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Memories of reunions, hunting lessons

When Sheila Burnham was a young lady, she, her husband and another couple annually went on vacation to what’s sometimes called the Redneck Riviera, the panhandle of Florida. The two couples always got the same adjoining rooms, on the second floor so they’d have a view of the ocean. Although the rooms’ balconies weren’t attached, it was easy to step from one to another.

And one day Sheila missed that step and fell to the ground, immediately paralyzed from the chest down. Her marriage didn’t last another year.

I learned all that later; all I knew initially is that I was being met at the airport in Meridian, Mississippi by someone named Shelia Burnham, who lived locally and would drive me to a hunting lodge which was hosting a “For Ladies Only” hunt.

I remember I was feeling ill-tempered and cranky, as the Mississippi heat and humidity smacked me as soon as I stepped from the plane. Meridian is a small airport where after the plane taxies to the building, luggage is thrown on the pavement for people to grab. As I said, it was hot. I had a giant duffle bag that had backpack straps incorporated, and a bow case – when I stepped to the sidewalk, I didn’t think I’d make it 100 yards.

“A white, four-door sedan,” I’d been told. Soon I spotted the vehicle and a woman waved from the front seat. I remember thinking, geez, she can’t even get out and help me with my stuff, and then I got to the car and saw the wheelchair in the back seat. Then it was no longer just the heat and humidity that reddened my face.

We chatted easily as we drove. Sheila had hunted before her accident; she said there was no way she was going to give it up. She had learned to use adaptive equipment to shoot a rifle and bow.

We had all day to travel four hours, and Sheila asked me to look at a map and pick some state attraction to visit. Hey, I said, recognizing the name of a town, I went to this town when I was little for a family reunion!”

“Well that’s it,” Sheila said. “Let’s go see if we can find any of your relatives.”

Although I did have lots of memories about the reunion, I had only been about six years old. Many years had passed. Were any of these people still around? In the town, we stopped and asked at the first church we found. As soon as I gave the name of my first cousin, the man’s face lit up with excitement.

“Oh!” he said. “You mean Possum?”

He gave us directions and we set out, but after a maze of unmarked red clay roads, we were about to admit defeat. Then we saw a pickup truck approaching; at first glance no driver could be seen because he was surrounded by a sea of hound dogs. As the truck drew to a stop, the driver pressed dogs out of the way and leaned out the window to see if he could help. I told him I was looking for Possum and he grinned a mile, “You found him!”

Possum took us to a farmhouse and started calling relatives. Seemingly within minutes, cars and trucks were rolling into the yard and people were emerging carrying covered dishes. A feast happened. The yard was uneven, so two men carried Sheila in her chair to a place of honor on the deck.

They were happy to learn we were headed on a hunting trip. We caught up on various relatives and I learned many stories about my grandfather, who I’d barely known. He loved to hunt, they said.

No one in my family hunts. All those years, I’d wondered what led me to start. Then one day I met Sheila and Possum, and learned a few lessons about hunting’s heritage, things to remember on all my hunts to come.

Hunting with a bunch of dogs. Finding a relative in Alabama helped me realize the source of my desire to hunt - and especially to hunt with dogs. In this picture, we are only moving to an adjacent field. LISA PRICE/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS