Monday, May 16, 2011

Boy With Guns

   Out of the Closet

  Our family guns stood unclothed  in the back of  Mom and Dad's   bedroom closet,  and every once in a while  I went in there to handle  them:    the  Marlin, lever- action, thirty-thirty, with which Dad    shot one deer ever; his bolt- action twenty- gauge shot gun, with a safety release so slow that I would never see him get off a shot during the few years we would eventually hunt  together; and the little Winchester Pump  .22 my grandfather   had  taken in payment of a debt.  It was  the model  Annie Oakley  used to break clay pigeons in exhibition, and  the one they used to have on chains at  carnival shooting galleries.   Granddaddy had given it to Mom, who was all he had begotten for a son.   After my grandfather died, the closet inherited   his own  Marlin deer rifle and   the sixteen- gauge double-barreled Fox shot-gun I would do most of my hunting with.
  Four  or five cavalry and dress swords  and an antique  musket leaned in the back corner of the closet....  brought from the attic of our  house   in Natural Bridge, where  they had been stored when not being used in the annual Veteran's Day parade.  The gun's stock  had four notches which I counted as dead soldiers.
        It was meant to be loaded at the breech  with a paper cartridge.  Then you placed a detonator cap over a nipple at the breach, under the external hammer.
          I snuck it  out of the house a few times to use in   improvisational enactments  around the Civil War memorial  cannons in the East Hill cemetery.
    On the large pediment  behind the two cemetery cannons was the brass statue of a Union soldier, holding a real gun, not unlike our family musket.    A few years later, someone would wrench the gun out of the cold brass hands, and a few years later yet, someone toppled and stole the soldier himself , so   the city replaced it with a stack of bowling balls , meant to represent cannon balls, but two or three times too big for the cannon bore. The two cannons were not plugged flush with the opening of the bore, so you could    put a lit fire- cracker in there, then (very quickly)  a bunch of oak leaves and acorns.......which would scatter, splatter on tombstones, and  drive a whole surge of attackers all the way back to Dewitt place.

  In the heat of   play, I  discovered that if I put a wad of cap gun caps in the hollow of the musket hammer, it  made a terrific explosion, which would blow the hammer back and shoot flames sideways.     One day when I visited the closet,   I imagined that t if I were to drop a  firecracker down the barrel  of the musket and then drop a marble in on top of it, I could probably shoot clear  across the gorge.
        So I took  the gun,  a marble, and a firecracker out behind the house to the edge of the gorge,  where I lit the firecracker....but  the firecracker had a faulty quick fuse,  and it went off when I was just about to drop it down the gun barrel.
  Streaming banners of blood from my thumb and forefinger, I hid the gun in the entryway, and then told my mother about the  defective  firecracker. I never told her about the gun.   I hadn't even gotten the firecracker into the barrel,   so it was a firecracker incident not a gun incident.


         Sheriff of Lewis County

Every summer  the little Winchester went with us and our bee bee guns up to lake Bonaparte  to be ready  in the rack beside the fireplace ,  along with all the rods, and  canteens, and creels,   My   Grandaddy   sometimes took the Winchester along when fishing for Northren Pike, because they    can rake you badly with their baracudda teeth or tangle you up in hooks and wires if you don't dispatch them before bringing them into the boat. We have a picture of Grandaddy standing in front of our camp with three  bass and   a   big Northern Pike, strung  between  Red Pine trunks behind him,  while he holds a spread-eagled  Red-Tail  Hawk he had shot out of the sky on the same expedition.   Hawks were  considered bad guys back then
     Grandaddy  had grown up working, the son of a  Civil War Veteran disabled at the horrific battle of St. Petersburg,  and had  done about every job in county. outside of doctor, lawyer, and undertaker. He was a railroad telegrapher when he met my Grandmother, and he was even Sheriff for a term.  He didn't get to keep his service revolver after his term as Sherrif, but I still have the holster, and one .38 caliber load, and he kept the ethic.
           One day when I was eight or so,  and the rest of the family had gone to town,  Granddaddy and I were sitting out on the screen  porch on the lake side of camp ,  when   we saw two guys  in  a little putt-putt   shoot a sea gull right out in front of the island.   A sea gull was not exactly equal to Loon on the protected list......but  Granddaddy put  his pipe on the copper sombrero, went in and grabbed the Winchester, and.....for some reason...... told  me to come  along down to the boat house.
  The Evenrude and the light aluminum boat were new back then and we caught up with the put put bang gang boys easily.
      Grandaddy cut them off, quoted laws,and cussed them out.   I don't recall that he showed the gun. Mostly I remember our  righteous excitement.   

