There’s a patch of sand and pine in the backwoods of Southeast Georgia. It’s a quiet place, acres of Lowcountry forest and old rice fields that have evaded the development many communities have felt closer to the coast. This land holds weight for me, for my family, though I’ve not returned since my grandfather’s passing 10 years ago.
It doesn’t show up on Google Maps. I realize this when I type “Thompson Pasture” into my phone. My mother brushes it aside—she knows the way by the landmarks. Cross the railroad tracks in Pembroke. Cut through the Area—how everyone around here refers to Fort Stewart, the largest U.S. Army base east of the Mississippi. Turn left at the old oak tree.
It’s a bright fall morning, and my mother and I fill the drive with updates on relatives, cousins and second cousins, and where they all are now. Some of them will join us today. It’s a reunion, of sorts—we’re returning for the 100th anniversary of the Thompson Pasture Hunting Club, where my grandfather was a member for more than half a century. Each autumn, he’d head here during deer season in hopes of getting his yearly buck, though we all know it was the late-night cards, the conversations, and camaraderie that kept him coming back.
As we turn into the clubhouse, memories unfold in my mind, scenes I peel back like pieces of old paper stuck together. A solitary building beneath ancient oaks, their mossy beards blowing in the breeze. Men and women in dark greens and browns, tromping around in big boots and camo hats. Dogs hollering from their pens.
I spent many a childhood Thanksgiving here. My Grandaddy would be gone before the sun, with whoever was adventurous enough to join him on the stand for the initial morning hunt. “You’d either be freezing or fighting mosquitos,” my mother recalls of the fall mornings spent in the woods with her dad. The rest of us would come with my grandmother and a host of dishes that we’d add to a large spread, which all the members and their families would partake of come noon.
Thompson Pasture is Georgia’s oldest deer-dogging club. Its members are not the tweed-jacket type. My Grandaddy was a simple man, he had to save up to buy into the club in 1952, borrowing my Uncle Elwin’s gun. That next Christmas, my grandmother gave him a Remington sportsman automatic. He never missed a season after that.
My mother and I find my cousin and his son, and drive out to the grounds, where a host of hunters await in orange vests. Dogs, mostly beagles, quiver in anticipation from the backs of mud-splattered pickups. We’re joining the second hunt of the morning, and head towards our allotted block off Hog Pen Road. It’s all pine and underbrush as we step off the dirt road and into the woods. There’s a bit of a clearing to our right, and Mom loads her shotgun, cradling it in the crook of her arm, barrel pointing down. “Never shoot down the road,” she reminds me.
My Grandaddy would be gone before the sun, with whoever was adventurous enough to join him on the stand for the initial morning hunt.
I remember my Grandaddy telling me this. I would sit next to him on the stand atop a flipped five-gallon bucket with a 4-10 tucked between my legs, my body warm from the Thanksgiving feast. With the afternoon sun tickling my face through the leaves, it was agony to keep my eyes open. Even Granddaddy would pull his hat down over his face. This, I’m told, was normal.
Today we keep our eyes peeled, though the beauty of the land quiets conversation. Above, the sky is a brilliant blue, the late morning sun filters through the fans of a palmetto bush, and the mosquito buzz hushes like a lullaby. A holler cuts the air, then another—the drivers are trying to get the dogs on the scent. Within a few minutes we catch baying in the distance. As the noise gets closer, I sit a little straighter. My mom cushions the gun into her right shoulder, and flips the safety. I peer out into the brush expectantly, straining for a glimpse of movement.
Four shots ring clear to our right. While getting a deer is certainly a win, I can’t help hoping someone’s missed. Missing means you stand on top of the picnic table after dinner to get your shirttail cut. One Thanksgiving I sawed off the tail end of a cousin’s plaid button-down with his pocketknife. He now keeps an old t-shirt on hand for such circumstances.
Three long truck-horn blasts sound the end of the hunt. Though we return to the clubhouse empty-handed, we’re not disappointed—a feast awaits us. Between deviled eggs and deer barbecue, we make conversation. People here know you by who your daddy was, what kind of casserole your mama made. Though he’s been gone ten years, when I mention my Granddaddy, lips loosen. “Oh I remember Mr. Ernest,” is almost always followed by an anecdote. The time he missed a deer because he’d been “resting his eyes.” How he always took his hat off in the kitchen, and chose a top bunk at the clubhouse until the end.
As we finish our meal, one of the members addresses the some 70 in attendance, the families of former and new members. “This is really a social club that hunts,” he laughs, a phrase I’ve heard before. He continues on to talk about their values, to respect others, to love God, and to welcome visitors. As I look around, I can’t stifle a strange feeling of nostalgia, and perhaps a touch of sadness.
I have a son, growing inside me. While Thompson Pasture has many members, I can’t help but wonder if groups like these will be around when he is grown. My siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles are scattered across the country, and our connection to this place, and the man who ties us together, fades with time.
We hop back in the car to head home. As we pull out of the dirt drive, an older gentleman in camo and a bucket hat lifts a hand in a polite farewell. He then turns and hoists himself into his truck, ready for the afternoon hunt.