KEARNEYSVILLE — Traditions come in as many varieties as there are families or sports to choose from.
In the fall of the year, some prefer the outdoors with a trained dog while others seek a comfortable armchair and settle in for watching football in between naps.
When Jefferson County was mostly orchard land and farmland, many extended families gathered year after year for the relaxed hunts of small game such as Bobwhite quail or rabbits.
The day of choice for trying to match wits with the quail for my older relatives was Thanksgiving.
When my older cousins and uncle reached their early 20s, on until well past 50, they would have planned a Thanksgiving Day that had more than a turkey dinner and the Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay’s Packers on a small screen television.
The November morning found the day’s hunters — usually between four and six men in number — arriving at a farm house for a breakfast of country fare that featured hot cakes made from corn meal, scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage, fresh muffins served with homemade marmalade and jelly, corn flakes or oat meal, coffee and fruit juices.
No sense in going to the fields for testing the bird’s wiles on an empty, growling stomach.
After the sun had risen high enough in the eastern sky or the patchy fog had burned off, it was time to set off for the farm acreage with its overgrown fencerows, wooded lots and weedy patches with their multiflora rose and thorny brambles.
These hunters had been spending Thanksgivings together for decades. They had played baseball together during summer upon summer. And they had been on yearly fishing vacations together on the Shenandoah River near Sewell’s and Big Eddy.
All of them looked at baseball and small game hunting as the holy grails of life itself.
Each man had his favorite shotgun, most often a 20-guage for “bird hunting.” Each man had time-honed knowledge of which dogs were the best for hunting behind when locating the elusive quail.
All of them had worn the same clothing for many, many years. The blaze orange vests were recent additions but didn’t pose problems for the years-old vests holding each man’s shells.
The comfortable leather boots and thick socks also had been preserved and protected from the invasions of time or moths.
The pre-hunt routine had been as much a treasured tradition as the morning chase of the Bobwhites.
Each family had its favored hunting dog. The pointers and setters were trained, sometimes loosely, to locate the skittish quail. Plans called for the dogs to work the terrain, finally flushing the birds with the shooting action to follow.
So after enough time had passed that the breakfast feast had been digested, the three first cousins and their sons would get the dogs and set off over the pastured farmland to the fields that should hold the gray-tailed and reddish brown-bodied Bobwhites. The slightly larger males with the white throats and white bands across the neck and the less flashy females would be equally tasty if taken.
Sometimes the quail were uncooperative sorts.
Even though the rolling terrain was perfect for their feeding and other daily habits, at times the quarry preferred to walk or run along the weed-covered ground instead of being flushed to their usual short bursts of flight.
The farmland had its fence lines with seedy foxtails, seed-heavy weeds, briars and wild grasses. Limestone breaks were everywhere and their low-slung trees and scrub brush were ideal for hiding the birds.
Fields with the remains of harvested corn were rimmed by short sassafras trees and small walnuts. Hickories, thorny brambles and seed-bearing bushes could help feed the quail.
Small plots near fence lines had rows of standing corn stalks or millett or sorghum, left in place as part of the plan to entice the coveys of quail and possibly even pheasant or doves to stay the coming winter months.
In the 1950s and even into the early 1970s, there were quail in enough numbers. Not today. They are very scarce. Most farms of even 300 lightly wooded and fenced-in acres don’t have any quail.
On those Thanksgiving mornings in long-ago times, these men found the coveys. The pointers and setters properly flushed the quail and with decades of experience behind every shot, the birds were downed.
When enough quail had been taken to be one of the primary ingredients for a much-anticipated meal – and every World Series for the past 25 years had been critiqued and dissected — the dogs with their panting chests and dangling tongues were called, and reluctantly obeyed their owner’s wishes to quit the hunt.
It was getting on toward 1 o’clock.
The quail had to be cleaned. The deep-into-the-afternoon Thanksgiving meal had to be prepared. Turkey and dressing and 80-year-old recipes for sweet potatoes, fried oysters and mince pies would have company at the dinning room table. The quail would be oven-baked with spices and other palette-pleasing secrets that would further the drowsiness of the morning hunters.
And the Lions would entertain the Packers at Briggs Stadium in Detroit as told to the audience by the incomparible broadcaster, Ray Scott.
The hunting dogs were fast asleep. The hunting cousins missed parts of the game because of their naps.
Tradition had held up. Another Thanksgiving had yielded pointers and setters and some time in the field. The breakfast was the same as always. And the wrongs of major league baseball had been discussed and straightened out again.