgian army unit.
Roel’s Grandfather and the Great War
My friends Roel and Marie lease a cottage on a narrow country lane that divides Flanders from Wallonia. Roel remembers his grandfather standing on the chicken coop in late 1944 or early 1945 counting allied bombers flying toward Germany. The old man had served in the Great War, came home and never spoke of it to anyone except Roel, when they roomed together in the attic. As bombers droned overhead the old man would smile and tell his tale of carnage in the trenches in the last war, how the King of Belgium had once visited front line trenches where a small platform had been erected. His Majesty was given a clean rifle and invited to step up on the platform, carefully ease the rifle over the trench lip, and try to shoot a German in the head. This was war camouflaged as sport.
At the time World War I broke out the French-speakers in Belgium ran the country and the Flemish had few rights. They were grunts, peasants, farmers. But their leaders urged their young men to join the French speakers to fight the Hun, which they did, the logic: If we spill our blood, they can no longer deny our rights. Which is about how it went. Flemish boys died by the thousands, leaving body parts and blood in the mud of Flanders. After the war they got their civil rights, and a health yrevulsion for war.
Roel looked at the price tags on the weapons in Bob’s Guns. “Cheap,” he said. “They are all legal?”
“In Belgium there are no automatics or semi-automatics, pumpers or pistols. If you have one of these, you go to jail.”
Which does not mean Belgium is gunless. Its factories make some of the finest hunting rifles and shotguns in the world, but they are bolt-actions and single-shots or side-by-sides.”
Boggled By Numbers
“How many hunters?” Roel asked.
“Two million, give or take.”
“In Michigan, in the next two weeks.”
“My God! Only ten million Belgians, counting distant relatives.”
He looked at the bison on the wall. “You can shoot these? Endangered, no?”
“On hunt-farms and ranches. They raise them specially as a cash crop to be shot as trophies.”
“We have this thing as well,” Roel said. They build cement towers. The hunters climb up, have a champagne, some goose livers, fruits. The animals are herded past the tower and the hunters shoot down on them.”
“Most of our ranches are fair-hunt only.”
“You drive around in a Jeep and shoot what you like.”
“This is fair?”
“Well maybe the game will hear the Jeep and get out of sight.” I didn’t tell him that ranch owners used Jeeps to carry feed to the captive animals.
“What camouflage is required for this?” he asked.
“Back-of-the-seat-olive-drab-green,” I said. “Bob probably hasn’t got it.”
“America,” Roel mumble-grumbled. “How many deer?”
“Herd’s abut one-point-two, one-point four million animals.”
“Our hunters will kill three to four hundred thousaand a year, not counting cars.”
“They kill cars?”
“No but vehicles kill another fifty thousand deer a year.”
My friend shook his head. “With so many hunters, do they shoot each other?”
“Sure, but mostly not on purpose.”
“Astounding,” he said.
Belgium is about the size of the eastern half of Michigan’ Upper Peninsula. The population density is in the range of 840 soulds per square mile,which the Yooper density is between just over 3 up to a high of 35 per square mile. Miles and miles of miles and miles.
“There were not two million Germans with rifles in Belgium during the war,” Roel said. “But those who stayed to the end, they left dressed as civilians. Camouflage,” he said.
Once, while walking the sugar beet fields ouside Brakel, the village nearest my friend’s place, I saw four hunters and their four white dogs working a hedgerow. The hunters wore browns and greens. The dogs walked silently beneath the sagging bellies of two white horses. I saw no birds. Sometime camouflage can be so perfect that everything cancels out.
Down the road from Bob’s Guns we saw no hunters and no deer.
“Is anything out there?” Roel asked.
“Camouflage,” I replied and he nodded gravely.
