When my sister and I were youngsters, my mother pulled us in our toy wagon into the woods during small game season each fall. She surely got a workout as she lugged that wagon through furrowed cornfields and thick brush.
To entertain us while she hunted, Mom looked for a springy tree bent over like a fishing pole hauling in a lunker. Then she’d set down her 20-gauge shotgun, the one with the sawed off stock to fit her short arms, and she’d climb the tree to show us how to have fun bouncing up and down or swinging from our knees. As soon as we were busy playing, she’d grab her gun and beagles and get far away from us noisy kids.
Sometimes, Mom left us in areas loaded with hickory nuts, apples or blackberries and tasked us with picking the fruit until she returned. Or, we caught frogs and crayfish in a small stream for supper.
After an hour or so, Mom silently appeared from the wilderness with her limit of game stashed in the pockets of her canvas hunting vest. Bushy, golden squirrel tails or fluffy, white bunny tails protruded from her vest, stained crimson red from years of successful hunts
My dad preferred the thrill of bird hunting, bringing home pheasant, ruff grouse, duck and partridge. Game birds of any kind were delicious, although I didn’t enjoy plucking feathers or spitting out BBs as we ate.
My parents also bagged at least one deer every year. Venison was the only meat we didn’t process ourselves, taking it instead to town to be made into sausage, steaks, roasts and burger. One monstrous Wisconsin whitetail could last us all winter.
Through the years, my mother cooked an array of wild game and got even better as she experimented. A regional favorite, although not with me, was spicy coon stew, cooked until the bones disintegrated. I preferred fried rabbit and squirrel soup with homegrown potatoes, corn and carrots.
I remember the first time I almost walked into a large snapping turtle hanging from the clothesline overnight for the blood to drain. The next day, my mother put the entire turtle, shell and all, into her canning kettle to simmer. After half an hour or so, the shell fell easily apart, exposing the tender meat.
We spent an unnecessary amount of time removing fish scales until an elderly neighbor, who made fishing flies from Mom’s squirrel tails, showed her how to make fillets by pulling the meat from the backbone. I never got the knack of it, but my mother did.
Coon season was my all-time favorite. On school nights I got very little sleep, but didn’t mind a bit. After supper when it was finally time to go, the dogs were practically jumping out of their skin, they were so fired up for the hunt.
Dad drove us to the woods, opened the dog box and away those crazy hounds would go. Dad and I talked quietly as we walked over frozen corn stubble in whatever direction the dogs had gone. I was never cold or bored, even though we sometimes waited for hours for the dogs to “strike” on a scent. We would walk a while, and then rest on a log or large rock as we listened for the dogs.
Raccoon are uncanny and often jump from one tree to another, swim upstream and then backtrack or fool dogs into thinking they’d climbed a tree they hadn’t. While we waited, Dad shared stories of hunting adventures from his youth.
The dogs’ barks varied as they worked. As soon as we heard the bawl indicating a treed coon, we’d hurry through the dark woods, pushing aside briars and leaping over downed trees. My dad wore a metal hat like a coalminer’s with a flame that smelled like sulfur, but didn’t light it until we got to the tree. It was easier to see with at least a dusting of snow on the ground and some moonlight, but I loved the wild excitement of crashing through the woods.
When we reached the tree, I had the very important job of shining the battery-powered flashlight up at the coon so my dad could get a clean shot. We’d get home well after midnight and I’d slip off to bed while Mom skinned our haul, usually three or four coon a night.
I missed all that tasty wild game after joining the Navy. Once, I brought back to base a bag of my mom’s frozen rabbit from a trip home on leave. I stuffed the bag of rabbit meat into the plane’s overhead compartment for the four-hour flight to San Diego. Somewhere over Utah, the passenger seated in front of me suddenly yelled, “The plane is leaking!”
A stewardess opened the overhead compartment as other travelers turned to see what was going on. There she discovered the source of the cold, pink water dripping onto the alarmed man’s head. When I told her what was in the bag, the kindly stewardess simply rounded up a sturdier plastic bag for my wild game. Flight attendants apparently are trained for any situation.
Mom stopped hunting about 20 years ago and does little gardening. Now she eats mostly store-bought processed foods and meat. My mother, who used to walk five miles through deep, wet snow to bag a single rabbit, now has high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
I realize her lifestyle is different now, but so is her diet. She is so influenced by TV and radio commercials that I cannot convince her to just eat naturally as she did when she was young. She believes her medical conditions are inevitable with age and that food sold in grocery stores must be good for us.
By comparison, my husband, Darren, grew up in the city and ate store-bought meat and packaged food all his life. He was just 40 when he developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol and a whole host of medical problems including osteoarthritis. Unlike my mother, though, instead of taking medication, Darren began learning about the dangers of processed industrialized foods.
He started shopping at health food stores for locally-raised, organically-grown meat, milk and produce. He also began growing some vegetables. As the months passed, Darren regained his health and lost weight, and has remained healthy. He can now hand pump 1,000 gallons of water a day, split huge piles of firewood and work like he did in his 30s.
When I look back on my family’s years of hunting and gathering food, I am certain we were fit and healthy because of our predominantly all-natural diet. There was much work involved in bringing home wild game, berries, nuts, fish and frogs, and in growing food in our big garden and orchard. Equally important, though, is that none of it contained chemicals, nor was it genetically modified, radiated or sealed in plastic.
Darren and I don’t scour the woods for squirrels and rabbits as my mother did, but we grow organic food all year and do many of our chores by hand.
We believe good health is among the most important aspects of preparedness.