I hear the sound of a shotgun. I quickly grab the jacks, drop them in the small bag along with the little rubber ball and race from the front porch. I head for the field behind the garden and the chicken house. Those tall fence posts make wonderful grandstand seats – just right for seeing what’s going on. This Saturday afternoon is much like the others except the weather is getting cooler. It is October 1920. Halloween will soon be here. Knee socks and a pretty blue hand-knitted sweater mother finished just yesterday keeps me warm enough to play outdoors. More shots ring out. I hurriedly pick out the tallest post and climb the wire fence.
The local hunters are shooting at clay pigeons. The fall hunting season is fast approaching. They want to be out there on the first day with a sharp eye. My brother Clarence has gotten a new rifle and this is the first year he is old enough to get a license. Howard Webb, the undertaker, is giving directions. He is probably the most avid sportsman in our small rural village of Fawn Grove in southeastern Pennsylvania. He must have organized this contest. His recent purchase of a contraption for throwing out clay saucers (called pigeons) to be used as targets for practice in shooting birds really made a hit with the local hunters. I have watched this demonstration before and found it exciting.
Now the hunters are standing next to each other in a line. I can’t hear what is being said. Gene Devilbiss and Harold Manifold, both in my class in school, sit on the ground behind a wooden shield next to the target thrower. They are busy loading a stack of clay saucers on what looks like an arm extending from a metal holder. A strong spring will release the clay pigeon when the signal is given. It will sail into the air at an angle. The hunters take turns shooting. The angle is different with each target so they must be alert.
I look down the line. From my vantage point on the fence post, I see the postmaster, the barber, the teller from the bank, and, of course, the undertaker and other hunters from our town. I see my Dad. I thought he was going to work in the garden this afternoon covering the celery for winter! Clarence is standing next to him. He has joined the other “hunters” to practice his marksmanship with the new rifle.
Some one yells “Pull”. The hunters, one at a time, aim and fire. The targets keep coming. If a clay pigeon is shattered there is a loud cheer by the fellow shooters. The clay pigeons they miss fall to the ground to be picked up and used again. Waiting for the next command, I hear a distant “honk.” I peer into the sky. The sound is familiar but I have not heard it since last spring when Canadian geese were returning to their home up north.
There they are, high above me, the first flock of Canadian geese I’ve seen corning south this fall. Another faint “honk.” They seem to be saying, “Hello, here we come to spend the winter with you.” They fly in a perfect “V” – a joy to behold. I am enthralled and strain my ears to hear more. No stragglers up there. They have come all the way from Canada – a long way from Pennsylvania .They are headed for farms, marshes and broad fields that line the banks of the Susquehanna River where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. That is not more than 30 miles from where we are right now. Their journey will soon be over. I know about the Chesapeake Bay because Dad and my uncles go fishing there in the summertime.
Our teacher talked about this just a few days ago. I know the geese have been on their way for weeks stopping off at broad fields, lakes and marshes along the way to rest and eat. I am lost in the wonder of how they can find their way, flying thousands of miles and KNOWING when they have reached their destination. They have been doing this for hundreds of years! Our teacher says it is one of the marvels of nature. This part of Pennsylvania is along what is known as the “flyway” and they follow the same route every year.
Straining my ears to hear their last greeting, I am startled by my mother’s voice at my elbow. I didn’t hear her coming.
“Where’s Clarence?” she asks as she peers through the fence.
“Over there, next to Dad.”
“I came to gather the eggs. Then I heard the geese. Aren’t they beautiful?”
I hear “pull” and look up just in time to see Dad raise his shotgun, aim and fire as the clay pigeon hurtles through the air. It shatters into hundreds of pieces. I am so proud! Mother and I both clap. Clarence is next in line. He misses his shot but mother applauds anyway. “He is learning. This is the first year he is old enough to get a license. He has to become familiar with his new gun. He will do better next time.”
I never questioned the practice of hunting for squirrels, rabbits, birds, pheasants, wild geese and groundhogs when I was growing up. It was a way of life in the country. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear once again that plaintive and distant “honk” of those beautiful wild geese. Instinctively I hope that every single one in that perfect “V” will keep flying high and make a safe landing on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, their winter home.
Dorothy Coleman is an author and Meals on Wheels client.