Sara Garland: Memoir : May 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up in a small farming town in Northeast Arkansas a mere seven miles south of the Missouri border. As a child, I would marvel at how quickly the accents changed once crossing the state line. I currently reside in Arkansas after a brief stint living in Tennessee.

Head Huntin’

I grew up in rural Arkansas believing that I could do anything the boys could do. Never mind that the growth charts said I was always two years younger than my chronological age. I knew I could find ways to outwit my shortcomings. Most of the time, I tried to prove I could do “boy” stuff better than they could, like throwing spirals with a football at recess.

I wasn’t just out to prove these things all the time, however. I did enjoy doing the things my dad liked. Pop taught me how to shoot pool when I was seven years old—a proud moment for him, and a gateway drug to the rougher stuff for me, like playing poker for fake money. 

Not only did he teach me how to shoot pool, but he also tried to teach me how to shoot guns. With a BB gun, I was an absolute ace. No aluminum can would ever survive my mad skills. Same with a pellet gun. Anything with a little more kick, though, meant that my inanimate targets would live to see another day. 

That didn’t stop my dad from inviting me on my very first huntin’ trip with him when I was in the second grade, though. (For the uninitiated, in the South, we never go “hunting.” It’s always a huntin’ trip.) When he approached me with the idea, I had one really important question.

“Can I wear shorts?”

“No, better wear long pants. Lots of weeds.”

It was a slightly disappointing response, considering that it was early September and face-melting weather in Arkansas can last well into forever.

Then, I thought of another important question. 

“What are you huntin’ for?”

“We’re going dove huntin’.”

Despite being a slight tomboy, I was still a girl. A girl who liked fluffy, cute, fuzzy animals and who cried one day when Pop walked to our porch door through the snow—in his camo—holding a firearm in one hand and a dead rabbit in the other. He was smiling, impressed with his haul, as my lower lip quivered at the sight of snowflakes landing on a poor, defenseless, lifeless bunny.

I’d never seen a dove up close, but I liked to eat chicken, so the idea of huntin’ for birds didn’t quite bother me as much, even if we did sing about doves at Christmas. So, I agreed to go.

I awoke early the morning of the trip, putting on my long pants and following Pop around the house until we left. 

“Here, you might want this,” Pop said, handing me one of his caps before we stepped out the door. It was far too big for my head, but I wore it anyway as we got into his Suburban to drive to a field a few miles from our house. His Boykin Spaniel, Gypsy, hopped in the back, thrilled to be going anywhere.

We drove about fifteen minutes down the highway, then gravel and dirt roads. When we arrived at the field that looked virtually identical to every other field I’d ever seen, Pop unloaded the dog and all of his gear and carried everything to a nearby tree. We were standing amongst a very thin grove of trees, and the sun shone down on the faded yellow-green of the field stretched out before us. 

A few trucks of his huntin’ buddies were already there. He turned over a bucket under the tree.

“Here, sit on this. Wear these, too,” he said, handing me a gigantic pair of what I could only describe as overgrown hard-shell earmuffs. I put them over my oversized hat, but then I couldn’t see. So, I took off the hat and held it in my lap. 

“Who you got there?” one of his pals asked.

“The boss,” Pop responded. It was his token response when he took me to any place where other grownups gathered. 

I’d watched my dad practice with clay pigeons in our own field several times, marveling at how he could hit a target that was actually moving. 

Since I’d never been on a huntin’ trip before, I had developed my own idea of what the experience would be like. I envisioned flocks of birds diving and skimming across the sky as camouflaged men charged the field, mowing down bird after bird, calling to their friends for ammo reloads and cover as they ran deeper into dove territory. I expected it to be like the war movies my grandfather watched at full volume. 

This, though, was a lot more like fishing. Fishing for slugs.

“You gotta be patient. And quiet,” Pop explained. We kept our eyes on the clearing, empty of any kind of wildlife, as far as I could tell. 

I sat on the bucket, poking at the ground with a stick.

