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The Unlogged Stories

Bill Burkett
9 min readFeb 12, 2024

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Florida 1964–65

Charlie Brock liked the idea of my writing outdoor stories for the Sunday Magazine. Before the Guano story, he sent me on a deep-sea fishing trip. I wrote about people having a high old time reeling in red snappers.

But I spent the entire trip wretchedly (and retchingly) ill with the worst case of mal de mer the bait boy — a former high school classmate — ever saw. I was proud the story had no allusion to my misery.

I interview Zeno Bass, a legendary skeet shooter and manager of a skeet club. I took my old J.C. Higgins bolt action to shoot a round.

The club regulars with their engraved Brownings called it a butterfly gun, defined by Raymond Chandler as a gun good for shooting butterflies — maybe.

None of that went in my story about Zeno Bass hip-shooting clay birds, even doubles. I hit eleven of twenty-five clay birds for my round — pretty embarrassing, but could work the bolt fast enough to get the second bird of doubles. An old-timer let me shoot his ornately engraved Browning Auto Five. The gun fell into my hands so naturally it seemed to shoot itself. I didn’t miss. He opened one of his fitted leather gun cases and offered me an identical Browning with an extra barrel in each choke constriction for a figure equal to half my annual copy boy salary. It might as well have cost twice as much.

In 1964 after my first novel was published I went to work full-time for the Sunday Magazine and wrote more outdoor stories. For some reason I never entered them in my log. But they were adventures.

A group of fox hunters invited me on a hunt. The night was humid, sticky, miserable, but the dogs ran well and coursed more than one fox. We cruised deserted night highways to listen to the hound music, working out where the fox would cross. At one point a “civilian” stopped, seeing all the cars and assuming a wreck. Told it was a fox hunt, he wanted to know why anyone would shoot a fox; you couldn’t eat it.

“Shoot a fox!” my host roared. “We don’t shoot foxes! We just chase ’em and listen to the dogs.” And no, the hounds didn’t kill the fox either.

Meanwhile I saw something move beside the road. M’sieu Reynard poked his head out, surveyed the crowd. Somebody yelled “There he is!” The fox slipped back into the brush — just as the hounds swarmed across the road, realized they had lost the scent, and started milling around baying, to the merriment of all.

“See how much fun this is?” my host said. The motorist left. The dogs flopped, panting, waiting for their water dishes. One guy played his flashlight over his dog. Mosquitoes swarmed all over the poor mutt. “Poor dog’s gonna need a transfusion,” someone observed. I felt smug, enveloped in clouds of strong smoke from a tar-black cigar of which a local custom agent gave me a whole box after I wrote about his career. Best mosquito repellant I ever used.

I spent a week on a cattle ranch; riding herd, branding, falling in love with Midnight Bishop, the champion quarter horse they gave me to ride. He was smooth-gaited as a rocking chair and knew his trade down pat.

When a heifer broke out of a herd we were moving, all I did was relax the reins and keep my seat. I was a Gene Autry fan as a boy, even had riding lessons against the day I’d be a cowboy; it seemed incredible I was being paid to play cowhand and then write about it.

We even had a stampede down a county highway after the foreman’s nervous stud horse threw a bucking fit and spooked fifty head we were moving. Midnight Bishop and I were right behind “Speedy,” a sixty-year-old cowhand on his favorite cutting horse. We turned the leaders into the fence to mill them while tourists took pictures.

Riding with Speedy

My proudest moment came when the senator who owned the spread brought pay envelopes — cowboys got cash — to the branding pens. He apologized he didn’t have one for me. The foreman said, Boss, that’s that reporter. I said, Senator, you made my day.

I went on a hog hunt in central Florida, where farmers ran what they called “hog claims” in the national forest, releasing young hogs to run wild and feed on acorns and other wild foods. When they were of a size to fatten for butchering, they had no intention of being gathered. They were hunted with brave hounds that tracked and cornered them until a “catch dog” could come up and grab them. The men running through the palmettos had to get there fast with rawhide string before it shook the catch dog and gored the hounds. A veterinarian with an obsession for hog chasing was my host. The farmer liked having him along because he could doctor any hurt dog.

What happens if a hog comes for me? I asked the vet on the phone. You find a tree to climb fast, he said. I’m not much for climbing trees, I said. But I’m not bad with a .45. Don Borie, our staff artist, chuckled when I hung up. That sounded like something out of a movie, he said: “can’t climb trees, can shoot.” But firearms weren’t allowed, so all I had to fend off a hog was my old Bowie knife.

The farmer, Mr. Griffis, rashly tried to grab a 250-pounder when it broke loose from the hounds. The hog snorted, Mr. Griffis grunted, and the hog raced into the brush. When he held up his arm, his blue shirt sleeve had turned maroon halfway to the elbow. The vet applied a compress. Looks like the tusk rolled over the artery instead of penetrating, he said. But we better take you to a hospital. “Why?” that tough old galoot said. “There’s hogs to catch.”

With the vet and his modified wagon listening for the hounds. Rocco Morabito photo.

The vet had a Chevy station wagon modified with a four-speed truck transmission and big tires to run the dirt roads. When we had a hog hog-tied, we’d hoist him in back. The strike dog balanced on a wooden platform on the hood. That hound had an educated nose; when we struck a track he’d give a sniff. If air scent was fresh he’d jump off while we released the chase dogs from kennels beside the tied hog. Rocco Morabito, a newspaper photographer and one of my deer-hunting buddies, was along to shoot pictures. He impressed the hog men with his stamina and speed; he moved through the woods like a native swamp-runner.

