RALPH BARTHOLDT: Pheasant fundraiser a big success on the Palouse

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When they wheeled in the ribs, tucked inside giant tupperware tubs lined with barbecue sauce and aroma, an air of concerned pleasure and sanctimoniousness swept through the huge dancehall.

It was similar to those events when, for a child, the arrival of Santa Claus mixed with organ music and all humanity was caught in that crease where religious discipline overcomes one’s desire for chocolate.

I have never experienced that, but have heard stories.

This was a pre-Christmas shebang for gunners, however, which distinguished it from a soiree or a shindig. It was a potluck and a fundraising event to keep pheasants flying graciously across the Palouse so our kids could knock them down in a puff of golden feathers, and their dogs — beagles and mixed-breed pointers — could drag them to hand and be rewarded with Milk Bones.

The event was a worthy endeavor. Its silent auction items, including meticulously tied salmon and steelhead flies, carved quail, watercolor paintings and a marvelous, pheasant-skin Christmas wreath enraptured the less urbane among us.

It was the large standing bear, however, carved from part of a tree by a man who the auctioneer explained had only six fingers — “He has been sawing wood carvings for a long time” — that brought the crowd to its feet.

A lot of people, it seemed, wanted that bear.

It prompted a portly man wearing a U.S. Navy cap — and who, we were told by the people sitting next to us, owned a Smithsonian-worthy collection of antique carriages, buggies and horse-drawn accoutrements — to shuffle to the front of the room and make stern eye contact with the auctioneer.

The man spoke a language that cannot be documented for posterity. It consisted of one-eyed blinks, finger twitching and head nods so slight they would fail to shoo a nervous house fly. The small movements were fluently understood by the auctioneer whose guttural raptures sounded like a rusty Farmall low on gas.

For a few minutes, the half-tree, chain saw bear became the centerpiece of the live auction. It would require more than a hand truck to move it from the dance hall.

The bidding war, a two-minute eye twitch and finger blink frenzy, came down to a loud “BUDDABUDDABUDDAtwentyFIVE, DOIHEARFIFTEENHUNNERTtwentyFIFE? BUDDABUDDABUDDASOLD!” before the tractor ran out of gas for good.

After outbidding others for the bear, painted black and brown, and seal-coated thrice, the man with the U.S. Navy hat seemed a lot lighter. He jauntily slipped back to his all-you-can-eat plate of succulent ribs at a table in a corner of the giant dancehall shaped like a barn; which functions as Viola’s Community Hall.

Viola is an unincorporated hamlet along U.S. 95 with a post office and Facebook page, blank under a header, “Things to do in Viola, Idaho.”

People like it like that.

The last person to stick around town a few days after blowing a tire on the highway increased the population by 4 percent, and although there are no jobs in Viola, the unemployment rate is far below the national average.

There are pheasants here. Lots of them, many having escaped the rearing pens of people who raise the birds and plant them around the Palouse for our kids to shoot.

The man at our table said his son has killed more than 80 pheasants this year alone.

His son lives in Wyoming.

There’s the rub, he declared, wiping rib sauce from his face with a paper napkin.

Idaho has a lack of upland birds, he groused. So he purchased a Washington upland tag and was headed to Asotin this week to hunt chukar because across the Snake River, flocks of the imported red-legged, rock hens fill the sky. Unlike in Idaho.

My knowledge of Idaho upland hunting did not match his expertise. I adroitly switched the topic to big game and learned the man and his wife had killed five deer and a couple elk this season. His wife, however, favored turkey hunting above all things. She planned to harvest another bird, filling the last of her tags before Christmas.

“Turkeys are my favorite,” she nodded.

A local band volunteered its services to the pheasant fundraiser adding somnilescence to a pretty good afternoon. I bought a roll of raffle tickets, didn’t win a thing, but three plates of ribs and Palouse potluck exceeded any consolation prize.

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