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Me and My Guns 2

October 9, 2015

Learning Some Laws

Being an actively imaginative kid, I learned the great Thoreauvian lessons with my guns, the Higher Laws, with a couple of misadventures that have haunted my consciousness and conscience ever since.

I think it was during the winter when I was 11 that I stopped using my rifle on the family hunting expeditions. We were walking a long, frozen field of corn stubble, when we started hearing more than usual shots from the stand of woods, way off at the far end of that field. We paused, and a group of six or so hunters emerged from the woods and fanned out to make a line across the width of the field. As they walked in our direction, it seemed like every 10 or 15 steps, one of more of them would shoot at something, and we quickly realized from the sounds that some of them were using rifles, not shotguns. In other words, long range, lethal force. We quickly turned and moved into another field, going off at a right angle.

Although I carried a rifle, it had always been clear that I would not shoot at moving game, or in any situation that was not controlled for safety. The only time I had ever fired during the hunting was when I spotted a rabbit hunker down in the stubble or weeds. Rabbits typically stay very low and still when a predator is near, hoping not to be spotted, but entirely ready to run. If I spotted a rabbit, thus, I was allowed to shoot it before it could run.

Later in the morning of the probably drunken hunters, I came right up to a hunkered rabbit. I stood over it, with the end of my gun a foot from its head. I called to my dad and uncles, and everybody stopped while a shot. Except I didn’t pull the trigger. I just couldn’t make sense of it, even though we were providing supper. I just stood there, looking at the rabbit’s fur and eyes (for what, of course, seemed like a long time), and then told my dad that I didn’t want to shoot. He said, okay, give it a kick and it would run and he would shoot.

And I did, and the rabbit did, an my dad did, and we had another piece of dinner. The thing makes obvious sense; and as we walked on, it made sense to me. It was embarrassing, but I had not wanted to take a life—under circumstances that made it so clear that I was taking a life.

And by the way, although this rabbit made no sound, except the sound of the stubble and weeds as he burst from hiding, I heard, as a kid, what Thoreau was talking about, when he reminded his readers that “the hare, in its extremity cries like a child.”

I’ll add, here, just for the fun of it, the time when a rabbit got the best of me. I didn’t give up hunting, itself, after the Thoreauvian moment. I switched to hunting with a shotgun or a club. A club? you say. Well, you might think that that at least made things more equal, but actually it didn’t.

This was probably the next winter, when I was 12. I was imagining that since early people hunted with clubs, I would too. Actually, a stake. In that time and place, a lot of men did their own cement work, and houses were being build; so there were a lot of lost or abandoned stakes lying around, that had been used to reinforce the boards of the forms that held the freshly poured cement in place while it hardened.

[Now here I’ll pretend that I’m William Stafford “talking,” and mention something that my father once said, and which became a point of aesthetics for me—as in fact it was for him, in his craft. I was helping him build the forms for a foundation slab for an outdoor fireplace, and as he selected a stake he remarked, off-handedly, “I never did like to nail the forms.” Almost everybody held the forms together with nails, and then reinforced them with stakes along the outside. Then they would have to pry the boards apart when the cement had dried. Somehow it seemed right to my dad to put in the time and effort—the mindfulness of a kind—to fit the boards to each other, hold them with well-placed and driven stakes, and then release them cleanly from their content when they had done their job.]

People like my dad made stakes from boards, but construction companies used manufactured staked. These were round, made of strong wood, solid and heavy—and even more so when they had soaked up some cement water. That’s the kind of stake that I carried into the field of weeds and bushes.

I didn’t imagine hitting a rabbit over the head, even though I knew that one might sit still. I was imagining throwing and hitting one on the run. Ha! But what do you know, one “kicked up,’ just a few feet ahead and made a dash at a slight angle to the right. I gave that stake a throw, and it was like a hunter leading a duck (“son”), or a quarterback throwing exactly to where his receiver would be. It was a perfect collision course, unfolding right before my wide eyes. But of course rabbits have wide-open eyes too, and they bulge out a bit, the better to see the hawk that is swooping upon them from behind. That stake was flying to within a foot, a tenth of a second, less that that, of knocking that rabbit upside the head, and it made a miraculous swerve, on a dime, full-speed, and I missed. What did I feel most? Disappointment? Admiration? Relief?

On the next page I’ll tell of another Thoreauvian act on my part, that I carry with me as a gift from their lives to mine. Again, no humans kilt, but one who done bafflingly wrong. Et oui, c’est moi.

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