When I was seventeen I went duck hunting on a lake in the backwoods of Tennessee with my grandfather and uncle. My uncle drove us to the lake in question in Granddad’s red pickup truck, through snow and over ice. They had picked me up from school and now we rolled on, all drowsing slightly in the warmth of the cabin. We spun out once, slowly, going twenty miles an hour on the highway. My uncle shrugged and drove us off the median and back onto the road. I sat in the passenger seat reading a Haruki Murakami novel while Granddad stretched out in the tiny backseat normally reserved for his hunting dogs. He fit surprisingly well back there, all five foot two of him. He claims to have once been taller.
The lodge we stayed at was either an old motel converted to look homier or an old house converted to look lodgier. We had gotten some burgers on the way there and so, after stomping our feet, we sat down and bullshitted with the other men on the hunting trip. I was easily the greenest of my uncle’s family, friends, or acquaintances present, the next youngest being a twenty-six-year-old contractor from Nashville. My position as the ‘odd man out’ was cemented when the boys asked where I wanted to go to school (Princeton) and what I wanted to be (a writer). This position, though, was a familiar one.
The senior year duck hunting expedition was only the latest in a series of country escapades with my mother’s father. They started, maybe, when as children my brother and sister and I came to visit him on the ranch in Mandarin, Florida where he’d raised our mother and her five siblings. I didn’t fully recognize his country-ness as a thing until Granddad took me shooting for the first time (with the grudging permission of my suburbanized parents). I was a good little nerd growing up, the least unruly (the ruliest?) fourteen-year-old this side of the Mason-Dixon. Short, scrawny, and octagonally-bespectacled, I did not look like the sort of person who should be handling a gun. But then neither did my grandfather. This retired hospital admin belonged on the beach, working on his leathery tan, not doing speed drills with a Sig 226. But the two of us went shooting together, and we still do.
There’s a certain ritual around that particular part of every grandfather-grandson visit, of me to Jacksonville or him to Nashville. We hop in his little pickup truck, stop at a gas station for a midmorning refreshment (shooting time typically eclipses lunchtime), and unpack the guns and ammo at the range. Shooting itself is ritual, even meditative. Whatever violent or psychosexual impulses one satisfies by shooting are entirely secondary to the real pleasure of the experience. In order to hit a target dead-on you have to be both focusing and not worrying. Your grip must be firm but not tight. My grandfather and I watch each other shoot. You know when it’s a good shot. I like to see the old man, bent slightly back, knobby little hands wrapped around the pistol, take a breath and score a bullseye. He described feeling to my aunt once as relaxing.
“How could such a thing possibly be relaxing?” she asked.
“When I’m there,” he replied, “I don’t think about anything else.”
When, on the duck trip, I stepped down from the stand in our duck blind to knock out forty pages of Murakami or a few problems on a physics p-set, the cognitive dissonance I felt was lessened by having already done things a person like me wasn’t “supposed” to be doing. The sorest thumb of the group actually happened to be a redfaced dandy from Birmingham, whose five thousand dollar shotgun jammed a few hours into the first long day (five in the morning to three in the afternoon). The school stuff became a sort of side-joke.
Back at the lodge I joked to Granddad that I might be the smartest person for a hundred miles. He half-laughed before reminding me that I possessed only a particular kind of intelligence. “If we got stuck out here, you can bet these guys would come in handy,” he said.
I felt stupid—most people should after attempting to highlight their own intelligence—mostly because I had been somewhat missing the point of the expedition. I was not there to be the most literary duck hunter around, but to be a competent woodsman (among Nashville cityslickers) when I got back. In this way the trip, despite my latent stupidity, proved a success. One old man in our party (older or less well-preserved than my grandfather) observed that I was “a pretty good shot, for an Ivy Leaguer.” Hard to know how he could tell, what with the flurry of birdshot the party sent up every time a duck appeared, but I appreciated the sentiment.
As an Ivy Leaguer, I feel more keenly now the reciprocal relationship—that maybe I am overly countrified for this place, this plot of stacked stone and groomed quads. Sometimes I find myself feeling sorry for the centuries-old trees that dot our campus—no matter how prestigious a place they hold, they hold it alone, in a sea of concrete and twentysomethings. Their brethren have been dead longer than Fitzgerald, dead since Washington won the Battle of Princeton. There are a few forests around these parts but most of them again are too well-maintained for my tastes. More to the point, I feel that certain values are ignored here that are emphasized in the doing of country shit. Physical fitness, for one, is often sacrificed for further study and ambition. Mental well-being and personal satisfaction, even, seem to fall by the wayside. To quote Skynyrd: “All that I want for you, my son, is to be satisfied.” I don’t mean to speak for the entire South, but it seems to me the pace of life down there is slower, and that, by taking care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of each other.
Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me that last summer I wound up doing so much country shit. At the time I was burnt out on intellectual pursuits, which combined with the forest-ache primed me for a summer of farm labor. My high school friend Kenyon, also home for the summer, said his dad needed an extra hand on their cattle farm. With no shiny internship to hold me, I said what the hell. People who don’t know Kenyon think he’s always happy (or high), which is not true. He is happy a lot of the time, mostly because he knows how to laugh at the dumb shit. His brain is a random compendium of military history, eighties horror movies, and dick jokes. Despite the intense time he spends on nerdical pursuits, the kid is a monster—at least a head taller than me and built to the approximate proportions of his favorite action hero, Conan the Barbarian. His father is another man of contradictions, a surgeon and cattle rancher built like a six-foot meatball. Kenny claims that some of this is fat but having seen his father bench his weight twice over and haul flagstones one-handed I have my doubts. The contradictions are happy ones, and I was glad to work for him.
Like the duck hunting trip, the farm work was a chance to get out of the world of words inside my own head. The farm was maybe an hour drive through some beautiful if boring country (the Natchez Trace), and on the way we’d blast everything from Blink-182 to Death Grips, Iggy Pop to Die Antwoord. We tore up weeds and trees, drove some fence posts, built a dock. For lunch we ate takeout from Sonic or whatever we could find in the refrigerator. One lunch comprised salami, bleu cheese, pickles, and ice cream (all stale except the pickles). We talked a lot about girls, and fighting people. Country stuff.
I regretted taking a lifeguarding job later that summer, as it meant the end to one of the most peaceful and satisfying periods of my life. There is nothing quite like working into the afternoon, dripping sweat, and finally stopping to survey from the porch the land you’re slowly civilizing. Maybe target shooting with your grandfather. At the core of farm work is this sense of connection to the land. You wind up thinking less about yourself. You think less in general. But the thoughts you do think are good ones.
Lifeguarding proved to be tremendously sterile, mind-numbing work, containing neither the intellectual highs I chase in books or classes nor the thrill I take in the useful usage of my body. Lifeguards sit and watch water. I decided to quit a week early, to go down and see my Granddad.
What I hadn’t been planning on so much was the (country) stuff we wound up doing the first few days, which was drive to Georgia and help out with the Northeast Florida Hunting Retriever Club, of which my grandfather is the treasurer. My cousin Michael and I were tasked with corralling the Boy Scout “bird boys”—the kids who were supposed to fling the (dead) ducks that the dog were then meant to retrieve. This translated about half the time into doing the job for the kids, who were in it mostly for the merit badge—we’d tuck the duck’s head under the left wing, set it in the pouch of the bird-flinger (a glorified trebuchet) and pull the cord when we heard the duck call. This for a few hours at a time in morning and afternoon. While this might sound like a repeat of lifeguarding (mind-numbing work), it wasn’t. The work was outside, in the grass, not on concrete. Watching the Boy Scouts’ faces scrunch up when they handled (and smelled) the dead birds was its own reward, as was hearing them bitch about how much they wanted to go home and play video games. One kid who had been a pretty good trooper looked up at me at the end of one of these morning sessions.
“You actually like this stuff?” he asked. I said that I did.
The strangest section of these days were the evenings, when we all retired to the clubhouse for dinner. Michael and I occupied a weird age-zone for the camp—everyone there seemed to be either a Boy Scout or a retiree. One of my grandfather’s friends stopped me one night as I reached down for a beer from the cooler.
“It’s cool,” somebody else said, “he’s Barry’s grandson.”
The guy apologized, if not profusely. It was more like he’d made a clerical error and was accepting me now into the brotherhood. Maybe I read into the symbolism too much. But it was cool to see the weight that the name of my grandfather carried with these people. That, on some level, their interpretation of him corresponded with mine. By virtue of my introduction to this world by him and my own work in it, I somehow belonged.
My grandfather does not come from any particular grandfather template. The firearm enthusiasm does not come packaged with racial prejudices, nor does having been a hospital admin (and the son of an immigrant doctor) preclude him from being able to have a good time. For a long time, I know, he worked alongside my grandmother to keep his young family comfortable and happy. This is something I admire him for, even though I’ve only ever seen him in the (mostly) post-struggle phase of his life. His country-ness is only one manifestation of what makes him an admirable person, and I hope that in emulating him I do so in more than the outer trappings.
My fascination with country stuff has in large part to do with this apparent contradiction of countrification and sensitivity in many of the people I admire. The value of self-sufficiency, I think, flows well from farm to school, or city. So too does testing yourself, and looking out for the people you love. Maybe these are not really country things so much as they are people things. Maybe the cultivation happens where it ought to. I’m just glad that, for me, it was and is in the country, with my granddad.