The Thrill of the Safari in my Backyard

The doctor, rhyming his report, advised this chap to take up sport. Our hero, paunchy but astute, picked up a BB gun to shoot. Helped by his fierce Chihuahua dog, he swigged his gin and bagged his frog
August 22, 1965

Sometimes, when I'm waiting my turn in the barbershop or a dentist's office, I'll pick up a copy of one of the outdoors magazines and look through it. I like to read the true-experience articles, like the one about the hunter who went out for a prowl in the woods with a .410-gauge shotgun and who, after he had shot up all of his shells but one—and that one was damp from a leaking canteen—walked into a clearing and saw across it a rabid peccary, frothing at the mouth and ready to charge. It was what the zoologists call a white-lipped peccary—and at that point I was a bit white-lipped myself. I like these articles because, as they say these days, I can identify with them.

My wild life began with a visit to a doctor for a physical examination when I was 45 years old. He told me: "The tests have all been taken, the lab reports are in. In simple layman's language: you're drinking too much gin."

"I take a hell of a lot of umbrage at that statement, Doctor. Which do you think you are doing: composing or diagnosing?"

"Both. C. P. Snow calls it the Third Culture."

"Well, I'll tell you what. Why don't you send my bill to C.P. Snow?"

"Now, now, now. Don't get excited. I'm addicted to couplets, the way you are to gin. I am, you should know, an identical twin."

I got up to leave. I didn't at all like his complacent, love-me-love-my-doggerel manner. I said: "A man in my rundown condition wants something more from his physician than badly scanned iambic verse. I am already feeling worse. Physician, heal thyself! Beware: I may resort to Medicare. Who's getting all the therapy from consultation—you or me? And which of us collects the fee?"

He knew he had met his match and said, "Turn it off, man. Sit down, please. You are drinking too much, and you need to get some exercise. Is there anything at all that requires some physical exertion that you do like to do?"

"I used to like yoga, but I could never get in the lotus position, so I gave it up."

"What about fishing? Or hunting?"

Suddenly I remembered the look and smell of the woods in the early morning when my father and I went hunting 30 years before; the quiet, and then the rattle of a squirrel in the top of a tree. I felt a nostalgia all the way to my toes. "Maybe I could start hunting again," I said slowly.

"Do, by all means," the doctor said. "I think it would be very good for you."

I thought of what the doctor had told me, and of hunting, all the way home. But there were problems. I lived in a city now, not a small town as I did when I was young, and hunting would not be the simple thing it was then, when my father and I could drive a few miles out of town and be on the property of some friendly farmer where we could hunt all we wanted. I would have to find a place to hunt, I would have to investigate the game laws and buy equipment and find the time—it appeared to be almost insolubly complex.

But that night I found the answer. I was watching television, and there was a sports show on where a man was giving a demonstration of shooting with a BB gun without closing one eye and sighting. He had the sights taken off the gun, and he kept both eyes open, and he was remarkably accurate, hitting aspirin tablets and toothpaste-tube caps every time from a distance of about 20 feet.

The next morning I went down to the hardware store in the neighborhood and bought a BB gun and then took it over to my next-door neighbor and got him to cut the sights off with a hacksaw. When he got the barrel smoothed off, I took it back to the house and loaded it with a tube of BBs, and then I went out in the backyard to practice.

I practiced every day for several days and got so I could do the instinctive kind of shooting I had seen on television, and I decided it was time to stop the practice and start the hunting.

It was on a Sunday evening that I began. I put on a pair of shorts and an old pair of loafers and a T shirt and made myself a drink. I took the gun and a tube of BBs and the drink and went out on the patio in the backyard and sat down in a deck chair and started looking around for game.

One came out from behind the house about 10 minutes later. I spotted it on its very first spring, when it lit near a gardenia bush.

Very slowly and quietly I put down my drink, picked the gun off my lap, cocked it slowly, put it to my shoulder and fired; the BB was short about six inches, but it was on target laterally, and the ricochet stung the frog's left hind leg. It made two more springs and started back behind the corner of the house. I got one more shot at it when it was in the air on the second spring but failed to score a hit.

I felt exhilarated by the encounter and went back inside and fixed another drink. I knew from my reading about other hunters that it was the right thing to do.

My wife was at the sink peeling potatoes. "Any luck?" she asked.

"A big one. Beautiful specimen. I hit it on the leg the first shot, but I missed it the second, and it got away."

"Well, now don't get discouraged," she said. "Remember, you're getting the exercise the doctor said you needed, even if you don't get any game."

I laughed. "Don't worry, honey. I feel wonderful. The old thrill is there, and I'll get my share of game before I'm through."

I was pleased at the way she looked at me as I went back out in the yard. It was the first time she had looked at me that way for a long time, and I guessed it was in response to the streak of elemental man that was showing in my behavior. Women like hunters.

