Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hunting Lesson

The sound of crows sometimes takes me back in time to Russell County Virginia, 1950. A young boy is awakened by his mother well before dawn. Sleepiness soon gets pushed aside by his growing excitement. His uncle has come to take him squirrel hunting for the first time.

The pick-up bounces along dirt roads and stops across from a line of high ridges. The boy’s uncle reaches behind the seat and pulls out a rifle case. He unzips it and slides out the bolt-action 22. The smell of 3-in-1 Oil fills the truck.

They walk in silence to a stand of trees below the ridge. His uncle has been here before and crouches behind a rock outcrop. They wait. Dawn is still an hour away and night seems to suffocate any desire to speak.

The boy wonders why they’ve come so early. The whole woods are asleep and he wishes he were too. Above them the blackness begins to fade. The contour of trees becomes visible against a graying sky.

His uncle raises a finger to his lips and points up the ridge. He lifts the 22 and releases the safety. The boy squints into the hazy light but sees nothing. He feels a rush of excitement as his uncle takes aim at a large oak.

The crack of the 22 shatters the morning stillness. Its echo ricochets through the forest. The boy shudders. The smell of spent gunpowder fills the air. His uncle walks up the hill to the tree and reaches down.

He returns, holding a dead squirrel for the boy to see. This is not what he expected. He feels no joy in looking at the lifeless animal. What started as an adventure leaves him sad and confused.

They walk back down the hill to the truck. Dawn now gives detail to the forest, creek and bottom land. Their ancient beauty seems lost on the boy. Later, he will remember only one thing; calling down from the forest behind him, the sound of crows.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Growing Pains

When I was nine or ten, my father gave me a Daisy Model 25 Pump-Action BB Gun for Christmas. I thought it was probably the best gift in the world a kid could get. With it came dad’s hand written note – “Aim high at the target of life.”

Although I was not sure what the message meant, I wasted no time taking aim at other things. In the woods across from our house, this pint-sized Gene Autry blasted tin cans, bottles, pine cones and tree branches. No bad guy could ever escape my Daisy sure-shot.

Spring brought more opportunities to go exploring and now I always took along my trusty gun. On the far side of the woods stood an overgrown and abandoned orange grove. Most of the trees had withered away, but here and there were a few still-hanging oranges. They made perfect targets.

After blasting the oranges to pulp, I noticed a covey of quail pecking for food under some trees. The odd little birds were far away and I wondered if the gun could even shoot that distance. Raising it up, I took aim at the nearest quail and fired.

I hit it and watched, horrified, as the poor creature jumped into the air, then fell back. The other birds flew away to the safety of the grove. Their wounded mate, still very much alive, could only scramble about, dragging its injured wing.

I thought if I could catch it, maybe the quail could be nursed back to health. Although hurt, the bird proved to be too fast for me. Not knowing what to do, I returned home and broke the news to my father. He stopped what he was doing and sat down by me on the couch.

“That quail is injured and will be unable to take care of itself. It will starve to death if something doesn’t get it first.”

“There is only one thing to do,” he added as I stared at the floor. “You have to go back and put it out of its misery.” I jumped up, wide-eyed and trembling. “No! I can’t do it!” I shouted and ran for the door. “It’s the only way!” my father called after me.

Miserable, I paced back and forth in the yard, occasionally glancing at the woods across the road. Maybe it could fly again and rejoined its friends. Maybe it was dead.

I knew I would have to go across and find out. It would be dark soon and impossible to see a hiding quail. Grabbing the stupid BB gun, I trudged across the road to the field, all the while praying that the quail would not be there.

A rustling in the grass put that prayer to rest. The quail was still alive and still able to run. I chased after it doing my best to pump, aim and shoot on the run. We ran clear across the field, the young hunter chasing the teacher. Gradually, the bird began to slow and I saw that some of my shots had hit home.

When I finally caught up to the wounded quail, it could only run in circles. Desperate now, I pumped BB after BB into its plump body. Yet, it would not die and continued thrashing about on the ground.

Dazed out of my senses, I understood the creature could only be killed with a shot in the head. But with my shots continually missing the mark, the only thing to do was somehow pin the bird down.There were no branches, no rocks, nothing. I would have to hold the quail still myself. 

Approaching the bird, I diverted its attention with the barrel of the gun and quickly stepped on it with my shoe.The quail struggled mightily but could not get away. With tears streaming down my face, I shot it over and over until, at last, the quail stopped moving. Stepping away, I looked down at what was left, in death, an unremarkable pile of feathers.

I don’t remember much after that except when I got home, I put the gun in the closet and never used it again.