Baker’s Hedgerow

It was the Christmas of 1970 and all I wanted for Christmas was a Daisy BB gun. I’d been hunting with my dad for a few years without a gun and I was ready to go it on my own and get my first gun. By the time I was 10 my dad had taught me about gun safety and I had learned a lot about hunting. Whether it was dove, quail, pheasant, ducks, geese, rabbit, squirrel or deer I had learned a lot from my dad when it came to guns and hunting. I watched, learned and mimicked his every move when it came to hunting. I could work our bird dogs and I knew exactly what to do when a dog went down on point and I had good training in gun muzzle awareness and how to handle and care for guns. My dad spent several years in the Army and Army reserve so he knew a good bit about firearms. We usually loaded our own shells and I spent many days as a kid reloading 410, 12 gauge and 20 gauge shells for a winter of hunting. My dad especially liked bird hunting and working with bird dogs so I helped my dad train our Brittney Spaniels so I was used to dogs and I knew what we required of them on a hunt. I was a little too young for our towns hunter safety course but I knew exactly what I could and couldn’t do when it came to firearms and hunting at a very early age.

Christmas finally arrived and we had a white Christmas in 1970. There was at least a foot of snow on the ground that year and I knew I was going to get that BB gun. Of course I played along with my parents when they told me I may or may not get a BB gun depending on what Santa thought but I was way past that Santa stuff. I planned it out in my head and I was ready to take myself, my new BB gun and 2 of our best bird dogs out for my first solo hunt. When I unwrapped my Daisy my grandparents were there and I can still remember it like it was this Christmas. I can remember the ouuu’s and the ahhh’s from my family as I tore the wrapping paper off to expose the long rectangular Daisy box and I was ready to start another chapter in hunting. My dad and I went out in the back yard and my dad helped me load and cock the gun. We both sighted and shot the BB gun at some makeshift targets and my dad made sure I knew what I was doing before he turned me loose with the gun and the dogs. He quizzed me on a few safety items and made sure I was confident in handling the dogs. He knew that I could handle the dogs and he was aware that I would mimic everything he did when it came to commands for the dogs. I had already planned everything in my mind months in advance and myself and the dogs were headed to Baker’s Hedgerow.

Baker’s Hedgerow was a mile long row of hedge apple trees and briars that lined two large crop fields about two miles from our farm. I had to cross a few big fields and climb through a couple of barbed wire fences to get to Baker’s hedgerow. My dad and I hunted the hedgerow frequently and there was generally a few coveys of quail somewhere along the hedgerow. Our dogs knew the area well and our Brittney’s knew exactly what to do when hunting the tree line and adjacent fields. The great thing about Brittney dogs was that their tails were bobbed and they would work in heavy cover and briars when other dogs wouldn’t. Our dogs were trained to work close to the hunter and not range out too far ahead and spook the birds, whether it was quail or pheasant. Our dogs were taught to be obedient but to them hunting was a job and a job they did well. Our best dog was a large male named Prince. Prince was a breeding male and sired several litters of Brittney pups over the course of his life. I had a little female Brittney named Buttons and she was a great hunter also, just like Prince. Buttons was a breeder dog and provided us with some fine litters from her and Prince. Another female we used for hunting was Princess. She was another female we used for breeding but not as bird savvy as Prince and Buttons but she did well enough to take on hunts as long as Prince was there to lead the way. On my first hunt I chose to take Prince and Buttons because they worked well together and they were easy to handle. Prince was the boss and looked at hunting as his job and he knew exactly what to do. The only problem we ever had with Prince was that he didn’t ever want to quit. If he knew we were quitting and heading for the truck or the house he would do his best to drag it out and keep hunting. Although Prince bit my sister once while she was trying to play with him while he was eating, we never had a problem with him and he seemed to understand that I was an extension of my dad and he always adhered to my commands. My job was always feeding the dogs and I think that’s another reason he respected me, I was the guy the brought the hot food on a cold winter night.

Shortly after feeding Prince and Buttons a hot meal of dry dog food with warm water poured in, which we always did before taking them on a hunt, I bundled up and got final instructions from everyone in the family including a laughable warning not to shoot my eye out. I was ready and let the dogs out for the hunt. We headed southwest out across our pasture and the nearest neighbors field, the Peaks, covered with snow. We had to cross our neighbors field to the south to get to Baker’s hedgerow. The Peaks pasture was used for their cattle to graze and included two watering ponds in which I frequently fished during the summer months. The dogs knew the way to the hedgerow and all I had to do was try and keep up. Prince would stop at every little clump of grass to sniff it out for any evidence of bird activity. Buttons was always in tow of Prince and they worked their way across the fields. Just before we reached the hedgerow there was a little draw with thickets and a small creek. As we approached the thickets I cocked my BB gun and got ready for action. I knew that their could be a covey of quail anywhere around the draw and my suspicions were confirmed when Prince started getting birdy. When the dogs would get birdy they would seem more serious and more pronounced in there movements. Their bobbed tails would start working back and forth with excitement and they would be nose to the ground working the area with a serious intent. If their keen noses caught a whiff of a bird or birds they would stop suddenly, frozen it time and a front paw would come off the ground, bent at the knee. This is what is referred to as “on point”. Prince didn’t exactly go down on point in this case but before he could I saw what was making him birdy. It was a Prairie Chicken and one of the only ones I had ever seen in my life. Prairie Chickens were very rare in our neck of the woods but I knew they existed from our years of hunting and listening to my dad speak of them in my younger years. I knew exactly what they looked like from the numerous books and magazines I had on upland gamebirds and the stories I read of bird hunting. Compared to a Bobwhite quail, the Prairie Chicken is much larger and would rather run from danger than hold tight in the snow or fly away. Both Prince and Buttons finally got a good whiff of the bird and went down on a hard point. I held the dogs point with a “whoa” command. A “whoa” or “whoa back” command was a command we used for the dogs when we wanted them to hold point and not move. This command would be given to the dogs over and over until we got into position to flush the bird and got ready to take a shot.This Prairie Chicken chose to run while the dogs held point from my command and I got a close look at the large bird. I don’t know if me or the bird was more shocked but as the big bird ran out away from us I didn’t take a shot and the bird didn’t fly until it was way out in front of us. The dogs finally broke point when they realized the bird had ran and after they saw that the bird had taken flight they went back to scouring the ground for more birds.

