Snow Day

Today’s forecast for six to ten inches of snow reminded me of an unplanned snow day I had when I was in grade school. I grew up in the 1950s on a small farm in Southern Illinois. The roads in our area were maintained by the county and, for that time, well kept. They were gravel with three-foot drainage ditches on each side. Every fall, one of the county graders would drive down our road clearing those ditches in anticipation of the Spring runoff.

Those nice deep ditches made drivers in our area very careful. Frequently, we would have someone knocking on our door at all times of the day and night, asking Dad to pull them out of the ditch with his tractor. Often, because Dad was working in the coal mines, I drove the tractor, set the chains and did the deed. Imagine today, a ten-year old boy driving a large tractor, hauling chains, climbing underneath a car, truck or another tractor and pulling it out.

Well, those were different times. Parents expected more of their children and more often than not, the kids met those expectations. No helicopter parents then. They were too busy working, feeding their families, providing shelter and taking care of familiy and friends.

On this occasion, a storm had dumped a foot of snow across the county. I rode a bus to school, traveling over ten miles each way to school. The school was three miles away from the farm and during warming weather in May and September, I would walk the distance or ride my bike. In winter, I was glad to ride that heated bus.

I stood inside watching the road for that yellow bus. It usually arrived a few minutes after 7am. Dad had left for the mine an hour earlier. With the snow, he caught a ride with our neighbor who owned a war surplus jeep, the only 4-wheel drive vehicle in our area. Mom would usually be teaching but she was snowbound too. Her 1949 Plymouth was stuck in our driveway, failing the passage through a three-foot drift that blocked our drive.

By 7:30am, we were getting a bit worried…no yellow bus. At 7:45am, the phone rank—long-short-long. Our ring. We were on a party line. Mom answered. It was the school. My bus had slid into a ditch a mile from our house. The other bus, whose route covered the district on the other side of the highway, was blocked. It needed to pass over railroad tracks to reach our school. The railroad was ten feet above ground level. The bus couldn’t climb the rise. Under that foot of snow was a sheet of ice.

No school today! What every kid wants to hear. For me, it was even better. If Mom hadn’t been blocked in our driveway, I would have had to go to school with her. Today, we were both off!

I soon realized that put me in a situation. Mom was one of those who always had to be busy. She started planning her day: bake some pies, a cake. slow roast a chicken…clean house!

I didn’t mind helping her with the baking. I could get a few of the trimmings, lick the icing, get a nibble here and there, but cleaning the house? No, I better have a plan of my own.

The storm arrived in mid-November. Thanksgiving was still in the future. Some of Mom’s cooking was in preparation of that holiday. What could I do? The thought struck me—it was still rabbit season. That was my out, I could go rabbit hunting.

I told Mom my plans. I thought she might say no, but she and Dad liked rabbit, especially rabbit stew. If I brought home a rabbit before noon, we could have rabbit stew for supper instead of roasted chicken. Truth be told, I preferred rabbit stew over the chicken, too.

 Bundling up took planning. Start with long-handled underwear, smooth cotton socks, the first layer. Next came wool socks, flannel-lined jeans and flannel shirt. Over my shirt cam a wool sweater. Outer wear was a canvas hooded coat. Mom had dunked it into a new product (whose name I’ve now forgotten) that waterproofed the coat. Inside the coat was a quilted liner. Add a wool scarf, wool gloves within a leather shell, a hat with foldout earmuffs, rubber insulated boots and I was set.

Now, you may think that was all too much, that I’d be like the proverbial snow-boy with too much coverings to move. It wasn’t. First, the coat was two sizes bigger than I needed. That gave me flexibility and air-space between the layers. It it was too tight, I’d get sweaty, not good at sub-freezing weather.

Out I went, a .410 single-shot shotgun in hand with three shells in a side pocket. Rabbits were easy to find in snow. They would find a place out of the wind and sit. The snow would drift over them and when covered, the only sign was a ‘blow hole’ in the drift from the rabbit’s breath. If you were observant, you could see their breath steaming from the hole.

Hunters used two tactics hunting rabbits in snow. One was to stomp around, making a lot of noise to flush the rabbit. This wasn’t wise because usually the rabbit took off long before you got close enough to shoot. The second was to sneak up on the rabbit, stepping slowly to get withing ten to fifteen feet of the rabbit. You had a choice at that point—shoot where you thought the rabbit lay, or flush it and take a shot at the running rabbit.

Another tactic if you had a well trained dog was to have the dog flush the rabbit towards you. I preferred that method but Dad didn’t want me to risk one of his prized dogs hunting rabbits if he wasn’t there.

My favorite hunting area was a large corn field behind our house. The field had been harvested earlier in the Fall. The remaining cornstalks provided cover for small animals feeding off the spilled corn remaining from harvest. Rabbits preferred more cover, cover like the brush-filled fence line.

Dad and I would clear the fence line every few years, but in between clearings, briers would soon return accompanied by blackberries, raspberries and other brush useful to conceal rabbits and other larger predators.

It was quiet in that field. The snowfall had increased. The temperature, in the low twenties according to the large round thermometer next to our back door, had risen a few degrees since dawn. Instead of the small, dry snowflakes from early morning, they were now large, fat flakes. I could almost hear the ‘thud’ when they fell to ground.

I had the hood of my coat up over my cap. The only exposed skin was my face. My nose and cheeks tingled when exposed to the slight wind. Otherwise, I was fine.

The field was a mile long ending in a wood-line and a small creek. http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/ohotnik/ohotnik1011/ohotnik101100036/8355385-winter-hunting-for-hares-on-the-first-snow.jpgI slowly walked down the fence line, looking for that tell-tale plume of steamy breath from a hidden rabbit. Halfway down the field I found one. When I crept closer, he ran…across the fence-line into the neighboring field. No shot.

