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Though I never met him, I owe a lifetime’s worth of thanks to my great uncle, James Fields. That’s because Uncle James was the man who instilled in my father a passion for hunting – a passion that he then passed along to my brothers and me. Whether that was a blessing or a curse is up for debate, but there’s no doubt he has had a profound influence on three generations of my family.
From an early age, my father would spend weekends during hunting season with Uncle James and my Aunt Alyese. As soon as he was old enough to make the trip by himself, he would come home from school on Friday, grab a bite to eat and walk the eight miles or so from Blountstown to their small, cinder block house south of Hugh Creek. My grandmother told me she usually wouldn’t see him again until well after dark on Sunday.
In exchange for helping Aunt Alyese with chores, Uncle James would loan my father a shotgun and give him exactly 10 shells. But the rule was that he had to account for every shot he took. Either bring home an animal or bird, or an unfired round. A miss would mean one less shell the next time out.
Daddy told me about that rule one day as we were driving past a large live oak tree in a field near Uncle James’ house.
“If I shot and missed while I was hunting, I’d stop by that tree on the way home and wait for doves to land,” he said. “I’d let them get close enough together so I could kill two with one shot. I didn’t want to bring home an empty shell with nothing to show for it.”
* * *
Eventually, my father graduated, left for service during World War II, and returned home to marry my mother in 1946.
That same year, Uncle James got hired as a game warden with the old Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. The State needed skilled woodsmen with unquestionable integrity; men who were smarter and tougher than the outlaws who roamed the river swamp back then.
According to most folks who knew him, Uncle James was overqualified by all those standards – especially the integrity part. In fact, he threatened several times to arrest my father, his own protégé and nephew.
One such occasion was an evening when my parents had Uncle James and Aunt Alyese over for dinner. My mother said Uncle James was very complimentary of the dozen or so wood ducks she’d cooked, and he suddenly became more interested in them after my father left the room.
“Those ducks sure were good, Betty” he said. “Lot’s of them, too. Did Gene kill ‘em all?”
My mother, possibly the worst criminal accomplice in history, said, “Oh, yes. He got them all yesterday.”
“All of them?” Uncle James asked. “By himself?”
My father overheard enough of the conversation to figure out what was going on. He came bursting back in the room in time to explain (or invent) his side of the story: that he’d been hunting with several of his buddies who had – in an uncharacteristic moment of generosity – decided to give him all their ducks.
“If he hadn’t already eaten some of the evidence, Uncle James probably would have called around to see if I was telling the truth,” Daddy said. “He didn’t put up with anybody breaking the law, especially not his kinfolks.”
* * *
In the end, his passion and commitment to justice would cost Uncle James his life.
On Christmas Eve, 1950, he became only the fourth Florida wildlife officer to be killed in the line of duty – shot to death at night, pursuing a poacher through what is now the Apalachicola National Forest.
He left behind a wife and three young children. I can only imagine the nightmares they must have relived every Christmas for years to come.
It’s human nature to try and make sense out of a tragedy like that, or to draw a broader lesson from it. Obviously, it speaks to the danger that comes with being a wildlife officer, and to the courage of the men and women who do that job every day.
But in my opinion, it wasn’t Uncle James’ death that we should learn the most from. Instead, it was his life and the lessons he passed along to my father, and thus to my brothers and me, that are most valuable: Don’t waste a shot. Don’t waste an animal. Be accountable. And carry out your duty with courage and integrity.
All of us should strive for a legacy like that, no matter how long or short our time on earth turns out to be.
* * *
Many thanks to my late cousin Catherine (Fields) White for speaking with me about her father and sending me news articles and other records before she passed away. Thanks also to the many family members who told me the story of Uncle James as they remember him.
Finally, I have included a link to a couple of newspaper articles that are readily available online. This story most closely matches family and contemporary news accounts of Uncle James’ death. This St. Petersburg Times article (courtesy of Craig Pittman) reports on the conviction of Broward Larkins at the subsequent trial.
(Note that the information on some memorial Web sites lists his death as an “accidental shooting” by a man who mistook him for a turkey. I have no idea where that information came from, but it is incorrect according to all credible accounts.)