Rednecks, alcohol, and firearms – truly a heady mix. It was my first season experiencing the rural tradition of the turkey shoot. Always having seen mysterious, often misspelled signs advertising turkey shoots, I had to ask Spouse to describe what, exactly, a turkey shoot is. I was beginning to understand that, as a town gal, I was uninitiated in so many redneck activities that seemed enigmatically exotic. No amount of Spouse’s attempts at explanation or description could rid my mental image of men in camouflage running through dark fields blindly shooting towards what they thought was a turkey. This could lead to copious bloodshed, but that only added to the romance. Perhaps some sort of specialized breed of dog was required. “Yep. She’s a blue-nosed turkey hound. Paid $2500 for her, and she’s worth every penny.” Listening to Spouse and Junior, I learned that thermal-lined jeans were au courant and that men pay extra money to have their shotgun barrels customized for a proper spray pattern. What did that mean? I didn’t know, but I like anything that requires specialized equipment, hats, and clothing, so I whined until they said I could go.
Turkey shoots take place in the late fall, so I understood the necessity of warm clothing. The proper hat is essential to any event, even a turkey shoot. There is no one particular style of hat to wear to a turkey shoot – ball hats, toboggans (for my yankee friends, this is pronounced TOE boggan and is not a sled), straw hats, cowboy hats (generally my trademark), and broken-in fedoras abound. I’m not sure how a pork pie hat would go over as this might look a little too citified. I’m pretty sure a beret, raspberry or not, would get your backside full of buckshot. Overalls, thermal-lined jeans, and coveralls were trending. As for tops, anything and everything flannel, camouflage, and fleece is always acceptable. Everyone had on at least one piece of denim; evidently this is mandatory. Nothing new or shiny. I’m not sure if chewing tobacco and beer can be considered fashion accessories, but I felt a little out of date without any. Needless to say, attendees of a turkey shoot need to watch out lest their footwear become victim to flying brown spit. Boots were by far the most popular – work boots or cowboy boots. Athletic shoes were there, but I learned that to be an effective participant in turkey shoots, the shooter’s shoes need to be sturdy so that the shooter can rest the butt of the gun on his toes.
Yes, that’s right; you rest the butt of your shotgun on your foot while the business end sticks up at about throat level. Now I know that Spouse and Junior are experts in the art of guns and that they would never, ever, ever hand me a loaded gun to play with. I am no gun novice, either, but when they handed me their (unloaded) shotguns to hold on my toes with the ends pointed up, I must admit that there was quite a rush of adrenalin. It took me a few seconds to relax enough to realize that my dream of coming to a turkey shoot had been fulfilled and that if I didn’t take in all the details, I would die a bitter, unhappy woman. I did get to hold Junior’s beer, so at least I looked the part of an experienced turkey shooter. After a while I became quite cocky holding on to two shotguns and a beer. I tried for an aura of nonchalance.
For those of you who are uninitiated in the delights of a turkey shoot, here is how the deal goes down.
This action takes place at night. There are light bulbs strung everywhere, and fires in huge metal barrels cast away the darkness. It’s fun to watch the pattern of traffic flow at the barrels. As the flames die down, everyone gets closer to the barrels. When a fresh supply of scrap wood goes in, the crowd gradually moves away lest their jackets catch on fire. There is a prodigious amount of boisterous talking. The volume goes up as the night progresses due to, I hypothesize, the amount of beer consumed.
The shooter goes up and purchases a place on a board. There are meat boards and money boards. Confused? That’s okay, all will become clear. It costs more to buy a spot on a money board than a meat board.
One of the establishment’s employees takes a 1″ by 6″ board about eight feet long and staples small square targets made of cardboard onto the board. Each target has a number. Most shooters do their best to get their desired number on the board, and feelings can be trampled if a shooter does not get his lucky number.
The employee takes the board out in a field where stands a huge, thick piece of metal with a giant turkey painted on it. I am not good with measurements, but the turkey is probably about ten feet tall. Some sort of enigmatic gizmo enables the employee, often a surly-looking teenager who would rather be flirting with his girlfriend, to slide the board through so that one target shows up in a slot cut in the turkey’s belly. He then takes safe refuge in a shelter behind and to the side of the turkey. He gets his own fire barrel.
The first shooter is called. It is considered a great breach of etiquette not to be nearby when your name is called. Insults and fights can ensue if the shooter is not prompt Another employee, often the one who was flirting with the surly youth out in the field, hands the shooter a shotgun shell. The shooter loads, carefully aims, and shoots.
The surly youth comes out from behind the board and shifts the board so that the next target shows up in the turkey belly.
The next shooter goes up. This repeats until all targets are shot.