These hunting sessions became my weekend custom. Every Saturday and Sunday evening at 5:30 I would put on my hunting clothes, get my BB gun and a drink and go to the deck chair on the patio and wait for the frogs to come out. During the periods when there were no frogs in sight I would shoot wasps and dragonflies, and sometimes flies, to keep my hand in and my eyes sharp.

The only change I made in the setup was to buy a dog to retrieve the shot game and to keep me company, because it got so that it was lonely out there in the back with nothing but the sound of the neighbors' air conditioners and the occasional scream of a cookout chef when he got impatient and threw gasoline on the grill.

So I bought a Chihuahua retriever. I named him Moctezuma because he had a proud Aztec way about him.

Moctezuma turned out to be a marvelous hunting companion. I taught him to sit without moving a muscle by the side of my chair while I was watching and shooting; after I had shot the quarry and it appeared to be dead, I would command him to retrieve it by saying, "Olé," and he would be off like a streak to the carcass of the frog or the wasp or whatever it was, which he would pick up and bring back and put down by the side of my chair where I would examine it for the results of my marksmanship and also for its taxidermic possibilities to see if it was a decent enough specimen to go on the wall of my trophy room.

Moctezuma was a wonderfully courageous dog. There was one time when I commanded him to retrieve a large wasp that I had hit, and he darted out to pick it up. But the wasp had only been stunned, and while it was in the mouth of Moctezuma on the trip back it regained consciousness and stung him on the tongue. The dog didn't even break stride when he was stung, but after he had spit it out by the side of the chair he fainted. By the time I could get him to the veterinarian his tongue was swollen to three times its normal size, and neither the vet nor I thought he would pull through. But he did, and after 10 days of convalescence he was back by my side, retrieving as faithfully as ever—even wasps.

It was Moctezuma who saved my life. It happened on a Saturday, after we had a week of heavy rains that had increased the frog population to the point where they were more aggressive than usual, almost cocky. I was late in starting to hunt this day because of a business engagement, so that when I was finally able to take my stand on the patio it was 6:30 and growing dark.

Just a few minutes after I sat down I saw one small frog at the end of the yard, farther than the gun would carry accurately, but I snapped a shot at it anyway. I don't think I hit it. As I took the gun down from my shoulder to cock it I couldn't hear any BBs rolling down the barrel, and I realized that I was out of ammunition.

I reached down beside my chair to get a fresh tube of BBs, and as I did so I saw coming around the corner of the house the biggest frog that I had ever seen. It was pellet-gun or even .22-rifle size, a magnificent specimen, its gray-green skin glistening slimily in the light from a window. And then I noticed something that caused me to get very cold in the region of the gut: it was staring at me unblinkingly and malevolently, and its lips were working in a way that I have seen the lips of gluttons work when they are being served a steak.

Very slowly, so I wouldn't startle it, I reached for the BBs, got hold of the tube of them, brought it back and tried to open it with my thumbnail. I finally got the top pried up far enough for the BBs to come out, and then, still doing everything in the slowest of slow motion, I brought the end of the rifle barrel in to where I could unscrew the tip and open the hole in the barrel where it is reloaded.

But the sound of the first BB going into the barrel apparently warned the frog, for it sprang in a tremendous leap that brought it within four feet of me, where it sat for a moment, twisting and writhing slightly like a cat, preparing for its next spring, which would land it on my throat.

I panicked then and dropped the BBs, and I shrieked two words through the choking in my throat that I always shriek when I am terrified, "Holy Mother!"

No sooner had the "Holy" left my mouth than I saw springing from my side at the giant frog my Chihuahua retriever, Moctezuma. He went straight for the working and drooling lips of the frog, and for the next two minutes I watched there on the patio the greatest animal fight that I had ever seen.

The frog and the dog wrestled and snapped and tore at each other, the dog's growling low and vicious, the frog's bleating the echo of the blood-lust cry of some prehistoric ancestor.

Once I thought Moctezuma was done for; the frog maneuvered him to the rear and gave him a powerful kick with its hind leg that sent the dog skidding across the rough surface of the patio up against a Spanish dagger plant that my wife had planted at the edge, and I thought for a second that he had been impaled on one of the leaves. But no. He missed the point and went back at the frog in a charge of such ferocity that the frog was knocked off the patio, and they resumed the fight on the grass, rolling and snapping and kicking until, with one mighty leap, the frog broke it off and went under the fence into the next yard.

Moctezuma stood trembling and tousled at the spot, but his baying was a trumpet sound of victory.

I came out of the trance that I had been in and walked to him on quivering legs and picked him up by the ears and told him that he had probably saved my life. He lowered his eyes modestly—rather overdoing it, I thought.

It simply shows you how careless a hunter can get, and how lucky this one was. I should never have allowed myself to shoot the gun out of ammunition with night coming on, and if Moctezuma had not mistaken the sound of the word "Holy" that I shrieked, and thought it was "Olé," he undoubtedly would have sat through the frog's attack on me, because that is the way that I have trained and disciplined him.

I can tell you that when I go hunting now I have two BB guns, one of which is always fully loaded and cocked and lying by my side.

TWO ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)