His hat lies on the floor of the old house. A narrow ray of sunlight crawls through a hole in the roof and illuminates the tattered carpet a few inches away. The hat once was sharp and bold; black with big gold letters and those striking wings on the bill that us kids called “scrambled eggs.” But my Grandpa Clarence died years ago and his old cap is now tired and gray from accumulating dust. A mouse emerges from beneath the crown and scurries away through the rubbish of the crumbling bedroom in the once-vibrant Kansas farmhouse.
As a boy, I spent countless days in this home with my grandparents. On special occasions, I would travel with Grandpa from the red and white house as he proudly wore that NRA cap to church potlucks and community barbecues. By the time I was in high school, I could spot him in the crowds of my ball games by those three big gold letters.
Grandpa survived the dust bowl, the great depression, and WWII. Dignified but never ostentatious, he was a dedicated FDR Democrat who believed the shared sacrifice and self imposed decency of his generation had saved democracy. That NRA cap had a very specific meaning to him; it was an extension of his patriotism.
His hat signified responsibility, solidarity, pride, and family; all things I experienced with him as a boy. After enough of my begging, he would agree to jump in an old pickup truck and bounce down a dirt road until we arrived at a ditch where he knew pheasants lived. We spent the better parts of fall days together, me with a borrowed gun from my dad and Grandpa with his prized Model 31 Remington 12 gauge. I remember the soft fall light pouring over us as we took aim at the birds and then laughed together about shots made and missed.
Those old romantic days of Americana with my grandfather are now gone. Where there was once a lawn and a home and a family, there is now a head-high forest of kosha and thistle. There are pheasants scurrying through those weeds in the decaying homestead, and I take aim at roosters flying over the bedroom where the old NRA cap lies sad and forgotten.
I make a good shot on a bright, long-tailed bird and it lands with a thud near the foundation of what is left of the house. My grandpa would have been proud of that shot, but I am glad he did not live to see the things that his once-proud hat now signifies.
I am sad for him. So much has changed. Like his favorite hat, he was proud of me in his own quiet way. In his later years he beamed as he told friends that his grandson was a bigshot at a gun company. He kept a catalog from that company to show off what I did. It’s probably in the house now with the old hat and the dust and the mice.
I was proud too. Back then neither of us had the perspective to see what was happening. As Grandpa neared the end of his life, about the time I was winning awards in the gun business, the memories, pride and idealism signified by his cap were already being twisted into a political machine that Grandpa would have wanted nothing to do with.
Eventually I would be a part of an industry that was doing things he would not have been proud of. For a while I was too close to see it, and as Grandpa faded, he was too far away. I suppose there are blessings in the blind ambition of youth and in the calm ignorance of old age. But there are dangers too, and I hope that our country is neither too close nor too far away now.
People like us bird hunting vagabonds, those of us who read and write on this assemblage of words and images, are almost all romantics. We want to believe things are true, we hope the country is not changing, we want to remember our old hats as crisp, proud and righteous.
But not everything is as we wish it to be. The blind romance and passion of people like us is often the very fuel for the mechanized forces that eat away the old homesteads and favorite memories of our lives. I spent decades inside that powerful machine, I fed it, learned how it worked and tried to maneuver within it. Sadly, I came to understand it had used people like my grandpa and me.
Coming to terms with this reality has not been easy. Writing my memoir has not been easy. Dealing with the truth of a deeply divided country has not been easy. Knowing that my grandpa’s hat is lying in that hold house has not been easy. Challenging what some of you believe will not be easy.
Shooting cackling pheasants over the old Kansas bedroom was, truth be told, pretty easy.
The words I have offered to my Mouthful Of Feathers colleagues and readers have always been honest. I have always appreciated the depth of this audience. The words I write in my forthcoming book are also honest. The truth is that there is a gunfight in our national bird camp and I have written a book about it all. It’s going to be controversial. Some of you will be prone to dismiss it before you read.
But just like everything else we write here, I ask that you give this story a fair shake. Because in the end, this book is about all of you too. This is about our country, about how we ended up in a place where half of America hates the other half.
Just days ago I received notice that Gunfight has been named as a prestigious top ten most anticipated book for the fall of 2021, so someone thinks this is going to be important. But the audience of MOF means a lot to me and I hope that the book can live up to your expectations.
Thank you for allowing me to share words about things we cherish. I invite you to preorder this book, to read it in October and to think about our old hats and the parts each of us play in our great American story.
We are all characters in this one.
Learn about the book and preorder here: www.ryanbusseauthor.com