He was an elderly man that my dad said knew a little bit about nearly everything. And in the midst of a desperate year for squirrel hunting, he turned out to be as good as advertised.
I grew up hunting squirrels…with my dad, mostly.
I had walked in the woods with him since I was six, always watching how he enjoyed harvesting a mess of busytails on a frosty fall morning for an evening meal later in the day. And that was a treat at our house, because Dad believed that squirrel was the best wild meat there was. He was the best, I believed…because he never came home empty-handed.
And he was a wonderful teacher of how and why, because he believed that you only took what you intended to use. But above all, he taught me the finer points of gun safety, even that young – things that I never forgot. “Hunt with a shotgun when you’re around buildings he would say. Because if you miss with a rifle that .22 can carry a long way.” Things like that.
He taught me about trees in the woods, and a squirrel’s favorite forage in the fall. In southern Ohio, along the Ohio River, that usually amounted to hickory nuts, sometimes walnuts. On years when those nuts were scarce he would head for the oak woods, looking for big red oaks…because they had the biggest acorns and were easier for a squirrel to shuck.
On years when even acorns were scarce, Dad would head for the bottom ground along Symmes and Guyan Creeks. Find an unpicked cornfield in early October and you were sure to find squirrels. Squirrels love corn, there was water for them, and there would be big maple and sycamore trees that they could use for lounging.
Yessir, Dad pretty much had squirrel hunting down to a science. Know your quarry, his habits, and above all…be quiet and patient. Quiet and patient, of course, were tough for a twelve-year-old, but Dad was long-suffering; and I think he knew how much I enjoyed watching him. And what man could resist showing off a bit?
In the fall of my fourteenth year he finally let me carry a loaded shotgun, an old Ithaca 20 gauge double barrel that my grandfather (his dad) had owned since the Depression. This was about 1966, and dad was at the height of his hunting years as he escorted me through the woods, constantly reminding me “that gun is loaded, you know.” And, “make sure the safety is on ’til you’re ready to shoot.” And, “where’s your muzzle pointed?” He never quit.
But in the fall of 1966 even Dad couldn’t find squirrels. For some reason, probably spring frosts, there was little or no nut crop that year. What few hickory nuts that survived had been quickly eaten (or buried) prior to the opening of hunting season, and the oak trees weren’t much of a backup. It was also a year when the creek bottoms had been planted in something besides corn, so that was a dry hole, as well.
Nonetheless, I talked him into taking me into the woods one morning, knowing that the prospects were dim. In fact, he didn’t even bring his 12 gauge. He was content on that day to just observe. As we walked up the hollow behind my grandfather’s dairy barn, we saw no sign of squirrel activity. The ground beneath the giant hickories and walnuts were bare of cutting signs, and the trees were just beginning to turn color and drop some leaves. Perfect conditions, except…no squirrels.
About a quarter mile along the narrow dirt road that we walked lived a man named Claude Beckett. For how many years I don’t know, but long as I could remember he had always been in that hollow, living with his wife Ada in a tidy frame house. On this morning we met him as he walked out to the main road to check on his mail. I never knew what he did. And when I would ask Dad about him, he would always tell me that he knew a little something about everything.
“Any luck?” he asked Dad. He had known Dad, his eight brothers and one sister, since they were born.
“Not much to hunt this year,” Dad replied. “There’s no hickory or walnuts. Don’t know what they’re finding to eat. I suppose the squirrels are somewhere, though.”
Mr. Beckett looked at me and cocked his head to one side.
“No nuts, huh. Well, I bet I know where you can find ’em. How much time do you have? You come back around this afternoon and I’ll show you where to find squirrels.”
His words were like catnip to me. I didn’t think Dad was patient to hang around for half a day, but my constant yammering about Mr. Beckett knowing where to find squirrels even made him curious. Later that afternoon, he met us in his yard, by his Martin house.
“When all else fails squirrels will eat Buckeyes,” he told us. “Have you tried hunting the buckeye groves?”
“I always heard that buckeyes were poisonous,” Dad replied, shaking his head. “We always tried to keep the cattle away from buckeyes. Even the bark on the tree would make them sick.”
“Squirrels eat ’em just fine,” Mr Beckett said, motioning us to follow him farther up the hollow.
It was about four 4 pm, and the afternoon sun was filtering through the treetops, casting shadows along the ground. And true to where he had told us, we walked across a small creek and into a grove of buckeye trees on the side of the hill, loaded down with a heavy crop of nuts still in the hulls. We sat down at the edge of the woods with the sun at our back.
“Squirrels will cut down the hulls and when they hit the ground the nuts will spill out. They’ll either eat ’em or bury them for later,” said Mr. Beckett, as he turned to go back to the house. “I’ll listen for some shooting. And don’t forget to look for squirrels on the ground.”
It didn’t take fifteen minutes for the first sign, and sound, of squirrels to emerge. In the top of the tallest tree in the grove, I saw his tail before I saw the squirrel. A moment later I heard a loud thump as the buckeye hull he had gnawed loose hit the ground. As he climbed farther out on the limb to chew on another one, I leveled the 20 gauge, took aim just ahead of his nose, and touched it off. The boom was deafening in the quiet woods, and for a moment I thought I had missed. But a moment later that fat gray squirrel came tumbling through the limbs to the ground.
The sound, of course, spooked the woods quiet for several minutes. But soon I heard another sound high and to my left – another Buckeye being sent to the ground. Edging around the a tree to get a better view, I saw him instantly as he worked on the soft shell of the hull. Boom…and another gray was on the ground, and this time my shot spooked another squirrel to show himself, just below the one I had just shot. Boom, the little 20 gauge barked again, and just that quickly I had three squirrels to claim, proud of my shooting skills as Dad looked on.
“I think three’s enough, don’t you?” he whispered. “It’ll be dark by the time we walk down the holler and get back to the car. And we’ll need time to clean and quarter them when we get to the house.”
The sun was just disappearing behind the ridge as we passed Mr Beckett’s house. He waved from the porch as I held up my squirrels to show him. Smiling, he turned and walked into the house.
“Well, I learned something I didn’t know before,” Dad said as we continued down the little dirt path. “I never knew that squirrels would eat a buckeye. I didn’t think anything could eat a buckeye,”
Mr. Beckett, apparently, did. Turns out, he really did know something about almost everything.