Sometimes growing up is not as much fun as it seems
"There's one, Dad. Can I shoot him?"
"Where do you see one?"
"On that post down there. See? Right there."
"Oh yeah, I got him." That field sparrow sitting on a fence post was a good hundred yards
from us if it was a foot. Considering the inexperienced rifle shooter, the off-hand position, the open sights, and the distance involved, I decided to risk the sparrow's life, without consulting the sparrow. "Okay, Son, go ahead and shoot him."
[quoteright]My eight year old son swung the gun up, sighted and fired in one smooth notion, a tribute to the Daniel Boone style of shooting that I had taught him. A faint puff of stroke from the barrel. BAM. The bird tumbled and fluttered to the ground. "I got him, Dad... I got him. I got him," my youngster yelled. Then forgetting everything I had taught him, he dropped his rifle in the gravel road and broke into a headlong run to his downed quarry. He was young and it was only a sparrow, but then again, many hunters never got any older after hurrying to wounded game.
I stood watching a drama unfold. I saw exultation of the kill; a timeless, endless re-enactment being played out still one more time. I thought, until father of the son, you have taught the mechanics of killing; yes, you taught him how to kill. But how about when to kill? And can you teach the responsibility of killing? You've said 'killing is for food - hunting is communion with nature.' You've said, 'Only the strong can afford to be gentle.' You've said a lot, maybe too much. What are you going to say now?
"Bring 'em back, son," I yelled after my sprinting boy. Then I picked up his birthday-present rifle from where he had dropped it, checked the bolt action and the barrel to be clear of dirt and waited in the middle of a gravel road that branched off the highway and led past several acres of gravel pits where we had intended to do some target shooting practice.
The mood of the victor had shifted. His return was slow walking and his face was amber as he brought the dead bird back to me.
"What do you want him for, Dad?"
"Well, since that's your first kill we gotta take him home and show him to Mom and the girls. We want to be sure they get to see it. Right?"
A hint of shadows crossed his eyes and he didn't answer.
Like finger prints on fresh putty, the most lasting and influential impressions are the first ones. What fine, healthy, intelligent, handsome children I was blessed with, and now my sun-browned, blue-eyed boy was at a crossroads.
"Hold him out here so I can t a good look at him, Son."There had been no blood on my first bird. I had killed it with a rock from a slingshot, and then in a secretive eye-stinging ceremony I had buried it in a Diamond Match box. Like my son now, I was eight years old then, but unlike my son, I had already seen blood spilled, from both man and beast.
"Yep, you got him okay. Tell you what, go put him in the car so we can take him home to Man and the girls."
The round cherubic face that lifted to me was now definitely cloudy and looking like rain.
"Do we have to, Dad? Couldn't we just leave him cut here?"
"Nah we'll take him home. Go ahead and put 'em in the car, and I'll wait here for you."
Waiting, I thought of people, and places, and things: of violence, of twisted faces and bodies, and blood, and hate.
I had, so to speak, cut my teeth on a gun in a rural environment, while my son was born in, and would spend his life in urban places of tended lawns and city sidewalks. I wondered, did he need to know guns? I had already said yes. Did he need to know the rest: the careless hurt -- the lasting death? I thought yes. But in what manner? To inflict? - to endure? - or to cope? The last is the best; and here I am bending the twig that will grow into a man.
"Here, Drub, take your gun and some of these targets and let's go sharpen up the ole shootin' eye."
After we set up a few targets, paced off some distances, fired a few rounds, saw dust fly on the other side of the targets, and exchanged some "You got it dead-center, Dad," and "Hey that's good shootin', Son" compliments it was obvious that the usual edge of enthusiasm was lost and wouldn't be found again on that day. But I made one last try. "Whatta you say we shoot a couple of milk cartons before we call it a day?"
"Okay, Dad. I'll get 'em cut of the car."
On any day, a sealed half gallon milk carton filled with water explodes in a spectacular silver spray under the impact of a high-velocity 30 caliber bullet. They did that day, too, but on that day something had changed; the dead bird was waiting.
Central Montana's high prairie under us, and the great snowcapped Bitterroot Mountains on the horizon before us, lay under an early summer sun that fell through the car windows and warned us an the ride home. We rode across a giant stage, filled with frontier flavoring that could influence my thoughts too much one way or the other in the making of a man. The American heritage of winning the world with axes, guns, and beaver skins and plows was a way now gone, but lingering still as a whispering memory, a wanting of simpler things in the blood of its children.He was a rough and tough, rowdy all-boy boy, but he was also an instinctively sensitive, gentle child. How hard should I hurt him whom I have taught how to hurt? Can I toughen him - and still gentle him? Should I make him pick the bird up and hold it all the way hone, or will just taking it into the house and showing it to his mother and his sisters be enough? Damn, it's rough to be a father without any training. But then again, did anyone ever have any?
In my childhood, in a different place and time, chickens, children, and some adults too, fought to establish the pecking order. In a more civilized age, it's done in a less physical way; it's done with words that dig deeper and hurt longer than fists.
A few months before. I had taken him to see his first boxing match. We left after the second round. His shudder-like trembling and tears, that came as a reaction to the breath-rasping grunts, the leather-wrapped fists thudding on reddened skin, the sight of a broken nose dropping a trail of blood across mouth and chin before becoming a rose-colored smear on the opponent's sweaty shoulder, was a reaction that I understood, but also worried about. How to be hard but not brittle, how to be soft but not surrendering. I wished there was an absolute answer and that I knew it. I also knew the old saw about wishes, and horses, and beggars riding.
I drove the car into our driveway and broke a long silence. "Get the bird and take 'em on inside. I'll bring the guns."
Between the car and the kitchen door I heard my wife's voice, rising on a pitch of chiding concern, "You killed a BIRD?" Her tone fell, "Oh, Drub, how could you?" I heard her disappointment dissolve into forgiveness of her tear-streaked son.
"I stepped into the doorway in time to see him go into his mother's arms, while his two younger sisters clamored around to see.
"Where's the bird?"
"How big is it?"
"Dad, why did Brub kill it?"
"Mom, can I see?"
Sobs shook his shoulders and he buried his face in his mother 's boson while her arms held him close. I saw my son suffering.
"Girls, y 'all come on outside and help me empty the car, and put things away."
Some while later we had a funeral in the backyard. When my son knelt to shape a snail round of dirt, I couldn't help wondering if God really sees every sparrow that falls?
A "quintessential Capricorn," Allen Pettit has spent over three decades flying planes, both military and commercial. His stories have been printed in published anthologies.
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