F&S Classics: The Old Man and the Boy

In the final installment of Ruark’s beloved column, the Old Man makes an “opening day” promise

To celebrate the 125th anniversary of Field & Stream, we have been sharing some of our favorite stories from the history of the magazine. Every day, since mid-November, we’ve republished a new F&S Classic on the website. Today’s entry is the final in our series—and, fittingly, it is the final essay from Robert Ruark’s beloved magazine column, The Old Man and the Boy, titled “But Not on Opening Day.” You can find all of our F&S Classics here.

Now you know your first big pheasant is a sight to see. There maybe ain’t nothing as dramatic, whether it’s an elephant or a polar bear. A rooster pheasant is like a mallard duck. Maybe the pintail or the canvasback is better to eat, but there is nothing in the flying department as wonderfully gaudy as a pheasant or a he-mallard. Well, maybe a peacock, but we have so few peacocks around our neck of the woods.

You take a big pheasant, and you shoot him, you got a real bird in your hand. He’ll weigh about four pounds, and he has this lovely long tail, and he has a ring on his neck, and he is colored green and red and brown and white, and he even has ears you can see. He is not so much dinner as trophy, but when he is cooked correctly, he is not so much trophy as dinner, if you see what I mean.

Mister Howard, he said to me after we quit looking around his farm in Maryland, “You don’t want to make any mistakes about pheasants, boy. He looks like he is two yards long, and he looks mighty slow. But when you subtract his neck and his tail you are shooting at a pretty small target. He flies faster than a bobwhite, or so I’m told, and he sheds shot like a duck. I’d lead him pretty far and then double it. No man ever killed a rooster pheasant by shooting it in the tail. All you ever get that way is feathers.”

I can skip telling you about the first pheasant, since he is still alive, so far as I know. Mac, the Gordon setter, rounded him up for me in a patch of bush. He had a bell on his neck—Mac, I mean—and we heard it stop tinkling when he went into some scraggy sumach. Then he came out and kind of beckoned with his head.

“Got a bird,” Mister Howard said. “You stand over there, and I’ll put Sue on the flank and send Mac into the bush to flush him. If he tries to run, Sue’ll nail him.” Sue was a big springer who had a kind of casual air of saying, What do we need a gun for, when we got me and Mac?

The Old Man nodded at Mister Howard and winked when the Gordon setter dived back into the bush. I reckon the old boy knew what was going to happen.

There was an outraged squawk inside the brambles, a rapid beating of wings, and something—it might have been a bird or possibly the Graf Zeppelin—erupted in my general direction. It seemed to be less than a hundred yards long, and I could swear it was not actually breathing fire. Otherwise I never saw such a production in my life.

I shot at this thing twice, and it went away with very little damage, although one tail feather got dislodged, very possibly due to the imminence of the moulting season, or something.

Mister Howard looked at me while I was breaking the gun to recharge it.

“I told you,” he said. “They ain’t really that big. You just figure that you’re shooting a teal, and we might eat tonight. Lead it. Lead it.”

We walked across a meadow, were snubbed by several cows, and Sue, the springer, wagged her tail assembly and then fell on her belly. Mac, the Gordon, took a wide cast and came up in front of her, about fifty yards away.

“Now watch this,” Mister Howard said. “You just stand behind Sue. I’ll call Mac in, and he’ll drive that bird right into Susie’s nose. A pheasant ain’t dumb. With Mac behind him and Sue in front of him and us here with weapons, he’ll fly. But he’ll fly slanchwise. To your left. And lead him. Three times his length, anyhow.”

Mac came mincing in, putting his feet in front of him pad by pad. I looked at the ground ahead of me, wanting to see the pheasant before he flew.

“You know better than that,” the Old Man said. “I taught you better than that. You look at the air where the bird’s going when he jumps. What kind of raisin’ will Howard think you’ve had?”

It was indeed a sight I never wish to forget. Mac came in so close that he was nearly rubbing noses with Sue. Somewhere in between a big green-headed cock pheasant jumped, squawked, and took off, like Mister Howared said, to the left. I hauled the gun ahead of him and squeezed off, and down he came like an aircraft, almost in flames. Sue went over and picked him up gently, fetched him to Mister Howard, reared with her front paws on his coat, and dropped the bird into his hand.

“Nice shooting,” Mister Howard said. “You led that one, didn’t you?”

“Yessir,” I said. “May I touch him, please?”

“I forgot,” Mister Howard said to the Old Man, handing me the pheasant. “I forgot how big a first pheasant is to a boy. It’s kind of like an early squirrel. He is a little bit larger than a later lion.”

If Christmas came on the Fourth of July and it also happened to be your birthday, you might have some idea of what a first pheasant is like on a clear, crisp Maryland day, with the hills behind, and the tender-green meadows reaching out to black-green blotches of trees, and nothing very much to do but watch a couple of expert dogs work over the noblest stranger we have in our midst, while two mellowed old gentlemen do not interfere with a boy’s passionate effort. It took me another thirty years to find out how much fun you have not shooting if there is somebody else around who wants to shoot it more than you do.

