A Southern Memory

Robert Flournoy


Copyright 2018 by Robert Flournoy   


Photo of a bob white quail.

I never know what to say when someone asks me where I am from. I was born in Memphis and the family moved before I was one. By the time I was six we had managed to live in four different states, finally to wind up in El Paso, Texas, where my father was sent in 1952 after he came back from Korea. He was a career military officer. We were to move many times after the Texas assignment, traveling the world. Home was the house where we lived. That was fine, but my parents knew that we needed family roots and a sense of place that was more permanent than our transient lifestyle afforded. So, in the days before interstate highways and air-conditioned automobiles, we loaded up the family car every summer and drove to Alabama and my grandparents' farm. Two thousand miles roundtrip across Texas in the summer, always gloriously welcomed by grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. These are the happiest memories of my life. I once reminisced with my mother about one of those trips when both of my dad's brothers, their wives, and about six cousins were also present for a week in that little farmhouse. She gave me a raised eyebrow when I waxed sentimental about the beauty of that time. My aunts, I later learned, also would have raised their eyebrows. But for me it had been pure bliss. I was ten years old on that visit, and something wonderful happened.

Hunting, fishing, and my anticipation of being an all-pro running back pretty much occupied my thoughts at that age. Our time on the farm afforded me boundless fields, woods, and swamps in which to hike and hunt with my dad and uncles. It was a glorious freedom and camaraderie, the taste of which is still strong within me. Hunting and fishing were a way of life in this country in 1957, especially in the rural South, and I loved it. I was wild and free in the fields of south Alabama. But we had rules. The rules were simple and inviolate. Everybody knew them and obeyed them. Hunting and fishing on Sunday was unheard of, and no game bird was ever, ever taken unless it was on the wing. No ducks on the pond, no dove on the limb, and no quail on the ground. You just didn't do it. I never questioned it, although it made for some long Sunday afternoons.

One day on that fateful visit I found myself alone with my grandparents. The rest of the gang had "gone to town." After I bugged my grandfather to walk me through the woods with the old single-shot shotgun that had been his as a boy, he told me to get the gun and a shell and follow him. "One shell?" I asked. "Yep" was his reply. I hurriedly grabbed them both and followed my grandfather's arthritic limp behind the old house across the cotton field that he had worked as a boy and into the woods about a hundred yards away. It dawned on me later that this must have been an eternity for him. We finally stopped at an old wild pear tree that could have been there since the Civil War. My granddad sat me down with my back against it and explained that if I was real still and quiet, a rabbit might come out of the underbrush for a fallen pear and I could get it. After I was situated, he slowly walked down the little dirt path back toward the house. I was stunned. Alone? In the quiet woods with a shotgun in my lap? It just did not get any better. The quiet was a crescendo of whispering leaves and glinting sunlight, blending that golden space and time into an ecstatic rush of expectation. It was beautiful. I drifted, dreamed, and imagined Creek warriors just behind the wild blackberry bushes. A perfectly racked stag was surely strutting toward me somewhere in the distant forest. I had heard rumors of bears in these parts. Now, were those elves and sprites dancing about on the ground in the leaves just down the path that I was facing?

In a flash of regained consciousness, after I had been there for I don't know how long, my heart went cold and my hands clammy as it dawned on me what I was seeing. A male bobwhite quail had strutted out of the underbrush about thirty yards down the path and was bobbing his head up and down as he walked slowly away from me. Getting a rabbit had been a hopeful possibility in my mind, but a prized quail? Never. The dilemma was upon me. There it was, right there ... on the ground. Aware of "the rules" and despairing over this disappearing opportunity as it meandered away from me, I felt my mouth go totally dry when seven or eight more birds came out of the weeds and strung out down the path in a perfect line behind their leader. I couldn't stand it. No way. I raised the shotgun, elevated it to spread the shot evenly down the trail, and pulled the trigger on that old scatter blaster. With a roaring bang the scene in front of me turned into a haze of smoke, dirt, twigs, dust, and ... feathers. Lots of feathers. I was paralyzed. I sat there for a good five minutes before I raised myself up on shaking legs and cautiously moved toward the scene of the crime. I began to panic over what I had done. When I saw those three fat, quivering quail lying in the path my first instinct was to throw them in the underbrush and just go home, claiming to have missed a skinny little rabbit. No. Just could not do it. So I picked them up, and with their feet between my fingers I began the trek out of the woods and across the old cotton field to the back porch of the farm house where my grandparents, having heard the shot, were anxiously peering into the field, waiting for my appearance.

My grandmother, wringing her arthritic hands, started laughing with delight when she saw what I was carrying. My granddad had a look of total consternation on his face, as if he could not believe his eyes. Not a word was spoken between us. Totally prepared to just 'fess up and take what was coming, I was not going to volunteer anything without his prompting. He took the birds and examined them silently. I trembled with resolve to just tell it like it was. My grandmother exclaimed with utter delight that she had never heard of three quail being taken with one shot! My granddad brought his gaze up from the birds and looked at her. Then he slowly turned his gaze on me and said, "Yessir, pretty fine shootin', 'specially as it appears these birds were flying upside down." And that was that.

There is a snapshot of that scene in my mind now as clear as the moment it was taken. We dressed those birds in the yard as the day dimmed, and my grandmother cooked them for our dinner. The golden light that shimmered through the leaves of that old pear tree on that magical afternoon seemed to fill up the kitchen of that old farmhouse as I sat and savored those birds with my grandparents forty-five years ago. I had never tasted anything so wonderful and still haven't to this day.

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