Episode 6: Spectre of the Gun – Hunting, Gathering, and Reading
“Rise ahnd shine! Rise…AHND…shine!”
I woke every school morning to my mom’s southern voice abrasively carrying through the house. I dealt with it by imagining her as a Pterodactyl, and I’d mimic her catchphrases with dinosaur screeches as I flapped my arms and ran around the house like a scene in a Ray Harryhausen film.
“RAAAARise RAaaaRR and ShiiiiineRAaaaarr!”
My mom or dad would always make some type of breakfast for my sister and me, before I’d move into the living room to watch The Three Stooges as I dressed for school. Occasionally, when my dad had a few extra minutes, he would join me for the end of an episode where we would laugh together. He’d sometimes thrill me with stories of watching those same film shorts in the theater when he was a kid, along with a featured western, and I’d listen in awe at how ancient that time seemed yet still felt so relatable.
Less relatable were my father’s interests in more traditionally masculine pursuits, like sports and hunting. I played Little League baseball from the age of 6, and after my initial discomfort, I grew to enjoy it until I was 15. My first year of playing T-Ball left me a self-conscious misfit. Even my glove showed that I didn’t belong, since my parents had given me a red leather glove as a gift for Christmas that year. I’d mostly ignored it until that season began, but couldn’t help but notice that the other boys had regular leather gloves, not something that looked like a bright red toy. Thankfully my parents insisted that I stick it out.
In the evening, dad regularly worked with me in our front yard to help me develop the skills I needed to be a good team player, and I eventually became an accomplished third baseman as a result. I’m proud of what I achieved, which included learning important skills about how to participate in a team, and it instilled a level of physical confidence unusual for a skinny, bookish kid with glasses held on with a small elastic strap. Even later in Physical Education classes in high school, my best friend David Gregg and I would always be in the last batch of kids chosen for a team, but I would surprise them with a few athletic skills.
Playing baseball taught me many things, including a love of its nuanced, subtle strategies, but one lesson in particular has always stayed with me: “When the ball is hit, you always act on it. You never stand still when the ball is in play.” Throughout my life, while others remain still, waiting for direction, I always try to keep moving, knowing that being active is better than being passive.
Although I grew to appreciate baseball, hunting was a far more complicated rite of passage. I was given my first gun around the age of 7, and like many kids raised with firearms, it was a bolt-action 22 rifle. When I opened the gift that Christmas I was confused and intimidated, and I still recall the heavy smell of the oiled barrel and wooden stock. In spite of the games I played with toy guns, the real object felt like something I wasn’t meant to have. Even then, I was becoming aware of the difference between the unbridled freedom of my imagination versus the impenetrable surface of reality. I’d have much preferred a plastic Tommy Gun that blazed to life with an unmistakable “ATATATATATAT” roar. That 22 rifle was the first step in years of guilt and confusion about what was required of me to be a good son, as well as a man.
I’d been taught gun safety throughout my life, but the point was reinforced one balmy, summer evening when I was 5 years old visiting my grandparent’s house with my family. Everyone was sitting in the living room while I decided to go exploring around the house. In one of the bedrooms I went digging under the bed and was thrilled to find a tiny, toy gun. Clutching the pistol, I proudly walked into the living room, waving it around as I exclaimed, “Look what I found!” As everyone ducked and jumped out of the way, my father forcefully said, “Jeff, that is a real gun and you need to gently set it down on the floor.” I immediately did and began to cry. That was when I learned what a Derringer was. Later, I learned that my grandfather always carried one in the pocket of his customary blue coveralls when I saw him doctoring bullets for it as he sat at the table. I watched him carefully cut an X shape into the top of each bullet with his pocketknife. When I asked why, he told me that it caused the bullet to break open and do more damage as it hit the target by “goin’ in small, but comin’ out big.”
Soon after receiving the 22 that Christmas, my family went to stay at my grandparent’s cabin for the weekend. We referred to this property in Splendora as “The Farm,” but it was actually just a few acres with cows, chickens, and a small garden surrounding a one-bedroom cabin. These were my father’s parents and they’d spent most of their lives in small Texas towns where guns were a regular part of life.
The Farm was an unusual place. Since I had grown up in an idealized suburban home, the farm felt “imperfect” and dangerous, which was simultaneously appealing and revolting. My grandfather always kept a sweaty block of cheese on a cutting board under a glass dome, along with a knife and a wax paper cylinder of Ritz crackers. In my overprotected world, these things were “unclean,” programmed into me by my mom’s obsession with 1950s American purity. This fixation on germs and cleanliness eventually blossomed into a true disorder by the time I hit 5th grade, but that story is for another chapter. The Farm was also where I witnessed the horror of seeing my grandmother kill a chicken with her bare hands by swinging it from the neck.
On that winter trip to The Farm, my family stayed the night, sleeping in the musty loft space built into the top of the barn. Before the sun rose, my dad woke me and I stood shivering in the dark as I pulled on thermal underwear to keep warm under my hunting clothes. My dad, grandfather and I took our guns and squeezed together into the front of my grandfather’s old pickup truck before driving into the dark forest. I wasn’t even sure of where we were going or what we were doing, I just knew I was tired, cold and would have rather been back home in my own bed reading an adventure book rather than experiencing this sort of real adventure.
