Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore…”
Elizabeth Akers Allen penned that hopeless plea a long time ago. But Omar Khayyam’s even-older Bird of Time still is awing into our inscrutable tomorrows. Despite clever postulations of quantum mechanics that Time’s arrow flies both ways with equal celerity, Akers’ mother, and mine, and uncounted others never “come back from the echoless shore…”
“Backward, flow backward, O tide of the years!
I am so weary of toil and of tears,
Toil without recompense, tears all in vain…
I have grown weary of dust and decay,
Weary of flinging my soul-wealth away…
“Tired of the hollow, the base, the untrue,
Mother, O mother, my heart calls for you….”
Poets write from the heart, from the psyche, about real, deep, lasting things that mark the human condition. Lost family, lost loves, lost pets. The only thing to return to us from the Abyss is memory. Memory defies time, as long as you are lucky enough to keep your memory. One could imagine a similar lament from a 2020 poet, in a tumultuous year when the bad news — and the death toll — just kept mounting.
My own memory has been tangled up in memory of Novembers past. Nostalgia for long-ago hunting seasons. I looked up 1968. Talk about a tumultuous year! The April weekend of my Georgia honeymoon coincided with the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (We didn’t know till we came up for air, and went out for dinner. Rioters were torching cities all over.)
We were in Florida two months later, when Robert Kennedy was gunned down in LA, scrambling the field of Democrat Presidential hopefuls. Lyndon Johnson already had announced he’d had enough; he would not seek reelection. (Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?) His Vietnam-war escalation had gutted his term as effectively as Trump’s failure to escalate against a deadly Asian bug gutted his. Both men demonstrated huge, fragile egos. LBJ had the grace to bow out without an ugly, humiliating fight.
One of the smartest women I know used to say what will it all matter in a hundred years? Acknowledging the poet’s lament you can’t call time back, or bring back loved ones lost in time. The constant din of political badinage distracts us from real life, and loss. In only half a hundred years’ time, ’68 political tumult is a fading phantasm. Politics may be urgent. But they are not important.
For me, November was always too precious to waste on politics. November was for hunting. Then politics bit me in the ass in 1969, as I got ready for my second hunting season after the Army. My still-new wife came home distraught one day. A sporting-goods-store clerk had insulted her, and hurt her feelings. She’d gone to buy me shotgun shells for duck season. The clerk demanded her driver’s license to enter in a log. She objected on grounds of privacy. He trotted out something called the 1968 Gun Control Act, signed into law last year by the lame-duck, Johnson.
She said: “These are duck-hunting shells,” she thought the law was meant for felons and assassins. Snarky reply: “Yeah? How do I know you’re not the next Bonnie and Clyde?” Never mind the utter idiocy of thinking such petty bullshit could stop a murderer. Never mind another loss of American freedom. He hid behind his new “authority” to hurt her feelings. Never fails. My Georgia grandmother always said give a slave a whip if you want to see real injustice. Might go double for wage-slaves.
Left-wing wing nuts once threatened to leave the country if Trump was elected. I approve the sentiment: I left the country because the moronic Gun Control Act hurt my wife’s feelings. I had a secure civil-service job, a deposit on a duck boat, and we’d been house-hunting. But screw ’em. I abandoned a whole hunting season and went to the Bahamas. Zero job security, no known prospect for hunting. Still under British rule, so there was no gun-control hypocrisy. The British ruling class had long ago disarmed the working class, fearing Communist infiltrators would raise a class-war insurrection. British rulers would not countenance even the off-chance of a “pale-face” Nat Turner rebellion in the home islands. Same rules for multi-colored Bahamians. (Subjects of Empire the world over of course were not citizens, so they could be treated like that by their “betters.” I’d thought we ironed that out in 1776. Reckoned without the hypocrisy of that DC swamp Trump failed to drain.)
