The Education of a Sportsman

June 10th, 2021 by dayat Leave a reply »

The letter came in the spring of my eighteenth year, telling me when to report in, and later that summer I packed my few belongings in my rucksack and an old battered suitcase and prepared to depart my home in the mountains of Idaho. Little did I know what lay in store for me during the months ahead, but my mother and grandmother offered plenty of warnings.

“Don’t try to be a hero,” Gram said.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” I consoled her.

“I know,” Gram said, “but in the off chance the urge comes over you, don’t try to be one.”

“Right,” I said.

“Those people are savages, many of them,” Mom said. “They’re not like us. I remember the atrocities your father used to tell about when he was in… Her voice trailed off.

“I can’t believe it’s that bad,” I said. “Lonny Henderson went, didn’t he, and he came back okay.”

Mom shook her head. “No, there’s something wrong with Lonny. Folks say he talks strange now. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

“Look, don’t Worry,” I said. “I’m going to come back all right. After all, it’s not as if I’m going off to war. College is different than that.”

Mom and Gram helped me with my packing, and there was considerable discussion over what a young college man should take or leave behind.

“Let’s see now,” Mom said, surveying my assembled belongings. “You have your fishing rods, your tackle box, your twenty-two, your thirty-thirty, your shot gun your hunting knife, your hunting boots and wool socks, your lucky hunting hat, your good pair of pants, and your good shirt. Since you’re going to be gone for almost a whole year, do you think you might need a change of underwear?”

“Wouldn’t hurt,” I said. “Why don’t you throw in a set?”

“How about the dictionary?” Gram asked.

“Naw,” I said. “It’d take up the space of at least four boxes of shells. I know most words, anyway.”

“Of course you couldn’t think about leaving behind these hides you tanned and the deer head you mounted yourself,” Mom added.

“Yeah, I thought my dorm room might need a little decoration, something to make me feel at home.” I did wonder a bit about the head, since it had turned out with this stupid grin on its face.

Gram pointed to the big tangle of rusty traps. “You think you might actually have time to run a trap line between classes and studying?”

“There’s lots of streams and wild country near the college,” I said.

“And muskrat hides are probably going to get up to near three dollars this winter.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Gram said.

As it turned out, college was not nearly SO dangerous as Gram and Mom had led me to believe. The campus was located in the middle of a vast farming region bordered on one side by a fairly decelot range of mountains. The surrounding countryside was dotted with lakes and laced with streams ranging from rivers to creeks to cricks with an occasional swamp thrown in for good luck. From my dorm window, pheasants could be seen strutting the wheat fields and deer were abundant in the mountains. It was my kind of place.

Originally an agricultural school, the college now enjoyed a reputation for research and scholarship in dozens of different academic areas.

The chairman of my major department was himself a scholar of international reputation, to which was added the honor of having me as one of his advisees.

Later in my college career, after I knew him better, Dr. Osgood revealed to me the peculiar circumstance under which he became my faculty adviser, once and for all clearing up the mystery of how great universities arrive at decisions that will forever influence the future life of a student. “I drew the short straw,” he said.”

Even now I remember our first meeting. A secretary showed me into an office, where Dr. Osgood, his great mop of white hair seemingly suspended in mid explosion, sat staring intently at a file folder on his desk. He looked up, smiling.

“From a brief study of your academic record, young man, I see a great future ahead of you as a scholar.”

“Gosh,” I replied, hanging my head and digging at the carpet with my toe.

“I don’t know about that.”

“Now now now,” Dr. Osgood said, “You have amassed a wonderful academic record and are obviously a brilliant student. There’s no need for false modesty, Heinzburger.”

“McManus,” I corrected.

“Oh, McManus?” Dr. Osgood picked up another file folder and perused it, occasionally allowing himself a slight shudder. “Harumph! Well, now, perhaps I spoke too soon, McManus. it appears from your record that you have every reason for legitimate modesty.”

I laughed, not wishing to embarrass him, even though I didn’t find his little joke particularly funny.

“By the way, McManus, what happened to the top of your head there, an auto accident?”

That’s my lucky hunting hat, sir.”

“Oh. Is it removable or permanently attached?”

“I almost always take it off when I go to bed,” I said. “Unless I happen to forget.”

