DRYDEN — “May I see the bird, please?”
I actually yelled this. I know. It is not a sentence you can picture me yelling. It is not a sentence you can picture anyone yelling, except maybe Prince Charles or Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. “May I see the bird, please?” And that’s not all. Here is the whole phrase:
“May I see the bird, please?” . . .
Blown to pieces.
We are shooting things today, on the final day of The Excellent Adventure Tour, and it seems fitting that just as I am set to return to the office and face my boss, I find myself holding a shotgun.
Coincidence? I think not.
Especially since he had no idea I would be spending the kind of money it took to climb mountains in Wyoming and herd cattle in Montana. I figure by the time I learn how to use this here 12-gauge Beretta 303 semiautomatic with skeet tube, he’ll accept whatever expense account I turn in, no questions asked.
How did I get here?
Well, there I was, wandering back from the mountains of Montana, fresh off my cowboy adventure, still engaged in the fine western tradition of scraping horse manure off my shoe, when I came upon this unique opportunity, not far from home: a 10-hole skeet course. I had never fired a gun in my life, unless you count caps, but this whole week has been about trying things you wouldn’t otherwise do, so . . .
Go ahead. Make my day.
Now, I could never shoot anything living. I don’t have it in me. But inanimate objects like cans, or sports editors? That’s another story.
Next thing you know, I am standing in a forested section of the Huntsman Hunt Club, holding a very long gun while perched in a small wooden booth — the way I shoot, they call it the “John Wilkes booth” — and man, you should see what I do to trees.
BANG! I got a branch. BANG! I got a trunk. BANG! I shave a row of leaves.
This would be impressive, if I were actually aiming at any of those things. What I am aiming at are clay disks the size of pancakes that are fired from somewhere to the side of me — they don’t tell me where because they don’t want me even thinking of turning in that direction — and I am supposed to hit these little clay disks by firing my gun.
Right. And baseball players will work for minimum wage.
I am not a shot. I have never fired a rifle, pistol, bazooka, howitzer, tank or anything else you might have around the house. And I want to say right here that I do not advocate hunting or killing of any kind, mostly because, I figure, all animals have relatives, and some of them may be connected to the mob. But when Eric Sharp, our fine outdoors writer — I like to call him “Forrest Grumpy” — suggested the Huntsman Hunt Club, because
“they have a shooting range that’s like a golf course,” well, I was intrigued.
“A golf course?” I said.
“Yes. With different holes, simulating different animals. You keep score by how many targets you hit. They have 10 frames.”
“You might say that.”
“Do they rent shoes?”
They don’t rent shoes. They do rent guns. And guides. The latter is more important, as I quickly learned after taking the firearm and resting it on my foot.
“Uh, you could blow your toe off that way,” the guide said.
Important safety tip. Thanks.
Once again, as in surfing, climbing, fly-fishing and wrangling, the guide
— in this case a patient fellow named Craig Shaw — shows the instant ability to take all your years of higher education and flush them down the toilet.
And leave you feeling like an idiot.
Ah, the Great Outdoors.
Let’s go to the first hole, shall we?
“Uh, sir, you might want to wait until the target actually appears.”
. . . BANG!
“No, sir. Try to shoot before it lands.”
“Not bad, sir. The target’s on your right, however, not your left.”
As I said, I am not much of a shot. Then again, have you ever seen a skeet? Or, as they are called, a clay pigeon? It does not look like a pigeon. What it looks like is a frisbee that has been put in the dryer and shrunk. It is saucer-shaped and painted orange. The first time they launched one, it soared across the sky, and I kept waiting for little green men to step out of it.
“Try to follow it with your left hand,” Craig said, “and fire when it hits your pre-chosen area.”
This sounds simple. And maybe it is, if you know what you’re doing. For me, the first time, I followed the target with my left hand, pulled the trigger and BLAM! I went flying backward about three feet. I thought, for a second, I had the gun pointed the wrong way.
“It kicks you back pretty good, doesn’t it?” Craig said.
I’ll say. It hurts to fire a shotgun. And it really hurts when you can’t hit anything. After some blind luck during our practice rounds — I say blind because I had my eyes closed most of the time — we hit the course and I immediately went into what we athletes like to call “a shooting slump.”
“Not bad, sir. You just missed that one.”
“Oooh. Very close.”
I liked Craig. He was very diplomatic. He always said, “Just missed,” even when we both knew I had a better chance of hitting the parking lot than the target.
Wait! Let me tell you about these targets. This is the interesting part. Each one is set to move like a particular animal. For example, the first hole is “Flaring Duck.” I have never seen a “flaring duck.” Most ducks I know don’t even use headlights. But the skeet comes out in the pattern of this creature, and you get several shots at it. Then you mark your score and move to the next challenge.
