Happy Hunting Ground
By Ralph Ricks
When I was a mere three weeks old, my family moved from Eglin Air Force Base in the panhandle of Florida to the great plains of Cheyenne, Wyoming. This was in June of 1959. As the story goes, we left the 99 percent humidity and the 90-plus temperatures of the Deep South to go to a part of the country having two seasons, July and winter. I have been told when my family arrived in Cheyenne, the newspaper headlines were trumpeting the record heat wave going into its third big week and temperatures were expected to reach to nearly 80 degrees!
Summer turned to fall and mule deer season came in. Dad went on his first and last deer hunting trip and they say my brother came home one day with a double armload of deer legs. My brother would have been five or six years old at the time. Dad knew what they would smell like when the legs ‘ripened.’ Apparently my parents had quite a time talking him into discarding those legs and he was quite upset from what I hear. Dad remembered and patiently waited for his revenge.
Being from the South, they weren’t used to the hunting of big game animals like they are up there and the way we are at our house now. I have always been used to seeing a deer strung up in the neighbor’s back yard for processing; its one of my earliest memories. Deer legs, shed antlers and all manner of body parts from deer and elk were the toys of the neighborhood back then. I guess we were a little like the boys of the Plains Indians (or at least we thought we were) when it came toys.
One thing we had was a large shed from a bull elk. I don’t remember who found it, my brother or myself, but of course it made its way to the back yard. We drug it around for a while and I don’t remember playing with it, but it was valuable to us.
We got a Dachshund when I was in the first or second grade and when he got big enough to go outside, he found the elk antler. I don’t remember much about this antler except it was easily bigger than I was and way bigger than the dog. But Dachshund’s are peculiar in that they are relatively small dogs but, unfortunately, they don’t know it. This dog claimed the antler as his own and would attempt to drag it around the yard. I am sure to his dying day he thought he had killed that elk. It took him several years of chewing to finish it off.
The only thing funnier than watching him "drag" that shed around the yard was watching a nine-inch dog attempt to answer nature’s call in a four-foot snow drift and a 40 mile-per-hour wind. (It didn’t take him long to figure out, when on three legs, which direction he should face to put his back to the wind.)
Back to Dad’s deer leg revenge. The next summer (I was still way too young to remember this), my dad got a call from the train station. Dad was in the Air Force and fought the Cold War as a strategic missile man. The strategic weapon he worked on was the Minuteman Missile. Back then, trains to Cheyenne delivered these missiles and dad got to know the guys at the rail yard fairly well. The phone call was from one of these buddies and the man told him they had a package down there for "Sergeant Ricks" and not only was it leaking something but it smelled funny as well. Dad asked where it was from and the guy told him "Foley, Alabama." Dad took off at a run.
He got there and told the guys nothing was wrong and this was a barrel of Bon Secour oysters my grandmother had sent him. I am sure dad’s mouth was watering. These gentlemen at the train station just had to see what an oyster looked like, so dad opened up the barrel. Now, you’ve got to remember, these are folks who have never seen an ocean, salt water, fish bigger than a nice rainbow trout nor even smelled the Gulf of Mexico. The biggest body of water for them, and me until I moved home ten years later, was a beaver pond in the mountains Dad said they were fascinated. He didn’t have an oyster knife or he would have shucked one open for them and eaten it, guts feathers and all just to see the look on their faces.
Dad got the oysters home and got ready to chow down. An oyster knife is probably as easy to find in Cheyenne as it is in Butler County, so dad made himself one from an old file. Dad ate most of the oysters from that barrel and gave a few away.
He told me when he started shucking them, the neighborhood kids all came around and watched in wide-eyed amazement as he methodically shucked and either ate the oyster or put it in a bowl for mom to fry.
They watched as the pile of shells grew and grew. Finally, one of them asked him what he was going to do with those "seashells." Dad said he would probably throw them in the trash. One of the braver kids asked him if they could have them. In a flash, dad said yes and the pile of shells disappeared. Now when dad shucked an oyster, he always managed to leave a little chunk of meat attached to the shell, right where the purple spot is. As dad watched the children carry off their new seashells, probably the first ones they had ever seen, he thought about what would happen a few days later when these damp, barnacle encrusted (dead barnacles) mud caked "seashells" with their little dab of meat still attached would smell like after two or three days in a dirty bedroom.
Those of us who have smelled the signature aroma of decaying seafood can understand it when dad chuckled to himself as he continued shucking oysters and handing out more seashells to the kids. He knew he would have his revenge for the deer legs when the furnace kicked on one cool night in the Wyoming spring.
Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.