My father and I were polar opposites. In his youth he was athletic, a high school football and track star who only left sports because of his service during World War II. I was the stereotypical kid who was always picked last, a nerd before it was cool, and the closest I got to the football team was when some of its members decided to beat me up for fun.
I was bookish, intelligent, and a good student – many of the things he was not. He didn’t know what to do with me, a kid with a big vocabulary who scribbled stories. So he lavished attention on my jock brother. As I grew older, I began to realize that the rare notice he displayed was an afterthought, a kind of realization that acknowledged, “Oh, you are here, too.” Later, as an adult, I realized that treatment had its advantages. I simply went my own way in life. There was no expectation that I be “a chip off the old block.” Neglect has its definite advantages.
One of those advantages was I learned how to shoot and I learned how to hunt. Through the Boy Scouts, I earned rifle and shotgun shooting merit badge. In college, I met classmates who invited me to go hunting with them. I learned how to handle a rifle, field dress a deer, and butcher out the back strap – skills traditionally handed down father to son.
But that wasn’t going to happen in my family. Dad never handled a gun when I was a kid. I heard stories about him shooting after the war with my uncles, but Dad not only wanted very little to do with me but he also wanted nothing to do with guns. My mother said it was because of his experience in the Army. Dad was a combat medic during World War II. He rarely spoke about his service, but when he did it was with bitterness and great hatred for the military. Dad used the f-word like a comma, but he particularly let loose with obscenity when it came to his sidearm while in the U.S. Army Medical Corps. His official status as a non-combatant limited his self-defense options under the Geneva Conventions. “All I was allowed to carry was goddamned, motherfucking .45,” Dad told me once when I asked what, if any weapons, he was allowed to carry in the field as a medic. “How the fuck was I supposed to hold off the German army with goddamned, motherfucking .45?”
As an adult, I invited him to go shooting with me, simply a time when we could spend an afternoon plinking at some targets. He always said “no,” usually while turning the channel to a cable sports network so he could watch a football game. I would sit and watch the game with him. But fat chance that he would ever head to the shooting range with me.
However, in the last year of his life – he was 91 years old – he reached out to me and showed interest in the things I like to do. I believe he finally had a sense of his mortality. He knew the end of his days drew near.
But one day, he completely floored me:
“I’d like to go hunting with you,” Dad said.
“Sure, Dad, that would be great!” I replied – and immediately began to think of the challenging logistics of living with a cranky nonagenarian in the pucker brush. If I managed to pull it off, taking my father hunting would be the craziest thing that I had ever done outdoors.
He started asking questions about my hunting rifles, shotguns, and pistols – when I purchased them, what they were used for, whether I ever just shot at targets with them. It was odd discussing firearms with my Dad after decades of resistance, but I didn’t complain. On the other hand, I found that I had some misgivings including the worry that perhaps – just perhaps – this was a way for him to obtain the means to commit suicide. At the time, my mother had recently entered a memory care unit, yet another elderly woman whose identity had been stripped from her by Alzheimer’s dementia. Dad was depressed and lonely.
But I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to be with him, to show him a pursuit that I did well, and to include him my world. I decided that something akin to a test drive was in order before we went on a road trip.
“Dad, maybe we should go shooting some time soon. I could let you handle a rifle, maybe a pistol, so you can get the hang of it again.”
“Yeah, boy, I’d like that,” Dad said.
A week later, I picked Dad up from his senior living apartment and drove him in my truck to the county rifle and pistol range. I had purposely selected three weapons for the afternoon: a Ruger 10-22 (which I was sure he could shoot comfortably), one of my Inland Division M-1 carbines, and a G.I. M1911 .45-caliber pistol. The World War II-era weapons were a gamble. I wanted to gauge his reaction when holding those guns, including the .45 whose name he had spoke as anathema so many times.
After I set up the targets and gave Dad ear protection, I handed him the Ruger. He pointed it downrange and happily emptied the clip at the targets. He couldn’t the hit the broad side of a barn – his eyesight was terrible at that point – but he genuinely enjoyed the experience of firing the .22.
