WILLLIAMSBURG, Va. — James Jackson Sr. pilots his vehicle up his son's driveway, parks it, steps out and offers me his hand. I notice his comfortable gait, then look at his smooth skin and question myself whether he's really 81 years old, as I had been told. With his wire-framed glasses, he could be a small-town banker or a well-respected pastor, if he were wearing a suit, but the suit he wears today is all camouflage — jacket, shirt, pants, boots and hat. It's all well-worn.
"Bub is inside," he says, pointing to the door. He takes a few steps in that direction, showing me where to enter, then gets back to business. The octogenarian has to wrestle his four-wheeler out of the back of the pickup and retrieve a deer they shot yesterday.
Bub, as James Jr. is known to one and all, is 59 years old. Like his father, he looks a full 20 years younger than his actual age, is fit and trim, with the same camo pants and boots, but with a tight-fitting black mock turtleneck on top.
I begin to feel out of place in their house the moment I step inside, not a stitch of camo on me, just a pen and a pad and a camera to record this house functioning as a shrine to the great outdoors, with mounts, calls and other trappings of past hunting and fishing memories displayed everywhere.
Bub finishes up his breakfast and leads me to see his "turkey room," which has the underpinnings of a conventional living room set, not just accentuated but buried under mounts and beards and calls, artfully and purposefully arranged.
James Sr., having gotten the four-wheeler where he wants it, joins us inside. The grandson of a slave, his roots are strong here is southeastern Virginia. He's called it his home since the day he was born in April 1927, and although he's hunted across the country and back — and continues to do so — he has no intention of living anywhere else but in the Old Dominion.
"Why would I ever leave?" he asks. "Virginia has been very good to me."
Indeed, I reflect, why would he ever leave? The sights and sounds of Colonial Williamsburg are just a short ride away, chock full of 18th century history and archetypes, but the Jackson family still has history of their own to live, forward and backward. It's the type of history that can't be derived from a reenactment, or on the campus of nearby William & Mary University, the nation's second-oldest college.
Cobblestones and candlemaking it's not — instead, their history is a living, breathing organism, exemplified by the fact that James Sr., his father, his brother and his son all hunted the same covey of quail for generations, with both his ancestors and descendants shooting at the ancestors and offspring of the same birds he pursued. Continuity matters.
He doesn't remember his grandfather, who died eight days after James turned 4 years old, but he's deeply attuned to the fact his grandfather hunted. "He carried the mail by horse and buggy, and never missed a day of work," he says, then adds, with more gravity, "and I hear he was a pretty good shot."
That was his paternal grandfather. He also hunted with his maternal grandfather, who, though sickly, had the same need to put meat on the table. "It was a way of survival for him," James said. Bub pulls out a primitive bow a relative carved, as well as an all-wood fishing rod, both form and function meeting in a couple of tools. While sport may have been added to their reasons to hunt in recent decades, it's still a no-waste proposition for the Jacksons. Every item displayed in the house has been put to the test.
James Sr.'s father hunted, too. Like his own father, James's father carried the mail, and later "owned the first yellow school bus in New Kent County, in 1939," his son says proudly. "But he never hunted no further than he could walk from his house."
His father also fished, and carved topwater lures that James and Bub still treasure. "He would paddle white people around for two dollars and fifty cents a day. In a weekend, he could make more doing that than he could working on the farm all week."
So it was natural that James would enter the woods and waters to pursue hunting and fishing not just as means to particular ends, but as ends unto themselves. He proudly displays a picture of a deer he shot on December 15, 1951, noting the date without hesitation and adding that the picture also shows his "first car and first dog," then adding that the two gentlemen who flanked him in the picture are both deceased. "I can see it like it's today," he adds.
James is warming up now. Whereas for the first hour or so, he'd been cautious, answering only the questions asked, deferring to Bub whenever possible, something inside him has been jarred loose. Perhaps it's just a willingness to show off his history, his passion. As Bub retrieves another set of portraits from the 1950s, many of their inhabitants no doubt deceased, James quietly slips out of the room, exits the house and goes back to his truck. He reemerges a few minutes later, carrying a long lanyard holding 245 duck bands dating back to 1956. Now, behind the glasses, his eyes are wide and bright. Fifty years later and each shot, each kill, is vivid in his mind. He can't bring himself to brag, but lets the tangible evidence of his success speak for itself.
There's little pain or regret in those memories, no great tragedies, just the occasional remembrance that "some white people only wanted us to hunt ducks and geese and rabbits and squirrels, but they didn't want us killing the deer and turkeys."
