Monday, September 21, 2009


By Jim Parks

Kneeling on one knee, the classic posture of prayer or attentiveness among men of my ethnic type, I take up way too much floor space in the crowded Wal-Mart store.

People rudely slam into my shoulders and rump with their hips and legs in a mad dash for the cash register and their opportunity to pay, pay, pay, pay - less, less, less, less!

That faintly sick making mercantile odor of floor wax, sugary deodorants and damp cardboard dominates the air of the big box big store with its fluttering fluorescent lighting and obnoxious intermittent public address interruptions of an unmodulated decible level to actually serve as a bar to concentration,

"Merchandising associate to the electronics department. Merchandising associate the electronics department."

The truth is, I'm not really too big; the space afforded for selection of arrows is too small; because one needs to be able to consider the length and material of the shaft, the fleching, the quality of the alignment of the nock, it all adds up. The selection is really quite vast, but it's placed so low to the floor that a man must squat or kneel to be able to see it at all.

Add to the mix the fact that I have never before done any of this, that I'm a complete novice at this ancient art of sending an arrow on a path of devastation at a target, and you have set a little old man in his early sixties - a pot bellied, squat, graying little fellow with a bald spot - squarely in the way of people in a hurry, people in all too big a hurry to ridicule that which appears ridiculous.

Appearances can be so important in this world.

What of other worlds unknown to these people?

What about the art of concealment, of remaining so well blended into the texture of the forest, the brush, that even an animal with the ability to see the slightest movement remains oblivious to the danger, much less an enemy with no notion that a band of short, squat little pot-bellied men such as I lie in wait to send the shafts of arrows whistling his way tipped with razor sharp broadheads no one will be able to prevent causing hemorrhaging and subsequent internal bleeding so swift he would fall and die on the spot or be unable to quit the field without exceptional assistance?

What of bolt holes and trenches covered with camouflage where men may lie in wait to emerge upon a whistled bird signal from an observer? What of the art of stealth and planning?

The English longbow speaks volumes of all these things. To take one in one's hands and learn the technique of stringing it, to pull it back to its full draw and let an arrow fly at a target, this reverberates in some racial memory one does not understand, only experiences.

This bow is made of red oak, backed with linen glued into place to make it springy and responsive. When strung, it becomes a live thing, light and taut and singing of its efficacy with every fiber and molecule. It is as long as I am tall - which is not very tall - but this makes it proportiionate to the length of my arm, which draw determines its pull weight, a value set by law by the king's men - that is, by fish and game officials - to prevent needless maiming of animals, the buck and boar, turkey and alligator of forests public and private. It is a traditional design - a self bow with no recurve and only a grip made of wrapped twine and a carved arrow rest to make nocking and aiming easier, quicker. Like the traditional material, the heart wood of the yew, it is straight grained and its string is twisted three-strand twine eye-spliced at each end, which may be adjusted by rotating it against the lay for the desired tautness. The string is captured by precise grooves carved into the ends of the wood. It is strung by the use of another slackened cord upon which one stands with one foot while flexing the back of the bow up toward one's chin and placing the loose end of the string in the top notch of the bow.

Crossbows are reserved by game laws for those with physical handicaps, but their original advent was credited by the historians as the one geopolitical event that finally broke the back of the feudal system.

No longer could a liege lord send out "knights" on horseback to trample down a man's stand of wheat and rye, barley and oats, then set fire to the thatch of his roof, to poison his well, kill his sons, rape his wife and daughters. At least, it could not be done with impunity because the bolts thus propelled by the crossbow were entirely capable of penetrating the armor these paid thugs wore - multiple layers of leather and quilted padding, light sheet metal, chain mail.

A crossbow bolt once brought down a king who led his troops from the front; he lay in agony for days while the infection worked on his system.

These arrows come in two varieties, both of them impervious to moisture and warping - aluminum and carbon fiber. Both are light and straight and true. They are threaded to accept either the "field points" used for target practice and small game, or "broad heads," which are razor sharp four or two-bladed devices about an inch or inch and an eighth in diameter. Their fleching is made of sheet plastic.

With each rude bump and shove, I become more and more resolved to get the more expensive cedar shafts a straight-grained material of about 30 inches that resembles a lead pencil, through a mail order cataloguer, collect feathers and shave and trim them to just the right length, and whittle the ends of the shaft to just the right shape to accept the points and broadheads, the nocks. The fleches are wrapped tightly with light twine that is passed between the strands of the split feathers which have been glued to the shaft. The nocks are fastidiously checked for concentricity, as are the points. Any alignment that is grossly discrepant affects the balance, and thus the flight, of the arrow.

What else would a little old man, squat, short, balding and gray in beard and tonsure, have to do on a long winter night while he survives by the light of the fire, staves off the chill, plans for the future, keeps the wolves away from his door?

Something ancient and clean and bright and shining and painful arises in me every time I am told that I and my type are not trustworthy to handle weapons, that there is something faintly distasteful in our proclivities for the blade and bullet, the snare and pistol, the rifle and bow and all the impedimenta that hungry men use to survive and live - not exist - but live comfortably and well.

I am, therefore, resolved.

It is my faith; it is my practice. I am perfectly free to exercise thereof.

I shall.

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