— Ross Robertson
First Cousin, Macedonia, Miss.
Summer 1962, or about)
Memories of my own Great Snipe Hunt some 12 years earlier danced in sync with the flickering flames of a warm and inviting campfire on this cold autumn eve in the wetlands of Kentucky Lake State Park.
It was Halloween 1974.
Our troupe of merrymakers, nine rebellious college sophomores — long-haired, some with scraggly beards, others with unkempt mustaches; all typical sons of the ‘70s — sat about in a circle comforting our bare hands and embracing the fall of darkness.
Our clan wore giddiness behind smirked faces, each member reflecting on a shared thought — a wide-eyed youngster’s earlier Vision Quest when he was the boy embarking on this storied Southern rite of passage. Now years later each would be the teacher as the deep night approached, one whose solemn quiet gave voice to the crack and pop of a fiery ember.
By this age, all Southern lads had long-since been acquainted with the spellbinding hunt for the legendary snipe. Any Tennessee boy worth his weight in colloquialisms of the Deep South fully understood the life-changing, even cleansing, impact of such an experience.
Alex Dukas was no such boy. A heavily-accented transplant from New York, his father’s job transfer and a zeal for a college education brought him to The University of Tennessee at Martin — and to us, his new family of dormitory buddies whose only cares were tuition, pretty girls and passing grades.
Snipes were furthermost from Alex’s mind.
And that was the inspiration that landed our band of teen zealots into the middle of the Kentucky Lake wilderness on this Halloween night when our choices seemed endless — attend a campus party, head home for the weekend or study.
So we went camping.
And Alex was our roast.
“So youse (pronounced ‘yooz’) guys, when do we hed out to get this thing?” New York’s native son asked, wringing his hands in nervous excitement as his audience concealed forbidden smiles.
Our eight conspirators had lacked the forethought to elect a spokesman for this sojourn into the wild so the silence was awkward. Too, we weren’t talented actors. Each feared the tell-tale smirk, or at worst a premise of laughter, should we attempt conversation. In spite of our promised manhood, we were not good liars.
It was Jerry Turner, a pale-skinned red-head from Memphis and avid outdoorsman who loved the feel of camouflage on a winter’s eve, who spoke first. In our group of Southern-fried sweathogs, Jerry likely was the most greasy. Yet he wore a likable smile and walked in a slow amble.
“It’s gotta get dark, Duke,” Jerry offered. His face was as straight as the handle of a forked stem carved with the pocketknife of my roommate Guy Dyer who impaled giant marshmallows for a slow toast atop the campfire’s glow.
In our legion, the northerner responded to three names — Alex, Dukas and “Duke,” the latter being a slang of endearment whose origin was credited to Jerry.
“Maaannn ... cummon daakness,” Duke frowned. “I gotta get me one’a dem snipes!”
Most kept their eyes to the flames for fear of betraying the mission. Two challenges await the organizers of all Great Snipe Hunts. One is the role acting necessary to snare the buy-in of the student; the other is not to become the weak link who spoils the plot with an ill-placed grin or misspoken word.
“Aah dey haad ta’find?” came the next inquiry.
“All in due time, Alex,” came the calming voice of Ted Wren, a 6’5” mustached giant whose thin frame undoubtedly shook in spasms from the inside.
“Maaannn ... !” our friend declared yet again. “It still ain’t time?”
“Alex,” my roomy Guy from Collierville repeated for the others, “we’ve got to have total dark. Snipes don’t come out in the light.”
“But it’s daak! Look’out deah!” Alex roared with stretched arm and pointed finger, signaling to a distant tree line veiled by mute silhouettes.
“It won’t be long,” the longest-haired among us assured. He was Stanley Bernard, also of Memphis, one whom I had nicknamed “Hippy” since fall quarter of our freshman year. “Stan,” as we called him, was the first long-haired redneck I had ever encountered. Judging by his head and face of hair, and outspoken ways, I would have figured him to be sticking flower petals in the barrels of National Guardsmen’s rifles.
“So Naahton, you ain’t said nothin’!” Duke continued.
My face burned and it wasn’t from the flames.
“When’d youse ketch’a snipe?” he asked, rubbing sweaty palms across the thighs of smudged blue jeans.
Fearing a tremble in my voice and feeling the knot in my strained gut, but determined not to be the weasel, I answered without eye contact. “Probably when I was about 7,” I told the flames. “About then, I guess.”
“Who took youse ahn it?” he quizzed.
“Cousins,” I offered, my confidence growing. “First cousins, older. They’d gotten their snipes years earlier.”
“An’ youse caaaught it?”
My moment of truth, the answer that defined manhood in this cold world of snipes lay at the tip of my anguished tongue.
“ ... Yeah, I caught it,” I gloated, this time raising my eyes to meet his dark and piercing strobes. “Right smack in that burlap bag. It nipped my finger ... but I got it.”
I had crossed the threshold. I could now lie with the best in recounting the drama of my own Great Snipe Hunt. I felt alive.
“Maaannn! Ain’t it time, yet?”
(Next: With our New York college mate nearing implosion, the Great Snipe Hunt of ‘74 gets under way).