He was an old man who my dad said knew a little about almost everything. And in the middle of a year of desperate squirrel hunting, he turned out to be as good as advertised.
I grew up hunting squirrels…with my dad, mainly.
She had walked the woods with him since he was six years old, always watching how he enjoyed harvesting a bunch of colas on a frosty autumn morning for dinner later in the day. And that was a treat in our house, because Dad thought squirrel was the best wild meat there was. He was the best, I thought…because he never came home empty handed.
And he was a wonderful teacher of how and why, because he believed that you only take what you intend to use. But most of all, he taught me the finer points of gun safety, even when he was young, things I never forgot. “Hunt with a shotgun when you’re near buildings,” he said. Because if you miss with a rifle, that .22 can go a long way.” That kind of things.
He taught me about the trees in the woods and a squirrel’s favorite forage in the fall. In southern Ohio, along the Ohio River, that usually consisted of hickory nuts, sometimes pecans. In years when those nuts were scarce, he would head out into the oak woods, looking for the big red oaks…because they had the biggest acorns and were easier for a squirrel to peel.
In the years when even acorns were scarce, Dad headed for the ground along the Symmes and Guyan Creeks. He finds an unharvested cornfield in early October and he’s sure to find squirrels. The squirrels love corn, there was water for them, and big maple and sycamore trees they could use to rest.
Yes sir, Dad practically turned squirrel hunting down to a science. He knows your prey, their customs and above all… be calm and patient. Calm and patient, of course, were difficult for a twelve-year-old, but Dad was long-suffering; and I think he knew how much he enjoyed watching it. And what man could he resist showing off a bit?
In the fall of my fourteenth year, he finally let me carry a loaded shotgun, an old double-barreled 20-gauge Ithaca that my grandfather (his father) had owned since the Depression. This was around 1966, and Dad was at the height of his hunting years as he escorted me through the woods, constantly reminding me “that gun is loaded, you know.” And, “make sure the safety is on until you’re ready to shoot.” And, “where does your snout point?” He never quit.
But in the fall of 1966, not even Dad could find squirrels. For some reason, probably spring frosts, there was little or no walnut crop that year. The few hickory nuts that did survive had been quickly eaten (or buried) before the start of the hunting season, and the oaks were not much of a backup. It was also a year that the creek bottoms had been planted in something besides corn, so it was a dry hole, too.
Nonetheless, I persuaded him to take me out into the woods one morning, knowing the prospects were bleak. In fact, he didn’t even bring his 12-gauge. That day he was content to just watch. As we walked through the gap behind my grandfather’s dairy barn, we saw no sign of squirrel activity. The ground under the giant hickory and walnut trees was bare of cut signs, and the trees were beginning to change color and shed a few leaves. Perfect condition, except… no squirrels.
About a quarter of a mile along the narrow dirt road we traveled lived a man named Claude Beckett. I don’t know how many years, but for as long as I can remember he had always been in that hole, living with his wife Ada in a tidy wooden house. This morning we ran into him as he was walking to the main road to check his mail. He never knew what he did. And when I asked Dad about him, he always told me that he knew something about everything.
“Any luck?” he asked dad. She had known Dad, his eight brothers and one sister since they were born.
“Not much to hunt this year,” Dad replied. “There is no walnut or walnuts. I don’t know what they are finding to eat. Though I guess the squirrels are out there somewhere.
Mr. Beckett looked at me and tilted his head.
“No nuts, huh. Well, I bet I know where you can find them. How much time do you have? Come back this afternoon and I’ll show you where to find squirrels.
His words were like catnip to me. I didn’t think Dad would be patient enough to stay half a day, but my constant prattle about Mr. Beckett knowing where to find squirrels even piqued his curiosity. Later that afternoon, he received us in his garden, next to his Martin’s house.
“When all else fails, squirrels will eat Buckeyes,” he told us. “Have you tried hunting in the horse chestnut woods?”
“I always heard horse chestnuts were poisonous,” Dad answered, shaking his head. “We always try to keep cattle away from horse chestnut trees. Even the bark of the tree would make them sick.”
“The squirrels eat them very well,” Mr. Beckett said, motioning for us to follow him further up the hole.
It was around four past four in the afternoon and the afternoon sun was filtering through the treetops, casting shadows along the ground. And true to what he had told us, we crossed a small stream and entered a grove of horse-chestnut trees on the side of the hill, laden with a large crop of walnuts still in their hulls. We sat on the edge of the forest with the sun at our backs.
“The squirrels will chip away at the hooves and when they hit the ground, the nuts will spill out. They will eat them or bury them for later,” said Mr. Beckett, as he turned to head back into the house. I’ll hear some shots. And don’t forget to look for squirrels on the ground.”
It didn’t take fifteen minutes for the first signs and sounds of squirrels to emerge. At the top of the tallest tree in the grove, I saw its tail before I saw the squirrel. A moment later I heard a loud crash as the buckeye hoof I had gnawed fell to the ground. As he climbed further up the branch to munch on another, I leveled the 20 caliber, aimed it right in front of his nose, and fired. The crash was deafening in the silent forest, and for a moment I thought I had missed. But a moment later, the fat gray squirrel fell to the ground, tumbling through the branches.
The sound, of course, scared the forest for several minutes. But soon I heard another sound loud and to my left: another Buckeye being sent to the ground. Skirting a tree to get a better view, I spotted him instantly as he worked on the soft shell of the hull. Boom… and another gray was on the ground, and this time my shot scared another squirrel into display, right below the one I’d just shot. Boom, the little 20-caliber barked again, and just like that I had three squirrels to claim, proud of my shooting skills as Dad watched.
“I think three is enough, don’t you?” the whisper. It will be night when we go down by the bonfire and return to the car. And we’ll need time to clean and butcher them when we get home.
The sun was disappearing behind the ridge as we passed Mr. Beckett’s house. He waved from the porch as he held up my squirrels to show him. Smiling, he turned and went into the house.
“Well, I learned something I didn’t know before,” Dad said as we continued down the small dirt path. “I never knew squirrels would eat a buckeye. I didn’t think anything could eat a horse chestnut”,
Mr. Beckett apparently did. It turns out that he really knew something about almost everything.