From 1969 Nassau Cash Book used as hunting log
I was still using my little Southern Maid composition booklet when 1959 began. I wrote without even skipping a line: “Beginning of 1959–60 Season. (I am now 16 years old.)”
I began one-line entries again, without noting the significance of being sixteen: I could now go hunting by myself, no adult supervision required. I made six separate trips on my 1956 Cushman Husky motor scooter to palmetto-scrub flatlands about two miles west of the Intracoastal Waterway toward Jacksonville (all vacant land then) without finding any game. I shot my J.C. Higgins 12-gauge about once a trip for practice. Shells cost a nickel apiece, purchased one at a time at Western Auto or Proctor’s Hardware, too expensive to waste.
That motor scooter was freedom for our little family. Mama and Frances never drove — Mama couldn’t, and Frances wasn’t allowed — so anything they wanted, they had to ask Daddy to buy. They hated his petty tyranny of being the only one with wheels.
So Frances, who earned $20 a week for six hard days of waitressing, saved up her tips until she had $200 to buy the Cushman for me. Talk about a mother’s love! When I rode it to school, Frances rode on the jump seat and took it home because we were terrified that thieves would steal our new freedom.
On New Year’s Day, I took my brother Earl to Mayport with me for his first hunt. My notes show that I got two squirrels each day and Earl got his first, and another the next day. What they don’t show is that Daddy drove us to the woods and let us out, then came back to get us, which constituted the required “adult supervision” for Earl — three years younger — to go hunting with me. Or that when we got back to the car one day, my left arm was numb. I thought it was from carrying my shotgun in the crook of my elbow.
Daddy, with a career of firemen’s first-aid behind him, took one look at my swollen hand, with red lines streaking up past the elbow, and drove me to the doctor’s office. The term they used was “blood poisoning.” That’s all I really remember. I’d brushed a blue-and-yellow spider as big as my hand off my shoulder that day, so it could have been a spider bite. Whatever it was, the doctor fixed it and the red streaks faded and the swelling went down. But I was sick and feverish for the rest of school vacation. It never crossed my mind to put anything like that in my Composition Book. At that age, game bagged was all that mattered.
I hunted squirrels because I was a Georgian and that’s what I knew how to hunt; my grandfather had taken my brother and me squirrel hunting before we ever moved to Florida. Now I was putting squirrels on the table. Fried squirrel was a treat even Daddy liked as a break from all the red snapper he caught on deep-sea trips.
Earl and I took turns with my Higgins. I would shoot and then he would shoot. Too bad if we missed; the gun changed hands. We worked that plan out together with no adult intervention. The Higgins was a Sears, Roebuck product that Daddy bought second-hand to replace the Civil War musket with which he shot rabbits until the Depression was over. Mama paid him $25 of Frances’s tip money for it, and gave it to me. It was my first shotgun and the first one I ever fired, at age fourteen. I hit the bottle I fired at and I didn’t fall on my ass or anything stupid like that. Daddy showed me how to snug the butt in tight against my shoulder to minimize felt recoil. When I fired correctly, I got a single nod of approval. I showed Earl before he fired it.
The Higgins was a bolt-action, which was considered a strange action for a shotgun, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew it was slower than Cricket’s pumpgun. I wanted the speed Cricket achieved with his 20-gauge Remington. I figured if I could kill two flushing coots with my bolt action while Sam got three with his pump, I would be unbeatable with a pumpgun.
Bob Donnelly was a route supervisor for Meadowbrook Dairies and a fishing friend of Daddy’s who once took us out on the St. Johns River and showed Earl and me how to fill a rowboat with pan-size drum. The summer after my junior year in high school, Bob offered me a job. I went to work in a drive-through dairy bar on Jacksonville Beach, selling milk and eggs and cheese and stuff, riding my scooter to work at 3 p.m. and home at midnight.
