Shooting Things (Not with a Camera)

Winchester Model 1894 30-30

I was born into a family of hunters in Texas. I grew up surrounded by hunting guns and fed on wild game. I had my own .22 rifle at the age of 9. I also shot my first and only deer that year.

We hunted everything: deer, ducks, geese, doves, quail, squirrels and fish. My grandfather had special dogs just for chasing raccoons. We shot jack rabbits and armadillos because they would eat the feed that we put out for the calves to fatten them up. We ate the cows too, but someone else killed those at the packing plant. We ate most of what we killed. That was the ethic. We did not kill wantonly; we ate the game we took. We didn’t eat the jack rabbits and armadillos. We threw their carcasses into the fox dens.

By the age of 12, I was proficient with most commonly used firearms. We used long guns, not pistols. There weren’t that many pistols around in those days outside of law enforcement and criminals. We viewed pistols as inherently dangerous and of limited use. Both of my grandfathers had revolvers stashed somewhere in the house, but they were seldom fired and never carried. My father had a revolver that he carried in a briefcase. My favorite was my .22 rifle. The ammo was cheap and I could target practice all afternoon on a box of shells. My eyes were really good. I could shoot a bee off a flower without damaging the flower. I could bring down birds in flight. When the day was getting old, I would lie like sniper at the edge of a pond and wait until the snakes surfaced to breathe and I would take their heads off. I killed a rattlesnake with a BB gun by shooting it straight in the mouth as it rose to strike. I was serious about my killing.

In those days, we didn’t consider the pain we inflicted on these animals. We had some convenient myths like, “Animals don’t feel pain like we do,” but really we knew the truth. A dove or squirrel who found their bodies riddled with shotgun pellets would die in agony. You have to wait 30 minutes after you shoot a deer because it takes them that long to die and if you approach them before they die, they will attack you. We just didn’t think about it. Animals were to be taken for food. It was somehow our right as humans to take them.

That was a long time ago.

Today, I don’t even like to swat flies. I will hold the door open to allow them to escape my kitchen. When my first born was fourteen, he wanted me to teach him to hunt deer, and I did. I let him use my old Winchester 30-30, the same one I shot my deer with forty years earlier, and I took him to the woods to hunt deer. I carried a scoped Savage .243. We divided up the place so that everyone had a clear field of fire. I slung my gun over my shoulder, lit a cigarette and went walking up my hollow, making as much noise as I could, talking to them, “Here I come, little deer. I’ve got this big ugly rifle on my shoulder, and if I don’t see you, I don’t have to shoot you.” It worked. Up on the ridge, Alex got a nice little buck, shot him from about thirty yards, and the Winchester dropped him like a rock. He didn’t run and was dead before he hit the ground. It was a good kill. I taught him well. I haven’t been hunting since then.

I’m not anti-hunting. That’s not what this is about. Kentucky and Indiana have huge, destructive deer herds. They need to be culled and it’s good meat. It got my family through the Depression. The old Winchester still reclines serenely in the closet, along with some others. There’s a 20mm ammo box full of shells. “You can take the boy out of Texas…” I also eat steaks, fish and fried chicken. That involves animals dying. I don’t feel any guilt about that.

I do think about the animals I killed. I think about beautiful creatures with fur or feathers smeared with blood. I think about the grotesque flopping of a dying animal. I think about the thrill I felt when I brought them down. I think about what a strange and awful sacrament this is to put a child through. They remain in my memory like ghosts.

There is one sound that brings back those early days in Texas in an instant. It’s the “coo-coo-coo” call of the mourning dove. Whenever I hear that beautiful sound, I remember how many of them I killed. This morning, one set on the wire out back and called. I said, “Hello, Texas.” I haven’t been back there in a long time.

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