Is there anything that you do that makes you smile? That makes you just grin from ear to ear? That gives you little tingles down your belly? That sometimes makes it hard to go to sleep just thinking about it?
I know what some of you are thinking…besides that!
Is it Christmas? No. Is it Beethoven’s birthday? No. Is it Guy Fawkes Day? No. Is it my anniversary?… I refuse to answer that question on advice of counsel and on grounds it may lead to my premature demise.
It’s none of those! Friday morning at sunrise marks the opening day of quail season in Arizona and Uncle Billy’s Hualapai Mountain Rangers ride again!
To those who grew up in Kingman Arizona, I need not explain the quail opener. For the rest of you; it’s the beginning of the hunting seasons. That time of year when the air begins to cool and the pulse quickens on nearly the entire male population and a goodly portion of the women as well.
I know, dove season started a month ago but it’s too damn hot and it doesn’t feel like hunting season so it doesn’t count. Besides, I don’t like eating the scrawny little bastards!
Quail on the other hand are God’s gift to elegance. There is nothing about them I don’t like. I like to look at them, I like to hear them, I like to watch them scurry around, I like to chase them and I love to eat them.
Well, OK, there are two things I don’t like. I’ve never been particularly fond of killing and they can be a little unpleasant to clean unless you have the right attitude.
In Kingman, hunting quail was a rite of passage. It was matriculation to the big leagues from rabbits and your .22. Under the watchful, stern but prideful eye of your dad/grampa/uncle/mentor you now got to use a shotgun. You were moving up in the Male Scale. You might even get to ride in the back of the pickup!
After a while, you graduate to going out on your own. Most of us recall strapping our guns to our bicycle and pedaling off to chase the little top knotted varmints.
These humble beginnings sowed the seed of Uncle Billy’s Hualapai Mt. Rangers. At first, we were a loose knit group from the same bicycle bunches of a few years previous. We had graduated from high school or maybe college, had been in the service, married and had moved into the world of young adulthood with all the accoutrements, careers, mortgages and kids.
We would meet somewhere around Kingman with our main shotgun and possibly a spare or two with at least 1000 rounds of ammunition. Included was a flimsy sleeping bag, a loaf of bread, a pound of baloney, maybe some potato chips, jerky, some cookies and a box of beer (Coors light of course) iced in a cool chest.
We were extremely serious about hunting in those days. Don’t tell anybody, but there were occasional wagers or pots to be won by whoever got their limit the quickest. Hundreds of miles were covered throughout Mohave County going from one hotspot to the next. Typically, we tried to meet in Wikieup at the river crossing for lunch. By that time, the county had been covered from Topock to Burro Creek, Phantom Ranch to Seligman. We hunted hard.
After a few years, new friends were invited and old friends and family joined us. There was quite a group. We started taking an extra day and camping at the same place every year. One night around a campfire, someone suggested we pool our money, hire a caterer and collectively buy most of the beer (Coors light of course). We figured this would be cheaper since a lot of guys bringing a lot of food that got hauled back a lot was not efficient. It would be easier to since none of us would have to fix meals, buy grub etc.
Then people started bringing trailers and motor homes. Somebody brought a hand trap thrower. The next year we had a full on professional trap machine. Then somebody brought cannon of the black powder persuasion. Then somebody did an extra nice paint job on his Jeep. This could not be allowed to stand and several of the members began working on their Jeeps. A flagpole was erected. A flag ceremony complete with a Marine and one stray Sailor color guard is held every morning and sundown.
You have not lived until you have heard 40 jovial Rangers, standing around a campfire that can be seen from outer space, in various stages of inebriation singing El Paso at the top of their lungs. Nobody knows the words.
Jokes are raucous, ribald and rampant. Some noticed they were repeated year after year but no one said anything. It finally got to the point all the jokes have numbers. That way, all you have to do is call a number and everyone laughs. For the last 15 years, the mention of the name Tonto Dombrowski will elicit laughter to the point of tears.
Heated discussion was had about bringing kids. Since we had all been kids ourselves once and remembered that we all look forward to being with the men, it was decided to allow a son to come if he had taken and passed the hunter safety course sponsored by the National Rifle Association.
Eventually, a suitable property was located, purchased and 20 pull through RV spaces complete with water power and sewer hookups were built. A retired, refrigerated, semi-truck beer delivery trailer (Coors light of course) was discovered in a junkyard, salvaged and brought to the ranch. A shower house was completed. A mobile sporting clays field replaced our single trap machine. From humble beginnings it has become what it has become.
This will be our 28th year since we started doing this with a caterer etc. obviously it goes back much further.
Uncle Billie’s has been described as “a group of unsupervised, unrepentant uber-middle-aged 10-year-olds at large on the countryside with unlimited alcohol, gasoline, off-road vehicles, firearms and explosive devices.” That is a fitting description. It is also a collection of extraordinarily good men, friends and family getting together to reminisce, drink a little too much and laugh a lot.
One of my female cousins, Pamela Beller O’Connor lobbied for years for us to allow women on the hunt. Since she had more balls than were collectively available around our campfire, a compromise was reached whereby we would have a mixed sex event catered in the springtime. Unfortunately, she passed away before she could go. I would certainly rather have had her on the hunt than the one or two jackasses that managed sneak in from time to time over the years. For that matter, she could have replaced me or any of the other members! She was a true Ranger.
I am nearly the oldest of the original group and I don’t hunt anymore. I think there are several others but we don’t advertise it. I bring a gun. I haven’t fired it in anger in several years. I might if I found myself surrounded by a bunch of hostile quail and nothing to defend myself but my 12 gauge. If no one was watching though, I would probably surrender.
All the original controversial boys are now young men, some with boys who will soon be taking their National Rifle Association classes in order to join us. We have been forced to limit membership to descendants of original members. At 60 people, it was simply getting too big and unwieldy for safety. Despite what it sounds like, safety is paramount. All gun handling is watched like a hawk and everything else has its place.
Lately, my boys have been more deferential to the “old man.” They asked to bring the chairs, get me drinks, drive me around and generally take care of me. At first, I was a little incensed but have determined, why mess up a good thing? I’ll let them do whatever they want to do for me. I just wish, since I love to sleep outside in the back of my pickup, they would get out of a warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night and pee for me so I don’t have to…several times.
When I go out there and smell the juniper wood fire; when I stand around in my jacket basking in the warmth of friendship. When I watch the sunrise with my sons and a fresh cup of coffee, ride that Jeep and just exist in one of God’s favorite places, I am whole and at peace. I’ve been doing this or something like it for over half a century. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.