I remember the day I first saw my father’s pistol. I remember the gun in my father’s hand, the click-snick sound as he cycled a round into its chamber. I remember the pistol as small, square and dark.
I am 4 years old. World War II is over. My father has left the military to work in the California oil fields. We live at the edge of an orange grove, and my mother keeps chickens and a garden. Dogs are attacking the chickens. My father rages from the bedroom with the weapon in his hand.
“No, Buddy,” my mother says to him. I peek around the door frame. “Don’t kill those dogs. I think they belong to the neighbors.”
He pays no mind. The door snaps as he jumps down the steps into the yard. There is no shot. The dogs have fled.
My father’s weapon wasn’t a war souvenir. It was a Walther PPK/S or one of the smaller Berettas, a pistol made by the Germans or the Italians. My father had served in the Pacific, and I doubt a Japanese soldier would have carried such a weapon. I am certain, though, the weapon was a .32 caliber, but the only reason I cling to that number is the vague memory of seeing the number on a box of ammunition.
My father gave up on civilian life a few months after that sunny day when the dogs attacked the chickens. He rejoined the military. My mother became an officer’s lady; I became an Army brat. The pistol, I think, became protection as we traveled the world. My father carried it under the seat of our car. When we came to temporary rest at one Army post or another, he hid it in a place I could never find.
I was never allowed to touch the pistol, never from the day I first saw it until the day he traded it away. Instead, I had toy pistols, toy rifles. I played war with neighbor children, never fully disconnected from the reality of my father’s pistol, where it might have traveled, what it might have done. And I never stopped wanting to handle the pistol, to feel the heft of its mass poised in my hand, to absorb the power implicit in its weight.
One day, watching my father rummaging in the car, I spied the box holding the weapon. “I’ll clean it, if you show me how.”
“No,” he replied. “It doesn’t need it. And you leave it be, do you hear me?”
Shortly after I turned 16, my father left the Army once again. No more cities. No more military posts. We settled at last in one place, a farm of 120 acres.
At some point in our journey into the Orient and over to Europe, between Roy Rogers on the screen, Daisy BB guns tossed around by childhood companions and my participation in Boy Scout marksmanship contests, I had learned to handle pellet guns and small-caliber rifles. I had gone on to compete in organized youth shooting contests. I had won prizes. I thought I was good.
“May I buy a .22 rifle?” I asked, my question carefully timed for the quiet moments after evening farm chores and before dinner. My father didn’t reply, didn’t raise his eyes from the newspaper.
“It’s a single shot,” I said. “I saw it at Hilton Hardware over in Crane this afternoon. I don’t remember the make, really, but it’s on sale.”
“No,” he replied. “What do you need with a rifle?”
I didn’t argue. I never argued with my father.
Instead, I waited and approached my mother. “It’s my money. I earned it. Why can’t I spend it how I want?"
“I don’t know anything about guns,” she said in response to my whining. “All that’s up to your father. Wait a bit and ask him again. Maybe next month.”
A few days later, I walked into our kitchen for breakfast and found a new Remington bolt-action .22-caliber rifle, equipped with a tube magazine fitted for the long-rifle cartridge.
“Happy birthday, hon,” my mother said. My father had already gone to the milk barn. “Your dad bought it a month or so ago,” she said. “That’s why he didn’t let you buy one when you asked. This one is better, right?”
The Remington had a varnished hardwood stock and a rugged gunmetal blue receiver and barrel. The bolt-action was smooth and solid. I lifted it from the table and rubbed the shiny wood. I would tell my father thank you later. He would nod but say nothing. My father believed obligations fulfilled deserved no thanks.
On the farm, an important forage for our dairy cows was alfalfa, a crop good for the soil and good for animals. If rain and sun followed a perfect rhythm, if spring blossomed early and fall sunshine warmed October, a farmer might cut and stack at least three and sometimes four crops of hay for winter feed.
Alfalfa is a valuable crop but expensive to plant and tender to maintain. Its main enemy was drought. The prosperous, those with no mortgages and creek-bottom land, confronted the lack of rain with irrigation. The rest planted and prayed.
A second enemy, at least on the hills holding up my family’s acres, were groundhogs. God’s creatures, true. But to a farmer, dependent on a crop, the dark brown, scurrying beasts were varmints, 20 or 30 pounds of pest intent upon burrowing into the fields, there to feast on the alfalfa meant for hard-milked cows.
“If you want to make yourself useful,” my father said a few weeks after giving me the rifle, “walk up to where I planted alfalfa early in the morning or after supper. Watch for groundhogs. Shoot every one you see. They’ll ruin the alfalfa.”