Ironically, my Bahamian status, expatriate writer for a “connected” company, exempted me from being lumped with the proletariat. I bought a sixteen-gauge shotgun, and hired an ironmongery “layabout” for B$10 to stand in constabulary lines to secure my shotgun license. Didn’t even need my passport. The sales receipt was plenty. Picked up my gun and license next day. Bought all the shot shells I could afford, no idiot tracking. Other ironies: the Bahamas bird season was six months long! Bag limit fifty a day — of any kind. Unplugged shotguns. No game wardens. I just had to remember to drive on the wrong side of the road. That British thing, you know. From my Diary:
Shooting in the Bahamas
November 1969. Nassau. Up at 4:30 am to go to Lake Killarney. Still feels odd to drive on the wrong side of the road in the predawn, wearing hunting clothes; have to be careful not to drift to the right lane in a kind of trance. No ducks. I talked to a Bahamian duck hunter wearing an electric green shirt. We talked about people building cities and dams and closing off all the duck ranges and not giving one damn about all of us from the Arctic Circle to the Tropic of Cancer on Long Island who kind of wish they wouldn’t destroy it all.
Talked with some Italian croupiers from Paradise Island who came to shoot. They handled their guns with such good manners. The Italians admired my camouflage coverall. “What do you shoot — a 16?” Yes. “Aren’t those loads too light?” They do okay, when I have anything to shoot. “Didn’t you see that water hen go right over you?” I try to only shoot ducks. “Ohhh — he only shoots ducks!”
Shot my second Bahamian coot this morning. It flushed wild from the road across the northwest corner of Lake Killarney as I walked along what I call the levee. I shot my first Bahamian coot on the same road, walking back to the Barracuda in the dark, tracking its dim reflection in the lake from runway lights at Nassau International Airport. Night shooting is legal in the Bahamas. That little Spanish double with the straight grip comes up and points like my finger. I picked up my hunting gear from Florida on the docks where the M.V. Buccaneer makes its weekly call from Jacksonville, along with Christmas packages from home.
I missed my first Bahamian pintail and saw bluebills rafting on closed Lake Cunningham in numbers to rival those I saw last January on the Banana River… heard the blood-accelerating rush of bluebill flights coming to Killarney from Cunningham on nights too dark to shoot, and watched for them by moonlight. One dawn I watched a man steer his small outboard boat up the lake, shooting an unplugged automatic one-handed as he chased them. None of this is illegal in the Bahamas. I talked on the dike with an Andros Islander named Saunders, and four bluebills slipped right over our heads. Saunders works in the airport control tower across the highway, this is his first duck season away from Andros where “th’ duckin’ is quite good,” and he’s homesick. I know the feeling.
Herons are legal game here. The season is six months long and you can shoot 50 a day of any kind of bird! I walked in from Gladstone Road to try to find, without success, the secret points from which New Providence islanders pass-shoot. I waded flooded woods on the other side of the lake with Saunders as guide, accompanied by a couple of the croupiers. We flushed and shot at coots, no ducks. Saunders broke into uncontrollable shivering from wading thigh-deep, but the water was not as cold as Florida water I waded in dungarees as a teenager. His little British car didn’t even have a heater! Manufacturers apparently save a few bucks (or pounds, I suppose) not supplying heaters in cars shipped to the islands…He reveled in the Barracuda’s heater and told me of his lifelong yearning for a pair of chest waders. I asked him his boot size…
I stood on the Barracuda roof on top of Gladstone Hill and watched hundreds of ducks on Lake Cunningham — and farther off, the pastel phantasmagorical superstructures of cruise ships in the harbour. They looked like some surreal and transient city that would vanish like Brigadoon at sunset, when they sailed. I posted an urgent airmail to Mama with instructions to use my stateside checking account to buy Saunders a pair of chest waders at Proctor’s Hardware on Jacksonville Beach and ship them immediately.
The Italian croupiers, all but one of them, had brand-new Charles Daley over-unders from the Shirley Street Ironmongery; the one guy with a Franchi autoloader knocked down a duck. We all searched but couldn’t find it. The croupiers come straight out from their graveyard shifts at the casino, with their stylish bell-bottom trousers stuffed into gum boots, and stylish tan or gray pullovers to cover the frilly white shirts that are part of their croupier uniforms.