At one point, I left Rocco and the boys to it, sat in the wagon and fired up one of my coal-black stogies to mask the miasma of wet angry hog. A giant mixed-breed catch dog named Scout, mostly German shepherd, slipped his snout through the kennel wire and nipped a 300-pound tusker that squealed with rage.

I saw an apparition in the rear-view mirror: big tusks and porcine ears hunching up behind me as he stood up. I knew from cowboy movies that wet rawhide stretches; the hog was getting loose. I didn’t know I could move that fast. I dived over the seat, grabbed his feet, snatched him upside down and yelled for help. The hog men congratulated me on quick thinking. Thinking had nothing to do with it — it was stark fear.

All day long, one of the hog men carried a small dog in his arms like a baby, the sweetest natured pup you could imagine. On the way from Jacksonville, she crawled up to nestle her head on my shoulder and snooze; I couldn’t believe he intended to expose the pup to this rough-and-tumble world.

“You’ll see,” he said. “She’s gonna be a better catch dog than Scout. If Mr. Griffis’ nigger dog can hold one, I’ll try her.” Mr. Griffis, an authentic redneck, face eroded by Florida sun, looked embarrassed. “I don’t call him that no more,” he said softly. “I — well I call him Blackie now.”

“How come?” the veterinarian wanted to know.

“Well…I seen on TV they don’t like that word no more.”

“What — nigger? Who doesn’t like it?”

“Well…black people don’t. TV says it makes ’em feel bad.”

“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” the vet laughed. “Blackie it is. Blackie!” The dog wagged at him. “Let’s go find some more hogs!”

Blackie had a hard time baying the next hog. We were strung out through the scrub, running with whatever energy we had left. When we got there, the biggest boar of the day was backed against a palmetto clump, daring three dogs to come and get him. But these dogs were pros — feinting and raving in the hog’s face. The man with the puppy said, “This is perfect. I’m gonna put my girl down now.”

“That’s a mighty big pig,” Mr. Griffis said doubtfully. “I hate to see your little pup get hurt.”

Mr. GRIFFIS AND HIS DOGS MEET A FORTY-POUND PUP BEFORE HER OWNER SET HER ON A GIANT BOAR — TO THE BOAR’S DISMAY. MY NEW ’64 BARRACUDA, BOUGHT WITH MONEY FROM MY FIRST NOVEL FOR BACKDROP. ROCCO MORABITO PHOTO

“She won’t,” the man said, and put her down.

He pointed at the hog. The 350-pound behemoth and the 40-pound pup made eye contact. For a long moment it was a frozen tableau. The hog snorted in fury; it was like throwing a switch.

The pup launched through the air. Quicker than thought she came down on the hog’s snout and clamped her jaws. The hog went down, then grimly tried to force its right tusk against the soft puppy belly inches away. The pup rolled an eye over consideringly. Her jaw muscles bunched. The tusk dropped. The hog shuddered and surrendered; he was just a big helpless pig again.

The pup’s owner pulled out a sanded-smooth hickory axe handle. “Now we got to get her loose.” He inserted the wood between the pup’s jaws, pushed it gently through, and pried her jaws open. She gave him a sleepy, surprised expression, started wagging like crazy and licked his face. All I could think of was those jaws snuggled next to my jugular.

“What kind of a dog is that?” I said.

He laughed. “Guess you never heard of a pit bull, huh?”

She rode contentedly in my lap the rest of the day, as if I had imagined the confrontation. But the monster behind the seat was quiet as a mouse. He wanted no more to do with her.

Dogs and men were exhausted but kept going. Late afternoon the strike dog raised another big boar and the chase dogs cornered it. They let Scout out since he was tireless. But the hounds were a beat too slow, and the hog gashed one’s flank and trampled another one to escape Scout’s charge. Scout went after him. The vet tended the dogs and we leashed them to take them home.

We heard Scout imitating the Hound of the Baskervilles deeper and deeper into the roadless swamp. “Dammit, he’s leading Scout in there to kill him!” the vet said. It cast a pall on the day.

(But Scout came waddling home days later. He had gained twenty pounds above his usual ninety. They figured the hog jumped him; Scout killed it, and gorged until the meat turned. He was some dog, Scout. With Scout and Blackie — and a cute little pup, carried because her short legs couldn’t keep up — a .45 would have been superfluous. Charlie liked these offbeat stories)

Postscript: one story I never wrote was about a bow-hunting trip for wild hogs with an outdoors-loving woman to whom I was powerfully attracted — and her know-it-all husband.

Charlie sent a camera with me for this one. We didn’t find any wild hogs. The main thing I remember is that he thought he could use his sedan like a Jeep on muddy roads — and could not. We spent a lot of mud-spattered time digging out. Charlie agreed there was no story. The only photo I shot that survives is of a dark-haired gamin in the rain, arrow nocked and ready.

She said she was wondering where all the hogs were. Certainly nowhere near the bog holes her asshole spouse kept getting our car stuck in.

We corresponded while I was in the Army. I told her about soldiers apologizing for their girlfriends’ looks in pictures they shared: the lighting was bad, exposure was wrong, she looks a lot better in real life. In reply, she sent me a photo of her, all dressed for work with makeup on and her hair up. The photo came with an admonition: “don’t apologize for me.” Holy cow, did that mean I had a married girlfriend?

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.