   Great Balls of Fire

 My   Dad's father was a Baptist minister who died   when Dad was twelve, and probably wouldn't have introduced him to guns anyway.  Dad  was always more comfortable at the fishing level of blood sport , and he mostly just  loved the society of  camp with all the tradition and stories.  He became a boy scout leader, and he wrote the charter for the Elijah Lake hunting club, of which he, my Grandfather Failing, and my Great Grandfather Dr. Drury, were all charter members.
     Once or twice every summer  we would go up on the flat boathouse roof with the Winchester....Mom often throw cans into the bay and shoot at them.....hear the bullets glancing off the water and stinging through the trees.
     At least we didn't deliberately point the gun at anybody, and  by age fifteen or sixteen, I did have the  actual firearms   safety training required  to get my hunting license.   I  joined the high school gun club, and was a marksman on the high school rifle team, which used government supplied amunition to practice one night a week in the old High School Gymnasium.  I knew makes and models of guns  like other kids knew cars models,
      Since I got my hunting license before my driving license, my mother would sometimes drive me out to the country and drop me off somewhere to hunt grouse with  my Grandfather's double barreled sixteen gauge Fox .   It has a thumb-operated safety which I  can quickly and easily push  to release while raising the gun.       Unless you hunt with a dog, it is always a  surprise, and usually a shock when you flush a grouse in cover.        Their stubby wings and pumped pectorals  can  rocket the birds  just about directly upward ....sometimes right out of a snow bank,...... with such a roar that it might cause you to shoot your foot........  and  as soon as a grouse is up,  it swerves and cuts  back, to put a tree between it and you. 
     When  grouse flew up,  I  often   shot off both barrels at once in the general direction of the sound.
  One afternoon,  in grouse cover where it had no right to be, a crow flushed out of a  small pine very close to me.....and I shot him. Poorly.
     The crow fluttered down and sat there on the ground cussing me .
     I tried to gather it up to take the thing home and save it somehow........ but  the crow wanted nothing to do with me,  so I had to finish  killing him.  Nevermore maybe.
    Dad hunted  with his bolt-action twenty gauge.   It  had a clip holding a second and third shot, but he needed to take his hand off the trigger and use thumb  and forefinger to pull the safety off,  which is  just one reason why  I never saw him even get off a first shot.
       He didn't care that much.  "We saw a lot of nice country", he would say.  It was a "Pleasure Exertion".   When we went fishing, he preferred to row while I did the casting. He wanted me to succeed.
               One weekend in October when I was sixteen  we went up North  to close camp for the winter. 
        Saturday afternoon,  while Mom cleaned out the fridge, Dad and I took the  shotguns  to hunt along the  abandoned road from our north shore of Lake Bonaparte  toward  the ghost town at Alpina,        I was walking in the left rut, my Dad in the right,  when   a grouse roared up just beside the road on his right.......and, before the bird could get a tree  or my father between him and me,  I snapped off two  shots right across in front of my Dad's face....about forty five degrees past my legitimate range of fire.      

   The  grouse fell   like a frozen turkey

         "Great Balls of Fire!" was all my Dad said.  Or maybe it was "Great Scott!"  or even "Great Day in the Morning"   He could use  any of the three great expressions   for a wide range occasions.  
    Maybe he said all three things that day...... but we hunted on toward Alpina, and nothing more was ever said about the incident. 