I purchased seven inflatable rubber decoys from the Bahamas Ironmongery where I purchased my shotgun. The proprietor who sold me these things is a giant, three inches taller than me and three times as wide, with what I understand is a white Bahamian accent. He keeps a 28-foot cabin cruiser gassed for bird-shooting trips to Andros Island at a moment’s notice. He had the only shop window on Bay Street with decoys and hunting gear displayed…
Junkanoo fights a slashing persistent battle with the liver and heart of a black-crowned night heron I killed this morning. She backs off, lunges, swats, ducks away, slap, slap, chomp. The fresh kill roused all her feral cat-hood. Somehow it still seems wrong to drive on the left side of a two-lane road, past bogs and open fields, when you’re up before daylight to go hunting. Your instincts war with your intellect, creating tension. I was so tired I almost dozed. I turned on the car radio — all I could get was some bilingual station. A French speaker carefully coaching illegal Haitians in simple English phrases to help them navigate this English island and avoid Immigration. Saunders showed up late, hustled by with his worn pump gun, and vanished on the far side of the lake. Nothing flew. I walked back slowly to the car, rocks shouldering up bruisingly under my deck shoes. I heard Saunders shoot four times.
“It was hard, bitter hunting then,” I was composing. How do you capture the dismal weariness of optimism constantly blunted? How do you write that? Bleak thoughts; the dismal notion it’s all a waste of time and energy that could be better spent shoring up a shaky-enough place in life. The time gone, the money gone with it; for the gun and the shells and $B50 for a “duck boat”…The grim taste of another lost season that will never come again. Trying to fake it in a strange country on wrong-sided roads and eerily clear alien waters. The Spanish double purchased here doesn’t completely eject its empties sometimes — it’s cheaply made — but it is well-balanced with clean singing lines, a straight-grip stock, and I love it despite its faults.
Something makes you look up. The heron is over the lake, at least fifty yards out and getting farther fast. As you notice this, it is side-slipping, hit hard. You are coming back from recoil with no memory of shooting, to go again with the left barrel, to interdict its hard slant toward the water. It glides for shore, and glides…You run back down the dam you trudged, feet hurting, moments ago, fatigue forgotten. Loading as you run, holding the gun one-handed like a pistol, left hand pumping you along. The ungainly bird glides into stubby pines on the dam. You duck to the side…He’s not there. He’s down in the trees. Run!
Running to the trees, there he is! Damn. Nearly three feet tall! You are flying now, great ground-eating strides. He is dodging, jinking, long legs scissoring, looking back at death gaining on him. You don’t even feel the recoil. Misses: one right, one left, scythe great sheaves of tall grass. Smoking empties jump from the gun; no failures now. The muzzles swing through him as he hits shoreline brush, shove a lead fist behind him. Six more jumps and you’re there. He’s dead two feet from the water; tough bird. God look at the wingspan on this thing!
Junkie finishes her share and licks her paws delicately. The bird is cleaned and in the little apartment freezer. This is what it must have been like those long-ago days before shorebird seasons in the states closed forevermore. Here you can still legally shoot yellow-crowned and black-crowned herons as part of the fifty-bird daily limit. There are as many of them as anything else these polluted days.
Post-hunt depression setting in: it will probably all be over in my lifetime, all seasons closed everywhere, anti-hunters triumphant at last…That’s why I return always, no matter how hard or bitter the hunting, to get as much of it in my mind as I can, to remember. I must be a change-mutant.
Hemingway’s Green Hills of Africa and Heinlein’s Green Hills of Earth speak to me similarly about very different things, shooting and space-faring, Kudu bulls and conquest of the near planets. It is too late to live in Paris and too early to live on Mars. Looked at that way, Nassau is a pretty poor substitute, though individually it is all right…