Island hunters find fun, friends in Alabama

Charles Klinck, Robert Moorer, Willy "Bird" Owens, and Cooper Gilkes at Shenandoah Plantation. – Photo by Nelson Sigelman

Buck is a big yellow dog with a character flaw. He would, when presented with the opportunity, eat a cat. All the guests seated around the table in Jim and Jane Klingler’s elegant dining room one recent evening as the Klinglers entertained two visitors from Martha’s Vineyard were willing to overlook his transgressions.

“Buck’s a good dog,” Heather Klinck of West Tisbury and Union Springs, Alabama said, as Jane and Jim told the story of how they had discovered that Buck could not be trusted around felines.

And all agreed that the visit of the Klinglers’ daughter and grandkids with their new kitten that led to the discovery of Buck’s character flaw was unfortunate. Even if it was smoothed over when grandma invited the kids into the kitchen to bake cookies.

But Buck had shown himself to be fearless, when Jim shot a coyote he spotted from his back door and had to track it down. And Buck proved to be good at keeping deer out of the yard. The Klingler partnership with Buck was a no-frills relationship. Buck, “a big yella dog” adopted from the pound, slept outside on a mat by the back door and stayed there, where he kept an eye on the property, and in return for his devotion, the Klinglers loved him and overlooked the occasional transgression.

“Uh huh,” Jimmy Bassett, a banker turned co-owner with his brother of Beck’s turf supply company, agreed from across the table in the soft drawl of a native Alabamian. “He’s a good dog.”

It was a compliment of the highest order in the community of Bullock County, where people respect and value good dogs, family, friends, country, religious bonds, steady horses, accurate rifles, fast quail, homebrewed whiskey, turkey hunting, deer hunting, and Alabama football – in an order of preference and passion that depends on the individual.

Off-Island

Cooper Gilkes of Edgartown and I visited Union Springs last month to go quail hunting, at the invitation of Charles and Heather Klinck. It seemed a fine way to help bridge the gap between the end of the Island’s deer and duck hunting seasons and the arrival of striped bass in the spring.

It was also an opportunity to experience southern hospitality and to be reminded that every now and then it is healthy to leave reverential, self-congratulatory Martha’s Vineyard and discover the richness elsewhere in America.

Over the course of our week-long trip, I learned that I never want to drive through the city of Atlanta again, where the prevailing speed limit is 85 miles per hour and lane changing is a sport; that the secret to making grits is “low and slow”; that a coon ass is a Cajun from Louisiana, but it is best to smile when you call him that; that a Remington 700 rifle and Winchester 308 cartridge is a deadly combination for hunting deer; and that Coop should work for the CIA, because I would take water boarding any day over sharing a room with him when he begins to snore.

In the summer, the Klincks enjoy boating and entertaining friends on Martha’s Vineyard. Heather grew up in Colorado, but was a regular Island visitor.

Her aunt, the artist Rose Abrahamson, has always lived on the Vineyard. Later, her parents, Stanley and Adele Schonbrun retired to West Tisbury.

Charles, who retains the distinctive drawl of his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, met Heather in his home state, where she attended college. A lifelong hunter, Charles introduced Heather to the world of bird dogs.

It is a passion that led them to build a house 10 years ago in Union Springs, a small, rural town south of Montgomery, proclaimed to be “the bird dog field trial capital of the world.”

It is a boast underscored by a life-size bronze statue of an English pointer on a granite pillar inscribed with the names of men and woman who have contributed to the sport of field trialing. The statue is located smack in the middle of Prairie Street, just down from the Bullock County courthouse and the Fair Company department store, where the fashions and mannequins, frozen in time behind a pair of locked glass doors, have skipped decades of passing styles.

Martha’s Vineyard has plenty of quirky stories, but try this one on for size. Zelda and James Mahaffey worked in the small-town department store they owned for years and years. Mr. Mahaffey wanted to go on vacation, but his wife did not. One day, Mr. Mahaffey convinced his wife to close Fair Company for one week.

“She had so much fun she decided not to reopen,” Heather told me as I peered through the glass door at racks of clothing with price tags dating to the 1980s.

And there the store sits with curls of white paint peeling from the ceiling over fashions a retro rocker would die for.

A small, one-newspaper town

The population of Union Springs is 3,670. The median house value is $57,800, and the median age 31, according to the town’s website.