Right away, a lot of the guys who worked at the adjoining Dairy Queen — college kids and kids with starry eyes on college — started to tell me how to spend my 75 cents an hour: I should save it for the groovy times of college. We had some fine loud empty arguments that ran their cycle and were done. I sat on two wire-mesh milk crates nested one atop another with a pillow on top beside the dairy cooler where the cars drove through, and wrote.
I wrote a short story and named it “Sleeping Planet.” In my senior year, I submitted it in English class and got an A-minus because I used one-sentence paragraphs. I told the English teacher published novelists wrote one-sentence paragraphs.
He said, “Fine, when you’re published by Doubleday, you can write one-sentence paragraphs.”
It was four years from that A-minus before Doubleday purchased the novel the story became; one-sentence paragraphs and all. I never got around to telling my teacher. But that came later.
Customers thought I was an earnest young student, cramming for college. The Dairy Queen boss was pleased by that impression. He hated it that his Dairy Queen crew read trashy magazines when business was slow. He didn’t work for Meadowbrook; he just rented part of his building to the dairy, so he wasn’t my boss. But he acted as if he was. I guess I should have made allowances since he was a gaunt skeleton of a man who had survived the Bataan death march. But his bossiness roused my ire. When he started trying to supervise when I closed for the night, I quit. The summer was over and I had what I wanted.
What I wanted was a Winchester Model 12 sixteen-gauge. Second-hand, it cost me $66 at the Wampler pawnshop. I loved it instantly. On our Christmas visit to Georgia, my great-uncle Press, Daddy’s brother, turned out to have its twin and said I was a hell of a smart kid to decide on a gun just like his all by myself. Daddy just snorted.
My high school ended in 1961 with no regret. My working life — my career, though I didn’t know to call it any such thing — began two weeks before that — Saturday copy boy of the Jacksonville Journal. The regular copy boy, who wanted to be an architect, quit to go back to college and I moved up to full time. Now I needed a car to get to work.
My mother called my father, who lived in Kentucky and ran a couple of automotive businesses. Before the 1961–62 hunting season opened, I had a 1952 Chevrolet Deluxe, supplied by my father in a poignant reunion in Atlanta. He already was a successful businessman and would be even more successful. He shot geese at Cairo, Illinois and ducks on the Ohio River. I thought perhaps my burning urge to hunt ducks was genetic after all; I was big on Mendel’s theories then. The Chevrolet replaced the Cushman motor scooter.
Earl’s and my last hurrah on the Cushman was our longest: all the way south and west across the broad St. John’s River on a rickety two-lane Clay County bridge. We traveled the whole distance before dawn in 20-degree weather. I thought I was going to freeze — Earl was at least shielded from the wind by my body. We made the trek as a gesture to posterity to show what serious hunters we were; we didn’t fire a single shot.
Posterity so far is me sitting here in Nassau, thinking how it was. We stopped on the Orangedale Road to get our bearings and the ruby glow of the big storm lantern Mama and Frances gave me for safety caused a milk truck driver to stop to see if we needed help. My hands in uninsulated gloves were so numb I couldn’t unbend my fingers from around the handlebars without intense concentration.
That motor scooter was fine. I carried full crates of bottled Coca Colas home from the store, standing slantwise where my feet were supposed to go, one foot on top of the front wheel’s coil spring housing and the other perched on the brake pedal…
Third Street was a ruin in the winter rain 1960 because they were widening it. I rode to school with my jacket flapping open to the weather.
“Got to toughen up for duck blinds,” I told my mother.
I made complicated plans to buy an inflatable rubber raft to tie on back, mount a tiny outboard motor on the handlebars with a bag of decoys on top, and become a Real Duck Hunter. None of which materialized. Six years later, while I was in the Army and Earl was in the Navy, Mama said she and Frances dug a deep hole in the back yard and buried it, rather than let anyone else ever have it. I wasn’t sure if it was just another of her tall tales, but never tried to check. Burial was somehow fitting for the old machine that spelled freedom.