In honor of the coming of summer and time spent outside in pursuit of lightening bugs and toasted marshmallows, I bring a tale that may or may not have taken place in real life.
The Snipe Hunters
A small, scared, uncertain piping spread through the crisp fall night. “Snipe…snipe…snipe.” It came from the far end of the cornfield, flowed across the stumps of the summer’s crop, bounced back off the pines, and spread across the scummy water of the pond beyond the dirt road. The word always came in threes – “Snipe…snipe…snipe.” If a person scrunched up his eyes hard enough and peered long enough into the darkness, he could see a small, dim figure crouching in the shadows. If a person looked a little longer, the figure became a boy crouched down, holding an open sack towards the wide field. What his thoughts were, we do not know, but he was a brave boy of valiant heart.
On the other end of the field, a tiny chaos ensued. The snapping of branches and the nervous giggles of eight Boy Scouts gradually settled to the occasional “Hey! Cut it out!” or “Ouch!” as one or another of the boys stepped on his buddy’s sneakered feet. A small clan of adults melted in and out of the pine thicket, discussing strategies. A muffled snicker or two was followed by shushes and more snickers. A bright-eyed barn owl looked upon the activity with a disdainful eye and flew off to the other side of the pond where things were a little more sensible. The full moon shone upon a mouse, and with a lighter-than-air swoosh, the owl was gone, leaving these humans to their foolishness. A tall, lanky man dressed in faded jeans and flannel shirt faded to grey strode out towards the cluster of scouts. The moonlight glinted off his glasses and the silver of his hair. In the dark it was difficult to tell if he was smirking or just smiling.
“Well, fellas, has everyone got their stick? Can’t catch any snipe without a stick.”
A series of nods and spoken assents affirmed that, indeed, each boy had a fine-looking stick clutched in his trembling hand. One child, slightly built and shivering from the wind off the water, looked up and asked, “Are you sure, Mr. Gus? Are you sure there are snipe in this field? It looks awful’ empty to me.”
A smaller figure (possibly female under an old jean jacket, sweatshirt, purple flannel shirt, and thermals) stepped out to join Mr. Gus. Mr. Gus, leader of this fine troop of first-year Boy Scouts, spoke up, “Boy, you doubtin’ the word of a national champion snipe hunter? Miss Betty here has won two national championships back to back. If she says there are snipe, snipe there are. Anyone wantin’ to go back – for whatever reason – is welcome to walk back to the campsite.”
Eight little ball caps turned in perfect unison toward the lonely, shadowy road bordered by shrubbery and scrubby oaks that made the perfect hiding place for lunatics. They knew that there were lunatics out there…somewhere. They knew because Mr. Gus said so. Even Miss Betty, a Sunday school teacher, affirmed that one scout from last year’s troop had disappeared under very mysterious circumstances after the escape of some patients from the local asylum. She had tearfully described the parents’ agonies over the tiny dead body found horribly mangled in the covered bridge near the pond. Local police had never found the lunatics, though they were thought to be hiding out in these very fields and woods.
More than one scout envisioned the campsite with its warm fire and pot of water heating over the fire in preparation of the night’s hot chocolate. They envisioned also the ruin of the old house (next to the covered bridge) that loomed above the tents with darkened windows like the hollow eyes of an axe murderer. If a scout listened carefully, after everyone else was asleep, he could hear the house whispering to itself. The house, they knew, was watching, always watching. The perfect hideout for lunatics. The best chance for survival was with the adults. At least with adults you would be safe. You could trust adults. They would hold off the axe murderer/lunatic until you could run to safety.
The thought of murderers running through these very woods made the boys jump as another adult crunched across the road. They relaxed at the sight of the stocky man swaggering over to join them. He mumbled in a bass tone, “You got these boys ready to go?”
“No,” said Mr. Gus, “they haven’t fanned out across the field yet.”
“What’re you waiting for? An invitation?”
“No, Mr. John. We were just waitin’ for you.”
“Good. If I didn’t know better, I would think you was gonna wuss out on me. Now spread yourselves out across this edge of the field. You need to be at least two arms’ length away from one another. “
The boys were slow to move. Mr. John gave a sigh of impatience that the boys knew all too well. They got their butts in gear before they were reminded to do so.
Mr. Gus turned to Miss Betty. “Maybe you ought to tell them again.”
Miss Betty nodded her head. “Boys, what’s the first thing you gotta do?”
Chester, bravest of the lads, said, “Start swinging our sticks in the brush ahead of us.”
“Good. What’s next?”