And now, standing in his son's house, amid the displays of trophy bucks that have been carted to outdoor shows around the country, watching a DVD of his son's cable television hunting show, it is evident James Jackson has passed his passion on to his son. And just as James, whose father never hunted "no further than he could walk from his house," has killed deer and turkeys and ducks in Kansas, Alabama, Maryland and other places that would've been foreign to his predecessors, his son has taken the journey one step further.
And he has taken his father with him, because it keeps them both young.
"It's a stress-reliever," Bub says. "It's not actually about killing. Two weeks from now, I'll be in the woods and the leaves will be gold and the sun will be shining down on me. When that first bird chirps, the whole world comes to life. And afterwards, you'll always remember one special moment that stuck out. That's what makes the day."
His father smiles.
And then the son, who has hunted out West, down South and has a bit of an obsession with chasing red stags in New Zealand, gives a shout out to his roots. "I love hunting here in Virginia," he says. "It's more of a challenge than out West, where it's more wide open. Out there, at 400 yards, you can zero in your rifle. But here, the brush is so thick it's more like chasing a needle in a haystack."
His father, 81 years old, looks on with the approving half-smile of someone whose son has just hit a home run to win a little league championship. All those hours of work, of practice, of time together, they're no guarantee that the son will ever understand what it means to the father, but when it all clicks, it's so much better than if the dad had done it himself.
Bub knows what his father went through: the restricted hunting clubs which excluded blacks from entering through their bylaws; the odd glances they received at the gun shop or at a sportsmen's exhibition; or the need to prove themselves again and again, not to each other, but to the outside world in what is otherwise the most private and solitary of sports.
"There are thousands of black folks who hunt," Bub says. "They buy guns, they buy vehicles, but you look at the old pictures from the '50s and '60s, and the vehicle was almost always a car. Most African-Americans could only afford one vehicle and it had to be something they could drive their family to church in, drive their kids to school in it. They were killing big bucks in the '50s and no one knew about it. Here it is 2008, and you still don't know about it. You're not seeing it on TV. I have a brother who is 56 and a cousin who just turned 56, and they spend all their time playing golf. Why are they playing golf? It's all because of Tiger Woods."
But even if Madison Avenue hasn't picked up on this demographic, Bub has noticed a monumental grassroots, ground-level change in his own lifetime, a change that has seen the prevailing emotion go from suspicion to acceptance to curiosity. The accoutrements of the sport are the great equalizer. "When you have on camo, you get a different look," he says. "The first question is always 'Do you hunt?'"
And the answer is always yes, he and his father hunt. They hunt through the archery season, through the black powder season, and into firearms season. When Virginia's seasons come to an all-too-early close, they branch out to other states — other countries, even — chasing the hunt, reliving their history and creating more history.
Bub never explicitly states it, but in listening to him, you get the feeling that at some point in the past, he had something to prove. "My father was a good coach," he says. "He taught me how to shoot and be safe, but he always hunted with clubs and the older guys would take the best stands. The kids would get the worst stands. So I started still hunting, bow hunting. I wanted to be just as good or better, and I told my mom when I was 14 years old that I wanted to get paid to hunt. Now, everyone expects me to catch the biggest fish or kill a big deer — the guys expect that from me — so I've learned to thrive on another person's success. So when I can lead someone else to success, when that person kills their first deer, it makes me look a little better."
And then he adds, not as an afterthought, but as if to emphatically punctuate his statement with emotion, "And that brings me back to my first hunt."
And to his father's first hunt and to his grandfather's first hunt. Because no matter how many turkeys and deer James and Bub have killed, both sort of chuckle and shrug their shoulders when asked to give a precise number, they're chasing a past that is with them every day. They're certainly not running away from it. The artifacts they treasure, the mounts that greet every visitor to their house the moment one enters, are an ode to where they've been — a thousand reference points and stepping stones.
But while that past is celebrated, it is also prologue. And so while James is far too polite to ask me to leave his son's house — despite the fact that I've been here for hours, sifting through photos, asking questions both general and overly personal — four-wheeler beckons from outside, as does the work it represents.
And on a slightly longer horizon, he's getting ready to leave on Nov. 10 for a week of hunting in Kansas, an annual rite that has produced a Boone and Crockett buck, but not yet the Pope and Young trophy he covets. "I've seen him, but I didn't get to shoot at him," he remembers.
Bub says that he wants his legacy to be that of someone "who tried to promote hunting to everyone and make it appeal to everyone — the fellowship and camaraderie."
But to his father, 81 years old but looking not a day over 50, there will be time to think about legacies in the future, when he no longer can climb trees and skin deer.
In the meantime, there's history happening in the woods every day. The pictures and artifacts will be there when he gets home. The memories and the dates aren't going anywhere, still irreversibly etched in his mind. But the seasons are short, daylight is limited and the rhythms of nature speed by for young and old alike.