Note: A shorter variation of this tale about a Thanksgiving post-dinner expedition into the woods behind the author's house was published Dec. 1, 2005 in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. It's a story of a gullible four-year-old and his mischievous grandfather...that would be me!
DATELINE: THANKSGIVING 2005, KING GEORGE, VIRGINIA
With just about any hunt, the uncertainty of what might happen helps fuel the adventure. Sometimes, anticipation blends with preparation and everything comes together within a few defining moments that link the hunter and the hunted. Such moments tap the primeval in our strands of DNA, linking us with ancestors from distant millennia.
One youngster’s initiation into this ancient rite came last year during a dark night’s quest for a mysterious and elusive species.
Thanksgiving 2005 has come and gone with minimal belt loosening. Ladling the final ounces of homemade gravy over seconds of turkey and mashed potatoes called to mind the holiday meal of a year prior when gravy supplies had been similarly exhausted.
Four-year-old grandson Kenny innocently asked where we could get more gravy. His older sister McKayla almost spilled the beans, eager to share the simple truth about making it with pan drippings or buying a jar in a store. Before she could, though, I raised my hand and cut her off, seeing an opportunity to spin a devious, but hastily crafted, variation of the fabled snipe hunts of old where the naïve and inexperienced are left holding the bag alone in the dark.
I looked Kenny in the eye and told him in the most direct manner that we hunt for gravy.
“You can only catch gravies in the fall, once the leaves are mostly down. These tasty critters are trying to gather up food they can haul into their underground homes for the rest of the year. They only come out at night,” I said, leaning in with all seriousness.
Kenny’s eyes widened with interest. McKayla’s eyes twinkled as she realized the joke was in motion and she could be an accomplice.
The kids know that if they’re eating here, the entree likely came from the end of a fishing line or from a hunting trip. Consequently, to a gullible four-year-old, it began making sense that we might also hunt for gravy.
I walked to the back porch and asked Kenny to join me. Stepping into the cool night air, I checked the wind and looked up at the night sky. “Kenny, my boy, I believe the conditions are right; if you want to you can help me try to put some gravy in the freezer,” I offered.
Kenny clearly wanted to buck up for the old man and nervously nodded his head. The hunt was on. Cupping one ear toward the woods, I gave him the “Shsshh” sign with index finger to my lips. We listened until I heard the faintest rustle of leaves.
“Hear that,” I whispered? He again nodded, looking both frightened and expectant. "They’re out tonight. Let’s go get our gear ready,” I said.
Heading to the garage, I explained you don’t shoot gravies and they’re too sneaky to ever get caught in a trap. To catch a gravy, you need stealth and a lot of luck. Gravy hunting is in your face – up close, smell their furry breath personal. Basically, you creep in and throw a rope around them, then haul them toward you and quickly dispatch them with a blunt object, like a baseball bat, or in tonight’s case, an 18-ounce claw hammer. Next, you toss them in a bag, bring 'em home, clean 'em and start the transformation to the gravy we love on our turkey and potatoes.
Kenny didn’t ask me what gravies looked like – probably worried about the answer.
We settled on the division of duties. I’d be in the lead wielding the rope. He held the hammer and bag. I carried a flashlight with a green filter. I explained that gravies couldn’t see the green light so we’d be able to sneak in very close. Plus, the soft green light helped give the trees a more eerie effect, heightening the surrealism of this intrepid hunting venture into the wild woods behind the house.
Men on a Mission
We reentered the house and, standing ramrod straight and with fearlessness in our voices, announced we were ready to go catch some gravies. We were men on a mission to bring home the gravy.
“You ready,” I asked?
“Yep. Let’s go,” he said heartily, now thoroughly committed to the venture – at least in the security of the living room light.
We entered the dark woods and I flicked on the flashlight. Every few steps, we’d stop and listen, hoping to hear gravies about their nocturnal business. Approaching a small knoll with a fallen, dead tree, I saw the perfect spot for our first encounter with the wily North American gravy.
I pretended to hear a slight crackle of leaves. I halted our movement and we dropped to one knee. With utmost seriousness, I whispered there was a gravy - or two or three - just a few feet away from us. It was just on the other side of the dead tree.
Kenny’s confident bravado in the house a few minutes earlier now drained faster than a keg of cold beer in a frat house on a Saturday night. It was clear he was having serious doubt about both the safety of this mission and his ability to execute his part of the operation. It’s one thing to hunt for gravies; it’s another to – gulp - actually get one!
As he began slightly hyperventilating, I put my hand on his little shoulder and told him we’d be fine. Hang tough and we’ll get this done. People are counting on us. Then, I began inching toward the tree and readied the rope.
I slowly rose up and brought the rope back, took careful aim at the gravy and launched the noose. It fell to the leaves. I simultaneously waved the light around and began kicking the leaves. Kenny ran to my side.
“I missed,” I frowned, retrieving the rope. “I think a limb from that tree caught the rope. The rope hit the gravy, but it didn’t get around it enough to catch it. I’m sorry.”
Relief lit up his face. I could read, “Thank goodness we didn’t catch one,” all over his cheeks.
I feigned a glum retreat to the house and let him tell the story of the adventure. Inside, he recounted the hair-raising adventure, describing for our eager, bemused audience everything from the gravy's sharp teeth to its yellow eyes.
Sometimes the best hunting adventures are the ones you cook up to stoke the imagination of a youngster.