They stood forbidden in his closet – a rifle and a shotgun. Although the 16 gauge Wingmaster was a beautiful piece of American craftsmanship, the rifle was my interest. They always have been. At the time, I didn’t know its caliber or manufacturer. I knew that it was a rifle and little else.
He sat silently in the living room reading Wuthering Heights – I believe for a college course. He managed to remain mostly attentive to the text of his book while I harassed him for his attention. I can’t remember the exact conversation but I’m certain that he mentioned trying to read and a parent’s classic line “in a minute.” Finally, he left the pages of his studies to find out what I was annoying him about. “Dad, can I have your rifle?” “No.” He returned to reading. “Dad, can I have your rifle?” “No.” “PLEASE.”
“I’ll tell you what. You can buy my rifle for five dollars.” I’m certain that his intent was for me to work to save the money and learn one of those all-important life lessons. But I had no desire for life’s lessons. I poured out my loose change and began counting. Eventually, the piles of nickels, dimes, pennies and quarters added up – 4.96, 4.97, 4.98, 4.99, $5.00! He was left with no choice but to hand over his rifle. A deal’s a deal even when negotiating with a boy.
I can’t remember the remainder of the details between buying that rifle and leaving the house to “my” patch of woods. I imagine that it took a lot of nagging, pushing, aggravating, begging, and pleading. Regardless, that day we were walking down Burnside Street towards a hillside where I would learn to shoot. I was stuck carrying the targets and the ammunition while he was afforded the privilege of carrying MY Winchester single-shot bolt-action .22 caliber rifle.
We reached a hillside suitable for a backstop. Even though he had told me about how to handle a firearm safely before we left the house, he insisted on repeating it again under the canopy of the forest. Eventually he finished his lesson and started the process of teaching a boy a lesson about being a man – ah, a woodsman. I learned how to operate the rifle, how to load it, how to aim it, how to work the safety, how to squeeze instead of pull the trigger, how to breathe and how to send a projectile downrange at somewhere around 1,000 feet per second. A new love had been born. I’m not certain he understood the impact of his lessons on safety and how to shoot as much as the young woodsman who walked back to the house with him.
When I was a young man, I always felt proud that my dad was in the military and that he taught me how to use a rifle properly. In fact, it was a milestone in my life that remains as important today as it was then. I always felt that this put me in a different league of shooters.
Almost twelve years later, I left for basic training. After my first volley of rounds from an M-16 left my muzzle and scored nearly perfect, my drill sergeant asked me where I learned to shoot. With little thought, I yelled as only a recruit in basic combat training does “drill sergeant, my dad, drill sergeant.”
While visiting my dad’s house one day, we planned to take a young friend of mine shooting in the woods behind his house. We weren’t very prepared and were forced to take plastic soda bottles out for targets. As we set them up, I took the lids off and placed them in areas where we would be able to see them. He casually asked me why I was putting them out like that. “Those are for me.” He looked at me with obvious speculation. As we took turns firing, the bottle caps split with each crack of my Marlin .22 magnum’s fire. I don’t know if he realized how much those early days of my youth influenced the marksman I had become, but I was as proud as that young boy shooting that single-shot Winchester.
At my last military assignment, I fired my last M4 weapons qualification – perfectly. I still have the paper target tucked away somewhere under my bed. The command sergeant major gave the only three perfect scorers a coin and the remainder of the soldiers congratulated us for our scores. Even then, I couldn’t help but think back to the times of my youth with my dad in the woods learning how to shoot.
I’ve passed on some of the biggest deer I’ve ever seen because of his insistence on safety. I’ve watched 10-point bucks walk along ridge lines as if they knew that my dad told me never to shoot over a ridge because you don’t know where the bullet is going to go. I’ve waited patiently for bucks to reach a clearing because I won’t take a shot that I’m not certain will be lethal. As of today, I’ve only missed one whitetail deer (I was seventeen and it was a trophy buck – imagine my heart rate and breathing!). Every other deer I’ve fired at were single shot kills. And I consider myself an excellent marksman (and humble too.)
Firing a rifle well and firing it safely is only one of the many lessons that I’ve learned and continue to learn from my dad. He continues to inspire me, mentor me, listen to my nonsense, and even takes time to read and comment on my posts here at SmoothingIt.com
Thank you dad. I love you. Happy Father’s Day.