“Do you want to try this?” I said, showing him the M-1 carbine. “It’s a lot like shooting the Ruger, but with a little more recoil.”
“Oh, look at that,” he said. “I haven’t seen one of those in years.”
I checked the carbine to make sure it was cleared, then handed it to him. Dad held the M-1 in both hands and just stared at it for several minutes, turning it around and examining closely. It was a good thing that I twice made sure the gun did not have a chambered round and that I kept the magazine because Dad had no concept of muzzle control.
“You can fire it,” I said.
“A lot of the guys I knew carried one like this,” Dad said. “This and the Garand were everywhere. You had one or the other.”
“Dad, you should shoot it,” I said. “Do you remember how to load it and rack it?”
He shook his head “no.” I took the gun back from him, inserted a magazine, snapped back the bolt, and then handed him the carbine. Like the Ruger, it was easy for him to use – he pointed the gun downrange and happily fired away at the paper targets, missing them by a mile but having the time of his life.
Then I brought out the M1911. My dad was probably the only soldier in the U.S. Army who hated the G.I .45-caliber pistol. Some firearms experts said it was the best combat handgun ever made, proof that the Mormon soul of its designer John Browning was touched by the god of war. I had no idea what he might do, so there were many reasons beyond gun safety that I handed it to him without a loaded magazine.
Dad surprised me. He didn’t swear. He didn’t refuse to handle it. He simply grunted out an “hmm,” reached out to take the pistol in his hand, and stared at it.
“This was all we were allowed to carry,” he said bleakly. “I remember training with one at Fort Knox while other guys were shooting Garands. It didn’t matter, anyhow. If I was treating wounded, my hands were full. Taking my .45 out its holster was about the last thing I would ever do – too busy bandaging a wound or trying to stop severe bleeding or giving someone a shot of morphine.” He paused, then asked quietly, “Can I shoot it, too?”
“Yes, of course Dad,” I said, handing him a loaded magazine.
He easily slid the magazine into the pistol, racked it, and took up a shooting stance that looked like a photograph from an old Army field manual. He held his breath each time he squeezed the trigger, smoothly firing seven rounds. He still couldn’t get any rounds on the paper but it was obvious that more than 70 years later he still remembered what a first sergeant had taught him on a firing line.
“We aren’t going to take any of these hunting?” Dad asked.
“No,” I replied. “I have a Remington .30-06 I will carry. You can have a similar rifle if you want.”
“I’ll just watch,” Dad said. He paused, then said, “I am really tired. Could we go back to my apartment?”
“We can talk about the hunting trip on the way,” I said.
“I don’t know about that,” he snapped. “We’ll see. I’ve got a lot on mind right now.”
So, I dropped the subject. Knowing my father, he would never mention the idea of going hunting with me ever again – or he would bring it up out of the blue when not one game animal was in season. No matter. He and I had actually shot some weapons together. I chalked it up as a red-letter day.
About three weeks later, my father called me on the phone and asked, “When are we going hunting?”
“OK, Dad, here’s the deal,” I replied. “I can get time off from work. It will probably only take a few hours to throw some gear and food for the both of us into my truck. The question is what do we hunt? There isn’t really anything in season.” That was the simple truth because I am a rifle-hunter who never had more than deer tags.
Then, I got an idea that was either a death wish or a stroke of brilliance. It was probably more of a death wish – I placed an elderly man into the equation. But before you judge me, consider that I definitely developed an attitude that could be summed up by saying, “You want to hunt, Dad? I’ll show you some god-damn hunting before you change your mind again.”
“We could go pig hunting,” I said. “There is no season on feral pigs and they are considered varmints. No tags required, and if I shoot one the state fish and game department will thank us. I even know someone with ranch land that would let us hunt there. Damn pigs tear up his ground with their wallows and breed like crazy. So whether we take a boar or a sow it will be worth the trouble.”
