‘Bear’ly a Deer Hunter

My weekly column from The Stone County Leader:

“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”

-Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods

There it was.

Unmistakable, though I’d never seen one in that context before.

Eyes don’t lie. And with a few buttons pushed here, and a few arrows pressed there, the number four slide on my partner’s game camera jumped out, commanding immediate attention.

She was on all four, big, black, with a massive and burly form that just looked onery. Must have been 400 pounds, and right there not more than a few yards from my hunting spot for this year. The one I’ve been so excited about as I take an all-new adventure into the world of deer hunting.

Immediately, my thoughts turned to the potential headline, likely one my boss would bury on page 5B of next week’s Leader.

Bear Eats News Reporter: Good While it Lasted, the inglorious news likely lining someone’s bird cage a week later.

Ah, the adventures of the great outdoors.

With most of my years spent in the heart of the Mississippi River Flyway, I’ve logged many more hours in a St. Francis River duck blind than in the deer woods. It’s an exciting prospect as opening day approaches this Saturday – my first major investment in pursuing the elusive giant buck. Those days growing up on the St. Francis produced some of the richest experiences a young boy can know, and some of the fondest memories I had with a father who wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing about those good times:

•••

When he wasn’t in the duck blind, my dad would sit at a bedroom window for hours, binoculars pointed to the river just a mile and a half west. Duck hunters dream of that magical day when there are so many ducks you can’t keep them off your pond, and the steel of your gun barrel stays hot, no time between rounds.

In those days, you’d find dozens of pickup trucks scattered about Highbanks Landing and the more northerly Jackson’s Landing, hunters having gathered for boat launches oftentimes long before there was enough light to maneuver the tricky river runs. Most could navigate by memory, jumping one log after another and dodging brush along the way. Shooting hours began precisely at sun up, and mallards move early for the day’s first feeding. Run a boat to your blind late between prime shooting hours of six and nine in the morning and you might just find it unplugged and half sunk at the landing tomorrow morning. One of the first rules on the St. Francis River is respect for the other guy.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that overpowers you when 25 mallard ducks decide they’re coming into your pond, it goes something like this:

Three hundred yards out, a spotter first sees them headed due north. The blind’s designated chief caller, oftentimes an old river veteran in his fifties or sixties, makes his way to the shooting window as he reaches into a camouflaged vest pocket for his long caller. The call, maybe a black P.S. Olt, or a smooth, synthetic Rich-N-Tone, is doubly secured around the caller’s neck with a lengthy cord adorned with duck bands from past hunts. These bands, likely placed around the bird’s leg in the northern nesting grounds, are a research and reporting tool effective only when the hunter harvests the duck and returns the band to the research organization. Many prefer wearing the bands like an Indian bead necklace, each representing the memories of a past hunt and signifying their place within the tribe.

The chief caller takes a deep breath bringing the mouthpiece to his lips and the hopeful long call begins. The long call has a rhythm. A series of loud duck-like calls that grow shorter and closer together as the caller manages his breath with as much perfection as a first- chair trombonist. Almost like a plea of sorts, the long call is loud and imprecise, designed only to get the attention of ducks moving at a distance. Get their attention, and maybe they’ll like what they see. They’ll assess the wind, the pond configuration, decoy pattern, water clarity, and other factors before moving on or breaking for a descent. If he gets their attention, the caller then has a “working” bunch of ducks. Things are serious now, and the beauty of a seasoned caller unfolds.

Instinctively, the mood changes. Hunters give a quick check to their Brownings, Winchesters, and Remingtons. Safety on. Chamber full. Locked and loaded.

There is anticipation in this critical moment when it’s important to read what’s happening outside the blind. It takes years to get really good at this. The chief caller and the spotters now work together watching the ducks work the pond, their necks twisting and turning out the shooting window. The calling changes, now more intentional, more precise, as the ducks assess everything around them and make a final decision about a water landing. This is the moment a seasoned duck caller shows his skill alternating between working calls. There are calls to get the ducks’ attention, others that lure them in, feeding chatters, and a “come back” call for those that want to move on. The pros give the ducks exactly what they want to hear. This can go on thirty minutes or more, and callers frequently become so short on breath they find themselves light-headed.

There is not a memory from childhood more vivid than the clarity of my father’s eyes as he worked a bunch of mallard ducks on a freezing cold St. Francis River day. In those moments, all self-consciousness, issues of self-worth, all his imperfections vanished. Fluid, at ease, and seasoned with experience, he demonstrated complete control, perfect peace.

The call is reduced to the occasional soft chatter now. This is what separates the great duck callers from the good ones. A great duck caller knows when to call, and when to be quiet. Then, it’s in that quiet moment you first hear it. They’re coming in right over the blind. If Dad said it once in that thrilled whisper, he said it a million times. Grab your guns, boys. Get ’em on three …
You hear them before you see them, and the sound is unmistakable. Once a four-pound mallard duck commits to landing on water there is no turning back. With feet extended, body bowed, and wings cupped, the ducks flap wings violently for a soft landing. As they do, the wind whistles across long feathers in increasingly quick repetition. Shew-shew-shew-shew-shew. All movement in the blind ceases and you can hear a pin drop. Guns up. One, two, three!

