When it was the wrong season for squirrels and rabbits and the fish were not biting (the “dog days of August”), one of our favorite activities was sampling roaming the countryside “exploring.” Without hardly realizing it, we picked up a lot of woods lore that way. There was no tree, bird, insect, or varmint that we could not identify.
We learned self-sufficiency, too. We could leave home right after breakfast on a free day carrying nothing but our fishing lines, a few kitchen matches, and a small packet of salt in the watch pocket of our bib overalls. Sometimes we would take the twenty-two also. After a long day in the woods we would come home well fed in time for the evening chores.
It was easy. We knew everything in the woods that was edible. We could always swipe a couple of potatoes out of someone’s truck patch along the way and stick one in a back pocket. Then we might kill a squirrel if we had the rifle or else catch a couple of perch in the creek. Then all we had to do was build a fire.
high, I would hunker down, rifle cocked and ready, and stay motionless for a few minutes to see if one came out.
If we had a aquirrel, we would gut and skin it then roast it on a spit over the coals. If we had a fish, we would find a bed of good grey clay, gut the fish, wrap them in clay, and put those also in the coals. When the clay dried and cracked open we raked them out of the ashes. The scales and skin came off when we peeled away the clay and presto, a little salt and we had lunch.
One skill that roaming the countryside and, in particular, hunting squirrels taught us was the ability to move silently through the woods and brush. Squirrels are nervous, flighty little creatures and any strange sound will send them scurrying to cover in a next or a den tree.
There are two ways to hunt squirrels. One was to find an area of the woods where you had seen squirrels, pick out a comfortable spot on a log or against a tree, then simply sit and be quiet and motionless until the squirrels started moving about. The other way was to drift silently along through the tick woods keeping a sharp eye out for squirrels darting up a tree or along a branch. If you stand still, a squirrel will stop and peer at you. When you see his eye, let him have it.
I personally preferred the latter method although if I spotted a promising den tree (a hollow tree with a hole up high that was worn smooth around the edges) or a tree with a squirrel’s nest up
We practiced that skill both while hunting and while sneaking up on each other until, our bare feet noiseless on the woodland floor, we could move as silently as an Indian is reputed to be able to do without disturbing the branches and sparse undergrowth through which we moved. It became second nature to pick the best route and avoid setting a foot down on a dry twig that might snap.
The ability came in handy at other times, too. I recall one time that I had taken little brother Rex with me to the “Big Rock Hole” on Maze Creek to fish and to practice in the woods. I got lucky and caught the largest fish I had ever seen come out of Maze Creek. It looked like a chub, but must have been ten or more inches long.
After catching the fish, I decided to go home by way of Grandpa’s store figuring to show off my fish and that maybe he would give us each a bottle of strawberry or grape NeHi pop since it was a very hot afternoon.
About halfway to the road we (Rex trailing along behind) came around a bend and were suddenly face to face with two strange men coming along the path. I knew they were not locals. They were wearing pants with belts instead of overalls and they carried fancy rods and reels. We in North Morgan Township were more than a bit reserved with, and maybe a bit distrustful of, “strangers.” That meant anyone who came from more than four or five miles away.
The men halted and admired my “big” fish. One of them said to the other, “See, I told you there were some nice fish in Maze Creek, Jake.” Turning to me he said, “Where did you catch him, boy?”
I jerked the thumb of my free hand over my shoulder, “Back there a ways.” Rex in the meantime was peering at the strangers from behind me.
“What did you use for bait?”
“Ain’t much of a talker, are you?” he said. “Tell you what—we haven’t caught much of anything. I will give you a dime for that there fish.”
I was still thinking of showing off that fish to Grandpa and taking it home for Mother to cook. I simply shook my head.
“Oh hell,” he said, “I might even give you a whole quarter.” He turned to his partner, “Jake, you got a quarter on you?”
There was a small break in the underbrush to my right. While Jake was feeling in his pockets for a quarter and the other man was watching him, I nudged Rex and faded quietly into the underbrush with my little brother at my heels. We moved a few yards then knelt down well concealed. I put a finger to my lips for Rex to be quiet.
We could hear the mean clearly in the still, warm air. One of them exclaimed, “What the hell! Where did they go?!”
“Aw,” the other answered, “these hill kids are shy as barn cats—one minute you see them, the next you don’t. Guess he didn’t want to sell that there fish.”
We sat silently as we listened to them move on up the path, their voices fading as one of them said, “Downright spooky, that’s what. I never heard a sound but when I looked around, they just weren’t there!”
That made me feel proud and not mind being called a hill kid because that was the whole idea—to simply vanish into the woods without a sound.
“Whyn’t you sell him that old fish,” Rex asked. “You could have had a whole quarter and we could have bought a bottle of pop for just a nickel of it!”
“Didn’t want to. Come on, let’s cut up over the bluff and go home.