Other than the image of my father looking up to the trees, most of the hunt leading
up to my test, is a fog. I do know that he had killed several squirrels that day,
because it was my job to follow along, pick them up, and stuff them in his vest.
I was fairly content to do just that. My clear recollection of the hunt begins with
us spotting a big fox squirrel high up in a tree. It was either too far or too protected
for a clear shot, so we made an attempt to get closer. Keep in mind, these aren't
city squirrels, folks. When a critter around here spots a man in the woods, it runs
for its life. This guy was no exception, and he high-tailed it through the tops,
jumping from tree to tree. We chased him into an area where the ground was
thick with thorn bushes and vines ... a thicket. At some point, my dad became
tangled and hung in the thorns. I came up beside him to help, but he only brushed
me off and handed me his gun.
That was quite a moment for me. When my fingers wrapped around that old
shotgun, I felt like a man. Now, that might sound ridiculous to some of you, but
it wasn't the fact that I was holding a gun that made me feel that way. I'd held
and fired quite a few guns by the time I was seven. It was the fact that I was
holding my dad's gun ... my grandfather's gun, and I knew what he meant for me
to do with it. But ...I just stared at it.
"Well go on! Go get that sucker," is what he said to me.
And so I went. To be honest, I was terrified. I remember that very clearly. I was
terrified that I would lose the squirrel, or worse, miss it, and have to come back in
shame. So, I held nothing back. I tore through those thorns like an angry bear,
and they tore back at me. My arms, hands, and face were all scratches and cuts
before the ordeal was over. The whole time, I did what I’d been taught.
“Mind your feet, but keep your eyes up,” he would have told me.
I must have chased that darn squirrel through half a mile of thicket, toting that
old gun, before I had a clear shot. I’ll never forget … the limbs stopped shaking,
and there he was, running around the trunk of a huge red oak. Lucky for me, he
stopped on my side to chance a look at the hunter. I was so tired by now that
when I raised the gun, I could barely hold it up. It heaved up and down with my
chest while I desperately tried to find him in my sights. Again, like I’d been
taught, I took in a deep breath and let it out slow. I saw orange hair, and I fired.
When I picked myself up off the ground, I was shaky and my head was
pounding. The percussion had knocked me flat. But there he was. Old Mr. Fox
squirrel was dead at the base of the old red oak. So, I sat down with my back
against the tree, put my dad’s gun in my lap, and cried. It was the first time I’d
ever killed an animal for food, and the first time I’d ever killed any creature
outside of a snake or two … and maybe an unlucky bird who got in the way
of my slingshot. It was also the first and only time I ever cried after a kill.
I reckon I was partly sad about taking a life, and partly glad that it was all over.
I was tired, bleeding, and still a little rocked from the shot. My dad had put a
lot on a little guy’s shoulders.
But as soon as I saw him walking up, all that emotion turned into pride. He
was smiling, and I knew he was proud of me. I stood and held my kill up by
the tail to show him. I remember how he clapped me on the back and said,
“Man! You got im’ didn’t cha?”
My father, a man of few words, and fewer compliments, had just made me
more proud than I had ever been … and possibly ever would be until my own
children were born. The hunt was over, but I didn’t follow him out of the woods
that day. We walked side by side.
I’m sure many of you think that seven is far too young to be introduced to
firearms, and maybe it is. But it’s part of our culture here … it’s as simple as
that. Many children learn to hunt at a very young age.
My dad bought me my own shotgun that following Christmas …a single shot
4-10. My son hunts with it now, and it sits in my gun safe right next the old 16
gauge, among others. My son, Cade, never got to see the Black Lake Woods.
They were gone not long after he was born, and I can only tell him stories
about them. It’s possible that my father knew exactly what he was doing that
day. There’s a part of me that thinks he meant to get tangled up in those
vines. Though …I’ve never asked him, and I reckon I never will.