Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | Wednesday, January 27, 2016
The legend of Bo Whoop By Rex Nelson
Another Arkansas duck season enters its final days. It has been a season of challenges—ducks were spread thin due to so much water, and a warm December kept duck populations well north of the state.
No matter how many ducks are killed in a season, hunting remains an important component of this state’s cultural fabric. And it goes well beyond the actual hunt. Like many Arkansans, I enjoy collecting wooden decoys, prints of duck hunting scenes and books about duck hunting. One of my favorite writers is Nash Buckingham, a Tennessean who died in 1971 at age 90. Buckingham wrote nine books and hundreds of magazine articles.
Arkansas figures prominently in an incident involving Buckingham. On Dec. 1, 1948, Buckingham and a friend named Clifford Green were headed back to Green’s car following a duck hunt near Clarendon. A 2010 article in Garden & Gun magazine described what happened: “Buckingham, then 68 years old, was at the time one of the most famous writers in America, a sort of Mark Twain for the hunting set. At Green’s car, they met a warden, who asked to see their hunting licenses. The warden quickly realized that he was in the presence of the celebrated writer. He asked Buckingham if he could see the most famous shotgun in America, Buckingham’s talisman, an inanimate object that the writer had referred to—in loving, animistic terms—in a great number of his stories. The nine-pound, nine-ounce gun was a side-by-side 12-gauge Super Fox custom made by the A.H. Fox Gun Co.in Philadelphia.
“The carbon steel plates on the frame were ornately engraved with a leafy scroll. The gun company’s signature fox, nose in the air, was engraved on the floorplate. The barrels had been bored by the renowned barrel maker Burt Becker and delivered 90 percent patterns of shot at 40 feet, an uncharacteristically tight load for a waterfowling shotgun. It was named Bo Whoop. A hunting buddy had designated it so, after the distinct deep, bellowing sound it made upon discharge. The warden chatted up Buckingham, handling and admiring the writer’s gun, like a kid talking to Babe Ruth while holding the slugger’s bat. At some point during the conversation, the warden laid the gun down on the car’s back fender. Buckingham and Green soon bid the warden farewell and drove off, forgetting about Bo Whoop until many miles into their trip home. In a panic, they turned around and retraced their route, painstakingly eyeing every inch of the road, to no avail.”
Buckingham spent the next several years searching for Bo Whoop. He wrote about the loss of the gun and took out ads in Arkansas newspapers. The magazine article noted: “He befriended local wardens and police, appealing to them to be on the lookout. He would never find it. But in the process of its loss and failed recovery, its legend grew in stature. Bo Whoop became a metaphor for other things gone and never to be retrieved, like one’s youth or the American wilderness.”
Like Elvis sightings in later years, there were regular Bo Whoop sightings. All were false. Finally, two friends gave Buckingham a Fox shotgun named Bo Whoop II. Unbeknownst to Buckingham, a sawmill foreman in Savannah, Ga., bought a used Fox shotgun with a broken stock for $50 during the 1950s. The foreman’s son inherited the shotgun upon his father’s death and stuck it in a closet. In 2005, the son brought the gun to a South Carolina gunsmith named Jim Kelly for repairs. Kelly, a student of hunting history, saw “Made for Nash Buckingham” and “By Burt Becker Phila. PA” inscribed on the gun. He had found Bo Whoop.
After having the stock repaired, the owner passed the gun down to his son, who decided to sell it to pay his sick father’s medical expenses. It would be auctioned by the James Julia Auction Co. in Maine. In March 2010, an 84-year-old Hal Howard Jr. learned of the impending auction. Howard, a former executive with investment firm T. Rowe Price, had been raised in Memphis. His father was Buckingham’s best friend and hunting partner; Hal Howard Jr. was Buckingham’s godson. “We hunted in Arkansas together,” Howard said. Howard paid $201,250 for Bo Whoop, the third-highest amount ever paid for an American shotgun. A month later, it was announced that Howard was donating Bo Whoop to the Ducks Unlimited national headquarters at Memphis.
What has never been clear is how Bo Whoop got from the woods near Clarendon to Georgia. The shotgun is almost home now, just across the Mississippi River from the duck woods of Arkansas.
I’ve appeared numerous times on the annual Christmas show that Steve “Wild Man” Wilson of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission shoots each December at Wiley Meacham’s Piney Creek Duck Club. My wife watched the program one year as the hunters stood in cold water while wearing camouflage Santa caps and singing Christmas songs. She asked: “Why do grown men get up in the middle of the night and then act like that?”
We do it for the same reason Nash Buckingham did it all those years ago: To watch the sun rise. To listen to the owls and geese. To exchange stories and give friends a hard time after bad shots. To listen to your hunting companions call the ducks. And, at least at Piney Creek, to go to the outdoor dining area in the woods where someone will be grilling slices of duck and sausage, cutting cheese and putting out crackers and pickles. I can only dream of being able to write as well as a Nash Buckingham. Yet as I stand there in the flooded timber of east Arkansas eating slices of teal on a cracker, I always wax poetic in my mind. What a fine tradition Arkansas duck hunting is.