Editor’s note: Longtime BDN artist and outdoors columnist Tom Hennessey of Hampden died on Dec. 14 at the age of 81. During his 54-year career with the BDN, Hennessey was a staunch advocate for Maine sportsmen, especially those who shared in the fishing and hunting traditions that were part of his upbringing. His recollections and observations were complemented by his beautifully painted depictions of “sports,” as he called them, enjoying experiences in the field. We are republishing here Tom’s BDN column from Dec. 3, 2005, which talks about one of the most meaningful Christmas gifts he ever received.
In beginning this Christmas column inspired by events that occurred while I was attending John Bapst High School in Bangor, I’m asking readers to understand that it was written to the best of my memory:
In spite of everything I’d been told, ad nauseam, about the importance of education, I figured school was a waste of time. Consequently, to the perturbation of my parents and teachers, I studied only enough to get passing grades. Otherwise, I served my time in classrooms by either gazing out of the windows or glancing at the clock and wondering if it had stopped. Truth is, the only period of the day that I looked forward to was cafeteria. That anticipation, however, had nothing to do with eating lunch.
To the contrary, the cafeteria money I scared up at home each morning – a quarter usually, on a good day 50 cents – seldom was spent on ham salad or egg salad sandwiches and bottles of chocolate milk – especially during hunting season. So what did hunting have to do with a boy who had the appetite of a river driver electing to fast at school? In a word, priorities. You see, at the sound of the school day’s final bell I was off and running to Bar Wight’s Sports Store, which in the early 1950s, was located on State Street hill, just above the old Park Theater. Atop the counter in the gun department was a box containing odd shotgun shells priced at three for a quarter, take your pick.
After foraging and fetching three 16-gauge shells — shot size didn’t matter, anything from No. 2 to 7½ sufficed — I’d slap my quarter on the counter, hie off and leg it to Brewer via the old Bangor-Brewer bridge. From there it didn’t take long to hitchhike a ride to Grove Street in South Brewer, where I lived with my grandparents. If you know that, back then, Grove Street ended at the railroad tracks, you may also know that the fields, hedgerows and woodlands beyond produced bountiful crops of pheasants, partridges and rabbits. Until, of course, those game-productive covers were plowed under by Parkway South and the attendant domestic and industrial development. In any case, now you know that because I owned a birdy springer spaniel named, Snooky, and a single-shot Harrington & Richardson 16-gauge, it didn’t take me long to burn three shells.
And so it went. Allowing that those gunning grounds were only a stone’s throw away, I often left the house when dawn was hinting daylight to hunt for an hour or so before going to school. Of course after school, rain or shine. Regardless of the time of day, as soon as I pulled on my boots Snooky would charge through the house yelping her excitement, slipping and sliding into furniture, toe nails scrambling and scratching on the waxed and polished hardwood floor in the front hall, until my grandmother would fume, “For God’s sake let her out before she wrecks the house.”
Great days and grand times, those, and all taken for granted. Small wonder I couldn’t concentrate on translating Caesar and drawing diagrams of isosceles triangles and parallel lines cut by transversals. What the heck, I didn’t want to go to college anyway. As much as I despised school, a bulldozer couldn’t have pushed me into an institution of higher learning. So it was that I coasted along hoping that somehow, someway I would make my living at something associated with the outdoors. After all, it was the only subject that ever held my attention. Not once did I ever consider painting sporting scenes or writing outdoors columns as occupations. Never gave them a thought. Besides, I had enough to think about in scraping up money for shotgun shells.
Actually, I had a pretty good cash flow. In addition to lunch money and loose change that stayed in my pocket after trips to the store, come winter I made a dollar or two by shoveling snow. One way or another, I managed to have enough shotgun shells to be reminded, repeatedly, of the wildfowler’s by-word: “To hit is history, to miss is mystery.” Life was good.
One year, however, Ol’ Man Winter was slow in arriving. Accordingly, only a few flurries had fallen by the time school closed for Christmas vacation, leaving me as poor as the proverbial church mouse and out of shells. Chafing even more was that snowshoe rabbits – hares actually – had turned white. Consequently, the bunnies glowed like light bulbs in the thickets spreading from the Wiswell Road to the Bar Harbor railroad tracks and beyond. Simply put, I was in a bit of a broth.
