Pheasant shooting, like most other things in Communist Czechoslovakia, is strictly for utilitarian purposes. No sport is intended. But the commissars, with an irony that possibly is unconscious, maintain the old Hapsburg protocol that used to go with the imperial shooting. They invite diplomats to kill their pheasants because they regard shooting them as harvesting a valuable crop—pheasants, not diplomats—and because, while over the years the comrades have developed a certain amount of skill with machete, meat ax and machine gun, the intricacies of wing shooting, which most Communists consider a decadent capitalist sport anyway, are generally beyond them.
Thus the foreign diplomats stationed in Prague receive each autumn a formal invitation for MM. les Ambassadeurs to proceed to the old Hapsburg hunting lodge at Zidlochovice, bringing two 12-gauge shotguns per diplomat, plus 800 rounds of No. 6 ammunition. Shortly after arriving in Prague as American ambassador, I received such an invitation.
The village of Zidlochovice lies in the Moravian plain, about 150 miles east of Prague and 60 miles north of Vienna. The battle of Austerlitz was fought just beyond the Zidlochovice oak forests, and Napoleon probably had roast pheasant and Danube grape jelly on the morning after his victory. Crown Prince Rudolph established the present estate, which, after his death in the arms of Marie Vetsera, passed two generations ago to his imperial brothers. King Alfonso shot there often, and the high score for pheasants killed on a single day by a single hunter (833) was made by the late King Carol of Rumania.
The main hunting lodge at Zidlochovice is built on a scale approximating a Chicago railroad station, and is almost equally drafty. In the halls there are more mounted stags, wolves, capercaillie, deer, foxes and pheasants than you are likely to encounter inside the Museum of Natural History, and the bedrooms feature life-sized paintings of callipygian nudes, in the Rubens (or Hapsburg) tradition. These treasures were augmented after the Communists seized Czechoslovakia by a plaster bust of Marshal Stalin, now possibly replaced by one of Khrushchev, which stood just inside the main entrance, flanked on the other side by a stuffed 450-pound boar. Uncle Joe, when I saw him, wore a benevolent expression, but the boar looked as though he had just been elected to the Politburo.
October 6, 1957
Arriving at Zidlochovice in the late afternoon of a gray November day, I surrendered my matched pair of Cogswell and Harrison shotguns to an ancient forester who must have dated back to the days of Emperor Franz Josef. There were nine of us in the party, all foreign diplomats from Prague, and the 10th man was our Czech Foreign Office host—a man with a permanently preoccupied expression. He was responsible, as it turned out, for Arrangements and Decorum.
We were routed out at 6 o'clock the following morning by the forester's trumpet, and under his tolerant eye I put on my Austrian hunting suit of gray wool trousers with a green stripe down the side, and matching jacket adorned with deerhorn buttons. This elegant costume was surmounted by a green velour hat, with a shaving brush aft. I likewise had a fine olive-green overcoat with loose shoulders and sleeves. I decided I looked like a fugitive from a Viennese light opera, and how, I wondered, was I going to lug around two shotguns, to say nothing of nearly 100 pounds of ammunition?
Our Foreign Office representative had breakfast laid on, and he made a speech in French while the gray daylight of European autumn sifted in among the staghorn chandeliers. He gave us directions for the hunt, and we were told not to shoot hen pheasants except as specifically authorized, and not to spin around in our tracks to take rear shots, no matter what the target or provocation. Breakfast over, we trooped out and embarked in three dilapidated imperial barouches, horse-drawn, apparently last painted during World War I.
The Zidlochovice estate produces 40,000 pheasants a year. The estate has both fields and forests. Sugar beets, potatoes, cabbage, corn and turnips grow on the rich farmland. There are wide stands of golden Czechoslovak oak, which make the finest wine casks in the world. They likewise provide marvelous pheasant cover.
Half an hour from the hunting lodge we were surrounded by 300 Moravian farmers armed with sticks—our beaters. Thirty government foresters were in command, but among them I identified a substantial covey of secret police in brown belted raincoats, felt hats √† la Jimmy Stewart, and city shoes already caked with red Moravian mud. The secret police, with nobody to arrest because diplomats have diplomatic immunity and cannot be arrested, seemed frustrated.
A personal scorekeeper
Three personal retainers were assigned to each hunter. The first was my gun bearer, who cradled one of my shotguns under each arm and declined to surrender either of them. The second lurched heavily under several hundred of my Churchill shotgun shells from London, slung in a leather bag over his shoulder. The third was a boy sprouting his first whiskers, unburdened by anything else except the stub of a pencil and a small white pad with my name on it. His function was to keep score of my hits and misses—a disquieting prospect for any hunter.
