We weren’t fooling Mrs. Parker. She knew at a glance that Seymore and I had skipped school that morning to go turkey hunting. I’d washed my face with paper towels in the Dairy Queen sink but had missed some black paint around my ears.
“Your dang war paint got us caught,” Seymore complained. But those were better times. Mrs. Parker winked and marked our absence as “excused.”
A white face glitters like a signaling mirror in the woods. I learned that when I was 10. Dad would hand me a Camo-Compac and tell me to paint up, but I wasn’t quite up to the task at that age. He’d inevitably finish the job himself, bracing the back of my head with his left hand so he could apply enough pressure with his right to drive the paint good and deep into my pores. I’d look like a little savage by the time he was done, with only the whites of my eyes showing, but you could stick me in a shadow with some hand-me-down camo and instructions to sit still, and I’d disappear. That was the idea.
One time in the woods I asked Dad why we didn’t just use facemasks like everyone else.
“Because they’re aggravating and I can’t chew tobacco with them,” he said. “Now be quiet and hold still.”
I experimented with facemasks anyway. But Dad was right. They are aggravating. I tended to take them off while moving between sets during a turkey hunt, which is really the most important time to have your face concealed. I can’t hear as well through a mask. One time, while I was drawing my bow on a deer, my kisser button snagged my mask and twisted it around sideways on my head. I might as well have been shooting blindfolded.
I’ve been painting up since. For years, I was in the minority. A few old-school turkey hunters, like my dad, painted their faces. And it was the choice of the unruly fringes who shunned Realtree and Mossy Oak in favor of flea-market BDUs. But the turkey hunters on my VHS tapes and in magazines all wore masks.
Then came the Outdoor Channel, and things changed. Face paint is popular again. It’s not necessarily used now as camouflage from critters but as a fashion complement to large belt buckles and groomed sideburns. Some TV hunters sport face-paint schemes so elaborate they could pass as a form of artwork from the county fair. The lines are neat and the symmetry is perfect. For today’s trendy camosexual, face paint is a must-have accessory that can even be worn to dinner after a long day’s hunt.
But some of us still just want to hide from critters. For that, a proper face painting should be mostly black to help you disappear in the shadows. It should cover your whole mug, or close to it. Apply plenty of pressure, and don’t skimp. You ought to have enough paint left under your fingernails to touch things up a time or two during the morning. After the hunt, it should stain your whiskers and leave behind a fierce acne infection, even after a good scrubbing. It should ruin decorative bath towels.
I shouldn’t judge, though. If you want to wake up an hour early so that you can paint a rendition of the phoenix rising from the ashes across your face, go for it. So long as the phoenix’s wings span the breadth of your mandible, it should be sufficient to hide you from a tom turkey. And if your nails are too manicured to contain an adequate amount of excess, I guess you can always carry some extra paint with you in your turkey vest.
At the end of the day, it all still beats wearing a mask. The only real downside is that it’s more difficult to skip school to go turkey hunting and fool Mrs. Parker.
GEAR TIP: Raid the Halloween Aisle
Just before last turkey season, I paid $7 for a stick of Camo FX paint. It’s good, but it ought to be for $7. Like the stuff in the classic H.S. Camo-Compac, it’s not easy to wash off at the end of the day. Another option is to hit up Walmart the day after Halloween and stock up on tubes of black, green, and brown makeup. It’s about a dollar a tube on clearance, and since it’s cream-based, it washes off easily. My only complaint is that when it’s hot, sweat will smear it, and that makes maintaining the wings on a proper phoenix difficult. —W.B.
Photographs by The Voorhes