A trusted transplant’s first foray at Middleton Hunting Club
I am not what anyone who is even moderately in control of his faculties would call a “sportsman.” I was born in Brooklyn, New York — and although I left Brooklyn for the wilds of Queens, N.Y. when I was a small child, no one who is born in Brooklyn ever loses that distinction. Needless to say, neither Brooklyn nor Queens is famous for its sporting opportunities, at least insofar as such pursuits are defined in, say, England or the Southern part of the United States. Opportunities for fly fishing or deer hunting on 44th Street in Brooklyn or on Radnor Street in Jamaica Estates, Queens were somewhat limited.
I grew up playing stickball in the schoolyard and I never fired a shotgun until well into my 60s. When I finally left New York, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina, with its well-earned reputation for “gentlemanly” pursuits and its Southern traditions. I have not thus far run into a single person who was born south of Delancey Street who has ever even heard of schoolyard stickball. I have certainly not run into any such person who was born near Charleston.
Furthermore, I was a particularly lousy stickball player, in addition to being a lousy punchball player, lousy stoopball player, lousy Chinese handball player and lousy anything else player. In short I am a lousy athlete. It wasn’t until I moved to Virginia that I discovered equestrian sports (specifically hunter/jumpers) and found that, yes indeed, I was an excellent equestrian. It confirmed my since confirmed suspicion that I was never a true, died-in-the-wool New Yorker, notwithstanding my Brooklyn roots. Although we returned to New York and I spent most of my life there, I never felt as if I belonged there. Since moving to Charleston, I knew that to be the case. As a good friend said of me: I have always been a South Carolinian, I just never knew it.
In my late adulthood, I have discovered “gentlemanly” pursuits. Several years ago, while still in New York, I took up fly fishing and I discovered that I loved it. I came to realize that trout live only in beautiful places — upstate New York, rural Pennsylvania, western Virginia and the like. It is impossible to be an atheist after you have seen Montana. These are the places where trout dwell and they are places of deep spiritual nourishment.
On fly fishing trips it never even mattered to me if I caught anything. It was the act of trying to do something perfectly — fly-casting — in a place that was more perfect than the most perfect cathedral (or synagogue, in my case), that was what truly mattered and that was what was most rewarding.
That and the gear that one could buy!
When I took up equestrian sports, I discovered a whole new world of magnificent leather boots, beautifully tailored breeches and superbly made saddles and I began engaging in the only athletic pursuit in which I truly excel, shopping! I am a world-class shopper — a competitive shopper — and each one of these gentlemanly sports opened up an entirely new world of gear in which I could immerse myself.
I love shopping for equestrian gear. I love shopping for fly fishing gear. I love shopping for gear of all kinds. One would be hard put to find a store that specializes in stickball. A stickball bat is made from an old (not a new) broom handle and the only other things that you need are a rubber ball (preferably a Spalding or, as we used to call it, a “Spaldeeeen”), some Keds and a schoolyard. Not much in the way of elegant gear there. Consequently, it never appealed to my finer sensibilities. Nothing to shop for.
A few weeks ago, while perusing Facebook, I discovered a photograph posted by my friend, Charles Waring, publisher of the Charleston Mercury. It was a photo of Charles, in full regalia, posing with a six-point buck, a marsh pony and a friend. What struck me the most was that Charles looked like one of those illustrations from the pages of a 1930’s edition of Boy’s Life magazine … necktie, lace-up high boots and all. It was outstanding. I immediately wrote to Charles, “subtly” requesting an invitation and telling him that if he invited me, my outfit would do him proud. Charles, gentleman that he is, proffered the invitation and told me where I could purchase the various required items (one of the places he mentioned, Circle Seven Outpost and Provisions in Charleston, has become my absolute favorite store in the world – gear galore!).
