We made our way to downtown Piggott on that wet, cold Saturday in January for breakfast at the Inn at Piggott.
In addition to enjoying the company of those in the hunting party with whom I would shoot quail later in the day, I visited with Link Fuller, a hometown football star who graduated from Piggott High School in 1969 and went on to become a well-known high school coach in Texas and a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. Fuller was in town to speak at that evening’s Piggott Mohawk football banquet.
Following the Saturday quail hunt, most members of the party planned to go to southeast Arkansas to hunt ducks for two mornings near Yancopin in Desha County, near where the White River and the Arkansas River empty into the Mississippi River.
The group — including the grandson of Ernest Hemingway and the granddaughter of famed book editor Max Perkins — was determined to re-create a trip Perkins and Hemingway took to that area in late 1932.
Perkins wrote in a letter dated Dec. 25, 1932: “I’ve just got back, two days ago, from the sunny South. In six days on the White River in Arkansas, we saw the sun once for a couple of minutes and all the time we froze. Hemingway wrote that he ‘needed’ to see me, and it had to be done while duck shooting, in the snow, on the shore of a river with cakes of ice in it. And you have to kneel down a lot of the time or sit. We got quite a lot of ducks, but not nearly so many as Hem thought we should; but I had a fine time.
“We were five hours by train from Memphis, but we went half of that by motor and almost ran down several hogs that ambled across our road. The whole country and the people were just as in the days of Mark Twain. We went into several houseboats to get some corn whiskey and saw men who lived always on the river. They were dressed just like the men told about in Huckleberry Finn, their trousers stuffed into their boots, and they talked just like them.
“We walked one day for several miles through the forest to a desolate narrow lake. I never was in a perfectly natural forest before. I never understood how people rode through them, but you could, rapidly, because of wide spaces between the trees. It was a ghostly walk. The trees were all whitened with ice and snow. Everything was white, and there was a white mist. We heard a dozen old trees fall under the weight of ice. But the lake was frozen over so we got no ducks there, and a big branch almost fell on Hem on the way back.
“We got up in pitch dark every morning, Hem’s idea of daybreak. I had an argument with him about it, but he said the sun had nothing to do with it; that was the only way to shoot ducks. So I gave in, with mental reservations. We really had a grand time. After dinner in the evening, we’d have two or three highballs and talk. He’s wonderful company.”
I would later hear that the duck hunting was good for our modern Arkansas visitors, but I get to duck hunt on a regular basis.
It had been years, on the other hand, since I had been behind bird dogs pointing quail on Arkansas soil.
There were few things my father loved more than what he referred to simply as “bird hunting.” And there were few things I enjoyed more as a boy than hunting with him.
I knew I was becoming a man when he would allow me to take our truck and our bird dogs out alone. When I was in high school, winter afternoons meant going out after school for an hour or so of hunting before dark — just our Brittany spaniel, our English setter and me. I never much enjoyed hunting pen-raised birds. Once wild quail became rare in Arkansas, I stopped hunting. I miss the sport.
Alas, we would hunt pen-raised birds in Clay County.
Stephen Crancer of Rector has transformed his family farm on Crowley’s Ridge near Rector into a beautiful facility for guided quail and pheasant hunts. Crancer hosts everything from corporate retreats to church outings at what’s known as Liberty Hill Outfitters. After breakfast, our group took the back route in the rain along winding gravel roads as we made our way south down the Ridge from Piggott to Liberty Hill. Several wrong turns later, we arrived, only to find that the rain had gotten harder.
After we had waited for about 30 minutes, the rain stopped.
John Hemingway, who lives in Montreal and is the grandson of Ernest, warmed up by shooting clay pigeons over a pond.
Our group, led by Crancer, walked from the pond to the fields where the quail were. It was a joy to watch Crancer’s two dogs — one of them is 13 years old — work. These were not wild birds, but it was still enough to bring back memories of those hunts with my father. And I was hunting with a Hemingway in Clay County, a story I no doubt will still be telling years from now.
Following the morning hunt, it was time for lunch, a meal catered at Liberty Hill by Chow At One Eighteen, which is located in downtown Paragould. The menu consisted of grilled quail with mushrooms, black truffle oil risotto, green beans, biscuits and a French apple tart for dessert. In other words, it wasn’t the average Saturday lunch.
As we ate, I thought about the Hemingway visits to Clay County. The Pfeiffer family back in Piggott didn’t realize it, but the marriage between Ernest and Pauline essentially was over by 1939. Ernest was spending most of his time at his home named Finca Vigia in Cuba, and Pauline remained in Key West.
On Dec. 12, 1939, Ernest wrote to Mary Pfeiffer in Piggott: “I counted very much on coming to see you last fall with the children. I wanted to see you very much, and I wanted to ask your advice about some things. … If we could have talked I believe you would have found that I have changed much less than Pauline and Virginia. … I do not mean that I have ever been in the right in everything, but the true version would be very different from anything you have heard.”
Ernest and Pauline’s divorce was final in November 1940, and Ernest soon married Martha Gellhorn, the third of his four wives. He would not return to Piggott. He committed suicide in Idaho with his favorite shotgun on July 2, 1961.
In an August 1934 letter to Mary Pfeiffer, Ernest had written: “Everything is going well with us. As usual when I am writing a novel I am making nothing and am probably regarded by the family intelligence service as a loafer. On the other hand when I am all through with a novel I make plenty of money and then, while I am loafing, am regarded with respect as a money maker.”
The “loafing” time occasionally included hunting quail in the far northeast corner of Arkansas.
On one glorious January weekend, we did our best to relive those days.