The hunters rallied round and the Chief Forester made a speech, which our Foreign Office friend translated: the first episode would be a two-mile walk through a stand of oaks, jump shots at flushed birds, cock pheasants only. Hares and rabbits could also be killed, and foxes if we saw any. Roebuck and Hirsch were forbidden. And now, if MM. les Ambassadeurs would please deploy to their stations, the proceedings could commence to be unraveled. One moment please: shotguns only—the Argentine consul general would kindly surrender his revolver.
We dispersed, and under guidance from the foresters spread out across a quarter-mile front. Ahead of us stretched 10 dark lanes through the forest, one lane to each hunter. The lanes were assigned according to rank, the middle ones for ambassadors, with ministers, attachés, consuls and secretaries on the outside. The lanes were about 10 feet wide and a gunshot apart; in the woods between each lane, and therefore between each hunter, there were 30 beaters pounding the oak trees, shaking down acorns and making a tremendous clatter. Behind each hunter walked his three retainers—the gun bearer, who also loaded each weapon as fired, the ammunition bearer and the scorekeeper. Behind the retainers, for my special benefit, walked three members of the secret police, their feet making squdgy sounds in the moist oak leaves.
The Chief Forester lifted his trumpet and blew notes that reverberated bravely across the Moravian plain. My bearer accepted two shells from the keeper of my ammunition. He inserted the shells, snapped shut the breech, handed the gun to me, and the whole line moved slowly forward. It was the first time I had touched my shotgun since reaching Zidlochovice.
Before we had moved 10 yards, a cock pheasant exploded under my feet and made off, straight ahead of me.
"Cock, shoot! Quick, shoot! Shoot cock quick!" yelled all three of my retainers. So did the three secret policemen.
I raised my gun. With a baseball bat I could have given that pheasant a permanent headache. I fired both barrels. The pheasant, shedding no feathers, continued gaily down my alley.
"Zero, zero," said my scorekeeper, while his disgusted colleague handed me my second shotgun. "Phooey," said the policemen.
Another bird flushed. It angled off through the trees, getting no closer. I took a quick shot with speed inherited from a boyhood spent snap-shooting at woodcock in Maine alder swamps; the pheasant crumpled.
"Hen," shouted my scorekeeper. "Score, zero, zero, zero." The three policemen made sounds of derision.
Three shots, I said to myself. Score: zero, zero, zero; 797 shells to go. From far off to the right a bird flushed from the No. 1 lane. Several enthusiasts fired at it without effect. Unmistakably a cock; the bird crossed 70 feet overhead, destination apparently Bratislava. I took a long swing and a long lead, and fired the left barrel. The pheasant struck the ground at our feet.
"Na zdar!" cried my retainers, meaning "Good going!" "Lucky shot," declared the three policemen.
Four shots, score one. 796 shots to go, if we used up all our ammunition. Two minutes had passed since we entered the forest.
The guns grow warm
So it went for those first two miles. The beaters picked up the birds; the hunters touched only their shotguns; and my retainers shouted "Hen, don't shoot!" at suitable moments. With the first 50 shells I killed 19 pheasants. Both guns grew warm and so did I in my Austrian rompers. The three members of the secret police, treading heavily on the heels of my retainers, continued to make remarks and offer unsolicited observations.
A rabbit finally fixed my policemen. A driven pheasant, with 300 beaters strung out across the woods, will take off ahead of the marchers. So will foxes and deer. But hares and rabbits combine fright with imagination. A startled rabbit is likely to whip around a stump in a scuffle of leaves and head back toward the line of marchers at 40 mph, ears laid flat and hind legs going like pistons. This hare dashed between my legs, did a terrified tango through my three faithful retainers, and put on a beautiful show of broken-field running through the policemen. I spun around 180° in the most conspicuously prohibited manner, and deliberately set off a charge of No. 6 shot safely above bunny's head, halfway between two of the policemen. They were not far apart. All three of them went flat on their faces in the yielding Moravian mud. Bunny lengthened his stride.
"Na zdar!" cried my retainers. "Help!" gurgled the stricken policemen.
I earned a fine symmetrical raspberry from the Chief Forester, with an assist from the Czech Foreign Office representative. But the members of the secret police thereafter maintained a prudent and respectful distance to the rear, and they offered no further suggestions regarding my shooting.
There are two other ways to shoot pheasants at Zidlochovice. One is to shoot them head on. A few hundred yards from the edge of the woods the line of march stopped, and the hunters were led around the outside and took positions facing the woods, at stands in an open field opposite the 10 lanes we'd been following. Crowded into the woods was the entire game population that had been moving on ahead of us, only now the pheasants were between us and the beaters, who, in response to the forester's trumpet, resumed their forward movement.
