If ever I am ever be remembered as half the man he was, then I can leave this world with pride …
Hawkeye is a nickname I carried proudly for most of my life up until I was college age … in fact on great occasion when I return to my hometown that is the name I am met by. Nowadays it kinda throws me off and sweeps me back 30+ years to a life so dramatically different than todays that I am caught totally off guard …. but it is not a bad thing and the nostalgia is incredibly sweet to me.
That name was not earned by one thing in particular but rather a combination of a couple of things. The first being that I was farsighted and for whatever reason I could see animals in the woods, planes in the sky, all sorts of things at a distance that others didn’t see until I pointed them out. Pretty sure its not an affect from being farsighted, but more likely just how my brain is wired to see things that are out of the norm at times.
The other reason and the one that is more related to this story is that I was a damn good shot with a rifle, more importantly at that time a Crossman Powermaster 760 …. and this is not the kind you can buy nowadays, this work of boyhood art was the original design the the REAL wood stock .. not something to be found these days at all. This bad boy was the full on, real deal air rifle … firing both bb’s and .177 cal pellets (I will try to pretend, at least on paper that I did not fashion other projectiles for this rifle) and it was a pump rifle. That meant I never had to rely on those pesky CO2 cartridges and best of all I could pump it up to fire the pellets at a blazing 800 feet per second! Well, it sounded really fast then, but as I grew older and embraced shooting in its fullest it seems that 800 fps is pretty slow for a rifle but for being 12 that was damn near miraculous!
This was not an air rifle that was easily obtained, it was prior to the days of my being able to work a job so the rifle needed to come from my parents and that involved a LOT.
They did tend to make up the lack of time with me by being generous with money and things so it was not out of the realm of possibility that they would plunk down the $50 or so for the rifle. However, the hurtle I really needed to cross was the standard of proof I needed to impress them with my ability to handle having one of my own … lets not forget I spent a lot of time on my own, and that time was often met with not so much doing things I could get in trouble for but more so spending time finding ways to cover my cascading tracks of personal/moral/ and parental infractions. Remember the tigers raising lambs talk from my Dr? Well, he was more right than he ever knew … really regret having had lost touch with him as a friend when I got older. By the time I had enough balance between brains and hormonal stupidity in my brain to realize the profound effect he had on me with his heart to heart talks of being a real man and the games of chess in his study, I was in my late 20’s and he had been dead a number of years … unreconcilable regrets really suck to live with.
To this day, I like to think that the great majority of my trouble was kept from my parents view …… that blind faith in myself is tested nowadays, having raised two strong willed children myself. Seems I know a lot more about their infractions than they think I know …. always seemed to be a choosing of the battles as to whether it was worth addressing at the time however … and to be honest, I have always felt children should have a little trouble in them and under their belt as they grow up … keeps them interesting and unafraid to take scary steps in life.
Doesn’t mean I encouraged it .. much .. but I also knew if they did not get in trouble here and there, that would have had me much much more concerned!
Ok, back to the rifle … So after much consideration, I was given the rifle and a 200 count pack of pellets for my birthday and it pretty much sat in the box until the spring. It was part of the deal that I would let it be until my father was able to take me to Stillwater Creek and give me his wisdom on it and a shooting lesson. This was NOT an easy task for me …. but short of taking the implement out and shouldering it I was able to mostly keep my end of the bargain. Truth of the matter is that I knew so little about it that I was in fear if I did much else that I would get it stuck in some position of arming and get caught. Trust me, if I had known enough to be confident on retiring it to it’s EXACT purchased condition the likelihood of actually using it ahead of time would have been quite high. The thought of having it removed from my possession, was at best terrifying and with my father if you crossed certain lines there was no going back … if he said he would take it, then he fucking meant it.
A good lesson learned early in my life was that justified fear is a phenomenal motivator … a lesson I learned well.
So when the weather broke and the weekend came along, dad took me out for the lesson. We carefully unboxed the rifle, gave it a quick wipe down, grabbed a few tin cans, the pellets, got into his mid 70’s Pontic Grand Fury convertible and off we went. It was a place I knew really well as he would very often grab all the neighborhood kids and take us down there after work in the decent weather to play in the water and explore. Dad was his own kind of man’s man but he always made time to take us all down there, we would play and he would sit on the old broken down farm dam that crossed the stream (it was the only true deep spot so he could watch out for us) smoking his cigarettes and reading for hours on end. He rarely if ever was a part of the fun we all had unless there happened to be an amazing find that his presence was needed … these were mostly gigantic snapping turtle or a water snake we couldn’t be sure of. Not that there were many poisonous snakes that far north, but it did happen on rare occasion and he did beat it into our heads to be safe rather than sorry.
Once we arrived, we didn’t go on the side of the creek we always went to and where I expected to go to, but in stead onto the other side of the bridge where is was a steep hill into the woods. With him carrying the rifle, in his slick soled work shoes and myself in tow we headed up that incline and into the woods. It was easy for me being a kid in sneakers, but dad was slipping and grabbing at saplings to get to the top of that hill … he wasn’t well equipped that day for the hike but I guess its only now that I see the effort he put into this moment in my life.
Once at the crest and on the flat, dad stopped and and as he caught his breath he leaned the rifle against a tree and took out a pellet …. I was literally so out of my head with anticipation that I was clanking the tin cans I had been carrying, which was met with a serious ‘SHHHH’ and a look. I then stood there as dad whispered how to load, set the safety and then pump up the rifle … he explained it quietly and then made me repeat it all back to him, correcting me once or twice and making me say it all again until I had it right. Then he loaded, safetied and pumped the rifle up to its maximum pumps of 10.