There is a one-reporter local newspaper, the Union Springs Herald, circulation 3,100. The reporter is Jovani Yolanda Fox, an enthusiastic young journalism graduate from Boston who returned to her family roots and does her best to get the names right.

The week we visited a controversy was bubbling up around the mayor and the police chief he hired and now wants to fire. From what I could gather, the police chief arrested his cousin, the mayor, on a variety of driving charges after the mayor went to the aid of his daughter at a police road block set up to check for drunk drivers.

In many ways, Union Springs shares values we like to associate with the Island. People greet each other with the familiarity that comes from living and working in a closely knit community. “It’s small, but we have a big heart,” Donna Smith, a courthouse employee, told me.

But it is the politeness, rooted in the historic gentility of the South and exemplified time and again by our host, Charles, that strikes a first-time visitor to the South.

How you all doin’? How’s your momma? How’s your daddy? First names receive a mister or a miss in front, if the person being addressed is older and familiar. For example, Coop would be known as Mr. Coop along the shores of one of the area’s many well-stocked bass lakes.

These Southern protocols were observed on the street and in one of the more popular dining establishments in town, the one-room, cinder-block Hilltop Grill.

The Grill is one of the great racial melting pots. Entire families dressed in camo sit side by side with lawyers, local office workers, and Alabama State Police officers. It is also where you can order a double bacon cheeseburger for $4.79, a chicken gizzards dinner with two sides for $5.59, and if for some reason you wanted to eat it, you would find okra listed as a side dish for $1.39.

Hunting mecca

Bullock County is a sportsman’s playground. The deer season runs to the end of January. Turkey are plentiful, and wild pigs, a growing problem because of the destruction they cause to crops and woodlands, are hunted year-round.

Many Islanders who do not hunt regard deer hunting as a means to eliminate a growing problem. In Bullock County and surrounding areas, hunting in all its forms is an essential part of the economy.

Signs welcome deer hunters from around the country. Farmers and landowners augment their incomes by leasing large tracts at about $10 an acre. It is hard to pass a field in which there is not a deer blind.

Deer are plentiful. They can be seen at night standing along roadways and during the day dead along the road. Deer/vehicle collisions are a common part of life.

Plantations of thousands of acres are tilled, cut, and burned to provide ideal native grassland habitat for quail, a bird once native to the Vineyard. One of the better known is the Sedgefield Plantation, a property of approximately 14,000 acres that dates to the 1920s and was once the estate of the now deceased avid bird hunter L.B. Maytag, of appliance company fame.

“A lot of people in Alabama are outdoor people,” Charles Klinck told me as we drove to have dinner in the steel storage building his friend Jim Smith and his wife, Sandra, had outfitted with a full kitchen for just such occasions.

The guests that night included a group of Waffle House executives, who leased Jim’s property to deer hunt.

“I met his daddy, Grady Smith, 18 years ago,” said Joe Anchors from Atlanta, highlighting the longstanding bond.

He was surprised to learn that Coop and I had never been to a Waffle House.

“You can’t swing a cat without hittin’ one,” one of the Georgians said in disbelief.

The gathering began, as did several others we attended, with our host gathering us together for a prayer. Jim, a respected farmer and businessman, framed his Southern eloquence and political views in a prayer that thanked Jesus for the safe arrival of his Yankee friends from Massachusetts – a state that he prayed would elect Scott Brown that evening – and for the food and friendship we were about to share. “Amen” echoed in the room.

Charles had asked Jim to serve grits to his Northern guests. A battle soon warmed over the proper cooking technique, until we had dueling pots of grits. Jenks Parker, a man of considerable land, wealth, and standing in the community who has the classic look and bearing of Andrew Jackson, told me with some authority, “The fact is grits have to cook for a long, long time.”

Most everyone stepped up to the stove with an opinion about the grits boiling in the water. To get near the stove they needed to step over a dog that lay on a mat smack in the way, but nobody seemed to mind.

“What’s wrong with that dog?” one of the Georgians asked. “Old age, arthritis, and he’s been run over,” Jim said. “And he died twice.”

“Poor Willy,” Heather said.

Coop had brought a flat of oysters produced by Jack Blake of Sweetneck Farm in Katama Bay. As Coop began to shuck, a big guy from Louisiana, the aforementioned coon ass, picked up a Katama oyster in his meaty hands and examined it. “Is that for real,” Mr. Frank asked, as he examined the oyster’s clean shell color and uniform shape. He joined Coop shucking. The Islander and the Cajun made quite a pair. He agreed that the Vineyard oysters were some of the prettiest and best tasting he had experienced. High praise from a Cajun, Jim said.