Owing to my independent nature and my grandfather’s belief that boys should fend for themselves, I was a bit gun-shy about asking him for money to buy shotgun shells. But desperate times call for desperate measures. My recollection is that he and I were having breakfast when he said it would be easy pickings to get a couple of rabbits for a “fricole,” meaning a fricassee. Seizing the opportunity I guaranteed getting the rabbits if I had some shotgun shells, emphasizing that I could buy them three for a quarter at Bar Wights. “That so?” he said. Then, reaching into his pocket he withdrew some change, picked out a quarter and slid it across the table. Directly my grandfather went to work at the mill and I went to Bangor.
If memory serves me, that afternoon I bagged two rabbits while hunting handy to the Eastern Gun Club on the Wiswell Road. Suffice it to say we had a fricole.Trouble was, no sooner had that ambrosial meal of fried rabbit and mashed potato smothered in gravy been cleared from the table when I began fretting about having only one shell left. And still no snow to shovel.
As it turned out, though, my prayers were answered on Christmas morning. Not in awakening to snow, but in finding a brand new box full of shotgun shells beneath the tree. I couldn’t believe it. For a few seconds I just stood there surprised and speechless. Holding the box in both hands, like it was something sacred, I read the numbers on the top: 16 gauge 2¾ inch 3¼ drams equiv. 1⅛ oz. No. 6 shot. No better all-around loads for small game. Still taken aback, I hefted the weight of the box, felt it and squeezed it, as if doubting that it actually contained 25 shells. Twenty-five, no less. A full box. More than I’d ever had at one time and nearly as many as there were in the countertop box at Bar Wight’s.
Come late afternoon, when dinner and all of the day’s merrymaking were being digested, I took the box of shells to my upstairs bedroom, which also served as my gun room, fishing-tackle room and fly-tying room. There I opened the box and dumped the shells onto the bed. Winchester-Western Super Xs, they were, with bright red paperboard hulls held by shiny brass bases. Then I counted them. Then I set them side by side in a row. Then I arranged them in groups of five. And then I realized they looked like Christmas candles set in polished-brass holders.
So I decorated my room with them: A dozen or so, equally spaced, edged the top of the chest of drawers. Several lined the window sill, likewise the fly-tying table and the nightstand holding a flashlight and a Philco radio. Before turning in that night I put the shells back into the box and set it on the stool by the fly-tying table. Wrapped in a warm cocoon of blankets and quilts and cozy with the knowledge that I had enough shells for the rest of the hunting season I fell asleep anticipating daylight.
Eventually, Ol’ Man Winter turned white with rage, providing rabbits with the cover and concealment that nature intended. As the season progressed, the deepening snow often became sealed with crust caused by thawing days and freezing nights, making for hard hunting. Nevertheless, my grandfather and I enjoyed quite a few fricoles that winter. Admittedly, I left the house with more shells in my pockets than I needed. But after needing more for so long and knowing there were more at home, I was feeling full of myself. So much so that I was spending my lunch money in the school cafeteria.
As an aside, because I’ve never heard the word “fricole” used anywhere else, I hunted for it in the dictionary but couldn’t find so much as a track.
It would be foolish of me to venture a guess as to how many boxes — cases actually — of shotgun shells I’ve bought since then. However, I’ll say without hesitation that none of them contained the memories that came from the box that made that Christmas so memorable. Each of those shells that I imagined as Christmas candles lit the way to trails that eventually led me a long way from South Brewer. But never far enough to melt the memories of hunting out the back door, literally, with Sports whose family names, Goody, Brochu, Brooks, Soucie, Little and the like, remain symbolic of the “south end.”
If it sounds silly so be it, but to this day, when I open a new box of shells and see plastic hulls of red, green, blue, yellow, whatever, glowing like Christmas candles held in shiny brass holders, I often think of my grandparents — if not for them I don’t know where I’d be or what I’d be — and the big white house that, at this time of year, was like a huge Christmas stocking stuffed with family, friends and all the sights, sounds and smells of the festive season that observes the world’s most widely celebrated birthday.
Have a meaningful and memorable Merry Christmas.