22 May 2016

The Touching Story of a Child and His Shotgun



A month after I turned 13, my father gave me a shotgun as a Christmas present.

It was, and remains, a youth model Winchester single-shot 20-gauge.

Perfect home defense weapon if you use it like a club

It was not greeted with the same childlike glee Ralphie exhibited on finding his Daisy Red Rider BB gun in the movie “A Christmas Story.”
Ralphie attains neighborhood weapons superiority.
I remember sitting on the living room floor, eyes wide, wondering how to fake a happy reaction. It’s not that I have anything against guns (properly maintained and safely used). It’s just that I knew what this present meant.

It meant I was going hunting. And I did not want to do that.

The backstory is the leitmotif of my childhood: dad was a consummate outdoorsman and he wanted a ‘mini-him’ to hunt, fish, camp and whatever else he wanted to do.
With those pants, you can't be a serious outdoorsman
The problems with that were many. First, dad, to his credit, ate everything he shot or caught. And when I say everything, I mean it – squirrel, woodchuck, grouse, deer, rabbit, Christ Jesus even a stinking snapping turtle he gigged one time. I will never forget the smell as it hung from the porch in the summer sunshine. I never wanted to eat game or fish of any kind. I still don’t.
Dad's actual slaughter of squirrel. Yummy!

Second, being a bookworm and a lazy, nerdy kid, I did not treasure donning my dad’s old hunting jacket (from the 1950s) and tromping around in foot-deep snow trying to blow the head off a bunny. 

The shotgun itself seems ridiculously small to me now. I still have it in all its rusting glory. If so inclined, a trained majorette could probably twirl the thing. But at 13, it felt like I was shouldering a cannon from the Civil War. And the damn kick gave me scarlet bruises all over my shoulder.

I had a wry remembrance of that experience on the firing line at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina. We grow up and develop an appreciation for some of the things we hated as a kid. Busting caps from an M-16 was fun to me in 1987. Having my shoulder violently jerked back from a shotgun in 1975 was not. 

We went hunting in the backyard. Once.

We were on the prowl for small game. There was a foot of snow on the ground and it was cold as hell. If you didn’t watch your footing, it was easy to twist an ankle and land up in a painful heap on the ground. Our neighbor brought his prize beagle hunting dog. I was mortally afraid I would land up shooting it. 

At some point or another, I did manage to flush a rabbit. Thankfully it was 30 yards ahead of the neighbor’s dog. I heaved the shotgun to my shoulder, drew a bead as best I could (leading the critter a few feet as dad had taught) and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. 

I had the safety on. 

“Jeezus Christ, what the hell kid,” dad yelled.

“I had the safety on. . . .like you taught me,” I blurted out.

The neighbor gladly shot Peter Rabbit and his dog retrieved it. It was a bloody mess like everything else I’d ever seen shot. Dad once field dressed a woodchuck he shot with a Colt .45 (yes, a model 1911) and I swore you couldn’t pack all the intestines into that thing that I saw.

My consolation prize was firing my one shell at an abandoned car before we came in.
I could feel the disapproval. I had fucked up in front of dad’s hunting buddies. 

So when the weather warmed up, dad took me to the skeet and trap shooting range. We also went with another of his buddies, a mountain of a man who bore a striking resemblance to Alex Karras.
Dad didn’t bother with skeet for me. He knew I couldn’t do it. So it was trap shooting – clay ‘pigeons’ shot from a small dugout into the air, laterally, in front of you rather than up above you, which was skeet.

Like this, just not as fun for me at the time
Somewhere along the tenth clay pigeon or so (I was batting in Bob Uecker territory here – about .200), I yelled out “pull” and the clay disc shot out. I pulled the damn trigger and the shotgun went ‘click’ and nothing happened.

“Jeezus Christ, what the hell kid,” dad yelled. 

I FELT like saying “it didn’t go ‘boom’ dad,” but I wasn’t keen on getting cuffed in public.

“I pulled the trigger but it didn’t fire,” I plaintively whined.

“Lemme see that,” dad said as he took the shotgun from me.

“Pull” dad barked and the shotgun roared to life.

He handed it back to me.

“I don’t know what you did,” dad said, “but it’s working.”

What I did. . . 

So the next target, it fires. The one after that – ‘click.’

This time, thankfully, when my father took the shotgun it ‘clicked’ for him too.

“What the Sam Hell is going on here,” my father said, obviously puzzled this time.

Removing the shell, he worked the trigger a few times before the problem became evident – the firing pin was only working some of the time. Why? It was a cheap piece of shit shotgun, that’s why.
It needed a gunsmith’s skill to fix. 

It never got it.

It only recently dawned on me, after almost 40 years, that this was the moment when my dad gave up on his dream of me being his understudy.

After this incident, we never hunted, fished, or camped again. He left me to my room and my books and began sullenly casting aspersions on my chances in life.

He said a lot of things over the next several years before he died when I was 20, but the one I remember him saying most of all was “kid, this world is gonna chew you up and spit you out.”
My mom completed the one-two punch by often by sweetly saying, “no matter how good you do something, someone out there will do it better.”

Hey, so you knew my dad, right?
Imagine being a kid who hears this over and over growing up.

There are many men who sit in easy chairs sipping bourbon later in life, rubbing their chins and wistfully saying “I suppose I was a great disappointment to my father.”

But that’s wrong. You don’t have to say it; you just know.

I suppose I could have gone all Robert Bly and fixed the shotgun myself in adulthood and ran to the range hollering “PULL” through hot angry tears of memory.
Our hero. OK, stop laughing

Nifty!
Instead, four years after my father died, I was burning through targets on a rifle range, wearing Army green. Eventually, I earned an expert marksmanship badge (at right).

I didn’t do it for him. I did to challenge myself and serve my country in a way I wasn’t doing in the Federal civil service. I felt the need to prove something to myself, by myself, as my own choice.

The funny thing was when the drill sergeants yelled at me, I didn’t hear my father - at least not then. In the intervening years as age and doubt has crept up on me, I’ve heard him in my head too often.

Now, I’ve been carrying that beat up, broken, rusting shotgun for the last 40 years. Even the cops wouldn’t take it.

I think it’s time to break it into pieces and bury it.
Rest in pieces.