It happens once a year, and this year it happened on September 9.
The air cooled by a north wind, the chilled, cloud-gray water of Lake Huron, the constant chirps of the crickets all proclaimed the same message.
So, too did Belle, our tri-colored English setter.
She started fixing me with a constant gaze I haven't seen for nearly a year. She followed me down to the great room where I took my morning coffee, then back up to the bedroom while I got dressed, then back down where she waited while I worked the crossword puzzle. She came to work with me in the office above the garage - just to make sure I didn't slip away without her.
It's autumn! Maybe not strictly by the calendar, but for all intents and purposes. And that means one thing: birds! And today is the opening day for grouse.
And Belle's not the only one. As soon as we get that first kiss of autumn, I ritualistically begin to inject hunting apparel and equipment into my daily equation whenever I can. I actually started wearing my new boots in mid-August, just to get finished with the blisters far in advance of the season. At the dinner table, I cut food and butter my bread with my bird camp knife. In bed I'll wrap up in my wool blanket and pretend I'm camping out. I'll wear my blaze orange hunting shirt not only to make sure that the nylon hasn't shrunk and that it still fits my wide-screen frame but also just to get that smell of hunting season. Love that smell and savor it wherever I find it! In fact, Maureen came up to my office the other afternoon, caught me savoring and let out a shriek.
"Tom, don't do it! You've got too much to live for!"
"What are you talking about" I asked, lifting my head from inside a plastic bag.
"Weren't you trying to suffocate yourself?" she asked.
"No, Maureen." Then I calmly explained that I had just been sniffing the contents of the plastic bag, hunting items I usually keep in my car tote -"
"You mean your purse."
"No, it's not a purse. It's an L.L. Bean Three-Way Field Bag and Gear Companion."
Anyway, I was relishing the smell of the season from things like spare batteries for Belle's beeper, matches, a Swiss Army knife, a Zippo lighter I've never used, aspirin, lens swabs, ear plugs if I have to bunk with someone who snores, a pen, a comb, an emery board -
"It's a purse."
As I was saying ...
Filled with the essence of an early autumn, I finished work and walked back to the house in my hunting shirt, 31 year-old orange hat, camp shorts and my nine-inch high boots. The house was chilly enough that to get cozy I slipped into my green wool sweater vest - the one with the suede shoulder patches. Belle was anxious to go for a fitness run, so I hooked her leash to my belt, retrieved my bike from the garage, and the two of us set out on our two-mile circuit.
On our return leg, Maureen drove up to us while on her way home from town.
"Hey, could you tell that was us from a distance?" I asked.
"Oh yeah," Maureen replied.
"That's because Belle is so pretty when she trots along side me and I kind of look like a Lance Armstrong version of Mort Neff when I'm peddling like this, ehh?"
"Well ..." Maureen hesitated, "you look like something."
"Not Mort Neff?"
"Not Lance Armstrong?"
"No, Tom. I'd say in that outfit you've put together, you look more like a combination of a German tourist and Ozzie Nelson."
"Ahm ... Ahm ... Ahm ...!"
"You're starting to sound like him too."
"Tom, no man except Ozzie Nelson allows himself to be seen wearing a buttoned-up cardigan."
"This is not a cardigan. It's my Filson Sportsman's Travel and Leisure Time -"
"It's made of wool and it buttons up. It's an Ozzie Nelson cardigan."
"Well, I think it makes me look kind of dashing."
"Sure, if you're safely tucked away in a car or plane or a cabin. Not here on the road where everyone can see you."
"It's a dirt road six miles from U.S. 23. Who's going to see me?"
"How do I know? Besides anyone who does will be someone we know. And they're going to wonder why I ever let you out of the house dressed like that."
"Why do you?" I helpfully asked, just to give her some practice in case anyone we knew pulled up.
"Would ... you ... please ... just get home as soon as you can?"
"OK, and you have my word that I won't cause any embarrassment."
She considered my comment, sized me up then said, "Just to be on the safe side ..."
I'll bet Harriet never stuffed Ozzie and his bike and his cardigan in the back of a Saturn Vue.