Later in the week, Coop and I each shot deer in one of Jim’s fields. We hunted from separate, elevated plywood box blinds outfitted with old office chairs that squeaked each time we shifted position. When he dropped us off, Jim told us what to say if we should find our blinds occupied. “Tell ’em that Jim said to get their asses outta there,” he instructed.

“Got that?” I asked Coop. We brought the deer to one of the many processing operations. In our case, that meant driving to a farm and leaving our deer in a walk-in cooler with “24 hour drop off box” spray painted in red on the side. It was already stuffed with more than 30 deer.

Bird hunting

One morning, Coop and I were invited to hunt quail over pointers on a 500-acre property, part of the more than 4,000-acre Shenandoah Plantation. It is a sporting version of Disneyland.

The landscape consisted of rolling hills, stands of wood, and grasses and swamp. Quail and deer abound. An elegant country lodge for guests overlooked one of three bass ponds. A pair of bald eagles soared overhead. I would trade its managed beauty for any 500 acres of tick-infested scrub oak in the State Forest.

Quail, or bobwhite, were once common on the Vineyard. Were someone to propose a large scale measure to remove the thick understory and transform a portion of the Vineyard’s scrub oak terrain into more suitable habitat, there would certainly be daunting regulatory challenges.

The properties we visited in Bullock County appear to be unencumbered by worries of the sort that seem to paralyze Island projects – woodsman, spare that pitch pine for a moth.

For many residents and visitors, a day afield consists of riding horses over ground as the dogs range up ahead. When a dog finds a bird, it freezes in the distinctive posture of the pointing breeds. The hunter dismounts and walks to the side of the dog. On command the dog is released to flush the bird, or birds, from the covert. Then it is up to the hunter.

The day Coop and I visited Shenandoah we decided it would be wiser to stick with a mode of transportation we understood, a customized Jeep outfitted with two seats and gun racks in the front and kennels in the back. Willy Owens, known by his nickname, “Bird,” drove the jeep and kept track of the dogs for our dog handler Robert Moorer.

Once the dog went on point, Robert would motion for Coop and me to go to either side. Robert would call to Bird to release his Lab, “Gator.” It was his job to flush the birds.

The action was often fast. One, two, or 20 birds might suddenly erupt from the grass.

I had brought a 12-gauge over-under Browning, much too heavy for such delicate birds. Charles loaned me a 28-gauge Franchi to shoot, which only added to an experience rooted in the finest traditions of a day spent in the field with good friends and dogs.

Heather and Charles maintain a stable of horses and kennel of dogs. But one dog is favored above all others. Billy, an English setter formally known as “Ch. Panovski Billy Boy,” holds multiple local and national titles that include the 1999 National Amateur Shooting Dog Championship. Now retired, Billy lives in the house surrounded by his many awards. In his prime, he was a much sought-after stud.

But the life of the celebrity stud is not all it is cracked up to be. “Some of those dogs were mean and had to be artificially inseminated,” Heather said. “But now Billy loves to go to the vet.”

Social life

Our introduction to Union Springs social life came with this caution, “The bar is smoky, the drinks are strong and the atmosphere is classic.” Heather told us the Union Springs Country Club is not fancy. She said that the only requirement is that you cannot wear a cap in the dining room. Coop and I were not disappointed.

We were the guests that night of the grand dame of Union Springs, Mrs. Bootie Smitherman, known to all as Miss Bootie. Among the other guests who joined us at our table in the cocktail lounge was Miss Ginger [Austin], chairman of the Republican Party in Bullock County and known for her generosity. She is a woman with strong opinions on a variety of subjects.

Our waitress, Joellen Gray Smith, had volunteered to fill in for an absent employee. It was only her second night waitressing. “This is about as far from my real profession as you can be,” she said as she placed another drink on the table.

Miss Bootie asked about Joellen’s “daddy.”

“He had to go to Atlanta to pick up Margaret Copeland,” Joellen explained. “She was coming in on the 3:30 flight, and he had to go get her.”

After Joellen left the table, Heather asked quietly, “Is she alive or dead?”

“She’s going to be dead,” Miss Bootie said and turned to me with an explanation. “Her daddy’s the funeral director.”

Joellen, who works with her daddy, returned to the table cheerily.

“This is so totally opposite of my regular job,” she said. “I don’t usually get to talk to people.”