SA JAGTER/HUNTER | September-Oktober 2021 | By KOBUS DE KOCK
The Ageing Gun
It’s better to wait comfortably in a deck chair for the geese to come than to sit awkwardly on the ground or on a rock. Standing for long periods is even worse.
Even though you may think you are adequately endowed in the posterior, rocks have the tendency to become hopelessly too hard as the hours go by and any sharp points become unbearably so.
One just thinks so much better with your back well supported and your bottom snug in a relaxing camping chair. You don’t want those last moments of tranquillity and quiet to be interrupted by duwweltjies or your pants getting wet and muddy. For it’s quite the most precious of times, sitting there all quietly, recovering from the past and contemplating the future – like Ruark’s Old Man explained to the boy when Miss Lottie kicked the Captain off the porch for lazing about: “Today I am recovering from the rigors of the cold winter and the wet and windy spring. I am recovering from the past and storing up strength for the future.” It’s tough out there, and you want to make it as comfortable as possible. With the wild and woolly days of youth well behind you, the get-up-and-go and donder-maar-deur stage has given way to a desire for comfort and relaxation. You know much better now.
That’s why I lug one of those foldable campers along; one that comes in a bag with a shoulder strap that carries easily when you have to walk some distance to your place of contemplation. The type that has a can holder in the right-hand armrest for your mock Purdey-engraved flask, filled with your favourite “warding-off-the-cold” tipple – if you are that way inclined. Just remember that gunpowder and tipples generally don’t mix, so use it circumspectly. Or even better, rather use the can holder for other important and much “safer” stuff like spare shells, sticks of droëwors and a small torch. But remember, I know from bitter experience that things inexplicably drop out of this holder. So, don’t use it for your car keys anyway – after dark, it’s extremely difficult to find keys in the grass, and as we all know, all duck shoots end in the dark.
It’s a wonderful time to sit and stare at the empty sky and think. To meditate. Anton Rupert once said we do not think enough, so now is the time to do him proud and catch up on your thinking. Perhaps not about serious things like politics or the economy of the country. I’m sure he would’ve been happy with a few simpler things, too, such as why boerbeskuit left in the open gets soggy and Weet-Bix doesn’t. An intriguing question, if ever there was one, with its accompanying “dunking” question.
That’s when you go down memory lane and remember your most embarrassing “dunking” mishap at the big board meeting when you dunked too long, and the soggy rusk dropped back into your cup and spilt the coffee all over your papers. The meeting had to be interrupted, with all eyes on you, while the secretary came to your help and brought you a new cup.
And before you know it, you are dreaming. You are back in Koppies in the Free State, freezing your butt off while still looking for your first gyppo. You have lost all feeling in your fingers and have propped the cold steel of your shotgun against the fence where the farmer has told you to stand. You find it almost impossible to hold your gun any longer; hailing from KwaZulu-Natal, you never thought of bringing gloves. The fence appears out of the dark to your right and disappears in the dark to your left. You have no idea where you are, and the small taaibos in front of you is the only thing you can see before the sun tints the sky to the east.
Somewhere in front, you can hear the geese honking. They are cold, too, anxious to fly out to the freshly pulled peanut fields. It is unbelievably cold. “They” always say it’s the coldest then, just before the sun comes up. But “why” is another intriguing question altogether. Maybe “they” can explain it one day. That, and the related “double”- so-cold mathematical problem: This morning, just before the sun came up, it was zero degrees Celsius. Tomorrow it will be double as cold. How cold will it be? They have been debating this one around many campfires, suggesting all sorts of Fahrenheit and Kelvin conversions. All without the clout of the simplest of answers: “Moerse koud, ou broer, moerse koud!”
Then you get your goose, and you try to look cool and casual back home when telling your story, while meanwhile, it is all you can do not to giggle like a girl. And then you want to go one bigger and start your dream of monster spurwings. When you got your first one, you could hardly believe your eyes, it was so big. There was no chance of your little cocker spaniel being of any retrieving help as he looked smaller than the bird. You remember how you struggled to wring its neck. In fact, you still struggle to wring their necks – they are just too tough. Someone once showed you how to do it, and since then, you’ve tried it many times. You found that a youngster’s neck can still be wrung, but with the big old men, it is impossible. Better just to get your knife out and finish the job.
Those are the most wonderful birds, you think. They were the first birds to come into your earliest decoy attempts. And when you hit one well, they fall with a thud that shakes the earth. No such nonsense as shooting a partridge and catching the falling bird with an outstretched hand. A spurwing will break your arm!
At this moment, the youngster rudely yanks you from your reverie, blatantly shouting, “Daar kom hulle, oom!” (“There they come!”) Bloody irritating – as if the “oom” hadn’t spotted them long ago!