Shooting the Bear or Not
      If you have met me, I have probably told you some version of this story, and if you have had me over for dinner, you have heard it twice.
      My Dad had sent several  law school graduates to Alaska to take  jobs in the new state's government, and one of those students, Buzz Miller, suggested that I would see some beautiful country and trout like I had never dreamed of, if I cared to come up to Alaska for a summer.    I could stay with his family while I looked for a job. 
     So,  after my freshman year of college,  I  borrowed the plane fare from my dad, and flew to  Alaska to look for work.        Maybe a job  standing on an outrigger with a huge fly rod, casting a fly the size of a  rooster   to catch  overweight Salmon   ....  but in Anchorage, I discovered that one had to buy onto commercial fishing ventures, and that the only job openings were on railroad Extra Gang  living in side track set ups in remote areas....... or  camping  with a rifle   at the mouth of a salmon stream,  to keep fisherman from poaching within set limits. 
      R.O.T.C. and Rifle Club didn't hardly qualify me for the salmon guard job, and the idea scared the romance right out of me, but anyway, I wanted to be the one doing the fishing, and railroad tracks generally run beside rivers, don't they?   
   I filled out the railroad application, signed away my right to strike or organize, and went for my  physical exam with Dr. Merrit Star, a friend of Buzz Miller     Dr. Star invited me to  warn him some weekend when I could make it in from the extra gang, and we would fly to a fishing camp he had built back in the bush across the inlet. 
    That was good, because there was no fishing where I was going.
  Two days after making my application, I  took a running jump off  the moving train,  way out on the line between Seward and Anchorage, beside  a river  so white with rock powder from the glaciers looming over us, that no fish could survive in it.  And most of the time off work for the next weeks, I would be too beat and back broke to walk down to the river anyway.

    No fish, but there were plenty of bears.  Three to six of them appeared every evening soon after our cook dumped the dinner leftovers on the other side of the tracks. We came out to watch  and may have fed them a cookie or two by hand.... but the  Foreman were told there might be a dangerous, wounded bear among them.    
     The track patrolman , called Boomer on account of  of his unmuffled gas car engine which  echoed   half an hour ahead of him,  always brought along a .22 to  sting critters off the track, in case his booming hadn't already done the job.      
        Our  foreman said that if  he himself wasn't around, and one of us saw a bear with as mean limp   among the regular scavengers   then we should just go get his gun and shoot the bear.  

      Alcohol was not allowed out on the line, but guns were.  In Anchorage, on my first weekend in from the Moose Pass section,  I  went to a pawn shop between bars on Fourth Ave  and bought a .22 revolver   for twenty-seven dollars and fifty cents.    It was not for stinging bears,   and only accurate enough to shoot yourself in the head, but, because the chamber wouldn't take anything more than .22 short cartridges, not  powerful enough to kill yourself that way.
       One night as the train rolled by our side track, I fired the revolver out the open other side window of my compartment   and  I couldn't even hear the report .....  but could see  flames leaping out the sides.   That gun was useless for anything , except maybe for display during hold-ups and hostage situations.  
 On another weekend I flew in a Cessna Flat plane with Dr. Star , and his fishing buddy Ed, to the camp Star had built back  in the bush across Cook Inlet....all using materials he had flown in. 
     Ignorant, uneducated bears will be curious, and that Spring  a curious bear  had broken into the cabin when the Doctor was not there. Dr. Star shot the bear when it returned.
     He had nailed  It's hide to the outside of the cabin  to warn away other bears.  

     The bear hide was still there when we arrived, but the porch door  and the main door  behind itwere hanging open.  
          A bear had  come in the window , opened the cupboards, bitten and sucked  the life out of every can in the place, including the bug spray;  then  sprayed and shat over the floor, and  gone out by way of the doors.

     We cleaned up, went fishing,  caught fish, cleaned and ate them, then   threw  the  dinner remains  out on the garbage pile down toward the lake, so that no bear would need to come in after them.

   We played cards and drank whiskey until near midnight when it was still hardly dark yet .  
     Dr. Star said he had already shot his bear that year, and   Ed, who taught at a remote native school, had shot his bear too, so I should be the one slept on the porch with the bear rifle that night...... just in case the bear came back.   The assignment was  something between a ribbing and token honor   I suppose, but I lay awake for quite a while, zipped up in my grandfather's mummy bag against the cold lake breeze, listening.
            Before I knew I was asleep, I was  startled awake   by a bear , testingly dragging his claws across the porch door screen.
     I rolled over and reached for the rifle, but zipped in the bag as I was, just rolled off the cot, thumped to the floor , and knocked the gun over with a clatter.
     By the time I was out of the bag and at the door with the gun, he was running straight away on all fours over the garbage pile.
I had the gun trained on his butt  but Ed had come up behind me and  pushed the gun down.    I don't know if I would have shot the bear ,    but   that couldn't have turned out well.