Expecting to now be handed the rifle, I set the cans down and put my hands out but to my dismay he whispered ‘first we find the right spot to teach you about this rifle son’. I knew better than to argue, so off we went walking towards the break of light in the distance which I knew to be a field … dad was acting like a hunter and that was unusual for him as he did not hunt so when I asked why we were walking so quietly he simply said ‘You know I love seeing cool birds, so since we are here lets see an eye out for them …. when you see a really nice one, let me know so I can see it too’
Such went our quiet walk, both of us going slow and both of us working towards the field where I knew we were going to shoot the rifle finally …. going slow wasn’t easy at all but we had spent many hours before doing similar on the trails at the Audubon Society preserve that we were blessed to have near us.
As we neared the field, I suddenly spotted a brilliant yellow bird and tugged at my dads shirt to stop him, he looked back at me and I silently pointed to the bird in the scrub near the field. It took him a second to follow my finger but when he did he said ‘Yeah that is one pretty bird son’ and then in silence we watched flit from branch to branch .. these days I realize he was doing his crazy mating dance but then I just stood amazed at its crazy movements. Dad then whispered, ‘Ok, its time to show you what rifles are best at’ and I looked at him to let him know I was paying attention and to fully hear what he was about to tell me.
In total silence he raised the rifle, quickly aimed, I heard the safety go off and ‘thwump’ the rifle was fired. I looked quickly to the direction in which he fired to see where he was shooting … it happened so fast that I could only just at that moment realize what had happened. All there was to see were two white feathers floating to the ground … he handed me the rifle and started walking. I just stood there, totally unsure as to what I should be doing. That didn’t last long because after 5 strides dad yelled back ‘Come along now boy!’ … the whispering in the woods so we could see and enjoy the birds had clearly ended.
We got to the bush the bird had been in and on the ground was the exact bird, it was flopping about, bleeding and clearly suffering ….. I dropped the rifle and went to grab the bird up to help it. In my mind clearly dad had hit it by mistake, clearly … but that wasn’t the case. That beautiful bird struggled for mere seconds in my hand as my dad looked on and when it went limp in my bloodied hand once it had settled into my young mind that is had been living mere moments before but now laid dead in my hand after I felt it fight to its very last gurgling breath for its life that we had stolen for no good reason .. my eyes were tearing up but I stood there feeling incredibly alone and scared.
It was at that moment my dad got down to one knee and was eye to eye with like he would be with another man his size, I saw in his face sadness and to my shock this tough man had a tear in his eye as well. He wa clearly upset and that did nothing but make me feel even worse as if somehow it was totally my fault this precious bird had suffered and died in my hand ….. it was a brutal and base moment that I cannot ever seem to let out of my mind. Between the mix of that horrifying death, and then to see weakness in the strongest man I had ever known was enough to shake that boy I was to the core.
Dad then said in a calm, loving, and almost choked up voice ‘This son, is what rifles do best … they kill and killing for purpose is one thing but killing for no purpose is another thing all together. It is wrong, and what I did was wrong but it was also right in that you now know up close and personal what the actions of firing this tool can do. It is not a toy, it never will be a toy and every time you shoot it YOU have to own where the bullet goes. I killed that bird, and I let you watch it suffer … I own that, its mine not yours to own. What you need to own is that this isn’t a toy that you have, it is a rifle, it can kill, and kill without caring … its not crying like you, it is laying there where you dropped it and will stay there until you pick it up and we walk away.’
We never did shoot that rifle again that day, we walked back to the car after we buried the bird and stood quietly in the woods …. it was another day a few weeks later that I learned to shoot and it was a good day with my father, possibly the first time in my life I felt like we were at some level friends.
However, that walk back to the car was rough, as were the next day or two …. I replayed everything in my head and at moments raged at my father for doing that to me, at others was overcome with emotions over how he knelt down and talked with me, as well as being totally confused as to how he could kill that bird without hesitation but still kneel there with a tear in his eye afterwards. I guess at that age, I just buried it all eventually and moved on with life but as I became a man and a father I started to realize how incredibly hard it was for him to t have done that and more so what a powerful lesson he had taught me.
Not just a lesson on guns, but on life …. once those bullets of ours are loosed you own them and you own what they do. It doesn’t matter what form those bullets take be they lead pellets, lead bullets, words, hands, or inactions ….. we all own them and we all have to live with what they do.
Perhaps that was the lesson he had meant to teach me, or it was simply a lesson on a Crossman Powermaster 760 and a yellow chickadee …. by the time it all came together in my head as an adult he was no longer here to ask that question of.
It’s not a question I need answering however, it was in his character to impart such things to me … perhaps he did it in not so nurturing ways but he did give me such wisdom and did so in the most powerful and effective way he could.
A custom fit lesson because he knew what it was like to be a young man, he knew what his ‘loosed bullets’ had done to others in his life and he loved me enough to take ownership of killing without purpose and the pain of resigning himself to watch me as the bird suffered in my hand.
I was the truest ‘loosed bullet’ he had ever known, and at that moment he was owning my direction and my owning learning to be a man … in the midst of that moment he showed me the greatest of love a father can show a son ….
He owned his legacy in me, and I will never forget that or disparage the honor it bestows from such a man.