By lex, on February 29th, 2008
Meridian, Mississippi was something of a sportsman’s paradise. There were two good bass lakes around the airfield and excellent hunting in the forest surrounding the runways. Dove and wood ducks in September with the summer’s oppressive heat not quite yet a memory. Quail and woodcock in the fall with the harvest. The long walk through the high grass, checking the breeze – they’d escape downwind if they could, it would be faster. The holler yonder where they just have to be. The sound of sudden silence – the bell on the setter’s collar hushed as she stood on ramrod point, all fixed intensity, rolling eyes and trembling excitement. The sudden, thrilling flush of the covey right at your feet, from out of nowhere it always seemed. The reminder to pick one target, rather than blaze away at the brown. Shoot one or miss all.
Separate seasons for deer through the winter; gun, bow and black powder. Tree stands and the painstakingly slow stalk of still-hunting. The plash and shiver of the gun dog in January – wet dog and hot coffee, and everywhere the gabble and whir of ducks and geese. Turkey in the springtime. They wake with the dawn, fly down to water and then turn their minds to the hens. Lynch’s “fool proof” was my favorite call, but you had to keep your movements small.
You’d plot your approach keeping the wind in mind for deer, and an occluded sight line for the gobblers, or else you’d never get near them – they’d vanish like ghosts, there one moment and gone the next. You learned to pick your route with precision, step softly, move slowly – every sense heightened. You learned to control your breathing, noticed the sound of your heartbeat, felt the pulse stretching the skin in your neck. You learned to listen not just as a predator, but also as a kind of prey – not everyone you’d meet was conscientious as you’d like them to be, some gunners would shoot without truly checking their targets. It was always good to know of the presence of another hunter before he became aware of yours. Safer.
You learned to see without staring because it is a survival skill among prey to sense and flee from the intensity of a predator’s gaze. You learned to aim true and let fly. The bark of the gun an act of will. A kind of savage joy would commingle with sadness at the take, or frustration at the miss – every shot pleases someone. But mostly in that creeping approach, with every twig and leaf scrutinized for the alarm it might give, every tree, shrub bush or hillock behind which to see and not be seen, the breeze wafting over your face – always in your face – you’d reconnect for a moment with 40,000 years of your ancestors for whom this was a test not of skill but of survival. You could feel the hunter looking out through your eyes, feel his hunger – something primal. Something most of us, accustomed to hunting only for bargains at the supermarket, have lost.
Something the US Marine Corps is trying to renew:
Combat Hunter, a program begun at Camp Pendleton and now being rolled out nationwide, is designed to help Marines stalk and kill insurgents by using their senses and instincts. It emphasizes keen observation of Marines’ surroundings and meticulous knowledge of their foes’ habits.
“This is the most comprehensive training of its kind in our history,” said Col. Clarke Lethin, chief of staff for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton.
“These are primal skills that we all have but that we evolved out of,” he added. “We are going back in time. The Marines who go through this program will never be the same. They’ll never look at the world the same again.”
No. They won’t.