Life comes at us in waves; some are the little ones you drift over and enjoy the ride. Others are rogues that knock you down and leave you sputtering.
The waves we share in our kids’ lives come closer together, rising with the intensity of an incoming tide as our kids grow older. The early crests may be the first day of school or the first time they line up for tackle drills in pee-wee football. Short years later, you brace for the first learner’s permit and the first date. Or as in my daughter’s life, the day she picked up a gun.
I could see this wave coming. Growing up in a house between peach orchards, she often walked through them with two hunters, a pair of setters, and a Brittany “shaped like a tater.” No one was more interested in the plumage of downed quail than she.
When dove season opened, she volunteered to play retriever. Between my shots, she’d watch for birds, play with grasshoppers, and pick up spent shells. Until that year, when in a moment of quiet, she said, “Next year, I want to shoot.”
And I knew it was time.
An education in hunting
Years ago, uncles, cousins, and grandparents would have helped with the instruction. The clan would indoctrinate a culture upon the young hunter, with colorful stories applying to every situation and jokes that stuck in our minds, making us smile in the dark while we shivered in duck blinds waiting for the sun to rise. Our elders taught us first how to think and second how to act with a gun in our hands.
With no uncles or grandparents nearby, replicating this education in modern society offered a challenge. To first learn what to think, we turned to Hunter Education class.
Sitting there that first night in a sea of teenage boys, my daughter looked small, yet tenacious. No doubt, no retreat.
Our instructor, Charlie, stood in anticipation of his mission. He walked with a stride learned by crossing a lot of fields. Though his message was scripted, his tone was clear; he wanted to put safe, young hunters in the field. Boys or girls, Charlie wanted them both as allies in the sport. He’d have made a good uncle.
Respect and responsibility were in his message, for the game and the resource. The Princess soaked it up as we watched and listened.
Safety he preached and re-preached, tossing out rules like commandments.
“What are the three rules of firearm safety?” he’d ask.
By the last session, from all sides came back, “Always point the muzzle in a safe direction. Next, open the action and make sure the gun’s unloaded. Then, make sure the safety is on.”
He used fascination like bait to keep drawing them in: “Did you know turkeys will dust themselves in fire ant hills? It takes care of parasites.”
Late in the evening, when it was time to break, he’d even toss out a bone for them to gnaw on. We ended with a tape that night. A hunter had wounded a deer that afterwards crossed onto posted property. Moral law said the hunter should follow and retrieve the deer. State law forbid trespassing. We adjourned with the problem unresolved.
On the ride home, after I’d forgotten the dilemma, the question came softly in the dark truck, “Which do you do? Follow the deer or obey the sign?”
“Try to do both,” I said. And I told an old story that I knew she’d remember with a smile on some dark morning while shivering in a duck blind waiting for the sun to come up.
In one session, he asked questions about mammals, his eyes gleaming, indulging the students with occasional stories.
“Talking about possums, that reminds me of a story. Have I told you guys about the time when I was a kid and got invited to a possum dinner? They brought the whole possum out on a tray, surrounded by potatoes, tail curled up and teeth grinnin’. I jumped up and said, ‘I think I heard my grandpa whistle for me’ and I took off.”
The time for testing came and as she stood in line waiting for her score, Charlie gave her that serious look and said, “Are you sure you filled this out right?” Her nerves and mine quivered in concert. Then he grinned and added, “ Oh, my fault, I was looking at it wrong. You got a 96.”
As a graduation celebration, we stopped for a Coke to wash down the shooter’s dust. I had no illusions that the education was over, but felt certain the process had begun. Along the way, we’d adopted uncles and cousins who would help.
I also knew there would be more waves coming and some would be rogues. But from all I’d seen, I was betting the Princess would sputter and come up swimming.