Among the things I really enjoy about this newspaper, as a reader, is Looking Back. Betty Slowe was a top-notch researcher and a wonderful colleague when I worked at The Tuscaloosa News fulltime and she does a great job of digging through yesteryear’s news, ferreting out items of significance from 100, 50, 25, 10, 5 years ago as well as last year.
I’m in a better position to enjoy it because I can remember things from each of the eras, except for 100 years. I remember that only from the history books. This has been a great year for the 50 years ago segment with the moon landing and other historic events. I’m old enough to remember 1969 well.
I got a 3-speed bicycle with butterfly handlebars for my birthday that year. My mother had a cake made for me with a moon landing theme. It might have been the best cake Lucille McCowan, the finest baker in Demopolis, ever made me and it might have been the last, too.
And it was the first year my father took me on the opening day dove shoot at Spidle Lake hunting club. I carried his little 28-gauge Harrington and Richardson single shot and didn’t kill a thing. I still remember a dove barreling down the tree line at the old “Catch Pen Field,” straight at me, and I didn’t cut a feather.
Up until that time, I’d never been a hunter. I wandered around harassing birds with my BB gun but I didn’t go hunting with my father. I spent fall weekends playing with my friends, mostly.
I started fishing when I was about 5 years old and my father and I went regularly. He took me squirrel hunting with him the same year he started fishing with me. I can remember him trying to point out a squirrel before he shot it but I couldn’t see it. He wasn’t ready for me to carry my own gun so I must have lost interest quickly.
I also tagged along on a couple of quail hunts and on a deer drive at the hunting club. But I was more of a nuisance than a hunter. I can remember hearing a deer coming through the woods and asking my father in a normal tone of voice, “What’s that?” The deer took another path.
I had been shooting my father’s .22 pistol since I was 5 and loved to shoot. So, despite the mixed results with our hunting experiences, my father never gave up on me. And in 1969, as I turned 10, he decided I was old enough to carry a shotgun on a dove shoot.
I’m not sure when the season opened in 1969. It might have been October. I remember Larry Griffin listening to the Cincinnati Reds and Baltimore Orioles playing in the World Series on the opening day of 1970 so it had to be October. My guess is that the season opened in October in 1969. Whenever it was, it was noticeably cooler.
My father wore a canvas hunting coat, canvas bird hunting pants and leather boots. I was dressed similarly and don’t remember getting hot. We traveled to the hunting club by crossing on the Gandy Ferry at the end of the road where the shooting range was located in Demopolis.
A steep slope went down the riverbank to the ferry landing. The ferry was a barge fastened to a steel cable that was anchored on either side of the river. A stout john boat with what was then considered a pretty big, tiller-steered motor, 35 or 40 hp, would tie up alongside the ferry barge and propel it across the river. Honestly, it didn’t look very safe to me.
When a tow and barge came down the river, the operators had to lower the cable so that the commercial boat could pass over it. Once the barge passed, the ferry operators would winch the cable back into place and resume operation.
Whenever you see a road with the name “ferry” in it, like “Sanders Ferry Road” or “Fosters Ferry Road” in Tuscaloosa, that’s what was at the end of it. They were scattered all up and down the river. That one was in it’s last year of operation, closed, I understand, by safety regulations.
Other than missing that one bird, I don’t remember much about the hunt. I know I missed more. I know my father, who was extremely rusty after raising girls and working on Saturdays, managed to scratch down one bird. I can remember holding it and wondering at the fact that it had fallen from the sky.
I only went once more that year and just after we crossed over on the ferry, I realized I’d left my shells behind, much to my father’s disgust. It wasn’t like I could borrow 28-gauge shell from anyone. But he wasn’t going to pay the ferry toll twice more and I ended up just tagging along with him. He offered to let me shoot his 20 gauge but the little pump looked too big and imposing to me.
It doesn’t sound like much of a start but it was a start. It was the next year that I really caught hunting fever after killing a couple of birds on the wing. But I haven’t missed an opening day since. If I live to next Saturday it’ll be my 51 st straight and I’ll be 60, About the same age my father was when he took me.
So much has changed since that opening day 50 years ago. About the only constant is the hunt and how much I love it.
Robert DeWitt is the Outdoors writer for The Tuscaloosa News. Readers can email him at email@example.com.