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“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
—Barry Lopez
(as Badger, in Crow and Weasel)


To be nobody but yourself -- in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else -- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
- e. e. cummings


A Quiet Last Gasp

------ Is it true that man yearns for power? Is there a certain rite of passage in a young boy’s first discovery that he has that power? Perhaps that could explain why I did it in the first place, or why I continued to for literally weeks.
------ From the time my friend first brought over his B-B gun I coveted the thing. Around this era, it seemed like my family’s “dinner bell” was the sound of the rapid gunfire that opened each episode of “The Rifleman” at six o’clock. My friend’s gun was a replica of the one used almost artfully by Lucas McCain as he mowed down the bad guys, keeping the lazy west lazy and free. It wasn’t long at all before I had one also.
------ At first we set up a row of cans and milk bottles on a two-by-four balanced across two bricks. Soon we became bored with pummeling the same articles and began to assemble quite an array of objects in our backyard shooting gallery. The crowning touch came when we commissioned the girl next door to share her considerable artistic talents. She drew a beautiful dear that we attached to a bale of hay at the center of our gallery.
------ One day, once again bored with our latest additions, something caught my eye just above our creation. A solitary bird rested on a tree limb just beyond the back yard fence. I raised the barrel of the gun toward the object, trained the sight on the creature, and squeezed the trigger. Much to my surprise I heard a soft “thud” and saw it fall behind the fence. My friend and I both burst toward it in a rage. I can still feel the rush of adrenalin that came over me. As I climbed the fence I recall feeling enormous. I was truly a king, a conqueror, a man!
------ As I reached the ground on the other side of the fence I leaned over to get a closer look at my prey. I can still recall the sudden shift in emotions as I saw a tiny bead of blood on the bird’s chest and witnessed its last gasp for air before it fell into silence and lifelessness. For the first time in my life I felt utterly helpless and ashamed. What had I done? I so wanted to take it back but I couldn’t. I had found power alright, but it came with a chilling sense of unworthiness.
------ To this day I do not recall nor can I begin to understand what motivated the killing spree that took place over the next few weeks. My friend and I sneaked around the neighborhood in a game of murderous one-upmanship. I recall the conflicting messages of my mother’s scolding and my father’s encouragement. I even recall the final tally. Seventeen birds lost their lives at my hand.
------ I don’t know whether it was the next level of boredom or some other force that ended the game, but the killing stopped until one day a couple of years later when my dad took me along on a dove hunting trip. He took me out behind the barn at my grandfather’s farm and explained what I would expect when I fired the shotgun. He handed me the gun and explained what I was to do. He placed a bottle not too far away and told me to take aim at it and shoot. As I raised the gun, I heard and felt the rumbling hooves of my uncle’s appaloosa behind me as he ran to escape the blast. Fear overcame me, as I imagined the horse was charging at me. At the height of the fear I pulled the trigger and felt a lump in my throat and a pain in my chest. I had missed just high, so he explained how I needed to adjust. My second attempt grazed the target. He demonstrated how it should be done by pointed his gun at a meadowlark walking across the ground not too far away from the bottle. He squeezed the trigger and I watched in amazement as yellow and black feathers filled the air. The bird was gone.
------ As we went across the property in search of doves, my emotions where waging warfare. On the one hand, I didn’t want my dad, my granddad, or my uncle to see me as anything less than a man, and I didn’t want to be a failure at an activity at which they were so good. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be responsible for any more killing. Eventually, I somehow managed to separate myself from the rest of the group. I remember walking along a ridge above the field in which my relatives hunted. In a desperate attempt to satisfy my warring emotions, I fired a shot into a tree at an imaginary bird and hollered out that I missed him. Soon another shot at a phantom bird in the air. I could hear my dad’s laughter echo in the field as he told his dad and brother that my shot had ranged all around him.
------ Not long after this, a saw a lone dove flying near me on its way to the stock tank. Instinctively I raised the shotgun, aimed at a point ahead of the bird’s flight and pulled the trigger. Again, to my amazement, I saw the creature fall toward the earth. I yelled, “I got him” and began to run toward the area I assumed he’d fallen. As I began looking for him, the men arrived in the area. They asked a few questions about its flight path and began to join in the search. Finding nothing, they asked if I was sure I got him. I was absolutely certain. With more questioning I could tell by the tone of voice that my uncle had no hope for finding the bird. He didn’t think there even was a bird. The more we looked, the more I sensed that my father and grandfather were looking not to find, but to spare my dignity. As it began to get dark, we gave up the search and headed for the house. I went away with the pain of knowing that I’d never be able to convince them that I’d been successful.
------ I only went hunting one more time. I saw no doves. I never lifted the gun’s barrel toward the sky. Furthermore, I had no intention to. If in fact my elders had patronized me with the search for a bird they didn’t believe existed, I would get my reprisal. But revenge wasn’t my motivation that day. It was honesty with myself. I don’t know what I proved to them, but I know I proved my own manhood to myself. I knew I indeed had power; power to be true to my own values.
------ I don’t own a gun. I never will. As my dad and uncle travel to their lease in beautiful central Texas to engage in one of their favorite activities, they go without me. Sometimes my brother-in-law or my cousin’s husband will go with them. When the family gets together they tell their stories and share this common bond. For a moment I will feel left out and feel remorse that I am missing the opportunity to spend quality time with my aging father in the glory of nature. But the feeling passes quickly as I see in my mind’s eye the indelible image of that tiny drop of blood and a quiet last gasp.

© 2004 The Trill House