About half an hour passed before we saw the first birds. The hunters shifted their posture, preparing to take some actual shots.

Gypsy perked up, crawling forward and cocking her head towards the activity.

“There!” my dad exclaimed, and the three men unleashed a four-second barrage of shots. I couldn’t figure out how they could pick their bird at all in the melee, and then I saw a few of them fall from the sky. 

Just as quickly as the flurry began, it ended.

“Gypsy!” my dad ordered. “Go get ‘em!”

She dashed into the field, looking for her catches. 

A few trips back and forth later, she had proudly dropped four doves at our feet. Four apparently lifeless birds.

I poked one with my stick.

“They’re goners, all right,” my dad remarked. “Good eatin’.”

That’s when my dad reached down with a knife, quickly and deftly clipping the head off of one of the not-quite-freshly-dead birds.

“That one was still suffering. No use letting that happen,” he said. I held out my hand for some reason, and he gave me the head for some reason.

Interesting toy, I thought.

I examined the dove’s head. I felt the beak, which was fully intact. I’d never been that close to a bird’s beak. I looked at its eyes. No blinking—frozen in their final state as a sacrifice to Southern culture and cuisine. The feathers were just as soft as I’d imagined.

The neck part was a bit trickier. It was a little drippy and ragged. I decided I’d leave that part alone.

After a few minutes of looking at every part I could see, I wanted to keep it, but I had no place to put it. Then, I remembered the hat I wasn’t wearing anymore. I turned it upside down to make the perfect toy box. However, the head wasn’t doing anything, and I quickly grew bored. I decided to practice my hand-eye coordination. I flicked the hat, tossing the head into the air, and caught it again in the hat, all without moving from my bucket. I sneakily looked up at the hunters, who were far more concerned with adding to their collection than worrying about a kid playing with a dove’s head.

So, I did it again. And again. And again, marveling at the flying head much more than I marveled at the living birds still flying across the field. 

The men saw those, though, and rendered as many of them flightless as they could.

Finally, I grew tired of my makeshift cup and ball game and held the head in my hand. I didn’t want to play with it anymore, but I didn’t want to lose it. It was my trophy kill that I hadn’t actually killed, but evidence that I had been huntin’ with the big boys. 

I took another look at the head, then slid it into my right pocket.

As the temperature increased, I watched as my dad and his buddies played the waiting game, jumping into frenzied action in bursts, then resuming the wait. I decided I liked fishing better, because you could at least do something more often, like casting, reeling, or getting mad over tangled fishing line.

“Well, Sugar, are you ready to go?” Pop asked me after what seemed like an eternity.

“Yes, sir,” I said, standing up from the bucket. 

That’s when I noticed it—the blood spot seeping through my right pocket, visibly adding a splash of color to my light gray pants.

The head.

I covered my pocket with the cap as we walked towards the Suburban. I reached into my pocket, but I couldn’t find it. Had I lost it?!? Did I have a hole in my pocket? Did it fall out?

“What are you doing?” Pop asked. I hadn’t realized that I had stopped walking momentarily.

“Nothing. Coming!” I said, running to catch up.

Just like a lot of dramatic disasters involving toys in childhood, I quickly forgot about the dove’s head on the way home. My only reminder was the stain, which I didn’t even think much about unless I happened to look down.

I ran through the door when we got to the house, sweating and eager to put on a pair of my beloved shorts.

“How was it?” Mom asked as I sprinted to my room.

“FINE!” I yelled, darting past her.

I ran into my closet, put on a pair of shorts, and dropped the gray pants into the bathroom hamper.

“Can I go outside?” I asked Mom. She was in the kitchen.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll yell at you when it’s time to come in.”

I went out into the backyard to do what I had already done for most of the day—poke things with a stick. The light eventually began to turn golden, signaling that my time outside would soon be drawing to a close for the day.

“Sara! Time to come inside!” Mom yelled from the porch door.