I already had the Barbour jacket (the best jacket ever made … in history … ever … really!). I remembered that while on an archaeological dig in Israel last summer, the Duluth Fire Hose shorts that I wore would undoubtedly survive nuclear destruction, so I ordered a pair of Duluth Fire Hose pants, which turned out to be perfectly suited. My greatest task was purchasing the correct footwear. After buying three different sets of boots, I settled on the LaCrosse 18” Burly Classic Hunting Boots. I returned the other two pair and I was in business.
Charles lent me a book, Tales of Whitetails: Archibald Rutledge’s Great Deer-Hunting Stories, which is a compilation of deer hunting tales written by the man who, it turns out, had been the master of Hampton Plantation (just up the road from my home), the poet laureate of South Carolina and a deer hunting genius who had spent his life studying its various aspects as an art form. It is a lovely book and through it I became aware of a technique of deer hunting of which I had never heard. Instead of trudging through the woods carrying a rifle while dressed like Elmer Fudd, the “driving method” employs men on horseback, using hounds, who drive deer past “stands” in which hunters wait for them with shotguns. This might sound terribly unsporting, but believe me, it ain’t.
It turns out that the hunt to which Charles had invited me was to be conducted by the Middleton Hunting Club, a venerable organization dating from 1908 that hunts on the spectacular 8,000 acres of Middleton Plantation and the adjoining Millbrook Plantation, of which Charles is (like his father before him) a member.
Several days before the hunt, Charles sent me a list of the club rules, among which was the requirement that each hunter must wear a necktie. I loved it!
On the appointed day, suitably attired, I met Charles at his home at six in the morning. Parked outside his home was not the expected Mercedes or Jaguar. Instead, there stood a beat-up Ford pickup truck that Charles proudly told me his father had bought used. The pickup was not a “vintage antique,” it was a weathered and well-worn veteran of numerous cross-country treks. I thought to myself: “this is totally cool.” The only thing missing was a Labrador.
We headed out to Middleton Plantation. When we arrived, there were two trailers. One containing two marsh ponies and one loaded with cages filled with hounds. The weather was pleasantly cool and the smells were unique and enticing. It was a wonderful beginning.
Waiting for us was a collection of men, younger and older, some impeccably attired, some less than “impeccably” attired, but all meeting the black letter requirements of the rules. I was introduced by Charles, we all exchanged pleasantries and listened while the hunt master reviewed the plans for the hunt. Following that, there was a brief prayer for a successful hunt and we were off. The men were assigned by the hunt master to various pickups and we set out. We drove over forest paths and made various stops where the hunt master assigned two hunters to a “stand” that was either by the path, or a few hundred feet into the woods. It turned out that we would each of us be assigned to several different “stands” during the course of the day.
Charles and I were given our assignment. We left the truck and walked into the woods carrying our shotguns (Charles had looked at my Remington and decided that I would be “better off” with his Italian-made double gun). We had with us some bags of 12 gauge shells, some water and small folding camp chairs. Charles was carrying a hollowed out cow’s horn that reminded me of the shofar (ram’s horn) that we Jews sound on Rosh Hashanah. Charles scouted out the topography and situated us both behind some bushes, with me about a foot in front of him and slightly to his left side.
We sat there for about ten minutes settling in, occasionally whispering to each other and getting comfortable. I became conscious of the intensely sweet and fresh smell of the woods. There was no noise except the chirping of birds. No traffic noises in the distance – no intrusions. I heard a cow’s horn sounding one tone. Several others followed, including Charles blowing a tone that would have stood him well in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. All the hunters were now in place. Charles then said, “Now, we wait.”
After a bit, I became conscious of a “hallooing” in the distance, accompanied by the sound of many hounds baying. The drivers were attempting to startle deer that were in cover and direct them past the hunters. The hallooing and baying would periodically fade into the distance and then grow louder as the drivers would ride back and forth, coming and going.