The purest sportsmen will set their gun sights and pull triggers just before the ducks hit the water. Some prefer allowing the ducks to land, giving them even more time and accuracy for a maximum harvest. Either way, there’s not a moment more thrilling than the sound of wind over wings. It’s rare, but on the good days this scenario may play out six or seven times. They are the days you recount to your grandchildren.

•••

I’m hoping to share a few fireside chats with my own grandchildren from this deer hunting thing.

Here’s hoping not to be a mid-morning snack before a long, winter’s nap.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter for The Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books, Pilgrim Strong, and The King of Highbanks Road.)

My New Book is Now Available!

Okay friends, this is the BIG DAY. The King of Highbanks Road is now available for Amazon pre-order!!!
This is the day I ask for your help, and hopefully, in return, give something back to you that is meaningful. Let me explain briefly why this day is so important.
Every single sale, especially today, is super important. Amazon rankings can make or break a new book, and I believe we have a legitimate shot at a #1 ranking today. It appears readers are already buying and we’re already moving up the charts, as high as #11 in one category. With your help, we can make this happen, and I’ll tell you why this is important.
It’s not for my sake, or for the pure sake of a ranking, but a #1 book “gets legs” and is all the easier to place in stores, especially across the South and Midwest, where this book really belongs. A #1 ranking will help assure our foot in the door at this stores. So…..
Buy a book for yourself today, and some for your friends, and more for your family. You won’t find a better $17 Christmas gift for a father or a son or someone connected to rural America or the farm. I promise, there’s something in it for everyone.
I’ll report our rankings through the day. We may need a push here and there, so please not only buy, but share this opportunity with YOUR friends and family and ask them to share it with theirs!
Whatever happens, I’m dedicating this day to anyone who comes “from the country,” and especially to the Great American Farmer, the unsung hero of the world.
God Bless, and thank you all SO much. Stay tuned. More to come as the day progresses!!!
Here’s the link:

The Art of Loafing in a Parts Store

When you think on it, it’s amazing just how much of nothing can go on in a little town. In the seventies and eighties, Monette, Arkansas had at least a half dozen places dedicated to doing nothing. If you wished to laggard about and pick up on the latest second-hand hearsay, there was a group and a place just for you.

Claud Earl Barnett’s parts store was headquarters for some of the older, more refined,  town loafers. It was an exclusive club and the store was configured so patrons could park around back. Those who took a view from main street were none the wiser who was there.

Farmers had two primary loafing hot spots. The offices at Keich-Shauver Gin were appointed with fifteen wooden chairs around the periphery where some of the more legitimate loafing took place and the topics focused mostly on farming. Gin manager Raymond Miller was one of the smartest men in town, the kind of man a kid could listen to forever.

Not a hundred yards south at Ball-Hout Implement was where the real cut ups and the tallest tales got told. Of course, it was David Watkins go-to place of belonging. Oftentimes, I thought, the center of his world.

Loafing hours started at 6 AM and ended at 5 in the afternoon. Ball-Hout, known to locals as the International (Harvester) Place, was the only location in town with a room dedicated entirely to hosting town loafers. In retrospect, it was some of the most brilliant marketing of the day.  A rectangular room with two extra-long couches and a couple of vinyl cushion chairs, there was an industrial-sized coffee pot that parts manager Doyle “One-Eye” Yates freshened on the hour. All this across from the long parts counter and a small room where you could buy Nacona boots and toy tractors. The store and its loafing customers were so amalgamated, there was a huge framed art piece above the parts counter featuring a Western bar scene with dozens of characters, each named for store employee, or a special customer. I spent hours admiring the piece in the near eighteen years I accompanied my dad there. It hung until the store closed forty years later.

In many ways, loafing with dad at the International Place taught me a lot about what it meant to be a man. One day you’d hear stories of uncommon valor from some of World War IIs bravest veterans like J.L. Kimbrell or Tinkie Wimberley. The next, a rambling tale from some of town’s most lovable drunks.

It was in the International Place where I learned that in casual settings a man can cross his legs one of two ways — with one leg perpendicular straight across the other, or hanging down in a more feminine sort of way. Some of the toughest men in town went with the feminine style, and by four years old I was replicating their behavior — a young boy’s admiration for some of America’s finest. A little of each lives on in every child who ever loafed there with his dad.

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More Than Just a Story

During the last eighteen months and through the process of drafting The King of Highbanks Road, there is something I’ve not shared with you. It’s the kind of thing that troubles a writer deep down. Even makes him wonder whether it’s worth it.