“That’s most admirable,” he said. “One must always strive to cultivate the little niceties.” As far as I know, that was the first and only compliment I ever received from Dr. Osgood.

Then we got down to a serious discussion of my academic career, during which Dr. Osgood at times raved incoherently and at other times appeared on the verge of physical violence. Finally, he sat up very straight in his chair and began to perform what I later learned were deep-breathing exercises.

Afterwards, for a while, he seemed calmer.

“Let’s take a different tack,” he said, forcing a small smile that trembled at the corners. “Let’s concentrate for a moment on your future, presuming you have one. Now think about this very carefully.

All other things aside, what is your ultimate goal in life? When you’re as old as 1, what single achievement would you like to look back upon, the one great shining accomplishment?”

I could see that we had now got down to serious business, and I sorted through all my vague hopes and desires and finally selected one that stood out among all others, the impossible dream.

“I have it,” I said.

“Yes? Yes?” Dr. Osgood implored.

“I’d like to shoot a world’s-record trophy moose!”

Dr. Osgood appeared at that moment to have suffered an infarction of some sort. He rose slowly from his chair, his face twisted in anguish, leaned forward across the desk, and croaked, “Moose? Moose? What do you mean, MOOSE!”

I must admit that my first meeting with Dr. Osgood made me a bit uneasy, but in our later sessions over the years I was able to relax and banter with him about my grades and various other trifles. Often I would leave his office in a state of high good humor, slinging one last witty retort over my shoulder, while Dr. Osgood would put on a show of weeping uncontrollably, at which he was very good. The man could have made his fortune as an actor.

Life in the dorm was not nearly so bad as Mom and Gram had predicted.

Oh, sure, occasionally some of the guys would commit a minor atrocity, but nothing out of the ordinary as atrocities go. There were the usual panty raids, water fights, short-sheeting of beds, and dropping of stink bombs into the ventilation system, that sort of innocent fun.

During the first semester of my freshman year I had extremely bad luck with roommates. My first roommate, Wilson Fawfush, flipped out after a few weeks and finally insisted upon being moved to another dorm. The dorm director told me confidentially that Wilson had been suffering from hallucinations, even to the extent of claimin he saw snakes crawling all around the floor of our room.

“Poor Wilson,” I said.

“Yes, it’s too bad,” the director said. “Sometimes the human mind can play strange tricks on us.”

“No question about it,” I said.

The next roommate assigned me was a real dilly. His name was Lester T.

Lillybridge III. It immediately became apparent that Lester had been spoiled rotten as a kid, one result of which was that he had just been expelled from a classy private college back East. His lips seemed to be curled in a permanent sneer of superiority. Scarcely had he dropped his leather-trimmed luggage on the linoleum of our room than we had our first exchange of hostility.

“What are all the guns doing in here?” he asked.

“I’m a hunter,” I said.

“Figures,” he said. “My parents have arranged this as a punishment for me. What’s that ugly thing on the wall?”

His words momentarily crippled my ego. No sooner had I learned I possessed an ego than some fool had to come along and cripple it.

“That,” I said indignantly, “is a deer head. I mounted it myself.”

“Why does it have that stupid grin on its face?”

“That question just goes to show you know nothing about deer,” I snapped.

“In their natural state, all deer wear stupid grins like that.”

Lillybridge laughed evilly. He walked over and kicked a crate I had built in the corner of the room. “What’s in there?”

Snakes,” I said.

“Don’t be a wise-elbow,” Lillybridge said, opening the lid on top and peering in. He slammed down the lid and jumped back. “There are snakes in there!”

“Yes.”

“Can they get out?”

“Well, they did one night a few weeks ago. That’s why I built the crate for them. They can’t get out now.”

“Geez!” Lillybridge said. “My parents have really done it to me this time!”

Lillybridge found some of the other guys in the dorm more to his liking and spent most of his free time with them, planning and executing various atrocities. When not in class, I spent most of my time in the museum of natural history, where I had a part-time job assisting the curator in various chores. I was thinking of becoming a naturalist.

The work was so much fun I would sometimes take it home with me.

“Where’s that last batch of snakes we caught?” the curator would ask me.

“I took them home to study,” I’d say.

“Well, bring them back!”