Crunch…crunch…crunch, step by slow step, I walked down the fence-line. In normal conditions, I could walk that fence-line in fifteen minutes. Today, it took over an hour.

A hundred yards from where I had flushed the rabbit, I surprised a fox. He ran down the fence-line until he was just outside of shotgun range and stopped, looking back at me, daring me to shoot. There was a bounty on foxes and a fox pelt was worth a few dollars. It was tempting but I remembered I only had three shells of #6 shot, two my pocket, one in the shotgun. The shot was too light for foxes. It was almost too light for rabbits. I normally preferred #4 shot but I didn’t have any. Besides, shot-shells were too expensive to waste. A box of twenty cost nearly five dollars.

I reached the end of the field. The snow was still falling steadily, the depth approaching a foot by this time.  The trees, though bare of leaves, blocked some of the wind. I dug into my coat for a handkerchief to blow my running nose.

I had planned to circle the field following the fence-line that would eventually bring me back to the farmyard. But the morning was still young, only 10 o’clock. I had no rabbit and if I returned too soon, I’d still have to help Mom clean. That was the whole point in going hunting, to escape from Mom’s addiction for a clean house. At ten years of age, I had better things to do.

I wasn’t cold…except for my face. I remembered Mom’s warning about frostbite. I had a wool scarf around my neck. I raised it to cover my mouth, nose and cheeks—like a bad-guy in a western, I thought. Soon, the tingling stopped. The only exposed skin now was my eyes and an inch or so above them not covered by my cap.

Some of the trees in that woodlot still had a few brown leaves; a few that failed to fall in the previous weeks since the beginning of Fall. As I stood there, listening to the wind and distant sounds, something fell, striking twigs and branches in its fall to the ground. I looked around on the snow covered ground and saw cracked acorn and hickorynut shells littering the base of the tree…shells too fresh to be covered by the falling snow.

Squirrels! If I couldn’t bring home a rabbit, a squirrel or two would do as well.

Squirrels are skittish creatures. If anything strange moves in their area, they freeze in place. Once they’ve identified the source of the noise or the location of an intruder, they will move to keep the trunk of a tree, or limb, between them and the possible predator.

During squirrel season, I would hunt squirrels with a .22 pistol. Squirrel season was in late August through September. My method was to find a tree containing squirrels. I’d then lay on the ground next to the tree trunk, raise the pistol and rest my arm against the trunk of the tree and wait for a squirrel to appear. In a few minutes, if there was no more movement, they would creep out, curious to see where the predator had gone…right into my pistol sights.

Squirrel season was long over. But—I was still on our farm. It was open season for everything on your own property. I chose to use a variation of my usual squirrel hunting tactic.

I moved to the trunk of a large hickory tree. The snow surrounding it was littered with cracked hickorynut shells. I raised my .410, held it vertically in front of me, and leaned against the tree trunk to wait.

It seemed like forever.

After 15 minutes I heard something scampering in the tree-limbs above me. I kept still. More scamperings. Finally, I heard what I was waiting for, a falling nut shell.

I slowly looked up, looking for the squirrel. Then I saw it move, a large fox squirrel, almost the size of a rabbit. I slowly raised my .410. I paused whenever the squirrel stopped chewing on a nut, until I had it in my sight. That bronze bead on the tip of my .410 never seems so small.

Bam!

Squirrels scattered. There must have been a dozen in that tree and its neighbors…squirrels I’d not seen. I looked for the fox squirrel.

At first there was nothing. Then, I heard it, the thump, bump of the squirrel falling down through the tree-limbs. It fell to ground a few feet in front of me. I picked it up in my gloves, checking for fleas and other parasites that indicated a sick squirrel. It was clean. No obvious blood either except for a small trickle from it’s nose.

My hunting mission was accomplished. Should I wait and see if another squirrel would reveal itself, or go home? Waiting for another squirrel would take time; time for them to quiet, a half hour at least, and it was now after 11am.

The snow had continued to fall, another inch accumulating since I had left the house and it would only get deeper. The lure of a warm home, maybe some canned chicken soup for lunch and hot tea, won the mental coin toss.

 It was a good morning spent in the woods even with the cold and the snow. The wind had created some drifts that were waist deep as I retraced my fading footsteps back to the farmyard. By the time I reached the barn, those earlier steps were gone, covered by wind and blowing snow.

The barn was heated by a few electrical heaters. Our four horses were in their stalls feeding on oats and hay that I had placed there before sunrise. On the other side of the barn, behind a wooden plank fence, were our few head of cattle, glad to have a shelter out of the wet, snow and wind.

I had one more task before going home, clean the squirrel. That was one inviolate rule of hunting, clean what you shot, be it a rabbit, squirrel, duck or goose. It didn’t take long. There was a water line in the barn for the stock with a faucet. After washing the cleaned squirrel under the cold water, I was finished.

The barn was a hundred yards from the house, one last trek through the snow to warmth. I gave the squirrel to Mom when I was inside. As I expected, she accepted it in lieu of the promised rabbit. I left my boots and coat next to the back door, still dripping from melting snow. Up a few steps from the back door was the kitchen.

I made a line to our family’s favorite spot when returning from the cold outside—the heat register. Our house was heated by a coal furnance. Dad, being a miner and union member, was able to buy home heating coal at a ridiculously cheap price.

It wasn’t forced air heat. There were no fans on our furnace, just convection heating. I remember Mom standing on that same register, the rising hot air making her dress bloom.

It was farm life in the 1950s. A good day, a snow day well spent, cakes and pies in the over and a squirrel stew simmering on top. Life couldn’t be better.