When you step into the booth — it’s more like a hut — you get to say the famous sentence, “May I see the bird, please.”
They send one out, just for viewing purposes. It whizzes past, then disappears, no doubt returning to the planet Ork.
Next come the ones that count.
I fired four times.
I knocked the top off a pine tree.
“Can I take a mulligan?” I asked.
As it is never good to shoot alone, we had with us several members of the club, plus Sharp and Steve Nickerson, the banzai photographer whom I had last seen in the waters of Lake Michigan, searching for his telephoto lens. Even though I was missing pretty much everything with my gun, my confidence was OK until Nickerson, who contends he had never done this before, stepped into position and blew a flaring duck right out of the sky. One shot. BLAM!
(IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: If Nickerson ever wants to take your portrait, let him. Give him whatever he wants. Food. Money. Anything. Better safe than sorry.)
And on we went, No. 2, the famed “Rabbit” hole. Here the targets actually bounce across the ground, simulating a rabbit hop. These are supposed to be very hard to hit — so, naturally, I held no hope. Lift the gun. Hold it steady.
“Hey! There you go! Congratulations!”
I opened my eyes. The disk had shattered. To be honest, I don’t believe it was my shot that actually hit it. I think there was a second gunman, somewhere on the grassy knoll . . .
But I was on the board.
The afternoon went on like this, hole to hole, animal to animal. We tried the famous “Spring Teal” and the always difficult “Pin Oak Mallard” — not that I would know a Pin Oak Mallard if it rang my bell and tried to sell me cookies — and, of course, everybody’s favorite, “The Partridge.”
“I want to hit David Cassidy.”
“I want to hit Danny Bonaduce.”
“I want to hit the one who played the drums.”
“Partridge Family” humor. Craig hears it every time someone plays this hole.
I should point out that the folks at the Huntsman take great care to make sure the shooting is careful and safe, witnessed by the fact that we ended the day with four people, same as when we started.
This is always a good sign.
“We cover all the little things, like making sure your gun barrel is visible in between holes, so we know it’s not loaded,” Craig explained. “And the safety is always on until I release it for you, just before you shoot.”
Shaw says they get a lot of customers on this rather hidden course. People come to practice for hunting season, sure, but some just come for the fun of hitting a target. “There are people who spend their whole lives shooting at nothing but clay pigeons.”
I’m all for that.
I just killed a rosebush.
The final hole was “Quail.” By this point, my shoulder felt like a knife had been driven through it — thanks to the kickback every time I shot — and the Quail target was about as easy to hit as an F16 fighter jet. I fired. I missed all my tries. Too bad. As this was the last hole, I was hoping for a free game.
“What’s the final score?” I asked.
“Well,” Craig said, checking the score sheet, “we took 50 shots. And you hit . . .”
“Come on, doctor, don’t sugarcoat it.”
Three. Out of 50. That’s a batting average of .060. This is not good in any sport. With my head bowed in shame, I turned in my gun.
At least it wasn’t pointed at my foot.
“You did well for your first time,” Craig said.
“Really?” I said.
I looked back and saw Nickerson, who by this point was wearing a blindfold and having kids throw quarters in the air so he could blow them out of the sky, two at a time. I left him there, with his gunpowder, and began the slow trek home.
So what do we learn from these excellent adventures? Well, let’s see: We learn to keep our mouths closed when falling off a surfboard — lest we swallow half the ocean — and we learn never to unhook from the rock while climbing. (This should be obvious.) We learn to make sure nothing innocent, like children or a rental car, is standing behind you when you go to fly cast. And we learn to throw out shoes after a day on the horse farm. Trust me on this one.
But mostly what we learn from adventure, I think, is perspective. So much of the time we’re lost, we fall into a pit of triviality, caught up in household spats, office politics, salary envy, rush-hour traffic, little things that, when we crawl behind them, seem like huge problems. And then, through some stroke of luck — in my case, the boss leaving town — we break away, even for a moment, and find ourselves galloping on a horse across the Montana plain, or floating down a cool mountain river. And we realize there’s this huge world out there, and while some of it is expensive, a lot of it is not. The Great Outdoors isn’t going anywhere. It’s right here. And many of its richest adventures cost very little. We breathe some of its air, climb some of its rocks, fish some of its streams and find, as corny as it sounds, that we go back to your 9-to-5 life with a whole new perspective.
Or, in my case, a shotgun.
About that expense account . . . WANT TO TRY IT? The Huntsman Hunt Club, 3166 Havens Road in Dryden, offers a round on its skeet-shooting course to members and their guests. You get 50 shots per round, from 10 stops. Membership costs about $700 a year. Guns are available for rent, and instruction is offered. Call 1-810-796-3962 or 1-810-796-3000. CUTLINE: Guide Craig Shaw points out the difference between a clay pigeon and a rosebush.