Don't Wait For Bad News
Every day is a chance to introduce the upland lifestyle to the wider world.
If you're reading this, then you probably bumped into Upland Life somewhat indirectly.
Most likely you were using a web search engine, like Google, while bird-dogging some
obscure bit of wingshooting trivia, or saw a link in an online forum or e-mail from
a buddy. At least, that's what we would have assumed up until early 2006.
For better or worse, we can probably thank Vice President Cheney for at least a modest
change in our web site traffic patterns. First, it seems safe to say that everyone who
has ever swung a shotgun in the field instantly winced on reading the news of his quail
hunting accident. Which of us has never, even once, felt that hot rush of shame when
we inadvertently threw some birdshot closer than we would have liked to the truck, the
dog, the barn, the utility pole, or a buddy's blaze orange cap barely sticking out of
the cover 20 yards away? It's easy to be pious about this sort of thing, especially
when you've had the good fortune to have never come close to what turns out, in
retrospect, to have been a less-than-safe shot.
You know your cousin's brother-in-law Chuck, right? He has the uncanny ability to hear
a sneaky pheasant's two cold feet running through a hedgerow before your Springer can
even catch a whiff of it. But when you're standing right next to him shouting "hen!"
or "too low!" at the top of your lungs, all his adrenaline lets him hear is, "your
shot, Chuck!" Or your good old gramps, who expertly took endless rabbits and prairie chickens
to (literally) flesh out his family's meager diet during the Great Depression, and has forgotten
more about bird hunting than you'll ever know… but whose macular degeneration makes him a
menace an hour before sunset (whether he's driving or shooting). We've all got a list of
people we'll forgive, at least a couple of times, for even their life-threatening transgressions.
This editor's grandfather carried some of his buddy's #6 shot in his scalp for the second
half of his life, but kept the buddy for just as long.
And in Dick Cheney's case, his long-time hunting companion (Harry Whittingham, the
Austin lawyer that got peppered instead of that Texas quail) was the picture of public grace about
the whole thing, and - given the circumstances and the scrutiny, which the rest of
us would hopefully never have to endure - very publicly expressed his sympathy for the VP. Cheney
on national television and said that the sight of his bloodied friend on the
ground was something he'll never stop seeing. We'd like to think that everyone playing a part
in any accident - whether bird-shot or neck-spraining-fender-bender related - would express that
degree of contrition.
"You can't blame anybody else. I'm the guy who pulled the trigger and shot my friend ...
The image of him falling is something I'll never ever be able to get out of my mind ... I fired,
and there's Harry falling. And it was, I'd have to say, one of the worst days of my life
at that moment."
"We all assume certain risks in what we do, what activities we pursue. Accidents do and will happen."
Even so, many of us have seen that fortunately rare jackass in the field that earns only
scorn for bad manners, recklessness with a shotgun, and the obtuseness that filters out even the
least subtle attempts to straighten him out. That jackass's worst quality, though, is his
inability to recognize the alarm his behavior causes, and his unwillingness to show remorse.
Only exile from gun-carrying social circles is adequate for someone
that cannot abstractly imagine himself on the dangerous end of the weapon he carries (or of
the truck he drives) and amend his ways. Cheney's lapse in the field obviously struck him to the
core, and whatever impact that will have on his future days in the field, the media craziness
over the event propelled the words "quail hunting" farther into the national foreground
than it has probably ever been. For about two weeks.
We remind ourselves of these things because as often as a long-time hunting family grapples
with them, the larger public (and the mainstream media – which presents so much of the world
to those that don't personally experience much of it) doesn't even have the basic facts,
let alone understand the nuances. So when an important political figure - especially one
that the punditocracy loves to vilify - had his finger on the trigger in a hunting accident,
all sorts of things happen, rarely good.
It's been many moons, now, since that Texas mishap. The lawyer's bruises have gone down,
the late night comedians have moved on to other fare, and most of us bird hunters have
probably fallen back into our bad habit of not talking about our passion outside of our
little corner of the culture. That recession, back into our comfort zone, is a critical
mistake. Remember every conversation you had with non-hunters when that wounded lawyer was
in the news? Whether or not you expressed sympathy or condemnation for Cheney, you were
probably adamant in reminding others that you and your fellow hunters are very cautious
in the field. That no one in your family has ever plucked pellets out of anything (or
anyone) other than a bird headed for the table. That being in the field is about the
fellowship, the dogs, fresh air, and the fall tall tales you'll be embellishing all summer
Sometime, during one of those chats over the water cooler (you know how they start...
"Hey, Frank, you go hunting, right? What's your take on that whole bloodthirsty vice
president thing?"), you probably made a small, incremental difference in a non-hunter's
worldview. In your eagerness to defend the thing you love, you really reached for and struck
an earnest note that resonated with that guy in the next cubicle who only talks about golf
or the quality of his lawn. Maybe you really put it on the line, and talked him into
trying his hand, for a change, at breaking a few clay pigeons instead of hitting a basket of
balls at the driving range. All of that effort really seemed important at the time, didn't
it? The nightly news was harping about frivolous, rich weekend Good Ol' Boys pursuing a
still-bloody, but dying old aristocratic "sport," and at some level you knew it
was important to try to balance that bit of spin. Here's to you, if you connected with anyone
on that subject. But what have you done this month?
No clay pigeons' feelings were hurt during this introduction to Sporting Clays
at David Dobson's shooting school in Florida.
No video game can compete, and it's safer
than soccer, skateboarding, or basketball!
The Cheney accident was one of those relatively rare moments when hunting crosses over into
mainstream news coverage. Here at Upland Life, we actually got a call from a USA Today
reporter who had been tasked with writing an article about luxury hunting lodge destinations
and the wealthy people that patronize them. Her editorial assignment was clumsily lumping high-end
Rocky Mountain elk hunting operations, classy midwest pheasant lodges, and antebellum
southern quail locales into the sort of singular, muddled mess that only ignorance can conceive.
We had quite the couple of telephone conversations, and took the
opportunity to help her shape her coverage and focus on just one sliver of the larger
hunting landscape. Before we knew it, she was off to the first class Rio
Piedra Plantation in Camilla, Georgia, and doing a
pretty nice job writing about her positive experience there. But if not for her lengthy
talk with us, and with several other people willing to invest some time in tuning her into
the complexities of the topic, her article might have been much less helpful. We talked
to her after her trip, and when asked for her impressions of plantation quail hunting, her
very first reaction was, "The dogs! I just couldn't believe the dogs."
That said, by the time her editors got done with the article, they actually gave it the
headline, "Quail In The Crosshairs." You could almost hear hunters' eyes
rolling all across the country (at least, those that read USA Today, and which don't use
scoped rifles to hunt little bitty birds). So, whether or not you have the chance to influence
a reporter's coverage of your favorite recreation, take a little of the energy you put into
training your dog (or in getting Chuck to finally understand why you're shouting "Hen!")
and do a little PR work for all of us. Take a newbie to shoot some skeet. When you're having
your dog do some retrieves in a more public spot, use a Doken dummy instead of a vanilla-looking
bumper. Stir things up a bit, and then use the opportunity to demystify and celebrate bird
hunting a bit. Rare accidents should be the last reason that what we love gets wider public
attention it. An ongoing, diplomatic celebration of everything that's good about the upland
lifestyle does a lot more good than defensive hand-wringing for the media when one thing