Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Snipe Hunt

Backstory of the Idiom

A snipe is a slender-billed bird of the sandpiper family. Its coloring makes it well-camouflaged in marshy areas. A snipe is so difficult to catch or shoot that sniper refers to someone skilled enough to shoot one.

In a snipe hunt, experienced people make fun of gullible newcomers by giving them an impossible task. A snipe hunt usually takes place within a specific work environment or social group; the task is part of a tradition, similar to hazing.

The phrase snipe hunt originates from a practical joke within a camping context. Inexperienced campers are encouraged (rewards or threats) to catch a snipe, which moves around in the dark from tree to tree. A snipe can be a bird or an animal, depending on who explains the rules. The dupes are given sacks and told the ways to attract a snipe, such as banging rocks together or whistling a specific way, while the other hunters push the snipe toward them. Of course, after getting the greenhorns lost in the woods, the old-timers just go back to the campfire and wait to see how long it takes the newbies to give up and show up.

Meaning of snipe hunt: a futile search or endeavor

I have personal ownership of this idiom. When I moved to a new Girl Scout troop in the sixth grade, the five greenhorns in the group were included in the invitation to a weekend camping trip at a farm in Gold Hill, just outside Auburn. With brand-new sleeping bags on our shoulders, we emerged from family cars feeling both adventurous and apprehensive. None of us had ever slept outside. Overnight. In the dark. But soon we were having fun cooking over a large campfire, with the help of our leader, her husband, and her son. We sang songs and told stories and learned about constellations and petted the two farm dogs.

Then the husband announced that we were going on a snipe hunt. The older girls cheered and talked about how much fun we were going to have. But this time, the new girls would have the most fun because we could catch a snipe, a harmless small animal that traveled in small packs from tree to tree, only in the dark. The son told us that snipes are attracted by a certain kind of noise, something like whistling. When a snipe hears the right sound, it stops to listen. Each of us was given a feed sack, and the older girls demonstrated how to whistle up a snipe. Our leader announced that the girl who caught the snipe would get a great prize, but we were encouraged to help each other. Because that’s what good Girl Scouts do. And the older girls generously said they would try to drive the snipes toward us.

Off we went, away from the fire and the cleared area, into the woods, led by the lanterns of the husband and the son and the barking of the dogs. Somehow, the lanterns disappeared, and we couldn’t hear the dogs. In the increasing darkness of the woods we suddenly noticed that only the five rookies were left. We giggled with semi-fear and tried to tell jokes to keep from freaking out. We walked for what was surely nine or ten hours, whistling. Not for a snipe. Bagging a snipe wasn’t on our minds. I don’t remember how we managed to get back to the campfire, but we were too tired to enjoy the laughter that greeted us. I had no problem sleeping on the ground that night. And I had learned what a snipe isn’t.

My Cousin Billy's Joke

If I close my eyes, I can almost   .    .    .

hear the sounds of Grandmama's switch red-striping Billy's legs. Ten-year-old me chortled, but restrained myself from peering around the corner of the back porch. Grandmama believed that punishment should be private. But I wanted to see him suffer. Lord knows I was suffering. I ran my tongue tentatively around my mouth, wincing as blister met blister. 

Jimmy, sitting listlessly on the porch steps, wiped his nose on his sleeve and sniffled; his mouth was blistered too. Sprawled on the black wicker swing, her head pillowed on her arm, Betty tried to cry herself to sleep.  Bobby noisily ate the cold biscuits and slurped the buttermilk that Grandmama said would ease the burning.

My cousins were totally absorbed with the pain in their own bodies--I was much more interested in Billy's pain, in Billy's punishment. Did the switching hurt? Bad? Would he have to do our chores? All of them? For how long? Smiling at the steady sounds of switch justice, I could hear Billy's bare feet dancing as he jumped up and down on the back porch in rhythmic thuds, trying to avoid the switch, yet not daring to move out of Grandmama's reach.

Maybe next time he'd think twice before he set me up--talking about how good those elephant ears tasted! Who would've thought that those pretty green leaves could raise such blisters! Maybe next visit I wouldn't be dumb enough to fall for another one of his practical jokes.
If I close my eyes, I can almost   .    .    .

hear the sounds of Mama's switch red-striping my legs and the rhythmic thudding of my feet dancing up and down on the kitchen floor. Why was that dumb little kid across the street stupid enough to believe me when I told him about those good-tasting elephant ears?