I sat at the edge of second-growth timber at the crest of a hill and watched the summer sun shadow the east-lying slope, cleared ground now alive with thick stalks and oblong leaves of alfalfa. Across the deep, bright green patch of forage, I could see as far as the bluff above Spring Creek, a mile or so east, its rocky upthrust a tan-edged frame to the picture-perfect July evening.
Movement. A hundred yards away, toward the jumbled pile of dead trees and stumps and rubble pushed up against the fence line. A dark wave and flutter along the ground, as if someone had yanked up a rug and shook it. A groundhog, moving away from me in rumpling spurts, pausing to rip into the alfalfa stems, heading intermittently toward a wood pile, toward its burrow.
I sat cross-legged, the Remington rifle, still new enough to give off a bright, sharp smell of bluing and varnish, balanced on my knees. I moved slowly into a crouch, sitting on my right foot, stretching to support my left arm and rifle on my left knee, trying to unfold my body silently. I heard nothing other than my breath, but there was noise enough to stop the groundhog in the middle of another shuffling half-hop, half-leap. A female, a sow. She raised up on her hind legs and twisted in my direction. I could see the pink skin around her teats in the slanting sun.
The .22 long rifle launched a slug weighing only a few grams, but the bullet rocketed along at more than a thousand feet a second. The animal dropped before I thought about reacting to my shot. Down, and flopping over, twisting, hit, wounded, but not dead. I cycled another round. Bolt handle up and back. Brassy glint of ejected casing flying off to the right. Bolt forward and down. Left hand sliding up the stock, barrel returning level. Squeezed the trigger. Snap-crack of the second shot echoing. The creature moved no more.
I cycled the rifle once more, ejecting the second cartridge hull and leaving the bolt open for safety. My hand shook as I reached to pick up the two empty shell casings.
I walked south, skirting the border of the alfalfa field to avoid crushing the growing plants. When I found the groundhog, I pulled it toward a gap at the bottom of a debris pile. It was heavy, maybe 12 or 14 pounds, and I wanted to use its carcass to close the opening, which I thought was the entrance to its den. I used my boot to mash it down, once, hard. Then again, harder, forcing the lifeless body to bend and collapse, sealing the gap.
The rifle was angled backward across my shoulder as I tended to the carcass. I kept it there as I walked down the fence line to the road.
During the walk home, I killed two rabbits. They were eating in the native white clover on the north side of the road. I watched as they dipped, nibbled and then lifted up to scan for danger. I raised the Remington and shot one. It was easy.
I simply brought the rifle down from my shoulder, moved the bolt forward and down to lock a round in the chamber, and braced my forearm against a tree—not thinking, focusing only on the twitching movement of the gray animal beyond the end of the barrel. Not thinking even when the shot cracked with the distinctive snap of a .22, and I clicked the bolt through its cycle after the first rabbit collapsed. Not thinking when the second animal came erect, oblivious to the death of its companion, and I shot once more.
I carried the rabbits home by their hind legs, blood dripping down from broken heads onto the dirt. My father was in the garage using a grinder to sharpen the sickle blade from the hay mower. I stood in the open door, holding the rabbits at arm level.
“I shot a big female groundhog out of the alfalfa field, near the wood pile,” I said. “I think I found the den opening. I stuffed her in there to block it. And to get her out of the field.”
The grinder screeched in the garage’s shadows. “Why’d you kill the rabbits?” my father asked.
“They were in the clover,” I said.
He said nothing more. My father thought a rifle a useful thing, if need be. His gift had marked some sort of unspoken agreement between us, between me and the world. The gift carried with it the covenant entered into when accepting an instrument that could kill. His question, I understand now, implied disappointment that I had failed to do the right thing, to let the relatively harmless rabbits be.
I had killed the rabbits because I could, because I had discovered the power of the gun. I had killed the rabbits and once again stymied the blood connection he thought we should have, once again leaving him frustrated in his belief that I should always know the right thing to do simply because I was his son.
My Remington .22 is stored away now, along with my father’s Winchester Model 12 shotgun, and a Marlin lever-action rifle. My father used the little .22 to weed out vermin that preyed on the chickens and ducks he liked to raise. He was no hunter, my father, and he had no real use for the shotgun or the heavy lever-action rifle. I remember he fired the Marlin only once. He wanted to be certain Missy, the dog who loved and served us all for 14 years, died quickly. Cancer was eating her bit by bit, and he cared too much to allow the hard thing to be done on the cold metal table in a veterinarian’s office.
I never shot a weapon after that summer. Sometimes I think I might unpack the Remington, old now like me, and hang it on a wall, there to remind me of that gift from long ago and what it taught me about killing.
Gary Presley lives in southern Missouri. After working in the insurance business and commercial radio, he began writing. His work has appeared in the Catholic Digest, Salon.com, The Ozark Mountaineer and Drexel Online Journal.