Occasionally, the curator would let me try my hand at taxidermy, but the results were never up to his standards. “You didn’t do too badly on that ground squirrel,” he’d say, “but why does it have that stupid grin on its face?”

During the day, when there were people milling about, the museum was quite pleasant. But at night, when I was there late sweeping the floors or cleaning up a mess of some kind, not always of my own making, the place was downright creepy. The live rattlesnakes in their glass cages, for example, would strike at me, popping the glass with their noses as I walked by. I knew that the snakes couldn’t strike through the glass, but my adrenal glands, being ignorant of that fact, would pump a quart or so of adrenaline into my system every time a rattler struck at me. Pretty soon my nerves would be jangling, and shadows would seem to dart and dance among the displays. The huge, mounted timber wolf would blink his eyes as I scurried by with my dust cloth.

The mounted cougar would lash its tail. The bobcat would twitch its whiskers.

There was one particularly loathsome room that I had to venture into in order to empty the various waste receptacles, some of which occasionally held startling surprises. This was the dissection room, where dead animals were prepared for whatever purpose the curator had in mind for them. One large glass case contained a kind of carnivorous beetle, thousands of them, used for cleaning the flesh off bones, leaving them shiny clean. I would imagine I could hear the beetles at their work, performing a grim symphony with their infinitesimal chomp-chomp-chomps. Between the rattlesnakes and the beetles, my late night chores in the museum would often leave me in a state of barely controlled terror.

The dissection room contained a dingy gray freezer about the size and shape of a coffin, only somewhat deeper. I often wondered what it might hold.

One night when I was there alone, my curiosity overpowered my terror sufficiently for me to peek in. Ever so carefully I raised the lid, feeling the beat of my heart in every single goose bump on my body.

Bit by bit, with cold sweat flooding off of me, I raised one eyelid.

Nothing! The freezer was empty.

At that moment I thought of an atrocity to commit.

I had happened to mention to Lester, as we lay in our bunks one night, that my nerves were a bit frazzled from my work at the museum. He had laughed in his nasty, evil way and expressed the opinion that I was “Just chicken.”

Confiding my fear to a person like Lillybridge had been nothing less than a lapse of sanity on my part. He had soon told all the other guys on our floor, most of whom up to that moment had regarded me with a certain amount of trepidation. Now they began to feel that I was a safe subject upon which to perform their practical jokes. This was a theory in need of puncturing. I set my trap for Lillybridge with great care. First I wrote on a sheet of paper the message, “Dr. Smith, please finish with the dissection of this cadaver as soon as possible. It’s beginning to spoil.”

Then I waited until late one night when Lillybridge and I were in our bunks exchanging a few nasty barbs with each other before going to sleep.

“Let’s be serious for a moment, Lester,” I Said.

“I am being serious, worm wit,” he replied.

“Naw, come on, I mean it. I’ve got to tell somebody about this. It’s really getting to me. I may even have to quit my job in the museum because of it.”

“So, what is it, mussel mouth? You can tell your old Uncle Lester anything in complete confidence. Har! Har! Har!”

“Well, you see, there’s this freezer in the dissection room at the museum. it’s about the size and shape of a coffin. And I’m dying to look into it. I just have this uncontrollable compulsion to see what’s inside.

But I’m scared of what I’ll find. I’m torn between my fear and my curiosity.

I just can’t stand it any more!”

“Har liar liar liar liar liar liar liar!” Lester said. “Har liar liar.”

“And what I was wondering, Lester, is if maybe you and I could sneak out to the museum right now and open that freezer. I’ve got a key.”

“Sure!” he said. “Sounds like funl!”

“No kidding, Lester? You promise you won’t chicken out? That no matter what, you’ll open the freezer? I’d hate to have to tell the guys that you were afraid to open the freezer!”

“Let’s go!” Lester said, bounding out of his bunk.

After checking to make sure the campus security police were nowhere in sight, I unlocked the door to the museum and we slipped inside. I told Lester we couldn’t turn on any lights because that would alert campus security to our presence. We’d just have to make do with the lights from the display cases, which cast an eerie glow about the room.

“You’re not getting nervous are you, Lester?” I asked, as we worked our way through the museum.

“Har! Har! Har!” Lester laughed.

I led him up alongside the rattlesnake case. Lester stare

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