We eventually arrived at a beaten down home in the woods, where a surly friend of my grandfather’s emerged along with his two lively dogs, one a bloodhound and the other a small, scrappy terrier mix. We piled into the grumpy man’s truck, which had extra seats, but the truck bed in back was just flat wooden planks with no sides. He had the dogs jump onto the back planks and we took off down a bumpy dirt road into the woods. As we drove along and the sun began to rise, I’d occasionally glance back to see if the dogs were okay since I wasn’t convinced they’d be able to stay aboard along the rough, windy route, but whenever I mentioned this I was ignored. I guessed that was what being a man was about; that men didn’t care about such frivolous things as the lives of animals, and if you did, you certainly didn’t express it. As much as I tried, I knew I’d never be able to stifle my sensitivity towards animals. Sadly, that notion of masculinity was reinforced throughout my childhood in Texas.
When the truck finally stopped, I jumped out and was alarmed to see only the larger dog was left on the bed. I yelled out that the small dog had fallen off, but the uninterested surly man casually replied, “We will probably see him when we go back.” I tried to console myself by imagining that the dog had some type of super-training like Lassie and would miraculously be okay to find his way home through any obstacles, but I also knew that was unlikely.
The surly man spoke a few commands to the other dog, who began to run through the woods as the rest of us trudged along behind. Eventually, we reached a tree where the dog was leaping and barking. Looking up into the tangled web of branches, I could see a small squirrel trying to flatten his body to remain out of sight. Someone told me to shoot it, but I couldn’t understand why I should kill a cute, helpless squirrel. As my dad guided me, I gingerly raised my rifle to my shoulder, pointed half-heartedly in the direction of the squirrel and pulled the trigger. Thankfully I missed.
This was the first time I’d ever used an actual firearm that wasn’t air powered like a bb or pellet gun. I was shocked by the recoil on my shoulder that accompanied the roar in my ears. My father and grandfather then traded off shooting at the squirrel before one shot finally landed and its limp body fell from the tree. My dad took the squirrel and placed it in a canvas messenger bag I was forced to carry while the dog leapt into the air grabbing at it. I reluctantly fired the rifle one more time during that trip, also missing my target and reaffirming that hunting wasn’t something I wanted to pursue, although I soon found out that I had no choice.
Eventually we all piled back into the truck, along with the dog on the back. I kept volunteering to have the dog sit on my lap, but was once again ignored. On the return journey, I kept watch for any sign of the small, missing dog, but he never appeared. His disappearance was just as alarming to me as the casual disregard for his life. Any further questions I asked about him were simply dismissed.
For the following 9 years, I reluctantly took part in the hunting rite of passage, in spite of protests to my mom. She would usually just reply, “Your father works hard for us and does many things that he doesn’t care for, so you need to do the same for him.” Not long after receiving my first gun, my father became interested in quail hunting, so we trained an English Setter pup, Sugar Bee Crockett, which resulted in several trips each winter spent trudging through fields in South Texas. Eventually, I grew bold enough to mostly stay at the campsite near the pop-up camper and immerse myself in the far more interesting science fiction, fantasy and horror books I was constantly reading. I still remember sitting near a campfire and obsessively reading Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, terrified and thrilled to remain in the fictional snowy landscape of the novel, rather than roam through the cold Texas fields with my dad.
On one of my last hunting trips, my father and I went on a final walk through the woods late in the day, before packing up our camp. As we walked through the forest, we discovered an abandoned deer stand that resembled a rotting treehouse buried in the branches of an old Dutch Elm. The ladder was made from moldy slats of wood nailed into the trunk of the tree, leading up to an opening in the floor of the shack high above. My dad rested his shotgun against the base of a nearby tree, and began to carefully climb the ladder, while I stood below, clutching my gun with both hands and safely pointed away as I’d been taught. When Dad was half-way up, I heard a startled rustling in the treehouse and suddenly a huge owl flew out of the window, circled around and rested in the branches of a nearby tree, ominously watching us. My father kept climbing, but just as he reached the opening, a small, downy white owl tumbled out of the treehouse, frantically flapping its wings as it half fell, half flew out of the opening. I was standing below, watching and still holding my shotgun as the baby owl fell directly into my path before somehow righting itself and landing on the barrel of my gun, clutching it as if it were a tree branch. I held my breath in awe as we faced each other for a few seconds of stunned silence before the owl looked up at its mother in the tree, stretched out its wings and clumsily lifted off to join her. As the owls watched, my father quickly glanced inside the treehouse, then climbed down before I scurried up, carefully peeking inside to see a giant nest made from twigs and branches squeezed into the small decayed shack.
It was a beautiful glimpse into the cycle of nature. The stand had been built to assist in the death of animals, but eventually it rotted away and animals took over, using it as a support for life.
As it grew dark that evening, and we closed up camp to prepare for the long drive home, I thought that I heard the low hooting of an owl far in the distance, and wondered if it was the same owl family I had seen up close; another parent and child out in the woods.
Even today, I think about the winters I spent hunting and I have trouble finding any emotions beyond an empty coldness. I imagine it’s the result of those years spent developing an emotional barrier to protect a sensitive kid who strongly identified with animals while being forced to consider them less important; to just do what was necessary to please his parents. Even after years of therapy, that barrier is easily thrown up in times of emotional distress, and once up, it’s tough to remove. Thankfully, as I’ve grown older, the emotional barrier has become less forbidding.
Although I love and respect my father, I grew up determined to move beyond what I saw as his limitations. I was a fine student in the lessons of the Vulcan, Mr. Spock from Star Trek, who attempted to purge all emotion from his life in a philosophy devoted to the pursuit of logic, yet I knew that I needed to fully express my emotions, rather than keep them held close for protection as my father did. The baseball lesson he taught has stayed with me: when I feel something, I must move to express it and not keep it stoically locked away, because being active is always better than being passive.