HAVRE DE GRACE -- As I was driving out the lane the other afternoon, I saw something moving in a hillside pasture several ,, hundred yards away. I took a look through the binoculars, which I keep in the truck, and saw that it was a groundhog.
He was rummaging through the grass near a little clump of woods, and I could see that he'd reopened a hole I'd filled with rocks and dirt earlier in the summer, after I shot what I'd hoped was the sole occupant. There were other holes back in the trees, I knew, but they didn't bother me. This one, though, was in a spot where a horse or cow might step in it. I turned around and went home to get the rifle.
When I returned, he was still there, and he paid me no attention as I got out of the truck and set up a sandbag on the hood to use for a rest, then took another look through the binoculars.
The rifle is set to hit a target at 200 yards, and Mr. Groundhog was farther away than that, at a range of perhaps 350 yards. The wind was blowing from him to me, speed unknown. I knew I would have to aim high, and with these variables, to calculate just how high I would need to use a swag -- a marksman's technical term, meaning a scientific wild-assed guess.
The groundhog, fat and relaxed, sat blinking in the October sunshine. I aimed at a point about three inches above his head and fired.
Wrong swag. The slug hit the ground just below him, sending up a little puff of dust.
At the noise, he scooted to his hole a dozen feet away. He wasn't hurt, or even scared, but he was now on guard. At the edge of the hole he paused and looked around, then dropped out of sight.
But he didn't go far; in a moment the top of his head appeared, as he settled down in the safety of his doorstep to see what might happen next.
As I watched him, I was reminded of Marlin Fitzwater's description of Ronald Reagan warily eyeing the sharpshooters of the Washington press. The president, writes his former press secretary in his new book, "Call the Briefing," would "conduct public events the way groundhogs test the day, sticking out his nose for a time, uttering a few words, then quickly ducking back into the Oval Office."
A groundhog's wisdom
I had other things to do that afternoon, but I watched the groundhog on the hillside for a little longer. Sometimes, groundhogs that have been shot at and missed, but not otherwise alarmed, will come back out of their holes within minutes. Not too often, though; individuals with such confident genes aren't likely to pass them along to future generations.
President Reagan, I reflected as I waited there along the lane, was on the whole too genial and gregarious a person to have been truly groundhog-like in his behavior. But there are certainly those on the public payroll who are. Groundhogs tend to be suspicious, cranky and highly conscious of their own security, all qualities which are valued in government service.
As it happened, I had been reminded of that that very morning. In order to request some government forms, I had called the toll-free number of the appropriate federal agency, headquartered in West Virginia. After encountering a recording, a disconnect and another recording, I eventually reached a person with a pleasant voice who said her name was Teresa. She redirected my call to someone else, who may well have been a groundhog.
He was certainly unhappy to have been disturbed in his burrow, and he spoke to me in a barely intelligible mumble. He didn't give his name.
I= When I explained what I wanted, there was a long silence.
"Who gave you this number?" he growled, finally.
"Teresa," I said, and wished I hadn't.
"She got no business giving it out," he said.
I made placating noises, and he agreed to send me the forms. But there was little doubt that I had been an unwelcome intrusion, nor that Teresa would not be enjoying the rest of her day.
In fairness to the West Virginia groundhog, I should add that my forms did arrive promptly. They came in a soiled envelope with double the required postage, addressed in what might charitably be called an unformed hand to "Riter Pay."
But they did arrive, and I didn't have to call back. That was a relief, because it sounded like the kind of office that might decide to close down for the winter.
As for the Maryland groundhog, I watched for a little longer, but he didn't venture out. For a while I could still see the top of his head, but then he disappeared entirely. For all I know he had to take a phone call.
4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.