In 1980, when I used to live in Missouri, on a visit to one of my friends in St. James, Missouri two hours southwest of St. Louis, on the side of a country road I saw a flock of wild turkeys. I had never seen a wild turkey before. They looked like the domestic turkeys I had seen in Afghanistan.
There were no wild turkeys in Afghanistan. This means turkeys that can fly like other flying birds. The turkeys that I had seen back in Afghanistan did not fly. If you ask an Afghan whether a turkey can fly or not, 99% would answer in the negative. They think, as I did, that turkeys cannot fly. Oh, there are people here in America as well that have never seen a turkey fly or know if they did care one way or another. I did not either until… I'll tell you later.
Arriving at my friend, Jeff’s, place I told him about the turkeys I had seen at the side of the road. I told him, "I saw a bunch of turkeys by the side of road in an area where there were no residential or farmhouses anywhere near them. I wonder who those turkeys belonged to.” I was sure these turkeys were domestic and belonged to someone.
Jeff laughed at me and informed me that those were wild turkeys, they did not belong to anyone. He said people could hunt one during the turkey season, which was from April 20th to May 10th. I could not believe it. Hunt turkeys? Unbelievable, what a country. April 20th was only three weeks away.
Upon coming back home to St. Charles, Missouri where I shared an apartment with my friend, Jawed, I was excited. Jawed and I were friends since 6th grade in Kabul. We were in Cub Scouts together. Jawed was a tough guy with a short fuse. He would lose his temper with people and things he did not like or approve of. I was happy to have him back with me after many years being apart when he was still in Kabul and I was here going to school. When he called me from L.A. one day, informing me he was in the U.S., I flew to L.A. to see him. We ended up driving back together from L.A to St. Louis. With Jawed, the atmosphere was always filled with positive energy, untarnished friendship fun, and unlimited trust. There is more, much more, about my friend that I could tell you, but maybe some other time. Suffice it to say, I miss him a lot. So, back to the turkeys, I could not wait to tell Jawed what I had seen and what I had in mind.
“There are wild turkeys in Missouri, and we are going to go turkey hunting,” I shouted.
“What? Turkey hunting? What do you mean? What are you talking about?” Jawed asked with an impatient look.
"I saw these turkeys on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere and told Jeff about them. He told me they were wild turkeys. He said hunting season for them starts next month. We are going turkey hunting.” I declared.
“We don’t have guns,” Jawed said, raising both his hands in front of him, driving the point.
“I know. We have to get them. I am going to look in the paper. I’ve seen ads for shotguns. Maybe we will find some good deals. We also have to get our hunting licenses and turkey tags,” I replied.
In the next couple of weeks, Jawed and I kept looking at the local newspaper ads for shotguns. At last, we answered an ad that was somewhere on a farm. The owner had two shotguns for sale. One was a Winchester pump with a 30” barrel. It was a little beat up, but everything worked mechanically. He wanted $200, but I talked him down to $100. Jawed had to settle for the second gun. This was a real antique, an old one-barrel, one-shot Marlin. We had to see if this one actually worked. The farmer insisted we test it. He gave Jawed a shotgun shell and took us behind his barn to fire the gun. Jawed loaded, aimed, and fired. The gun fired with a very loud boom and a mule’s kick. It almost knocked Jawed off his feet. I know it hurt his shoulder. I smiled and noticed the farmer, too, had a grin on his face. If Jawed was hurting, he did not show it. He smiled back and said, “I hope this gun will hurt what you are shooting at as much as it hurts the shooter.” We all laughed.
The farmer asked us what we were planning to hunt with these guns. We told him about our plans for going turkey hunting.
The farmer asked, “Have you boys been turkey hunting before?”
“No, not turkey hunting. We didn’t even know there were wild turkeys around, period. But we grew up hunting in Afghanistan. We hunted many different things like deer, ducks, quail, geese, anything that could fly, except airplanes. But we never heard of wild turkeys,” Jawed answered with a bit of swagger.
The farmer smiled, shaking his head, and said, “Turkeys are one of the hardest birds to hunt.”
Before he could finish Jawed answered, “We could hit a needle from 15 yards with a pellet gun. We could hit a turkey with a shotgun. Don’t worry.”
Before the farmer could say anything else, Jawed and I grabbed our guns and said goodbye to the old man and walked out.
We were counting down days before the opening day of turkey hunting season. The night before, Jawed and I went out partying in town and stayed up all night. At 4:00 a.m., we got loaded the car with our shotguns and a box of shells each and left the apartment to go pick up my brother, Azim, and our other friend, Abdul, who had decided to go with us and try turkey hunting. My brother and Abdul had brought with them their shotguns as well as their fishing rods. Why fishing rods? That is because St. James was home to one of the best trout parks in the country called Meramec Springs. We went there for fishing often, but that story is for another time. We figured that my brother and Abdul were planning to catch a few trout after they bagged their turkeys, right!