That’s at least what I told him. Perhaps I should have been more honest and pointed a few other considerations. Like there was a good chance that even with bait we wouldn’t see one oinker – feral pigs are cagey animals. If I managed to drop one I’d have more meat than I would ever use, so why bother? But most importantly, feral pigs are dangerous – truly an animal for risk-takers. Forget Wilbur or Porky Pig – those Hollywood pigs are the solid citizens of the porcine world noted for their charm and humor. Feral pigs have a dubious ancestry (although there’s domestic stock in their genetic background) and a bad attitude to boot. They are born pissed off and permanently set at Threat Condition Alpha, possessing plenty of bone and gristle and muscle around their vital organs and every intention in their tiny brains of charging a hunter. In fact, hunters have been gored, maimed, or at least chased up a tree by wounded pigs.
If I took Dad pig hunting, I might condemn him to death by aggrieved swine. Or I would finally show him who the real man is among his two sons.
“Let me make some phone calls,” I said. “We can leave in two days.”
Rick was more than happy to have me pitch camp on his land and hunt pigs. “I’ll even put out some bait for you” – completely legal because of the nuisance status of the animal and probably a good way for Rick to get rid of some garbage. Sure enough, the next day it looked like at least half a dozen pigs ranging in size from shoats to what might be a sizable boar had rooted through the trash, judging from the tracks on the ground.
“What do you do to hunt these things?” Dad asked after we arrived.
“Stay down wind, stay quiet, stay hidden,” I said as I dumped a basket of rotting apples from the orchard around my house in the place where the pigs had grubbed through the garbage. “I’ve have a lawn chair you can sit in and it has a shade. I am going to lie on the ground on top of a pad with the rifle locked and loaded. We’ll be about 30 or 40 yards away” – I pointed at some bushes and rocks – “in a place where we will hide. Remember to stay really quiet and still. If you have to pee, piss on the ground where you are standing. But if the pigs are in front of us, try to hold it.”
“I’m 91,” Dad said, irritated. “That might be kinda hard to do.”
“Just do your best, Dad,” I replied.
I was counting on the pigs to remember where the buffet table was and to smell new items on the menu. It was late in the afternoon but the light would be good until about 7 p.m. Dad slowly shuffled to the chair and wearily sat down. I was in front of him, lying on the pad, with my .30-06 resting on its bipod and the caps off the scope, settling in for a wait.
Five minutes had not gone by when Dad asked, “You actually like doing this?”
“I’m bored. I’m just sitting here.”
“Dad, that’s part of hunting,” I whispered. “I don’t think it’s boring. It’s waiting for nature to take its course. The animal is genius in its element. I’ve got to lay here, concentrate, and do everything I can to make it believe it’s the only critter out here other than its own kind. That’s a challenge, and I like the challenge.”
That satisfied him for a while. Then, out of the blue, he said, “Why didn’t you ask Stephen to come with us?”
Stephen is my older brother. “If Stephen wants to take you somewhere, he can do that some other time,” I said. “You asked me to take you hunting. Well, we are hunting. You did not ask me to take you and Stephen hunting.”
“He’s too busy, anyhow,” Dad said. “Stephen carries a lot on his shoulders.”
My brother Stephen made millions in real estate and financial planning. I don’t hold that against him – even if he is a dick toward me – but it was always obvious that Dad was not particularly impressed with my career as a journalist. “He can get the servants to take you hunting next time,” I muttered.
“Nothing,” I replied. “Look, Dad, a pig has hearing ten times better than a human. We really need to shut up, and I need to concentrate.”
So, my father shut up. Well, sort of. He just sat in the lawn chair, silently moving his lips in a conversation that he was having with himself. The breeze blew in my face through the brush and I just stared downrange, waiting and waiting.
Amazingly, we didn’t have long to wait. Less than an hour later, it was a made-for-television moment. Some pigs ambled toward the apples – three of them. It looked like a 150-pound boar and a couple of male shoats. It didn’t take long for them to go face first into the apples on the ground.
“Dad,” I whispered. “Be really, really quiet. There is a boar downrange from us. I am going to fire as soon as I can get a clean shot.”
Dad said nothing, but leaned forward and adjusted his glasses. I could see that he was smiling, probably an indication that he could at least hear the pigs gobbling rotted fruit.