  A Gun is a Gun, is not a Gun

 Guy Ackerman   had  thick trumpet player lips and a sparse beard he had grown while offering trumpet lessons,  and half starving  through the winter in Anchorage. Out on the extra gang, he would stand out across the track blowing his trumpet, which  would get  a wild thing  bouncing back and forth off  the mountain and ice walls. Trumpet players should go to Alaska and get dropped off between Moose Pass and Portage, just to do that.      Guy was not planning to starve through another winter in Anchorage, but he had bet  his father that before he came home to Cedar rapids, he was going to shoot a bear. 
           One day  when the foreman was away  and we were watching the evening bears feed across the tracks, one of the   bears appeared to Guy to be limping.... and so maybe it was one made dangerous by having been fired at by the track patrolman.   So Guy got the rifle and shot the bear. 
  The assistant foreman who was  a zoologiy graduate student in Arkansas,  helped us skin the bear, and   butchered it for the cooks, then built a fire to boil the head so he could collect the  skull.  We all stood around and watched it bounce through half the night, telling stories and jokes.....including of course the perennial one about the dumb  green horn who is told that to become a real Alaska Sourdough, you have to shoot a bear, sleep with a squaw, and piss in the Yukon.....So he goes off into the bush, and comes back  a month later, all tattered and bleeding and clawed up, asking , where was that squaw he had to shoot.
  The next evening, Guy and I spent some hours scraping the fat of the hide, then he wrapped it for mailing to Iowa.

    Through the Anchorage classifieds,  Guy and I got a ride with an oil worker driving down the Alaska Highway to Seatle.    He said he needed to know if we were carrying any guns, and I  told him I had the revolver in the suitcase.  That was fine;  I should just keep it there, and not mention it to anybody.
 On down the highway, Guy and I  pissed in the Yukon.  
    We crossed back into the U.S. without incident or gun talk.
  We hitch-hiked across the country, driving the last half of the way in a car which we bought for forty-five  dollars from the guy who picked us up.  It came with an M.P, helmet which he kept visible in the back window to prevent speeding tickets.    He didn't have the registration with him, but said he would send it along.  We left him off in North Dakota and of course no registration would ever appear, but, with some incidents along the way, but we were not stopped for possessing a gun while impersonating a military officer and evading the police in a stolen vehicle.

    The next year I went to Europe for a junior year,   and  I took along  some fishing tackle, but  left the guns at home.  I never got around to applying for a  hand gun permit. 
                                    After my father died, I discovered the main frame of the gun in his desk up on the third floor,  and later,  found  the  cartricge holding cylinder down on the second floor in his dresser drawer;  so you might say that there was no gun there.

My Last Hunt.

   During my second of year of  graduate school,  I took a part time job which mostly had me standing at the bow of   a Cornell fisheries research boat that was rigged with   a  couple of electrodes dangling twenty ten or twelve feet apart out in front of it.   We cranked up the generator and  cruised around little Dryden lake while I scooped up the stunned fish  we had managed to get between the electrodes..    The  pickerel , which are speedier or more sensitive than the bass and bullheads, would  shoot right out of the water trying to stay ahead of the charge, and I could sometimes net one in the air.  One I netted would have been a state rod and reel record.  It was materially,  my best fishing year ever.
              Kristal, baby Mnetha, and I lived out Slaterville Road with the watershed forest in back of the house.  I hunted for rabbits, pheasants, and grouse back there.    One afternoon an owl flew up  from  the ground where I didn't  expect to see an owl,  and I  jerk shot him .
        Didn't kill it.   The owl sat on a rock judging me  .
   I went back to the house, got a raw hamburger patty and put it in front of the owl....who   stared at me,  unblinking.

  A day later,  I hunted by the same spot but the owl and the hamburger patty were gone.
      I hunted on ..... and  was in a maple glen,  coming down to the edge of  the little creek bed gully, which was maybe four feet deep and eight feet wide, when  I  noticed a   spike horn buck,  head down, picking his way up the gully,  only fifty feet away, and never looking up. Deer don't expect anything to swoop down on them from above.  That is why people hunt from tree stands.  Not even thinking about what I was intending,   I lay down my gun,  and waited until  the deer was right under me.    Then I jumped down and grabbed him up....his hoofs flailing so wildly  that he slashed himself ,  and blood was splattering on the rocks.  Then  there was nothing do do but set him down.... which I did, and he clattered and splattered off.  I wouldn't need to try that again. I guess that would be the apex of my hunting life.