You try to follow in the direction he is looking. Seeing nothing and being somewhat bewildered, you gruntingly answer, “OK, OK”. Then you look in the wrong direction and say, “Got them.” “Not there, oom, to the right, just above the trees on the horizon, a big bunch!” Arrogant pipsqueak! you think as you strain your eyes to find something in the empty sky. As if he knows anything about shooting spurwing and gyppos and ducks. What he knows about ducks, you have forgotten long ago, long before he was even born.
And when you finally see those black specs, it’s almost too late. The kid takes one to the right, and you are left with an easy bunch that veers off over your left shoulder. An easy and natural pull from right to left and steady follow-through past the beak of the big monster closest to you. Bum-belly-beakbam! it goes through your mind as you pull off the shot, only to see him flounder and fly off over to the far side of the pan. Damn! That was probably the easiest shot you had ever missed. Hopefully, the kid didn’t see, as he was still busy picking up the goose he dropped to the right. But then your goose turns back and lands some distance off, fortunately close enough for a finishing shot. You don’t like cripples being left behind, and this one must obviously be in some kind of distress, landing so close to you. So, you let rip with a shot on the ground that leaves the bird stone dead, crumpled in a heap at the water’s edge. And you feel quite good about it; it’s not always so easy to hit something on the ground. In the water, it’s even worse, with most of the ducks being below the surface.
Take that, kid! you think, and feeling quite content, you get up to go and retrieve your bird. The kid’s dog was still busy retrieving his birds. Apparently, he shot a double. Bloody show-off! you think. But when you proudly get back to the hide and drop the goose next to your chair, the kid looks rather perplexed. “Since when does oom shoot birds on the ground? What about the ‘only-in-flight’ rule?” Arrogant snip! You start explaining all about trying your utmost not to leave crippled birds behind, to spare them painful injury etc, etc. “But that was not the one oom shot! He flew off, limping over the crest. That was a different bird.”
Besides aching backs and hurting feet (as the Old Man told to the Boy) requiring a comfortable seat and the occasional sip from some or other prescribed medicine, eyesight could be the one crippling problem that the ageing gun must deal with. I always thought I had pretty good distance vision. Slight astigmatism forced the wearing of reading glasses quite early on in my life. Fortunately, you don’t want to read in the hide, so you don’t have to worry about your shortening arms or carrying those +2 off-the-shelf specs with you. (Having said that, I’m getting to the stage where separating the ammo sizes is becoming a problem. The print on the plastic cases sometimes becomes illegible as it is rubbed off when rolling about in your pocket or cartridge bag. Better to sort it out at home and carry only one size into the hide.)
You also don’t have to read any fine print on a goose’s chest; all you want to do is pick them up a good distance away and nail them 40 yards off. Till that bloody kid comes with the rude awakening. Insensitive and disrespectful upstart!
Weakening light also starts playing a role. Your favourite reading chair now requires much better lighting. The bulb of the reading lamp next to your bed needs to be changed to something much sharper. And that, coupled with the crepuscular habits of geese flying in to overnight on the pans, puts further pressure on your already shaky shooting.
Fortunately, eye problems can be corrected by a good optician. Glasses for improved distance vision or bifocals (if you can wear them!) can make a world of difference. Light-enhancing, or, more correctly, contrast-enhancing yellow glasses could help with spotting the geese in lowlight conditions. I tried them for a while, but apart from looking like a white-bearded dragonfly, it did not improve my shooting at all.
With the light too weak for any further shooting, you call it a day and start gathering your equipment. The chair goes back in its bag and is shouldered with your ammo satchel, the kid intently watching your every move. You’ve slipped the heads of the two gyppos through the eyes of your goose sling, which also goes over a shoulder. Even though nicely balanced, you can still feel the weight. Fortunately, your gun is propped up against a fence, so you do not have to pick it up from the floor, risking the geese, chair and satchel swinging around to the front and off your shoulder. The kid should watch carefully, you think, and see how it’s done. “Wag, oom, let me carry your birds,” he offers. And without waiting for an answer, he grabs your geese and jogs off. “I’ll sommer go and fetch the bakkie.”
Wag oom se gat, you think and slowly stroll off into the dark after the youngster. He still has a lot to learn. Fetching the bakkie, he may as well have left the birds right here at the blind. Got to learn to think, stupid kid.
Getting old is tough. You’ve got to get your head right. It’s not for sissies. Clint Eastwood, when asked how he manages to still make movies at 90, simply said, “Don’t let the Old Man in.” But old men will dream, the Bible says, and when your dreams become more prevalent than the excitement of what still lies ahead, you are right there in the second chapter of Joel. You are drawing from your stash of stories stockpiled in your youth. Let’s hope your store is big enough to carry you warmly through the long, cold winter of your life.