At 6:30 a.m. on the 20th of April, our group of four novel turkey hunters pulled over on a dirt road somewhere in the woods of St. James, Missouri. It was a misty day with on and off sprinkles. The ground and trees were wet from the rain in the last couple of days. We decided to split up in two groups, my brother and our friend Abdul and Jawed and me. We wished each other good luck and went out in two different directions. Jawed and I started to enter the woods from the left of where we were. I was so excited, and I am pretty sure Jawed was too. We were walking quietly inside the thick forest. We had not gone more than 100 yards when we first heard a wooshing sound of flapping wings above us. Just over the treetops about 40 to 50 feet, we saw two helicopter size birds flying over us. Wow!
We had never seen such big birds in flight. Beautiful. We froze in delight and excitement watching these magnificent creatures flying away from us. They flew for about 100 yards and sat on a branch of a big, tall Missouri Oak. Before I go on with this, let me talk about how you are supposed to hunt turkeys. You are supposed to wear camouflage and sit somewhere quiet away from the view of the turkeys. Most hunters use gadgets to call turkeys. Call turkeys? Yes, call turkeys by making the sounds that sound just like live turkeys. When turkeys hear these calls, they call back and start to walk to each other, find each other. They have very sharp eyesight and can see movements and runway. The trick is to be sitting at a spot and wait for them to get near enough to you to be able to get a shot at them. Now back to our story and the two turkeys on the tree about 150 yards in front of me and my friend.
“Did you see that? Did you see those turkeys fly?” I screamed in a whisper and excitement.
“They are like airplanes. Let’s go get them,” whispered Jawed.
We started to quietly make our way towards the tall tree and the two birds, walking in a crouch, holding our shotguns, and dreaming of when and if we bagged those turkeys. In my mind, I was already thinking about how I was going to tell all my friends back in town about it, about how the turkeys were flying, and how we bagged them. I already was thinking of the great feast we were going to have to roast them and have a big dinner party with friends.
“I will cook them,” I heard Jawed whisper. "You don’t know how to cook a turkey, especially a wild turkey,” he continued with a serious look on his face.
“Shush, let’s shoot one first,” I whispered back as I continued with my crouched-up walk towards our targets.
We were about 50-60 yards from the tree as we raised our heads to look at the turkeys. They got spooked and flew from the tree. Again, they looked so big with huge wing spans flapping. It was hard to not lose them in the thick woods and foliage of the tall trees. Jawed started to run after them so as to not lose them. He gestured towards me and said, “Come on, hurry, I see them. They sat on another tree about 200 yards that way.”
We started to run towards the new tree Jawed had seen our prized birds fly to. As we got a little closer, we slowed down, couched down again, and walked quietly, trying to get within range. We had just taken a few more steps when we heard a breaking sound of a branch from our target tree and saw the turkeys flying away towards the left of where they were. Jawed and I looked at each other in frustration and started our pursuit in the general direction of the two coveted birds.
The rain seemed to be coming down a little stronger now. The thick foliage was preventing much of the light from getting through. It was wet, muddy, and getting a little cold, but the pursuit was in full strength. Jawed stopped under a tree where it was a little safer fomo the rain and lit a cigarette.
“Where did they go?” I asked.
Jawed took a long puff from his Winston and shook his head. “I don’t know. Let’s just walk around. Maybe we will see some more," Jawed said with a little disappointed about losing our birds.
“Which way should we go?” I asked.
“Let’s go this way,” he said as he pointed to his right.
Finishing our cigarettes, we got back on our hunt of the big birds of this Missouri Forest. We kept walking and walking. We walked down hills, up hills, passed creeks, and over broken tree logs. The forest was alive with the promise of the spring everywhere we looked. As we were walking down this small hill type ground to where a small creek ran, we saw a doe with a baby. As they heard us, they took off and ran to the woods. The squirrels were the most active and brave of the forest creatures. They were everywhere, running and playing, and I thought for sure some were smiling. We saw some crows that were making all kinds of happy noise skipping from one tree to another. Some robins were singing, dancing on the branches where they sat for a few minutes teasing their admirers. The snakes did us a favor and kept to themselves. We were good with that. All we were looking for was any sign of the big birds, turkeys. They had vanished. They were cooped up. Silent, hiding, maybe laughing their heads off listening to the two turkeys we had chased telling their buddies about the two “Turkeys” who they had led deep inside the forest.
We kept walking and walking. Again, we climbed up and down small hills, passed creeks, and dead logs. We were walking by this one tree when I noticed two cigarette butts. Three or four steps passed the butts, it hit me. It hit me like a slug. It drained much of the energy from my body. I had to stop. Jawed turned around and asked, “What is up? Why are you stopping?"