On this day I wanted to shoot it more than they did, and they knew it, and I think possibly the dogs knew it. They were working for me like I was a corporation or something. It was a conspiracy, the two Old Men and the dogs working to teach me the pheasant business.

One thing happened I want to tell you about. I winged a bird, and it flew into the side of a hill. There was a hold, like a little cave, in the side of the hill. The big Gordon, Mac, tiptoed gently on a narrow ledge until he got to where he could see inside the hole in the hill. He dabbed tentatively with his paw and found it dangerously awkward. He then walked backward, gingerly, until he achieved wider ground. Then he raced over the top of the hill until he came to the ledge on the other side of the hole.

This was a broader ledge. He walked now with assurance. He came up to the hole, and he clawed in it with his right forefoot, and he brushed the bird out of the hole. The bird was still very much alive.

Mac took the bird in his mouth and backed carefully down the ledge until it widened into a safe position. Then Mac released the pheasant, which tumbled down the hill. Mac slid down the hill on his backside, the bird scrambling along beside him. They reached the base of the hill together. Mac pounced on the bird, cracked its neck with one bite, picked it up gently and fetched it to Mister Howard. Mac—believe me, it’s true—shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, “For heaven’s sake, from now on, kill ‘em clean and save me some trouble. I’m afraid of heights, and this kind of work constitutes overtime.”

We had quite a day. I hit some and I missed some, until we had accumulated six roosters. Six pheasants are a pleasant load for a boy to sweat back to the handsomest house in Maryland. The Old Man carried my gun. I insisted on carrying the birds. When my back began to creak I wondered how it was possible to miss something so big. I have been wondering about this for several years now. It’s still possible.

There have been times since when days were especially special, when the sun was bright, the breeze fresh, and the dogs and the birds motivated by a general desire to please. But I cannot confuse those days with the sort of tender, happy sadness that I garnered from the Old Man and his final pheasant hunt, with a child he had raised from a pup, in the company of his best, most trusted friend.

I suppose I had the unusual insensitivity of the child to possible tragedy, but it seems to me now that the Old Man knew that he had eaten his last terrapin stew and his final canvasback, and had seen his ultimate pheasant. This may sound silly, but you could kind of see it in his mustache, which appeared a bit wilty.

We went back, three grown men together, with the pheasants. I cleaned them and felt it a pity to remove so much beauty from a bird. I felt almost like a cannibal when Mister Howard said, “Damn this business of hanging them until they’re rotten, we’ll eat a couple tonight. They’ll be a little tough, but jelly and wine and bacon strips can do a power of good to ease up the toughness.”

The fire was lit and blazing chirpily in the stone fireplace when we returned. There was a tray of drinks on the table, and the Old Man showed no hesitancy in offering me a sherry. It was Bristol Cream. I had two. I was reaching for the decanter for No. 3 when the Old Man said, gently, “Let’s not overdo it, son. You can’t get to be a man in a day.”

It was an enchanted week we spent, before we went back to Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, to find out what the Old Man knew all along was wrong with him. We got the doctors’ reports and drove home. The Old Man was silent for most of the way.

When we got to a place called Jackie’s Creek, where we had seen turkeys and shot quail, the Old Man said, “Stop the car. I want to look at it.”

When we got to a place called Allen’s Creek, and Moore’s Creek, he said the same thing. We stopped and we looked. The Old Man nodded his head, and said, for no reason at all that I could think of, “I’m satisfied. Nobody owes me nothin’.”

We pulled up in front of the live oaks that clustered round the house. The Old Man looked at the magnolia where the mockingbird had lived, and smiled.

“It’ll last,” he said. “It’s a very durable tree.”

We accepted congratulations freely for a safe return trip, and then the Old Man said, “Let’s take a little walk and let the womenfolk get over their excitement. I got a thing or two to tell you.”

We strolled down the street toward the Cedar Bench, next to the pilot office, where I used to steal the cream crackers and drink the hot tea with the sickly sweet condensed milk. We sat on the Cedar Bench, uncomfortably, because it was intricately carved with everybody’s jackknifed initials.

“I ain’t got to tell you that I am going to die,” the Old Man said. “You would know it. You’ve had the best of me, and you’re on your own from now on. You’ll go to college next year, and you’ll be a man, with all a man’s problems, and there won’t be no Old Man around to steer you. I raised you as best I could and now you’re the Old Man, because I’m tired, and I think I’ll leave.”

My eyes blurted into tears, and I said all the things young people say in the presence of death.

“Leave it, leave it,” the Old Man said. “Like I always told you, if there was a way to beat it, I would have heard about it. It’ll even happen to you, unlikely as it seems.”

“But how, when, why?” I said, for lack of anything better.

The Old Man lit his pipe very carefully and grinned under his ragged mustache.

“I promise you,” he said, “on my word of honor, I won’t die on the opening day of the bird season.”

He kept his promise.