We worked our way to the hedgerow and started down the edge with the dogs working in and out of the thickets. They never strayed to far ahead and I could usually see them of hear the ID tags on there collars clinking as they ran. They would zig zag back and forth and in and out of the hedges.  I saw a few single quail kick up and fly ahead of the dogs but we just couldn’t find a nice covey over the course of walking the tree line. I never got to fire a shot at a bird with my new Daisy. We were just about to leave the hedgerow for home when I heard a faint crying noise from inside the tree lie and it sounded like a baby crying off in the distance. I saw Prince stop and listen, ears up and straining to hear the noise. We heard it again and Prince took off through the trees with Buttons in tow. They were gone for a while and I started thinking it may have been a Bobcat but soon Prince came out in a clearing carrying a small kitten in his mouth. The kitten was crying and Prince dropped the kitten at my feet. To this day I don’t know how that kitten wound up out there in the middle of nowhere but there it was, a little male tomcat cold and squalling. I picked the kitten up and put it inside my heavy coat and headed for home. Prince and Buttons were jumping around all the way home wanting to get a look at the little kitten in my coat. When I got back to the house I put the dogs up and walked in the back door to show everyone what I had found. When Kay saw the little kitten she went and got some milk from the fridge to warm and feed him. My dad wasn’t to keen on the idea of another mouth to feed but Kay had a soft spot for animals, especially a stray left out in the cold so we decided to keep the tomcat and I would add him to my chores to take care of. I named that cat Tommy and he spent the next several years hanging out around the farm catching rats, mice, snakes and any other small varmint that was around the house or barn. We made several trips back to Baker’s Hedgerow over the years but I’ll never forget my first hunting trip with my new BB gun and finding ole Tommy out there on Christmas day 1970.

Early Life on the Farm

I can’t really go back any further than 1966-67 but my earliest recollection starts on a little 7 acre farm on the outskirts of a little rural farming town in southeast Kansas. At the time the population of Girard, Ks. was around 3000 including the surrounding farms and the town was not much more than a bunch of grain elevator towers along the railroad tracks that held the grain from the massive crop farms around the town. My granddad worked at the grain mill and his job mainly consisted of filling 100lb burlap bags with soybeans to move on down the tracks. I remember his hands were big round hands that were as hard as granite rock from holding the ears of the burlap bags as the beans came down the bean chute and filled the bags. His forearms were gigantic, much like Popeye’s forearms, minus the tattoo’s.  Later on when I was a teenager I got to feel the wrath of those big hands when he caught me smoking for the first time. Those hands also doubled as a club up side my head after ripping a pack of cigarettes out of my shirt pocket when he saw them in my front pocket of my t-shirt. He wanted to make his point stick and to this day I still remember those hands, both in a grandfathers loving way and also to teach me a lesson in life.

Our little town had a town square with a 3 story stone courthouse in the middle with a diner, a five and dime, a drugstore, an old bar called “The Long Branch” a clothing store as well as a little grocery store called “Farmers Food Center” owned by my dad and my dads brother, my uncle Richard. There were a few other businesses on the square surrounding the court house but it was just a small farm town like any other that dotted the Midwest. We had a small school system and I think there were no more than about 60 if that many in my graduating class. At the time the town was booming with a homecoming every fall when the square would be shut down with carnival rides and a homecoming parade, a homecoming football game in which the whole town attended and everyone took a lot of pride in our little town.

Since my dad worked a full time job as a half owner and butcher at the grocery store my stepmother Kay and us kids were responsible for taking care of the farm. It’s safe to say that I started working about the time I was strong enough to carry a bucket. My brother Steve was just a couple of years older than me and my little sister Debbie was a couple years younger. We each had our chores which consisted of feeding cattle, slopping and watering pigs, feeding chickens, gathering eggs and taking care of our Brittney Spaniel dogs that we bred, trained and sold for bird hunting. All this had to be done, rain or shine, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. It was a team effort and my dad usually didn’t get home till after 5pm to help out. Although my dad owned a grocery store we drank fresh milk we received for free from our neighbor’s Jersey milk cows in trade for letting them graze in our pasture. Our eggs came from the chickens we raised and our meat came from the cattle and pigs we raised and took to slaughter. The slaughter house was right behind my dads store and I used to watch my dad slaughter the cows and pigs and then cut them up for the freezer. The chickens were decapitated and feathered 10 at a time and we shared some with my grandparents and put a few in the freezer. My dad and I hunted and fished every year but hunting and fishing wasn’t for sport but it was to supplement our food supply. We never ever hunted or fished for sport when I was growing up. My dad didn’t believe in killing anything for sport and it was only out of necessity that we killed anything. With the exception of a pack of coyotes,  desperate raccoons or a hungry bobcat looking to raid the chicken house, everything we killed we ate. Everything else we shot or caught came home and was cleaned, plucked, skinned or scaled and put to good use as food for the table. Our little farm was a mile west of town and surrounded by crop and cattle fields on all sides with an old dirt/gravel lane from where the pavement ended at the west end of West Walnut street. That was the layout of where I was raised until my dad sold the farm and we moved away after I graduated from High School.