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Aunt Ann grew up in a fish camp on the Florida River in southern Liberty County. Her father, Richard Larkins, had carved a homestead out of what is now the Apalachicola National Forest, near the small community of Sumatra. As the crow flies, Larkins’ Fish Camp was about 20 miles northwest of the legendary Tate’s Hell swamp in Franklin County. It is a remote enclave even today.
As Mr. Larkins’ only two children, Aunt Ann and her sister, Maretta, had to pitch in and help run the family businesses: the fish camp, a restaurant and a commercial catfishing operation. Mr. Larkins also had a herd of hogs that had to be tended to. They bore his registered earmarks and roamed free in the swamp most of the time. But when the river was high, the hogs would get stranded. That meant the girls would have to miss school to help round them up and move them to high ground.
Growing up in that environment, Aunt Ann learned how to handle a boat, shoot a gun and build a wooden fish basket if the game warden might find it, or a wire basket if he wasn’t around. She also knew how to clean fish, hogs, deer and every other animal that might be found in the woods or the water.
Fortunately, the list included turkeys. That came in handy when I killed my first one at age 15 and desperately needed a reliable co-conspirator.
The problem started one afternoon during hunting season when I walked up on a group of about 10 or 11 turkeys feeding in a dry creek bed. Without even thinking about it, I shot the turkey closest to me.
I was incredibly happy . . . for a brief moment. And then two facts reared their ugly heads. First, my turkey was a hen, which had long been illegal to kill. But that was secondary to the bigger issue: Florida didn’t even have a fall turkey season in those days. This was during the period when the State was working desperately to restore their populations, and I had just taken a beautiful young female right out of the gene pool.
Desperate, I hid the turkey in my jacket and slinked back to my friend’s truck. All we had to do now was get home. But getting stopped en route was only a remote possibility. My father becoming howling mad, however, was not. So I had to figure out what to with the still-warm game law violation in my possession.
There was only one person I knew who had the skills, sympathy and good judgment to help me out: Aunt Ann. So rather than going home, I went straight over to her house where she patiently listened to my sad story and said, “The first thing let’s do is clean the turkey.”
And clean it we did.
Aunt Ann didn’t believe in just taking the breast meat like some folks do today. She boiled water to scald it and had me pluck it. Then we singed it. Then we pulled any remaining pinfeathers with needle-nose pliers. After I pulled the guts out and washed it up, it looked as good as any of its kin at the meat market.
“Now, take it back to your house and put in your daddy’s outside freezer,” she said. “Just wait until he’s in a good mood and then tell him what you did, that you’re sorry about it and that you know better than to do it again.”
I went forth armed with her advice, but nervous nonetheless.
Prepared for the worst, I told Daddy that I had killed the turkey, but he cut me off before I could say any more.
“What did you do with it?” he asked.
“It’s in the freezer. Aunt Ann helped me clean it.”
That was all he needed to hear.
“That’s great! We’ll cook him on Christmas morning.” Not only was I off the hook, I had apparently scored some major points as well. Although, he did say, “Now, don’t go telling everybody you shot a turkey and don’t shoot any more.”
After I told my brothers this story, they explained to me what I think Aunt Ann suspected all along: Daddy cared a lot more about the quality of the meat in the freezer than the path it took to get there.
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