How to Manage a King
Belgium’s late king was a staunch Catholic. The Belgium national parliament passed an abortion law. The king has no actual power in Belgium, except that no law may go into effect until he signs it. In this case, he refused on moral grounds. The parliament then declared him mentally incompetent. They argued: The King has no power and he knows he has no power. He also knows that if parliament passes a law he must sign it. To not sign it is evidence of mental incompetence. Because he was no longer mentlaly competent, he could no longer, byu Belgian law, be king.
The Parliament then removed him from the throne until his mental accuity could be restored. In the interim they signed the law for him and it went into effect. A few weeks later he was declared mentally competetent again and returned to the throne, his morality intact. Camouflage?
The town is called Ypres. In French it is virtually unprounouncablbe to English speakers and because of this, the British during World War I called it Wipers. The number of rounds expended by both sides in the Great War is unknown. What is known is that many of these rounds area still in the ground and more than 70 years later they are still being pushed to the surface by the cycles of nature, occasionally exploding. The Belgian and French governments both maintain permanent military details whose job it is to travel to former battlefields to disarm the artillery shells that pop to the surface each spring like lillies on a pond.
Roel and I like to go to Ypres. Neither of us can explain why. We like to watch schoolchildren on group outings clamber over vine-coverer cement pillboxes. Often we take a bottle of nouveau and some bread and Flammand cheesea nd make our way underground into what’s left of the old trench systems. We light our way with cigarette lighters and eat our lunches and wonder what it was like to go out into the light and to your death. Camouflage comes in all forms and can be designed to hide you from reality as well as to hide reality from you.
There are numerous signs arount Ypres to tell you about various points of interest, bnut the points of interest are not what they once were. Now they area verdant farms and fields of red poppies.
Time hides the truth as effectively as camouflage.
The French originated the art of camouflage, but it was the Russians who took it to an art form under the word maskirovannoye, meaning masked or hidden.
In Moscow a few months before the aborted coup against Gorbachev I left my hotel to go walking. You could do that then, but not always. The night before we had been drinking foul vodka on a pleasure barge in the Moscow River; it was filled with girls in short skirts and high-heeled ruttin shoes, and Iranian men singing rock and roll in lip-synched English. The front of the boat had rooms for rent by the hour. The bartender had the keys. All things were possible then. Freedom had come to Mother Russia.
I walked through a neighborhood, which was a mixture of Khrushchev’s cheesy high-rises, and dilapidated estate houses of Russian families prominent before the Bolshies rose. Birds sang. The locals walked their dogs and scooped poop with plastic sacks. Food hung in net bags from apartment windows. A soccer team was training on an open brown field. There were a few old, stripped-down automobile carcasses parked abandoned or dumped along the streets, but no traffic moving until I reached a corner in time to see two large panel trucks come from the other direction, stop and disgorge passengers, who were boy-men, twentyish, dressed seedily and wearing soiled running socks. They carried Kalashnikov’s and looked sleepy. They went into a building thorugh an arch before a courtyarda nd moments later more boys with Kalashnikovs came out and got into the truces, which pulled past me and disappeared down the street.
I went into the courtyard. Nobody there. No grass, only lifeless brown dirt. I saw a patch to a door and went to it. A boy with a Kalashnikov was inside a dirty window set into the door. He stared out at me and smiled. I motioned for him to open the door.
“What hotel is this?” I asked.
He frowned, then smiled. “Nyet, nyet.” There were more words, none of which I understood in the literal sense, but the message was clear: Scram, pal.
“I’m American,” I said, standing my ground.
He pondered this before yelling for somebody else on the other side of the door. An older man arrived. He had short hair and wore a black leather vest over a green sweatshirt with the sleeves chopped off. His running shoes were new Asics, yellow piping on shiny black fabric.
“Speak English?” I asked.
“Da,” the said. “Little.”
I said the name of my hotel.
“Not this,” he said, pointing in the general direction of the river. “Go,” he said. “No stay here. Forbidden.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Forbidden,” he repeated, his eyes narrowing. How much explanation did a fool need?
“What is this place, militia station, army barracks, what?” Militia means police in the Soviet Union.
“Da,” he said, stepping outside. He slung his Kalashnikov, snugged it againsst his back and firmly took my arm. “Forbidden.” he led me back to the archway and onto the sidewalk and pointed again toward the Moscow River. “Hotel.” His smile was disarming. His grip was firm but gentle.
“Tell me,” I said. “Really. Militia, right?”
His smile grew as he looked up and down the street and leaned closer. “Maskirovannoye,’ he whispered. “Not for you , Yankee. Find a girl, make happy.”
My hotel consisted of two wings, both of which curved like propeller blades. I was on the top floor. I stopped at the key-keeper’s station. In the old days the women who managed the keys were KGB operatives and part of the apparat, which has largely dissappeared or gone undeground. She gave me a key, a heavy iron thing on a frayed satin cord, and a frown. The key-keepers always frown.
The hall curved gently to my left. I was walking slowly, sensing vodka seeping from my pores. Ahead of me I saw movement and instinctively ducked to the left wall and moved forward just int time to see two legs disappear into a wall further ahead of me. I went to the place where the legs had been and found a sheetmetal cover, designed to hide various service accesses. Three feet by three feet. I knocked on the metal. No answer. I put my ear to the metal and heard voices, talking softly.
It is said there are KGB listening posts in Russian hotels hosting foreigners.
I ran my hand around the metal, felt some givbe, gave it a push to the right and it slid away. Inside there was a black console and a small, bald man with earphones. A woman stood next to him. She had white-blonde hair, cut short and red high-heel shoes. The two of them looked at me, but ignored me. I saw no weapons. “Who’re you?” I asked.
The man frowned and flapped his hand to indicate I should move on. The woman smiled. “This place is not here,” she said in pretty good English English. “You see nothing.”
“Your camouflage,” I said. “it needs work.”
A friend of mine was killed in Vietnam There was a funeral at a national cemetery in southern Michigan. A major gave him mother a flag folded into a triangle. “From a grateful country,” he said.
In Vietnam F-4 Phantoms were meticulously painted green camo on top, then parked on a gray tarmac. Retro-camo, unintentional. Look at me, same as the war.
That afternoon Roel and I went from Bob’s Guns to a friend’s hunting camp a few miles south. There was a deer hung in the buk oak, a nine-pointer with a deep gray coat and an arrow with a metallic blue shaft sticking out of its neck, shot by a Baptist minister the night before.
“Didn’t even know it was buck,” my friend explained. ” He was climbing down and there it stood. Blind luck.”
Camps are about hospitality. Roel and I chewed on venison jerky served from a brown grocery sack. We had hot venison stew with carrots and potatoes served in styrofoam bowls. The stew was cooked with red wine and beer.
There was a football game on the television. The hunters were in civvies, but their blaze orange camos hung from hooks on the walls. There were gun cases stacked in a corner, and bows and arrows piled on a small table.
We did not stay long.
On the way back to Kalamazoo we stopped at a place where a local entrepreneur keeps a herd of wapiti. They are domestic breeding stock. Anglers are harvested every year, crushed into powder and exported to China. There area no known double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials demonstrating the efficacy of powdered elk antlers for impotence, but the stuff sells for hundreds of dollars per gram and in very fancy packages. More camouflage.
The elk were lounging in a dip in the grassless Michigan prairie. Among them was a single whitetail buck with an impressive rack. Roel studied the scene for a while, smiled and said. “Lie-down-among-the-elk- camouflage?”
“Whatever works,” I said, laughing. “Unless someone asks him to bugle, he’ll probably be okay.”
I saw Roel a few weeks later at a meeting in a chateau outside Brussels. We were both wearing darks suits and ties. Others wore dark suits andz ties and practiced smiles. Waitresses in long, dark skirts, white blouses and dark ties, carried flutes of champagne.
I accepted a glass of champagne and nodded toward our waitress.
“She blends well,” Roel said. “Pity.”