Now comes judgement. The surly youth brings the completed board up for inspection. Whichever target has a hole nearest dead center is judged the winner. This can take from one minute to five minutes depending on how close the results are. Advice is given, voices raise, but there can be only one. The winner of a meat board gets choice of a variety of meats, but the winner of a money board gets a nice little wad of cash. As you can imagine, this process becomes more vociferous as the night progresses. Certain individuals are recognized as authorities. Junior is in this inner circle; he and the other circle members cast solemn looks at the targets. Deliberations are held. In case of dissension, a ruler is used. The owner of the establishment has final judgement. Once he proclaims a decision, a ticket for meat or a wad of cash is given. Meat winners take the ticket to an upright freezer on the back of a pickup truck where they get their choice of ham, turkey, or pork chops.
While some proprietors ban alcohol, many seem to cast a blind eye. It does not fill one with confidence to see someone wavering drunkenly up at the shooting area with a shotgun in hand, but it certainly does make for an entertaining evening. My main amusement was listening to the conversations around me. One gentleman, deep in his cups, was staggering from group to group, engaging in political debate. The gentleman looked very much like Abraham Lincoln if Lincoln’s hair and beard were much longer and he were missing some teeth. He was quite eloquent in a slurred sort of way, and perhaps the crowd may have listened more respectfully had he not been so physically off-balance due to a mix of alcohol and a prosthetic leg. At some point, the debate became heated, and he headed to his truck where waited his faithful dog.
I was huddled up at a barrel posting excitedly on Facebook about the sights and sounds when I heard a gravelly, slurred voice rambling angrily. I looked over to see Abe through the windshield of his truck yelling at a dog. He was standing at the open door of his truck with his hands on the dog, not really hitting him, but pushing him for emphasis. The dog was pretty much in agreement with whatever Lincoln was saying. He was not being hurt. Had the victim of the tirade been a human being and not a dog, I shall aver to the day I die that the ensuing fisticuffs would have never occurred. I took out my trusty Moleskine notebook and Uniball pen because I knew something truly momentous was about to happen.
We southerners sometimes have a reputation for moving and speaking slowly. While this can be true, we are downright speedy when motivated. From near me came a cry of “He’s hitting his dog!”
“That ain’t right!”
“That poor dog can’t defend hisself [sic]”
From all around, voices cried out in anger and dismay. Then, as a swift rush of wind, one young man seemingly teleported himself from one of the fire barrels to Abe’s truck. He used the back of the man’s jacket to haul him off of the confused dog. There was a scuffle, and then about two or three more soldiers were there to ensure the swift service of justice. It was all one tangled mess of arms, legs, and cursing. At least one of them was defending Abe. Had it stopped there, it would have been epic, but it continued. As the tangled ball of rednecks whipped into a frenzy of blows and insults, those still over at the barrels were cheering the men on. No one was cheering for any particular side; it was just a general enjoyment of witnessing an event that would provide hours of analysis and discussion. Shooting was abandoned as those waiting their turn went to observe.
As I stood there taking notes, at the back of my mind lurked the understanding that approximately 50% of the people there were armed with concealed weapons, but I brushed this aside. We are used to this in our neck of the woods. No one actually uses pistols or knives for much other than target practice and skinning critters, and it would be a dreadful breach of etiquette to use one during a fight.
All of a sudden there was a disturbance in the dirt road behind me. Twin whirlwinds of dust showed that there were now two more fights going on. These two fights were a by-product of the first fight. Dissenting opinions from the spectators had escalated to the physical. The first fight ended as those involved went to defend the honor of their friends rolling around in the dirt. I was the only one standing there in wide-eyed amazement. Dissenting opinions were offered up as to who would win and who was in the moral right. The rest of the crowd, including Spouse and Junior, were watching it as if it were some sort of sporting event. Which, I suppose, it was.
I have been pondering contacting some of the major sports channels like ESPN in regards to turkey shoot coverage. I know this could be a thing. I volunteer to be a commentator. “Standing up for the dog in tonight’s battle is Cletus. Weighing in at 350 pounds at 6′ 4″, this shade tree mechanic is known for his heroic stand for animal rights, advocating for a quick, clean kill of all game. Shad, defending Abe, can skin a squirrel in under one minute flat.” I would buy a tasteful camouflage suit and some high heeled steel toe footwear.
All fights must end. The two secondary fights ended with a fizzle. All attention turned back to the turkey shoot. It was John’s turn. He, always the soul of politeness, was ready when his name was called. Junior took back his beer and gun and chuckled as I put away my notes. I felt very privileged that night to be allowed into the inner sanctum of the turkey shoot. The images of the fires and the strung lights and the giant turkey linger in my mind. The sight of men rolling around in the dust throwing punches sticks with me to this day.
John won a meat board. We brought home a turkey that we used to feed at the homeless shelter. I figure that between the money placed on the boards, money spent on shotgun customization, and money spent on buying me some flannel-lined jeans, that season’s free turkeys only cost us about fifty bucks apiece.