    On a Saturday two weeks later, my Uncle Curtis was in town  to see a  Cornell football game with my Dad.
  I myself, went hunting out back that day.
            I  shot a rabbit  and was gutting  it in the   yard when Kristal stepped out and told me my Mom had called to tell me Uncle Curtis had died at the foot ball game.
                       It was of a heart attack during a kickoff return. 
                        A week or two  after that, I got a paper from one of my freshmen English section students, telling about how a man died in the stands in front of her while she was at the foot ball game.  I remembered again the smell of the rabbits insides.  Still do.
                    I didn't make any conscious decision, but I haven't been hunting since.        And after that my father would turn off the T.V. when a football game got too exciting and he before started yelling "Great Balls of Fire ! Great Scott!   and Great Day in the Morning."  And  we didn't take any long canoe trips, because he didn't want me to have to carry him  out of the woods, dead.

     Sheriff of Dog's Plot
   I haven't hunted in many years...... but I'm keeping the guns.  And not just to defend against people who would invade my house to get the guns. 
     For instance, I needed a gun this winter when a car hit a deer in front of my place, and then another one just yesterday.   I carry an ax in the truck for when I myself hit another deer .  A gun would be better for killing, but I don't want a gun in my vehicle, so  if I ever kill someone in a fit of road-rage,  it will have to  be with an Estwing, Hudson Bay cruising ax.
    And then   I have   occasionally had to kill   poorly-bred  roosters of mine that  insisted on attacking  me, friends, or little people.
 Ever  since,  if I am carrying Granny's cane, or anything that looks like a shot gun, or even just cradling an invisible gun when I approach, the roosters growl,  chatter,  and move off side-ways.
     Though I do generally keep my guns locked in the root cellar.....  Granddaddy's shot gun and a box of #6 shells have lately been standing close  by the kitchen door, ready to deal with the critter that's been raiding here recently,
        In the last few weeks, something has  killed two of my three outdoor hens right after they come out of the trees about  dawn, and  also killedmy most beloved  guard rooster Moby Dot, and   his partner Whitey.     I would kill for Dot and Whitey, maybe even after it wouldn't do any damn good.
       The  chicken killer doesn't carry the corpses away, but half consumes them nearby.....and  returns to feed on them I think... in rotation  with the possum and the cats.   Maybe he never leaves the plot.      I am  guessing that the critter is a raccoon....maybe the one I  rapped with the cane one morning this winter as it ran by me, chasing one of my hens which it had shaken  out of the sumac . 
            So every morning lately I have been rolling out before sunrise to put the a kettle on, load  the gun at  the door, and go out  to stalk around the driveway until  Yellow Foot  the last of her little flock  comes down out of the sumac... and the shadows slink off   so I can safely let the rest of the hens out. 
    But  it still wouldn't be safe for you to show up here unexpectedly, no matter what time of day.

Key to the Root Cellar

       My intense fascination with guns had long  passed   by the time my son Tarka came along, and I never tried to encourage his own interest.... but boys will be shooters, and  go bang bang with whatever comes to hand.
  Tarka's mother decided that if he wanted toy guns, he would have to make them himself.
       Tarka made lots of guns with the tools and parts in my basement.  And I only helped him a little.  
            Then his mother said he could have only one gun
         So  Takra took  his guns all apart,  and reassembled a new one from the parts whenever he wanted  a different one,  guns cycling in and out of existence.

      Tarka and I   made  greenwood bows, sling-shots,  and cattail stalk arrows..... but I don't think I ever showed him  how we used to  stand catails on their heads  to soak in kerosene for a day,   and then shoot them off the bluff in front of camp at night, flaming out over the lake.

   When he got  a little older and insisted, I  brought the  Savage .22 off the  rack;  told him about how it wasn't a killing gun, and we fired it at regular targets....not over the water and into the trees, but  in a gravel pit.
   And later we went out to the gravel pit with  the shot gun, and the thirty thirty so he could make the big booms.
        I  took him to a friend's place  in the woods where he got to help shoot up an old refrigerator with a mail-order military gun.
      Then his own fascination with guns was bumped aside by bikes, which is all for the good I think, except that down hill mountain biking may be statistically more dangerous than general gunning around.

    One day when he was a Cornell student,  Tarka  rode onto the scene of  a fresh car/deer collision:.
     Patrol car lights flashing, car at the side of the road with driver and radiator steaming.  A female officer facing a   deer, broken and flailing  in the middle of the road.  She had her   revolver out, but coiuldn't bring herself to use it. 
     So, although I had never trained him in the use of hand guns,  Tarka did the service.      
      When he graduated, I gave him the Savage .22. and a key to the root cellar here.  It is moist down there, so when I am no longer around, he should go down there and oil the guns occasionally, whether they get used or not.