Reggie, not to be outsmarted by Chester, said, “Then we start walking and stomping our feet real hard.”
“And why do we do this?”
“To scare the snipe from out of the corn stalks.”
“Right. Now remember, fellas, you’ve got to move inwards slightly as you go so the snipe move into line with the bag man. You guys on the outside have to stay a little ahead of the middle guys.
The sound of “Snipe…snipe…snipe” had been drowned out by crickets, stick-finding, and lunatics in the scrubby oaks, but the boys once more focused on the call of the bag man. He had been out there for a good ten minutes. Each stick-wielding boy privately prayed thanks to a good and loving God that he had not been chosen as the bag man. Mr. Gus, Mr. John, and Miss Betty placed themselves amongst the boys. Mr. John asked Mr. Gus, “Ready?” Mr. Gus looked at Miss Betty, and they both nodded in affirmation. It was time.
The line got off to a slow start, but using the adults as role models of proper snipe hunting technique, the boys began methodically swishing their sticks in front of them and stomping the damp, rich soil of the field.
“Chester, Randy, you need to move up a little. Start moving in a little, too. Not too much.”
Mr. Gus halted for the briefest instant. Eight voices said, “What is it, Mr. Gus?”
“Thought I heard something.”
Miss Betty nodded wisely. “Yup. Just up ahead. About ten of ‘em by the sound of it. Must be a mama and chicks.”
The line moved again, perhaps a little faster. Excited breathing filled the air with little puffs of fog. An intent, listening expression was on the faces of adults and children alike.
“Oh! I hear it too.”
“Snipe. Snipe. Snipe.”
The pace quickened. Miss Betty called out words of advice: “Keep moving in, boys. We’ve got to move them into position.” They were only twenty yards from the bag man.
A boy cried, “One just ran past me! A big sucker.”
“Snipe, snipe, snipe.”
A new burst of strength came upon the boys like the spirit of heaven descending from above.
“Don’t let ‘em get away. Hey, David, get the bag ready! Get the bag ready!”
The boys were giving orders now. “Chester, one’s coming your way. Get ‘im; get ‘im.”
“Snipesnipesnipe, snipesnipesnipe. Hey, one just ran past me! Close in on ‘em. You guys are lettin’ them get away. Snipesnipesnipe…Hey, I said to close in. Geez.”
The stomping and stick-swishing moved closer together and closer to David. So close. So very close. A sudden burst of wind picked up a swirl of dried leaves. At the same time, the snipe rushed away past David, Keeper of the Bag. On into the wilds they ran, never to be seen in that field again except in the dreams and legends that sprang up around that night. There was not much to be said. A collective, disappointed sigh ran through the group.
Miss Betty, the comforter at such times, consoled them. “Oh well, boys, there’s always the next camping trip. Let’s go make our hot chocolate. Who’s in charge of the marshmallows?”
Sudden pandemonium broke out. Randy, smallest of the troop, bounced forward. “Me! Me! Me! Me!”
“Not you, dipwad. It’s my turn.”
“Nuh-uh, Chester. You did it last time.”
Eddie, always knowing what was right, said, “David should do it. He was the bag man after all.”
This was right and proper, as all there realized. Downcast but somewhat mollified by the promise of fire and food, the boys marched in twos and threes past the lunatic in the scrubby oaks. They had forgotten him. There had been enough excitement for one night.
Morning came. Camp was struck. Boys were picked up by bleary-eyed parents. Boys were actually grateful to take hot showers, put on clean socks, and eat a hot meal with their parents. David narrated the previous evening’s events to his mother and father, proud to focus on his primary function as bag man. Mom and Dad exchanged glances across the table.
“And Mr. Gus said I did such a good job that I can be bag man again on the next camping trip.”
“Um, David…” David’s father cleared his throat nervously. “Don’t be too disappointed if you don’t catch any snipe next time.”
“What do you mean, Dad? Miss Betty said there isn’t any snipe season. We can hunt them all year.”
“That’s not exactly what I mean, Son, you see…”
Here he was cut off by Mom. “David, it was just a joke. There’s no such thing as snipe.”
David looked at her in utter disgust and disbelief. Miss Betty taught him in Sunday school. She had read to them about a shepherd boy killing a giant with one stone, three men walking around unharmed in a fire, the world being created in six days. He knew. Miss Betty knew. Mr. Gus knew. His mother didn’t go camping. She didn’t know what was out there. He rolled his eyes because it drove his mother crazy. “You just don’t understand, Mom. I know there are snipe. Miss Betty would not lie to me.”