It was October and the Maine woods were ablaze. Two vans rumbled along a road known as "the airline" because it followed the old 100-mile mail plane flight path from Bangor to St. John, New Brunswick. In the rear van were two cages. In each cage was a Brittany Spaniel. Sitting outside the cages was the number-one camera crew of ABC's "American Sportsman" series.
I was riding shotgun in the lead van. Behind the wheel sat an old friend, Bud Leavitt, Sports Editor for the Bangor Daily News, whose daily column and weekly TV show made him the most recognized individual across northern New England. In the back seat with a certain writer I know was the best third baseman (my apologies to the great Mike Schmidt) I ever saw: Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles.
It was early, maybe 7 a.m., and an overnight frost had crystallized the vast pageant of woodland, making it sparkle in the crisp early light. As we rode in silence through the still wilderness, we drank coffee from paper cups and felt the excitement about the day's prospects because we knew the frost had put our targets in a traveling mood.
The target was woodcock, a beady-eyed, needle-beaked little game bird that stays in close cover and, when flushed, takes off like a helicopter, rising vertically and emitting little cheeps, before leveling out and disappearing like a fighter plane across the treetops. To a rookie woodcock hunter, especially one like Brooks, who learned to bird hunt in the open quail country of the South, the adjustment could be frustrating.
No doubt to boost Brooks' confidence, Leavitt launched into a recollection of another ball player's initiation into the peculiar ways of the woodcock. Leavitt was talking about a guy by the name of Ted Williams, a close friend of Bud's (and mine).
A slump for Ted Williams
"We were hunting out of George Weylock's Loon Bay Lodge," said Leavitt as the van jounced and yawed over the uneven gravel road, "and Williams, who had the best eye-hand coordination in the game, wasted almost a full box of No. 8 shot without touching a bird. Of course, the next day, Ted — who hates to lose at anything — worked on his timing and, as a result, didn't miss a bird. But that's what can happen to you with these blahsted woodcock."
Brooks said nothing, and before long, we pulled down a side-road, and after a mile or so, Leavitt stopped at the head of a boggy stretch of woods. As the cinematographers loaded cameras with film, the soundman — a great guy from the Bronx named Jimmy Lynch — rigged tiny wireless microphones inside our hunting vests while Basil Smith unloaded the dogs. No. 8 shells were slipped into our Remington 1100s, and just as we entered the woods at port arms Brooks whispered, "Curt, was Bud serious about Ted going 0 for 21?"
I shrugged. "I don't know, but these birds can be tricky, so be ready."