I smelled as fresh as a dead skunk by that time, considering that I had spent half the day in a killing field and the other half sweating on top of sweat. Still, if Mom noticed, she didn’t say anything. I walked into the kitchen and sat at the table. 

“Are we eating the doves tonight?” I asked.

“No, we’ll do that another time. Besides, your pop’s not quite done with them yet.”

We had other bird parts instead—frozen chicken strips. Then, it was time for a much-needed bath before winding down for the night. I threw my washcloth and towel into the hamper after I was scrubbed clean, happily headed off to bed. It had been a long day for a little kid.

Most Sunday mornings, our family worshipped at the Church of Pajamas and Couch Surfing. Mom decided to add laundry to her laundry list that day, but she waited until we were through using our pajamas, changing into fresh shorts and t-shirts and heading outside.

Sometime during the mid-afternoon, I came inside for a snack. Mom walked through the kitchen with the brown hamper from the bathroom, preparing to do the laundry. The phone rang, and she momentarily abandoned her domestic chore to chat with a relative. 

I went back outside, meandering my way to the hammock, when I heard it.

“Oh…oh…WHAT IS THIS?!?” Mom yelled.

I was outside, but our brick walls were thinner than I thought, because her voice cut right through the masonry. My short-term memory was rebooted and I immediately realized what had happened.

Hamper. Laundry. Pants.

The head.

The head I thought I’d lost. 

My pockets were much deeper than I had realized.

I froze. I figured it was best to stay outside.

I thought ten years was a nice, round unit of time. 

I heard muffled voices from inside.

I kicked at the dirt.

No one came outside for me.

In a way, this was a far scarier situation than outright yelling. I was left to imagine what awaited me, and my imagination does not have the reputation of being tame.

I slowly made my way to the back porch, sitting on the swing.

I grabbed one of my toys that I kept on the porch, moving over to my wooden dollhouse. I thought I’d see how many times an action figure could tumble down the stairs and still survive…to pass the time before I found out what I had coming.

After a whole twenty minutes, I couldn’t hold out any longer. I went inside—quickly—and went to my room. I heard no signs of anger.

I stretched out on the floor for a while. I grabbed a pencil and drew pictures. I stared out the window.

Finally, when it was time for supper, we all sat down together.

Mom spoke first, beginning a perfect Sunday supper conversation.

“Sara, you didn’t happen to…forget anything in your pants pocket after that huntin’ trip with your father, did you?”

My father suppressed a grin as he ate. Pop always became my father under one of two circumstances: I had done something serious enough to warrant the use of my full name, or he had done something ridiculous that only a grown man could do.

“I thought I’d lost it,” I replied, looking down at my plate. 

“Lost what?” my brother asked.

“What was it, Sara?” Mom asked again, exuding an expression that was somehow partial disgust and partial amusement.

“Uhh…a dove’s head.”

My brother smiled.

“Cool! Can I see it?” he asked.

“It’s gone now,” Mom replied. “Where exactly did you get it?”

My father was laughing by now. He couldn’t help it.

“Pop gave it to me.”

“Oh,” Mom said to me as she gave my father the look that said, Are there no limits to a man’s level of disgusting?

Mom spoke again.

“I suppose that’s where the blood came from?”

“Mmm hmm.”

She paused.

“Why…did you keep a dove’s head?” Mom was still puzzled.

“I wanted something to play with,” I said, matter-of-factly.

“How long did you think you were going to keep it?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

She chuckled at me while giving my father another Are you kidding me?!? Look. He looked back at her and beamed.

“That’s my girl,” he said.

And that’s when my parents got divorced.

Okay, that’s a lie. They did eventually get divorced, but it was years later and over issues far more serious than a severed head in their seven-year-old daughter’s pants pocket. 

Pop would later tell my brother that clipping the dove’s head was his way of trying to teach me a larger lesson about life and death—a lesson that I apparently grossly misinterpreted. 

That was my first and last huntin’ trip. It was a part of Southern culture that I never grew to embrace. However, I had definitely proven that I could hang in there with the boys—when it came to being disgusting, that is.