About half and hour went by. We would sit in silence for a bit, remaining alert for the sudden appearance of a deer. Charles and I would occasionally whisper to each other of this and that — speaking of current events, telling family stories (he appears to be related to every Charleston family of note since his family arrived in 1683). He would whisper to me of his cousin so-and-so with whom he used to hunt as a boy. He would whisper to me of various hunts with his father. He whispered to me of long gone relatives who had had a variety of foibles. I, in turn, recounted stories of my family, whose backgrounds could not have been more different from his if they had been from Mars and he from Mercury. It didn’t matter. We became comfortable with each other, chuckling, whispering and waiting for the deer.
After about 30 minutes, we would hear a grouping of tones from a cow’s horn. It was the drivers calling in the dogs and signaling that there were no deer in that locale and that it was time to move. We moved five times — meeting up with the others periodically and then dispersing from stand to stand. Each locale was beautiful. Some were on higher ground than others. Some were near ponds of water. The whole place was perfect and serene.
At about 3 p.m., we heard a shot. It was not followed by a tone on a cow’s horn. Charles informed me that, either a hunter had missed a shot at a deer (if he had hit, there would be a tone), or had hit a wild pig. I asked why they would not sound a horn if a pig was hit. Charles replied that the wild pigs are vermin. They root up the ground, they eat the acorns and nuts that the deer crave and, most important, the wild pigs are not indigenous. They are descended either from pigs that had escaped captivity or from boars that had been, unfortunately, brought to the area by the Spanish and later the Vanderbilts and others keen to hunt the European boar. They are nuisances, not noble like deer.
It turned out that one of the hunters had killed a wild sow. When we were called out of the stand, we came upon the sow and it was huge and mean looking. This was not something that anyone would like to face without a loaded shotgun in hand. The thing later weighed in at 180 pounds of nastiness.
We loaded the sow onto one of the pickups and headed in. It turned out that earlier in the day one of the horses had bucked off one of the drivers, causing a bit of injury (he is alright now) and the remaining driver, having done the work of two, was too exhausted to continue.
So, we headed in. We re-assembled at our point of departure and the stories began. One guy talked about the shot that had brought down the wild sow. Another guy talked about other sows that had been taken … some weighing thousands of pounds! Real monsters! Another guy talked about a huge buck that he had seen, but couldn’t get his gun up quickly enough to shoot. During the general conversation, Charles lowered the tailgate on his truck and set out an impressive selection of libations. Evidently this is Charles’ traditional role, as it had been performed by his father before him. After a few tipples, one of the members (a doctor whose name shall remain anonymous) began telling some comical stories. I tried to go toe-to-toe, story-to-story, with him but I finally gave up in abject defeat. He was completely and totally hilarious, regaling us with stories about penguins and other creatures, human and otherwise, without breaking a sweat. He was a total pisser!
Finally, it began to grow dark and we dispersed. This had been one of the great days of my life. Sitting out there in the woods, in the quiet amidst the sweetest smells imaginable, was what I have heard described as a Zen-like experience. Frankly, I wouldn’t know Zen from stuffed cabbage, but I had experienced a spiritually overwhelming day. Being with a bunch of great guys, alternately laughing, sitting quietly, thinking, being alert for what is going on around me, that was the essence of what that day was about. That I didn’t get a shot at, or even a glimpse of a deer is totally beside the point. It turns out that the deer is an excuse, not a reason for being out there and enjoying the camaraderie of friends and the exquisite perfection of what G-d has created.
I can now begin concentrating on shopping for an entirely new bunch of stuff. I understand that Purdeys shotguns are true works of art. L.L. Bean makes some sensational hunting boots and Gokey makes magnificent boots that are snake proof. Beretta hunting vests are beautiful and exceptionally functional. The hunt — for GEAR — is on! I am ready to hunt again (or I will be ready again after another visit to Circle Seven Outpost and Provisions).
And as a memo to a certain good friend of mine up the coast: I am primed to go turkey hunting!
Originally published in the Charleston Mercury