At the edge of the woods, pheasants took wing by the hundred. For 15 minutes, or until the beaters themselves reached the edge of the woods facing the hunters, everyone fired as fast as his two guns could be passed back and forth between hunter and loader. I killed 38 cock pheasants in a quarter of an hour, and all down the line the noise sounded like a dress rehearsal for Austerlitz.
The last kind of shooting is High Birds, and that is something else again. The hunters are spaced down the middle of a wide corn field that separates two tall stands of oaks, mature trees with little undergrowth. The beaters start work half a mile away, and each flushed pheasant takes altitude, clears the trees and then makes off for the forest on the far side of the corn field. Thus stimulated, with clear air ahead of them, birds fly at 60 to 100 feet, with the throttle wide open. It takes a lead of eight feet to connect at that distance—more on the quartering angles. Moreover, unless you center your bird, it scales down into the far woods, breakfast for an alert fox, while the scorekeeper marks down a succession of zeros. Only pass shooting for geese with the wind behind them is more difficult. My production curve took a downward trend, and I thought respectful thoughts of Carol of Rumania.
At one o'clock we paused for an alfresco luncheon served in a grove of Austrian pines, with slivovitz out of little crested glasses and a display of the Hapsburg linen. Waiters recruited from Lippert's in Prague poured steaming goulash into Karlovy Vary soup plates, and there was sharp red wine from nearby Moravian vineyards. I replenished my slivovitz glass, and felt less uncharitable toward my chastened policemen. My shoulder began to stiffen, and in the afternoon I called my own shots and avoided improbable targets.
All afternoon we cruised back and forth between the fields and the forests, and, as the shadows lengthened and the sky purpled in the west, we came at last to an open space where our three barouches waited, together with wagons filled with all our pheasants and hares and rabbits. The game was unloaded from the wagons by the foresters, who carefully arranged them on the ground in rows, two pheasants at a time, with the hares and rabbits separate from the pheasants. With their plumage of gold and green, the birds made a noble display. The hunters and beaters and foresters faced the hollow square where the game lay, and everyone came to attention. This was the final ceremony of the day, without which no Hapsburg hunt is completed.
The Chief Forester made a formal speech. He thanked the game for their cooperation, and apologized if they'd been put to any inconvenience. He thanked the hunters for their participation, and he promised additional sport for the morrow. He was like a priest of old time, performing a remembered ritual. I noticed that the secret police took no part in the ceremony. Taps were sounded over the field of game, and, as the twilight deepened, we drove away in our barouches, back to the lodge at Zidlochovice.
Remember King Carol
On that shoot, 10 hunters in a day and a half killed 1,450 pheasants, and in addition we shot 700 hares and 300 rabbits. I fired upwards of 600 shells, which I took to represent considerable shooting until I remembered King Carol.
The game at Zidlochovice does not belong to the hunters. Most of the birds were shipped with all speed to western Europe and there swapped for hard currency wherewith to help meet Czechoslovakia's commitments to the Kremlin. A few, however, were sold to the diplomats, who, after having tipped the staff at the Zidlochovice Lodge and subscribed to a present for the Chief Forester and paid off the retainers, found they had a fairly substantial investment in harvesting President Zapotocky's pheasants. The hunter's privilege of buying game was furthermore conditioned by rank; and an ambassador, as I recall, had access to 10 brace, plus five hares and one rabbit, at approximately their cost on the Paris market.
On the road back to Prague the secret police finally paid off their accumulated frustration. I drove to the capital after dark, and the secret police followed in their black Tatra, 50 feet behind me all the way to the height of land overlooking the Vltava River, blinking their headlights through my rear window. For 150 miles they made our life miserable. The Embassy attaché who accompanied me wanted to do something about it—borrow the Argentine consul general's revolver, for example. I restrained him. Until we got back to Prague, I said, the slogan remained: Shotguns only!
by ELLIS O. BRIGGS/U.S. Ambassador to Brazil, former Ambassador to Czechoslovakia
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellis O. Briggs, American Ambassador in Prague 1949-1952, is a Career Minister in the Foreign Service and one of the State Department's veteran troubleshooters in many parts of the world. He has also served as Ambassador to Uruguay (1946-49), Korea (1952-55), Peru (1955) and has been Ambassador in Rio de Janeiro since 1956. His book, Shots Heard Round the World, An Ambassador's Hunting Adventures on Four Continents, which includes this article, will be published by The Viking Press on November 4. Illustrated with drawings by Rudolf Freund, its price is $5.