Like many boys who are growing up rural in the fifties, for my fourteenth birthday, I get a gun.
I had asked for this gun, a medium-light 20-gauge shotgun from the JC Higgins catalogue. When I asked, my mother made worry sounds, but my father nodded solemnly and said, resigned, “It’s time.”
In the autumn prior to this, my best friend Jerry (same name, same age) and I had gone along when his father and three other men went out hunting pheasants. This is Illinois, and the prairie state is full of weedy fields, the vegetation up to a man’s thigh in the fall, good cover for the birds.
You form a line and walk, the men holding their shotguns in both hands, chest high, with a finger near the trigger. Walking those field, my body was always tight with excitement, ready for the thrill – and the thrill was is the flushing of the big and beautiful birds. They explode from weeds. The hunters stop and throw their guns to their shoulders, pick a bird, follow it, get the barrel just beyond it, and fire.
The second thrill is the firing, like a battle, Jerry and I feel. just like a battle. The third thrill is seeing a successful shot, a bird hit and jerking in its flight, feathers knocked from its body by the buckshot. It falls back into the weeds, and we rush toward the kill.
This fall we’ll be hunters, and Jerry says that the men will bring dogs for the flushing of the birds. My father tells me he wants to be with me when I first fire the gun. I call Jerry and he is driven to my house with his own new gun. My father walks us across farm fields, looking for a good place to practice.
We stop, looking ahead about 70 yards to a small pond, downhill from us. There are ducks on that pond. We look at each other, excited, Jerry and I trying not to look too eager, reining in our smiles. My father nods.
My heart is beating through my jacket. The guns are loaded. “Think we can hit one from here? We could! Should we fire together, Dad?
He nods and says, in his slight Italian accent, “Hol’ it tight. Tight against da shoulder.” He has never had a shotgun. He grew up urban in Italy and emigrated to Chicago, then when the neighborhood grew dangerous, sold his bar and found a small grocery store to buy in this country town, moving his family here when I was nine.
Jerry and I fire at the same second. The kick against my shoulder is more than I expected, but I’m elated. Jerry too. We grin like Christmas. “Wow! Loud! My shoulder. Yeah! Me too!”
We study the pond and are surprised to see the ducks still there, bobbing on the water.
“Guess we didn’t hit near’em. They musta heard it though.” All three of us stare, and then we see movement in the tall weeds near the pond. It’s a man. Oh, God, it’s a man, a large man, with a shotgun. He’s looking at us, his face stony. He starts trudging up the hill toward us.
“Lemme talk,” my father says quietly, and he takes a few steps toward the man to encounter him away from us. Jerry and I are statues, not breathing or swallowing.
The man asks, roughly, “what the hell d’ya think yer doin’?”
“Dey shot at da ducks,” my father says.
“Those are our decoys. We heard some of the buckshot come right through our blind!”
“Well,” my father says, “der kids.”
“Well you should know what yer doin’.” And the man trudges back to his duck blind, and I must tell you that as I’m writing this, many years later, I’m chuckling at the whole event, a kind of slapstick comedy for all the players because, after all, no one was hurt.
When pheasant season opens, Jerry and I march along with the men, the dogs snuffling through the grass ahead. This time, with my gun held chest high and my finger near the trigger, I fantasize a war, a possible ambush, as if the frightened birds might be the attacking enemy.
Birds are flushed. We aim and shoot. I drop no birds.
This is repeated for two hunting days. On the night before the next hunt, I reach deeply into the back of our hall closet and pull out my Grandfather’s gun. It’s a single shot, long barreled 12 gauge, much more powerful than my gun. We were given it when he died because we were the only relatives who lived in the country. I say to my parents, “I’d like to use Pa’s gun.”
“More kick,” my father says. My mother says “Tch” with her tongue, and shakes her head, worrying.
On the next hunt, I’m carrying the heavier gun with its old pitted stock and long barrel. My finger is near the trigger, and if I’m breathing as I walk, I can’t feel it, my chest held in suspended animation. Inside my face I’m wearing a big smile, and I know Jerry is, too. Like a battle, Jer. Just like a battle.
Pheasants suddenly blast out of the weeds like winged missiles and beat their way into the sky in a frenzy of survival, pumping their wings with all they’re strength to get aloft and away.
I throw the heavy gun to my shoulder, follow a bird, then lead it, then fire, and as I’m rocked from the kick I see the bird
blown from the sky and plummeting down, and I run toward where it is falling, hearing the words: “You got it, Jer! Nice shot, kid,” that stretch my smile even wider.
I find the bird near a fence, lying on open ground, feathers awry and body twitching. The body is twitching. I wait for it to die, my smile escaping. It continues twitching, and I continue watching. Its claws seem to clutch the air, clutch nothing, but still it grips and holds life and twitches with the effort.
One of the men hurries to me, excited. “Big one, kid. Here, you gotta kill it.” He bends to the bird, and I turn away, take a few steps away, but, of course, I still see that twitching bird, see it even now as I write this 60 years later.
Now I kill spiders if they look like biters and they’re near my bed, and I’ll slap a mosquito flat on my arm, but I don’t hunt animals or birds. I do not take any moral credit for this. I eat the flesh of birds and animals, order it in a restaurant, buy it in the market, but I don’t kill them because of the day reality grabbed hold of my battle fantasy, my glory-in-war fantasy and wrung its neck it until it twitched once more and died.