This story is about an experience I had with my dad on a sunny afternoon in the mountain holler where we lived. I was about nine or ten years old at the time, and my dad would have been about thirty.
The details of that afternoon are not entirely clear, but what I do remember is very vivid. These memories evoke mixed feelings, and I still struggle to untangle what I experienced that afternoon so long ago.
A Belly Full of Bugs
We climbed the hill behind the house together, Dad and me, and entered the woods into the partially open canopy of fall. The seasonal colors had peaked, and the remaining leaves were fluttering in the slight breeze, stirring the limbs in the trees overhead. We had just stepped from the open field beside the barn, where it was bright and sunny, and entered the woods onto the trail that traversed the ridge beyond the trees and bushes at the edge of the field.
We waded through the leafy ground cover that came halfway up to my knees, and the trail began to steepen. This holler was my playground, and I thrived in it. I knew its dips and rises, its trails and stony outcrops, its sunny fields, and its shadowed hollows and creeks.
The rustling sound of leaves that cascaded around our feet as we hiked up the trail was almost deafening, but, when we stopped for a moment to listen, the silence was overpowering—broken only by the muffled sound of water flowing in the creek below, the sound of fluttering leaves from the light breeze, the far-away cry of a blue jay, and the bark of a squirrel in a nearby tree, who fussed his displeasure at our intrusion.
The mid-afternoon sunlight would soon be gone from the depths of the holler as the sun sank early behind the elevated ridges of the surrounding mountains, but, in that moment, dappled sunlight revealed the bright colors of fall leaves on the ground.
I walked behind as my dad led the way up the trail. I was taking two or three steps to each of his longer strides. He had a single-shot, bolt-action .22 caliber rifle cradled under his right arm; we often went into the woods with one of his firearms. I was accustomed to having squirrel dumplings, or fried rabbit, either of which came from somewhere in the holler, or on the mountain.
Birdsongs, squirrels, and a variety of insects could scarcely be heard above the leafy noise as we walked. When we stopped for a break, those sounds were clear; and among the loudest and most distinct of these calls was the Pileated Woodpecker, or “Wood-Hen,” as it is often called. The Wood-Hen’s call is unique. To me, it seems a primal sound—almost otherworldly. As a child, that sound always made me feel like I was part of the mountains that surrounded my home in that holler.
The rifle my dad carried that day had recently become an item of greater interest to me. Not long before, Dad had shown me how to handle and fire it. He would take me up to a small meadow above the house and select a target—a board he’d pounded into the ground, an old stump, or a particular spot on a fallen tree. He had me stand next to the base of a large, white cherry tree, and I would face the target in front of the rising slope of the ridge behind it, which also acted as a backstop to our gunshots.
My previous experience with a weapon of any sort was a Daisy BB gun that I received as a birthday gift on my seventh or eighth birthday. I was about nine or ten when Dad taught me how to handle and fire the .22 gage rifle. At first, it seemed a little heavy until I became more comfortable with how to stand and hold it correctly. Dad methodically explained how the bolt action worked, how to load each round, and then eject it after it was spent. He demonstrated how to use the front and rear sights, and how to safely handle it when I walked, crossed a fence, or climbed over a log. He was adamant about how I should respect the use of a weapon, how I should be aware of where I was in relation to the house and the barn, and to never point it in the direction of anything that I had no intention of harming.
We finally made it to the top of the ridge and were on our way back down the trail when we noticed a Pileated Woodpecker flying through the trees. It landed high on the side of a tree near the trail, about twenty yards away, and we stopped to watch it.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a Pileated Woodpecker, but they command attention. They’re very colorful and move around a tree with purpose. They peck at the bark in different places until they find a particular spot, and then they go to work. Sometimes, after a particularly aggressive series of banging on the tree, it will stop and turn its head to one side or the other, appearing to listen intently to something under the bark, inside the tree, or maybe something elsewhere in the woods. Then it will suddenly pull its head back and pound on the tree again. The pecking falls into a rhythm of steady beats—about fifteen or twenty strikes per second, for several seconds at a time—and continues until they have a belly full of bugs.
As we stood there watching the woodpecker, the thought entered my mind about whether I might be able to hit the bird with a shot from the rifle. It was less a thought about killing a bird, than whether I had the skill necessary to do so.
I had a similar experience with a BB gun I received for my birthday a couple of years earlier. On the very day my dad gave it to me, I stood out on the front porch as a robin flew out of the trees and landed atop of a fence post at the edge of our yard, maybe thirty or forty feet from where I stood.
Dad had just gone into the house after spending several minutes going over the do’s and don’ts of how to handle the BB gun, and what I could and could not use as a target. High on the list of “could not” targets were my sister and brothers, along with our cows, pony, mules, chickens and our dogs. A little further down this list was songbirds. But, the sight of that robin perched atop the fence post as I stood there with my Daisy BB rifle in my hands, was more than I could take; it was right there!
I had a perfect chance to prove my marksmanship to myself. So, I slowly cocked the gun, took aim, then held my breath as I pulled the trigger—all the time hoping that my dad or Mom or Mamaw wouldn’t come out onto the porch until it was all over. As soon as I pulled the trigger, I felt a pang of regret. I could see the BB as it left the end of the barrel. I watched the copper-colored projectile travel on a trajectory directly toward the center of the robin’s breast. At the last instant, before the BB reached its mark, the robin flew into the air unharmed, and, aside from a brief case of the shakes, I felt a great sense of relief. I will never forget those few minutes.
