I'm impressed when anyone can do anything with some measure of consistency. I would love to say I have never missed an opening hunt on the first day of shotgun season, or I have a secret fishing hole that I visit every spring, or even that I haven't missed an episode of Bowhunt or Die, which comes out every Friday online. I wear the Mantle of Shame for my shortcomings, far too often putting aside what I want to do for what I think I have to do. That's why I appreciate people who can stop life, say no to requests, and can uphold family traditions that were started far before they were even born. Those types of people have staying power.
Sixty years of squirrel hunting over Labor Day weekend is almost unfathomable to my mind, but that is what my friend's family has been doing with pride. I saw the hunting grounds back in July as we examined his fall food plots, focusing more on the deer and casually mentioning the squirrels. Bordering each field was a dense ring of oak-hickory trees, the original deciduous forest type for West Central Illinois, back before we introduced conifers and lesser species of softwoods for our viewing pleasure. We ventured into the trees, noting height and nut crop, as my friend mentioned his family's squirrel hunting history. He was eagerly anticipating this year's hunt, and had six weeks to finish clearing brush before the hunters arrived. His children were going out with him this year, and he wanted to make sure the path down to a memorial site where one hunter's ashes had been carefully spread years earlier was open.
Fast forward six weeks, and family had come in from all around. Squirrel was simmering on the stove as I pulled in the driveway, my husband and I tempted from small-town food and festivities by the promise of trap shooting on a perfect Sunday. Uncles, siblings, parents, and grandkids gathered around a table of ammo, chattering excitedly about new guns purchased through the year and the merits of new styles of choke tubes. As outsiders, we were instantly and overwhelmingly welcomed, my hand-me-down Winchester accepted into the fold with Benellis and Berettas leaning against the oak tree in the yard. As soon as the town parade finished and everyone was ready, we took turns shooting on the line, Annie Oakley style. No one kept score, but we all pushed for the satisfying sound of breaking a bird missed by the person in front of us. One sweet girl, too young to shoot, donned earmuffs and served as the Official Clay Sorter, handing them one by one to the thrower, never complaining her role and cheering us all on equally. We stopped now and again for a drink, a sucker from one of the parade candy bags, or to cluster around a malfunctioning firearm, tinkering with triggers and springs in the guts of the gun until it was in proper working order again. The sun sank lower, the shells piled higher, and the squirrel finally softened enough to eat, served with a side of squirrel gravy and pillowy mashed potatoes.
Sixty years is a long time to maintain a tradition; people move, families bicker, land changes hands, and life gets in the way. Despite all the odds, this one is still going strong, with young new inductees in line, waiting for their turn behind the gun. I guess I get to include myself as an honorary member, for that evening I received a brief, but powerful text: "Fyi...you will be expected to attend Labor Day festivities going forward...next year you squirrel hunt." And next year, you can bet that I will, and that my little bruise will return for this story's sequel.