When the wagon arrives at the big house in the morning to load guests and guns, there are handshakes all around as we introduce ourselves with smiles and laughter. Who will be hunting together? Will they be on wagon number one or wagon number two? Who wants to ride a horse and who wants to sit in the wagon? How have you been? Good to see you again. We humans do love our rituals. If we were dogs, we’d be wagging our tails and smelling each others’ butts.
Humans, like dogs, are social creatures by nature. We live in packs that rely on visual cues and olfactory scents to keep order. Is the tail up like a flag or tucked down between the back legs? Are the teeth bared or is he trying to lick you in the face? In every group there is an alpha male. Sometimes it’s the guy in charge, Sometimes it’s just that guy—the one with the endless supply of jokes, stories, and anecdotes. And every group comes with its own unique make-up. Family groups are different from business colleagues, which are different from old college buddies. Family groups might include children. Business colleagues might need time to make deals. College buddies are often hung over from last night’s party.
For the guests on my wagon, I try to cheerfully provide for their needs—water and soft drinks in the cooler and plenty of ammunition in the box at my feet. If it is cold, I’ll have blankets and coffee. If rain is in the forecast, I’ll have rain gear available. As we are moving about the property, I try to maintain the right balance of respectful silence and cheerful banter. My goal is to be a good host—to offer hospitality or, in our case, southern hospitality.
Southern hospitality refers to the particularly warm and welcoming manner in which southerners welcome visitors to their homes or to the South in general. Southern hospitality is an institution that, according to humorist Roy Blount, Jr., goes back to the days before air conditioning. When folks showed up, Blount suggests, “You couldn’t pretend not to be home when there you were, sitting on the porch. You could pretend to be dead, but then you couldn’t fan yourself”.
I was born and raised in the south where children are taught that when they say yes or no to a grown up, it had better be followed by Sir or Mam. My family’s roots go back generations. So it should not have come as a surprise when, after a decade and a half living in the north, I moved back to Georgia and people seemed so friendly. When I passed strangers on the street, they would actually make eye contact and say hello. Acquaintances would see me in the grocery store and stop to ask about my family. And, after I got to know someone a little better, I’d better be ready for a hug when I see them. People can claim what they want about race relations in the south, but this old white guy has had some of the world’s best hugs from my African-American lady friends. I have known some people from the north to be offended by being called sweetie or sugar, and don’t even think about getting near enough to a northerner for a hug!
The late Southern journalist Lewis Grizzard said that “Yankees still ain’t real sure how smart we are”. When he lived in Chicago, people used to ask him, “Do you people read?”.
The cynic in me wonders if Southern hospitality is genuine. I remember the deep divisions in the south of my childhood—the racism, the class distinction, and the bitter fight for civil rights. I also know that people are nice everywhere. I have experienced hospitality in Africa, South America, Europe, and even—dare I say it—in the North. The question that remains, however, is whether my experiences were of people offering genuine, from-the-heart kindness or were they being nice because it was their job?
Hospitality is also a business—an industry includes hotels, restaurants, and tourism. Colleges teach courses for students who want to work in the hospitality industry. The community college in my home town even provides the students with a simulated hotel room, a small restaurant, and a culinary program for them to hone their skills. I hope they are also teaching a course in how to treat guests, because judging by how I am received at many businesses and fast food places, good customer service is becoming a lost art. How many times have we felt invisible to a cashier who was more absorbed in talking to a colleague than making eye contact with us, the customers? The standard joke between my wife and me when we walk away from such an encounter is to say to each other, “Have a nice day.” Followed by, “Thank you for shopping with us.”
Quail hunting is part of the hospitality industry in the south. My job as a wagon driver places me on the front line and I have learned that I truly enjoy making people happy. Being a wagon driver forces me into intimate contact with a variety of people. One of the tricks I have learned from my experience is to ask questions and, if appropriate, follow-up questions. I try to show interest without getting too personal. People like being listened to.
The secret to good hospitality, I have come to believe, is to be truly interested in others. It is the opposite of being self-absorbed. And it is encouraged by the proximity of animals, nature, and guns. That’s right; guns can be an object of positive human interaction.
Guns—or more particularly shotguns—are central to a hunting operation. They are the tools with which hunters operate. But they are also objects of respect and subjects of safety. They come in different calibers. Some cycle their shells automatically and some must be operated manually. And they can be expensive. Some are worth more than my car—actually worth more than both of my cars.
In addition to the guns, I’ve also come to appreciate the art of shooting—especially with the break-down double-barreled gun. Two shots, that’s all you get. Shoot, break, eject, reload, and shoot. It’s like an exquisitely choreographed dance. I’ve seen it a thousand times, and it never gets old. I love the thrill of a double (when a person hits a bird with each of his two shots). Even more special is when someone hits two birds with one shot—probably just luck, but fun to watch, none-the-less. Once in a while we will host a guy who hunts with a small caliber, 410 shotgun. Some of these guys knock down bird after bird. For them, shooting quail looks like instinct not aim.
The other extreme is the novice hunter who endures miss after miss. I never laugh at these guys since I couldn’t hit the side of a barn if I was standing inside it. I always feel for the novice. While the experienced hunter will grab his ammo before we leave the house in the morning, the novice hunter is often like the elderly lady in the checkout line at the grocery store who digs around in her purse looking for her checkbook after the cashier has rung up her groceries. The novice is the guy who waits until the dogs are on point and everyone has dismounted to hunt before he pats his vest pockets and realizes he needs something to put in his gun.
The wagon makes for a very pleasant way to slow down your life and focus on those around you. Being on a mule wagon with other people is like going for a leisurely stroll together. It is an intimate setting unlike other modern forms of conveyance. In a car, we can turn on a radio or watch the scenery whiz past. In a train or airplane, we tend to keep to ourselves, often with headphones in place to ensure privacy. But on a wagon, the scenery is not whizzing by, we are immersed in it. Silence can be nice, but conversation is also encouraged. Most of my guests will engage in conversation and I always enjoy hearing about their lives. I enjoy their enjoyment. Their happiness is infectious. It makes me happy.
Life in the south tends to move at a slower pace than other parts of the world. We talk real slow, we walk real slow, and we even think real slow. Maybe that’s the secret to southern hospitality. When we’re moving slowly, we can take the time to show genuine kindness to the people around us.
Zimbabwean author Alexander McCall Smith in his book The Double Comfort Safari Club had his South African character Precious Ramotswe say that her father had taught her everything she knew about how to lead a good life. Her father’s lessons included a Golden Rule-like admonition to do whatever you can to bring to others the same contentment, joy, and understanding that you have managed to find yourself. Perhaps that is the secret to our own America brand of southern hospitality. We bring contentment, joy and understanding to others—only we do it real slow.