Thick ribbons of sunlight slice through the woods as dawn breaks. The stump I sit on is cold and the air is damp. My eyes survey the landscape as countless sounds blend to signal the start of another day. I glance at Dad. He’s deep in thought and stares off in the distance. I pull my cap down to increase my focus as I wait for game to move.
Branches twitch as a squirrel begins to jump. I look over at Dad with anxious eyes and point. He gives me the nod to load my gun. I fumble for a cartridge as my heart starts to pound.
I jump up and sight-down the barrel while pulling the hammer back. The woods echo with a blast from my .410. The squirrel flinches, then drops straight to the ground. I glue my eyes on the spot and march toward it with the gun against my chest. My dad follows closely behind.
The Good Old Days
Our father cherished the outdoors. My older brother and I were fortunate to have him in our lives for 45 years; both of his parents died prior to his 13th birthday. Our father was an old-school disciplinarian: Instruction was given from behind a stiff finger and often emphasized by a smack to the back of the head if deemed fit.
Weekends were frequently spent hiking in woods. Dad always brought his 1940’s era .22 rimfire Remington semiautomatic rifle. We were amazed at what a great shot he was with an open-sighted firearm. When each of us turned 12 years old, he took us hunting. It was more than a pursuit of game; hunting was a classroom to pass on values and help prepare us for adult life.
The first gun we hunted with was a 1913 vintage .410, which was a single-shot with a hammer in lieu of a safety. We were required to carry the gun unloaded during our first hunting season. When game was spotted, we received permission to load and pursue.
We find the squirrel at the base of the tall hickory. Dad advises me to probe the squirrel with the end of my gun for movement. Nothing. He explains why a smart hunter always verifies the squirrel is dead before picking it up. The sincerity of his voice makes wonder if he had learned this lesson the hard way. I put the squirrel in my vest with the tail hanging out for effect.
I’m reassigned to an area heavy with pin oaks. I reach back and stroke the tail sticking out of my vest. In a short time a squirrel cautiously begins moving through the network of trees. I get the nod to load-up and slide the cartridge into the .410 with confidence. I time my shot with the squirrel’s next precautionary pause and kill it cleanly. I glance over at Dad to see the look of approval on his face.
I turn back to the squirrel and learn a lesson: One pin oak looks like all the others. I can’t distinguish the tree where the squirrel was shot from the others. Dad is smiling broadly. I stare at my feet and brace for a smack to the back of my head. Instead, Dad puts his big paw on my shoulder and says, “Well, I told you to never take your eyes off the spot where the squirrel falls. I feel sorry that you worked hard only to lose it.”
When the hunt ends, we load up the trunk of our ’62 Rambler and head home. Years later it occurred to me that my father never took a shot that first day. He sacrificed his opportunity to concentrate on me. We assemble in the garage where I’ve watched my father and older brother clean game the previous 3 years. It’s now our younger brother, who is just 4 years old, who listens to the story of the hunt. His time is 8 long years away.
We proudly carry the pot of squirrels into the house. Mom delivers a feast accompanied by biscuits and gravy.
Cold weather arrives for my first rabbit hunt. I’m bothered that my older brother carries a loaded gun. He graduated from the .410 to a single-shot 16 gauge that our father purchased from a friend. My older brother also received a hunting jacket for Christmas when he finished his first season. I can’t wait for him to outgrow it.
The wind is sharp and the grass is crisp with frost. We stop so Dad and my brother can formulate a strategy. I kick the ground and sway from side to side. I’m brought back into focus by a size 10 boot hitting me in the seat of the pants. I look at my brother for compassion, but it would take a crowbar to pry the smile from his face.
It seems that being the youngest hunter in the field earns me the role of rabbit hound. Wet, heavy grass wraps around my ankles and quickly saturates my cheap boots. The cold penetrates the cotton socks that I thought would keep me warm. Briars grip the front of my jeans and rip into my thighs. My hands sting and bleed. Squirrel hunting becomes more of a gentlemen’s sport with each step I take.
Dad hunts with an old Browning Sweet 16. I hear him shout, “Rabbit!” and I reach into my vest for a shell as he shoots. The spent cartridge flies out of his Browning, followed quickly by another. We stay on guard as if this event might trigger a stampede. The silence is broken by the click of the safety button on Dad’s Browning.
We eventually reach the end of the briar patch and take a break. My brother explains that he held the job of rabbit hound for the last 3 years. A close look at his hunting coat provides ample evidence of his time in the briars.
We next move to walk a fenceline buffered by high grass mixed with small brush. My brother gets the assignment to cross over. This will keep me on Dad’s left and in a safe position. My brother leans over the fence and lays his gun back against it. As he carefully places his hands on the barbed wire to push it down; he’s in the perfect position to receive the boot that lands on his backside. Hunter safety class is back in session with finger-assisted instructions on the correct way to handle a gun while crossing a fence. My brother’s ego is badly bruised from taking a boot in his third season—with me watching.
We move back and forth in case the rabbits are sitting tight. Finally one jumps and I hear Dad shout, “Load-up,” as I’m already pulling the shell from my vest. Dad drives down the middle of the patch; I’m on the edge.
Fifteen feet away, the rabbit bolts toward me. I shoulder the gun and quickly take my shot. The pellets raise a cloud of dust 3 feet behind the fleeing rabbit and I hear the Browning open fire. Somewhere in the three-shot volley Dad grounds the rabbit.
The hunt ends and we load the Rambler. The tires barely begin to hum before I’m sound asleep in the backseat. I struggle to wake up when I feel the car stop. Years later I grow to appreciate our father’s efforts when I’m driving back from a hunt with my children asleep.
The rabbits smell great as Mom prepares them with another batch of biscuits and homemade gravy.
Time Marches On
We hunted several more times that first season, and I bagged my first rabbit on a straight-away shot on Thanksgiving.
My older brother outgrew his hunting jacket with perfect timing—just before my second hunting season. I still had that briar-worn jacket and both of my children started hunting in it.
Sometime after all of us moved out of the house, our father sold his rifle. Around the time I turned 40 years old, I got inspired and was able to locate and purchase four firearms. I purchased one for my father, one for myself and one for each of my brothers. One day we all piled in to our father’s mini-van to shoot some targets, accompanied by three grandsons.
This would be our father’s last classroom. He takes control and assembles his grandchildren while my brothers and I look on, shaking our heads and smiling. Each Remington cracks-off round after round. Empty cartridges fly as smoke and the smell of spent gunpowder fills the air. Targets are collected and we head home with our dad at the wheel. Now his grandchildren fall asleep as he drives on the same country roads that carried us home many years ago. The memories of Mom’s biscuits and gravy make me wish we had some game to clean.
When our father passed away, my older brother took the single-shot 16 gauge, my younger brother took his Masonic ring, and I took the trusty .410. I still carry it in the car on occasion to shoot some skeet targets. It takes three or four shots to get zeroed in, but I can still hold my own when shooting against my sons. Shouldering it and pulling the hammer back is like turning on a time machine full of memories.
I’m thankful for the privilege to give a passion for hunting and the outdoors to my sons, which was given to me by a man who was denied receiving it from his father. I still have an old hunting coat and a .410 that I can’t wait to pass on to their children.