On the one hand, I had avoided the consequences of getting caught doing something I had just been told not to do: “Don’t shoot songbirds.” On the other hand, I had proven my marksmanship, despite the fact that I had defied my dad’s instruction. It was a perfect outcome—right? When I think about it now, I consider how easy my younger self rationalized my conflicted feelings and actions.
Back to the woodpecker. . .
In any case, my memory of that afternoon on the mountain has a critical hole in it; I can’t remember anything beyond the time we watched the woodpecker hammering on the tree, until it flew away down the trail.
The next thing I remember is walking behind my dad, trudging along somewhat mindlessly, when he stopped in front of me so abruptly that I almost walked into him. I don’t recall if Dad said anything, but I clearly remember I stepped up beside him and followed his gaze to the ground. There I could see, on top of the carpet of colorful fall leaves, a small, bright red splatter of blood and a motionless Pileated Woodpecker. Suddenly, the woods seemed too quiet. When we stopped walking, our noisy advance down the trail came to an abrupt halt, and the silence was deafening.
I stood rooted to the spot beside my dad—neither of us spoke a word, as I recall—we just stood and looked at what lay before us. I tried to make sense of what I was seeing, but all that came to mind was a quick memory from just a few minutes earlier when we watched as the woodpecker did its thing on the side of the tree. I had remembered a sudden, sharp sound, and the woodpecker suddenly flew away, dodging between trees and brush, down the trail, and out of sight.
Today, I simply don’t remember either of us taking a shot at the woodpecker. It’s almost as if my memory plays the incident like an old 33 RPM record. We were watching the woodpecker on the tree, then the needle suddenly skips and lands on another track, and my memory picks up when my dad stopped on the trail. How did the Woodpecker come to be on the ground in front of us?
It seems improbable to me now that either one of us would have taken a shot at such a beautiful bird. I have serious doubts about whether my dad would have shot a Pileated Woodpecker hanging on the side of a tree, especially with me looking on. In my mind, he simply wasn’t the type of person to do it for the sake of proving his marksmanship. His life’s example had proven to me that he was much too appreciative of the natural world and the creatures that lived in it to have done so. Killing a few squirrels for a pot of dumplings is one thing, but shooting that Pileated Woodpecker would not have been in line with my day-to-day observations of his actions as the honorable man I have always known.
While I may have done so to prove I could make the shot, I think that, if I had asked my dad for the rifle, he would have done one of two things: He would have refused to give me the rifle and explained why, or he would have handed me the rifle without objection as a raw teaching opportunity to see what choice I would make on my own.
I’m not sure how long we stood there looking at the scene on the ground. I don’t even remember the rest of the walk back down the trail, or whether we did anything with the woodpecker’s body . . .
My experience of that afternoon has played in my mind hundreds of times over the years, and it never changes. My questions about what actually happened that day remain unanswered. Have I simply chosen to not remember? Did I shoot the woodpecker, or did my dad? I don’t think I will ever know for sure . . .
I do remember how I felt as Dad and I walked to the top of the ridge that day. I loved spending time with him. He was a reassuring presence, a giant in my life, and I will always treasure my memories from that afternoon on the mountain with him.
The poem below, written many years after the event, is how I first put down my thoughts of that afternoon, as if I was describing it to my dad. The narrative above is my attempt to “fill in-between the lines” of the poem, to give a fuller account, with more relevant context . . .
“A Belly Full of Bugs”
An autumn scene plays in my head,
a day out in the woods;
upon the ridge, behind the barn
we waited, watched, and stood
until the bird came thru the trees,
and parried every limb.
With graceful flight he made his way,
and picked his spot to land.
His song was clear, his colors bright,
he beat upon the tree.
His head in a flurry from his labor there,
to pull the insects free.
He’d have his snack, and then move on
to another tasty bark,
and have his belly full of bugs
before the day turned dark.
He never saw us, I think this so,
for he worked around the tree;
from front to back—from where we stood
the shot was clean and free.
It wasn’t loud, he flew away,
it seemed he had been missed;
as out of sight, and down the trail
he sailed like a will o’ the wisp.
We started straight back down the trail,
along the way to home,
and waded thru the fallen leaves;
the smell of them was strong.
They smelled of earth, and water, and trees,
and wind, and all around
that lived each day and night amidst
the forest of the mount.
We’d walked a while along the way,
when suddenly you stopped.
I looked from behind, and followed your gaze
to the place where he had dropped.
The spot on the leaves where his blood was splayed
was red, and out of place
with the softer colors on the ground
where autumn, the ridge had graced.
We stood and looked at the red-head bird
in the quickly fading light;
without a word that I recall
about his ended flight.
It’s here my mem’ry halts in time
at what we did with him;
upon the ridge, behind the barn
as that sunny day grew dim.
Born and raised on a small farm, in a secluded “holler” just east of Asheville, North Carolina, in a Southern Baptist family. My father was a church deacon, and my mother was the church pianist. I fell in love with vocal, acapella harmonies at a young age.
My youthful imagination was fueled by the Apollo moon missions, exploring the wonders of our mountain holler, and viewing the night sky through a telescope. Joined the Navy after high school. Served 20 years performing precision equipment and time measurements.
Met and married my wife in Hawaii. One son, one daughter. Today, I have my own backyard observatory, and I’m fascinated by space, time, and the wonders of the cosmos.
**Featured image by Gary Leavens on Wikimedia