I’ve never been able to explain to you how it’s more than just a story. I’ve known it was more, even if but from a feeling deep down inside my soul that couldn’t be explained. The words describing it wouldn’t come out. But I knew it was more.

And so there was always a nagging void between the writer and the reader. To be completely honest, I felt a bit inadequate in the vortex of that void, and struggled daily because the story I’ve been telling you wasn’t, well, whole.

We are about to clear all that up.

***

There was not a day that passed from the time I was 5 years old until the day my father died from natural causes in 2011 when I did not believe that would be the day we found him in a roadside ditch, his head blown off with a shotgun. 

Every summer morning in 1981 as the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for 23

Dr. Mike Rosman, clinical psychologist, and perhaps the nation’s leading expert in the behavioral study of farmers.

consecutive days, I watched dad force down a cup of coffee, then he’d go to the bathroom and vomit for ten minutes. We literally watched a crop burn up that year. It happened to small farmers everywhere. Interest rates skyrocketed the next year, and the banks came after our land. They didn’t care if we had to sleep in a ditch. They just wanted their money. I never believed my father would survive the pressure.

He died twenty years later, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Earlier this week I randomly came across a 2018 article in The Guardian about suicide rates in rural America. Its title: Why Are American Farmers Killing Themselves? The story quoted two academic researchers who had dedicated their life to counseling small farmers in rural America. And their research specialized on the 1980s.

The weather, the markets, the interest rates, the stress. It was the “wrecking ball” that became the beginning of the end of the small farmer on the American landscape, they said.

A “wrecking ball.”

These guys were telling the part of the story that I didn’t know how to tell. The view from twenty-thousand feet. The big picture.

Finishing the long story, I put my head into my hands and cried. I tracked down those researchers and called them, and we talked, and I cried some more. I told them my story. They said they’d heard it a million times. And so they let me cry some more.

“But farm families are proud, and we just don’t talk about it a lot,” the said. “…and yes, we’d be happy to help you with your book. Whatever you need. Anything.”

The thing is, everyone’s normal is relative. We are products of that place from which we come. Without and understanding of something else, the only thing we know is our normal. But there was something that just kept telling me my normal was different. I witnessed too much stress, too much pain, too much struggle. Surely that wasn’t normal.

And so even though I didn’t really know what to call it, I had a deep, down desire to tell you about it and share it with you. It seemed a story that needed told.

And now I get it. It WAS something.

It was a wrecking ball that tore through the landscape I called home.

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10 Things I Learned to Love About Home Again

 

As we wrap up the finishing text for The King of Highbanks Road, I reflect on so many things from the experience of putting it all on paper – and how the place I will always know as home has impacted me all over again.

• The art of loafing and sitting around a coffee table with a group of men just shooting the bull, telling tall tales, even a few lies.

•Massive Crock Pot gatherings after church where the food is so good it makes you want to melt, but the older ladies say, “It must notta been fit to eat. They barely touched a thing.” This, although every last crumb was scraped from the bowl.

•The smell of fall. For cotton farmers, this is distinct, unique, and like nothing else in the world.

•Four-wheel drive pickup trucks so tall you need a step side to get in one … and the bird dogs and retrievers that ride in back of them. I recently got one of those trucks for myself.

•Watching the fall migration of Canadas, Snow geese, and mallard ducks navigate the Mississippi River Flyway.

•The sudden power jerk when a 2-pound crappie hits a 12-foot pole, and the battle that follows in the seconds afterward.

•Going out of my way to see the senior members of community families who raised me.

•Listening to the satisfying, nostalgic, mechanical hum of a distant cotton picker in a field miles away as it tries to beat the rain.

•The smell inside the old church where I was raised.

•All those small-town stories, and people, especially the local farmers who for better or worse, shaped me into the man I am today.

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Stop the Presses! But Go to 500!

After eighteen months of writing, and a half-year of (ongoing) editing, we’ve set Saturday, October 3 as the release date for The King of Highbanks Road.

There is much to to share. The book’s foreword is set to be authored by a New York

Our hardback and paperback cover.

Times best-selling author at the top of his game. We’ll have some commemorative ceremonies, but more about those things later.

Today, I’m happy to tell you that KOHBR will release as a traditional limited-edition hardback with a 500-volume numbered press run. That means you can get a “one and only.”

So I hope you’ll make plans to buy one one of these signed, limited-edition books now. They will be released for sale in two phases: first at a ceremony in the King’s hometown of Monette, AR; the second phase a few hours later via online order. Hardback copies will sell for $24 each, plus shipping. #1 goes to my mom. #2 goes to my wife. #3 through #500 are up for grabs.

Both unnumbered hardbacks, and paperbacks will also be available via Amazon. The paperback will sell in the $15 range.

I’m also pleased to report there will be an audio version of KOHBR, narrated by yours truly. More to come on that as well.

Stay tuned for future announcements. We’re not finished yet!

Which number will be on your bookshelf???

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