He must have seen the worry on my face as he asked, “What is wrong? You O.K?”
“Look at those cigarette butts by the tree. Unless there was somebody else here, I think that is the tree we took a cigarette break at under an hour ago. We have been walking in a circle.”
Jawed walked to the cigarette butts, picked them up, and examined them. He threw them back on the ground shaking his head and said, “Winston and Kent. How could this be? How did this happen?”
“I don’t know, but I have read about this. People lose their sense of direction in the forest. Everywhere looks the same. It is hard to know which direction you are walking," I replied.
“I am getting a little tired and hungry. Let’s go back. We can go have some food at Meramec Spring Park. Azim and Abdul must be there already fishing.”
It was 6 hours since we had left those two and walked inside the woods. Jawed was right. I was getting pretty hungry from all the walking in the wet environment of the woods of St. James.
“Just follow me now. I know which way we came. Let’s go, I am hungry. You and your great ideas. Turkey hunting. Hmm,” Jawed said with a little irritation in his voice.
“Don’t be a baby. We will find the way soon, and I will buy you breakfast,” I said with a grin.
Jawed nodded with a faded smile and started to walk. As if someone or something had just turned a switch in my mind, the imaginative section of my brain woke up in a big hurry and speed. The what-ifs started shooting one after another like firecrackers inside my brain, but I chose not to share them for the moment with my hungry friend, Jawed.
We must have walked for another hour and a half before Jawed stopped and lit a cigarette. I sat by a tree and took a cigarette out as well. Jawed was hoping I wouldn't ask him the question, and I purposely delayed his agony. I know he was waiting for it. Finally, I felt a little sorry and asked, “Where are we? I thought you knew the way!" I said this with a stern face at first, but I could not hold it and busted into loud laughter. Jawed frowned first and then he too started to laugh. We must have laughed for quite a long time. We were not sure why we were laughing, but there was a hidden reason that we could not point to. Maybe it was at our stupidity, how could we put ourselves in such a crazy position. It was now getting closer to eight hours that we were inside these woods.
I took my gun and fired two rapid shots in the air and then shouted, “Hello, is anybody there? Can you hear me? We are lost!”
Now it was time for Jawed to laugh. It was loud and annoying. He would look at me and laugh even louder. I was getting pissed at first, but then, the laugher caught up with me. I joined him for another crazy session. I was thinking we were lost, but now we were losing our sanity.
I asked, “What do you prefer? Crow or squirrel? I could shoot one for dinner.”
"Crow,” Jawed replied without hesitation.
“We will have crow. I have eaten it before, back in Jalalabad. One time we had gone to this village and had gone to a local café for lunch. We ordered chicken and ate it. Later on, we found out the owner added crow in the mix with his chicken. None of the Kabul people would suspect it. It wasn’t that bad, pretty much like chicken.”
I smiled and said, “O.K. Here is what we will do. Let’s just walk straight that way, as straight as possible, maybe it will end somewhere out of these woods. If that doesn’t work, then we will have to spend the night. Maybe Azim and Abdul will come looking for us. I am sure they are worried”
We picked our direction and started to walk as straight as we possibly could. It was a long walk, close to almost 1 1/2 hours. We were so exhausted and hungry. We finally stopped and had to sit down. We were both resigned to the fact that we were definitely lost and would probably have to spend the night in the woods. That was not something we were looking forward to.
We lit up a cigarette and were talking about eating crow and building some kind of shelter using tree branches. We were saying that the whole town of St. James must know about us by now. They must be coming for us any time now. However, deep down we were thinking that most likely we were spending the night in the woods. We were both silent and thinking about our plight and the long night in front of us, when all of sudden, out of nowhere, we heard the sound of a truck. It sounded pretty close. That sound was the sweetest of all sounds we had ever heard. We had no idea that this sound would shoot such energy in our bodies. We were up and running instantaneously toward it. About 100 yards from where we were, we reached an asphalt road. How beautiful asphalt was. We were jumping up and down on it. Greeting it, greeting safety, civilization, and food. Not being with the snakes and coyotes in the woods. Yay!
We walked for another mile back down to where we had parked the car. We rushed to Meramec Spring Park and got in, trying to let my worried brother and friend know that we were O.K. We found them by a fishing hole, rods in hand, chatting away. When they saw us, my brother shouted, “Where the hick have you two been? We have been waiting for you two. We need to get back home.”
Jawed and I could not believe it. These guys had no idea what we had gone through. We looked at each other and started to laugh.
In the years that followed, we learned how to hunt turkeys. We still reminisce about our rookie days trying to get a turkey in the woods of St. James, Missouri.