We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
~ T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets
Ever since the 1960s, the Turner family has gone on a goose hunt the weekend before Thanksgiving in Eagle Lake, Texas, the self-proclaimed goose hunting capital of the world. These hunts are visceral experiences with blood, guns, and excruciatingly miserable conditions involving 4 AM wakeups, late November temperatures, wet rice fields, and four hours of sitting in those wet rice fields. They are an acquired taste even for most avid hunters.
“Stories from the hunt” are an annual ritual performed generally the night before or the night after the hunt, and are lathered heavily in heart attack barbeque, beer, and gin and tonics. My grandfather, Jack Rice Turner, began taking my father when he was still an adolescent, and the stories of his first hunts still get retold year after year. They are told differently, but always with a twinkle in the eye of my grandfather who is the patriarch of the group we go hunting with and leads the way in all things Texan (i.e. drinking, shooting stuff, story telling, and general swashbuckling confidence (despite the fact that he is now barely over 5 feet tall as he has shrunk in his late 80s)). These stories always lead to my grandfather recalling more stories, from his 40 years in the Navy and Navy Reserve, 60 years of marriage to my grandmother who is one of the first women mayors in south Texas, and 50 years of being an architect along the Rio Grande River Valley. Amidst these stories, there will certainly be the hundredth retelling of the improbable three turkey kill with one rifle bullet (which I actually witnessed when my grandfather shot and killed two turkeys with a rifle bullet, then had a third die by what I can only postulate was a heart attack), the retelling of the turkey stolen by a bobcat story, and the always memorable telling of the other immaculate shot my grandfather managed: the double Canadian Goose in flight shot, where with a single shot he managed to kill two 25 pound geese while they were flying.
These grandiose stories about my grandfather will be offset by some serious ribbing and stories full of hilarity. The story of my first hunt will be retold where I was enlisted as a retriever and had to chase down and corral geese almost the same height as my 7 year old soul; one goose actually ended up chasing me instead of me chasing it. Or the more recent, fresh story will be retold about my grandfather accidently shooting a very slow and low flying crane despite everyone yelling at him not to shoot it and then had to hide it when the game wardens came over to our hunt.
All of these stories form the fabric of several generations of family hunts, but oddly, for many of these story telling events and even for some of the hunts themselves, I was not there. When I was younger, my introversion and love of books led me to spend large chunks of the these hunts reading books. In sixth grade, I spent most of the hunt reading The Lord of the Rings, in seventh, C.S. Lewis’ space triology, in 8th, the Count of Monte Cristo. I would barely leave my room while I was reading. I preferred the companionship of my books over my family, and in an all-too-familiar refrain in my life, I escaped into myself. When I got older and found myself adrift, in and out of college and in and out of seasons of depression, there were several years where I didn’t even go to the hunt with my family. I was so reclusive and lost in my own world I could not find it in myself to go to the one thing my grandfather and my father loved the most. They loved having their sons, their friends, and their stories, but I did not love myself, nor know myself, nor want to find myself in my grandfather and his stories.
In the past five years, we have been back to Eagle Lake several times. I have been back three times. We have welcomed a brother-in-law, we have shared stories, and I have watched my grandfather. We have witnessed the sunrise amidst the torrent of a thousand rising geese burning up the sky with their black, brown, and white flying V’s as their honking calls roar down on us like the thunder and wind of a sweeping Texas storm. And as I write, these are the sights I see more vividly than anything else my childhood holds, and I feel the rise and catch in my throat like I once felt when I first read about the Riders of Rohan charging down into Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings, and I see the twinkling eyes of my grandfather, and I remember this is who I am from, this is from where I came.
Oh, Sam, your piece took my breath away! Your prose is poetic. You do T.S. proud.
The image of “a thousand rising geese burning up the sky…” is burned in my mind.
This one brought tears to my eyes, Sam. I know those times of escaping into myself, too. I’m just beginning to appreciate how much those inner experiences/avoidances were important in the making of us, too. They make it possible to savor the stories and presence of others in a different way than we would otherwise, I think.
I’m impressed that your grandfather is still telling (mostly) the *same* stories. If my father (the Texan) were telling them, it would have been *six* geese with one bullet by now… 😉
Stacy, this is a great response. I think you grabbed the flipped side of looking inward. I would like to think my same reclusive nature that has drawn me away from others can also draws me into empathy with others.
And don’t worry, there are embelished tellings, but the stories about the three turkeys in one shot and the two geese with one shot are very far fetched as is. Those stories most wouldn’t believe as they actually happened unless I’m there to back my grandfather up.
This is so beautiful in its images and honesty, Sam. It really gets to the complexity of finding ourselves in our past and also the need to create some distinction for ourselves from that past. I think I’m just beginning to understand how intertwined the “who we came from” and “where we came from” actually are…
Sam, you are embarrassing me. I am in a public coffee shop, and as I read your description of the ‘excruciatingly miserable conditions’ and your grandfather’s epic tales, I chortled so loudly that coffee almost came out of my nose. Then, I kept reading and found my eyes beginning to fill at the corners. (I grabbed a bunch of Au Bon Pain napkins before it was too late.)
The people at the other tables are going to think that I’m crazy, and I know who to blame.
Thanks Jennifer, those reactions might be the best compliment I could recieve. I really enjoyed writing this and am glad I got to share it with y’all.
Oh, Sam, there is something beautiful and sad and hopeful about this piece. Thanks for sharing!
“To know the place for the first time” is very fitting, a rich phrase to frame your reflections. I love the summary of the “best of” hunting stories!
Thanks Mary. Those are probably all of the emotions I felt finishing this. I’m glad I got to write it.
And the hunting stories, I wish you could hear my grandfather (or my brother) tell some of them, both are far better story tellers than I.