Chapter 1 of The Old Man And The Boy opens with the Old Man teaching the Boy about hunting quail and the many collateral issues that attend to the practice. One of the most important lessons revolves around the Boy’s first shotgun.
The Old Man: “You always got to remember that when a gun is loaded it makes a potential killer out of the man that’s handling it. Don’t you ever forget it.”
The Boy noted, “I said I wouldn’t forget it. I never did forget it.”
I cannot remember the day, month, or year that I first saw it. I was no more than nine years old, and my Dad was working a second job, part-time, at a tackle shop in my home town. In those days in the Panhandle of Florida the term “tackle shop” meant only one thing–a store where hunting and fishing gear was sold. I loved going there with him because I felt like an insider and was going to have an outsized percentage of my curiosities fed. It stood in a rack of guns behind the counter. Most of its neighbors and relatives were dressed in walnut or similar wooden stocks ranging from dark chestnut to light blond in color. However, the apple of my young eye was a Harrington & Richardson .410 gauge single shot breach loading shotgun furnished with a fire engine red stock. Unusual, but with irresistible appeal. Time has destroyed my memory as to the day and occasion that the red H&R became mine. Yet, the purpose, protocols of use, language, and love that came with the gun are indelible. My father refused to allow any of his children to own a BB gun. His intransigence on this point was based on simple logic. He did not want his sons (my sister had no interest in hunting) running around the neighbor hood developing bad habits with guns. Each appeal for a BB gun was met with, “When you are old enough to own and use a real gun properly we’ll see about getting you one.”
So even before the desire for a gun found specific expression, the lessons of patience and listening were seeded. Listening and observing over time were key because hunting and guns were part of who and what my family did in the fall and winter. As the Old Man told the Boy, a gun is dangerous.
Lesson one: Every gun is loaded until you personally physically check that it isn’t. This rule was intended to be followed literally. I could stand next to my father as he removed his 16 gauge from the closet checked the breach and found it empty then closed the breach. If he handed me the gun in the same motion that had closed the breach I was expected to open the breach again and examine the chamber. Even now I do it, as does my brother.
Lesson two: Safety was and is priority one when using a firearm. Bird hunting meant either doves or quail. Each activity had general as well as very specific protocols for handling the shotguns. Quail required a dog as well as a good deal of walking and waiting on the sudden explosion of targets spreading out in an unpredictably wide high speed arc. Most of the old men would not allow a third party on a quail hunt. When the dog flushed the birds one shooter took birds flying right and the other took birds flying left. A third hunter increased the risk that a gun would be fired in the direction of one of the others and increase the risk of a human casualty. My dad and his father would take me along but with strict rules about where I aimed when the covey rose. We never had an accident.
Doves involved different logistics and rules of firing geometry. Since the hunters were stationed around the perimeter of corn or millet fields it was not unusual that one man’s field of fire would be directly across from another’s. In other words, hunters could easily shoot someone on the other side of the field. Thus, the vertical firing angle was as important as the horizontal.
In addition, both quail and dove hunting often required crossing streams, working one’s way through difficult brush, or crossing fences. Fences were particularly important in the realm of gun safety. Guns had to have the chamber unloaded, then placed on the ground pointing away from where the hunters were crossing. The weapons were retrieved after crossing and then reloaded. Early in my career failure to adhere to this procedure cost me the use of my gun and thus meaningful inclusion on the next hunting trip. My father’s word was his bond. Breaking rules had consequences.
Lesson three: You never point a loaded gun at anything unless you intend to fire at it. Guns were/are not forms of play, threats, or intimidation. Loaded guns were always pointed at the ground in front of the hunters or at the sky away from all the hunters. Thus, any unintentional discharge would not result in a casualty. We never had a gun tragedy in my family.
Lesson four: If you shoot it you dress and eat it. My father never countenanced the idea of hunting for trophies. Hunting required killing and killing was to obtain food, NOT to hang something on the wall. Thus, when early in my gun life I wanted shoot a cardinal or jaybird (memory fails me as to the exact species) my father relented. Once the deed was done, he reminded me that I must dress the small victims, have my grandmother cook them, and then I had to consume them. They were small, tough, and about as tasty as the leather from the masts of Magellan’s ship. Lesson learned.
Eventually my Dad gave me a Winchester .22 hammerless lever action rifle and later added a scope. Respecting guns and the attending rules was the path to a more varied set of hunting tools. I shared many days in the woods with my Dad and grandfather. I came to appreciate that well made tools appropriately applied to their intended purpose were to be admired, but never misused. A respect for animals and their habitat was the other integral piece of my education with guns.
Through guns and hunting my Dad and the old men in my family taught me that life is to be respected; that life is finite; and that death is part of living. My Dad is gone now, but he left me his Marlin .22 calibre lever action rifle. I never pull it from its faux alligator leather case without remembering him and the deep respect for life that he taught me.