I tucked the rifle into my shoulder and looked into the scope, both eyes open. I sighted on the boar, waiting and hoping for a clear shot. I wasn’t going to mount the head, so I would wait for the boar to present the most lethal spot: A head shot at the base of the ear.
Luck was on my side and the pig obliged. When the boar lifted its head to sniff the air, I centered the crosshairs at a spot where its ear popped out of glossy black bristles and squeezed the trigger.
A loud bang – A split-second later, a pink cloud surrounded the boar’s head and the animal jerked to one side, hitting the ground.
“Wow! That was loud!” Dad yelled. “Did you get something?”
I stared through the rifle’s scope. “Looks like it,” I said as I chambered another round. “Dad, stay here. This part can be a little dangerous.”
“Dangerous – why?” he asked, sounding concerned about me for perhaps the only time ever.
“Because that boar might not be dead,” I said. “I got it with a head shot, but I want to be sure I dropped it clean. Just stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Some pig hunters carry long knives with them to dispatch a wounded pig, hence the name “pig sticker” – but not me. If that boar was still alive, I would put a second .30-06 round in its head, or a third if necessary. I didn’t hunt for trophy so the condition of the head didn’t matter. The condition of my head and other sundry body parts did matter.
I walked warily but purposely toward the boar. The two shoats had scattered at the sound of the shot so it was alone on the ground, it’s head in a gathering pool of blood. I stopped about 15 yards away and stared at the body, looking for signs of life like breathing. The side of its head that I had shot was a wreck with one eye bulging out of its socket. I didn’t see it breathe. The pig didn’t move. I started to move closer.
Then the damn thing squealed, rolled upright, and snarled at me while clicking and grinding its teeth. In Pig, that basically means, “I am going to kill you, motherfucker.” It looked at me with its one good eye and charged.
“Hey, what’s going on?” I heard my Dad yell in the distance.
Pigs have bad eyesight and the head shot did not give the boar 20/20 vision. It careened past me, then drunkenly wheeled around, sniffing the air and chattering its teeth.
“Did you get the pig?” I heard my Dad shout.
That’s when the pig decided that it could smell and hear a softer, weaker target: my father. Complicating the matter, Dad had got out of his chair and was walking toward the commotion. Of course, he could not see anything that was going on 30 yards ahead of him.
The pig squealed horribly and darted off toward my father at a gallop. I lifted the rifle to my shoulder, sighted on the pig’s backside, and squeezed the trigger.
I never did the find the round afterward. I wanted to see if the primer was dimpled so I could send it back to the Remington-Union Metallic Cartridge Co. with a note explaining why for the first time in my life when I really, really needed a reliable .30-06 cartridge their ammunition failed me in the clinch. All I know is nothing happened. The cartridge did not fire and the pissed-off pig was yards away from my 91-year-old father who had no idea what was happening.
I yanked back the bolt and chambered another round –the last one in the magazine—aimed, and squeezed the trigger as soon as the crosshairs fell on the boar’s body.
It was enough. The bullet smashed into the boar’s pelvis, leaving the beast flailing. I ran up to where it was thrashing and I took an agonized breath. Then, I drew three more cartridges from the bandolier on the sling, loaded the rifle, and fired round after round into the bastard’s head.
Dad still couldn’t see much of what had happened, and even though he heard every shot remained oblivious to his brush with death.
“Jesus Christ, what’s all the shooting about?” he exclaimed. “Where’s the pig?”
“It’s close by, Dad” I said, gasping for breath.
“Don’t get so excited,” my father replied testily. “I don’t know why you’re out of breath. You should be in better shape – like Stephen.” He paused, then stated flatly, “Hunting doesn’t seem to be all that interesting.”
Dad never really understood what had happened. Maybe it was better that way. At least he was not mauled to death by a boar, a way to die that I would not wish on him despite his failings as a parent.
The next day, my friend Rick helped me load the beast on my truck for its journey to a butcher shop.
“Damn thing’s all shot up,” Rick observed. “What happened?”
“You don’t want to know,” I said.
Less than a year later, Dad was dead. As his life ebbed away in the final hours, it struck me that he never was impressed with me as a hunter. But he was there when I had made the best shot of my life, the one that allowed him eventually to die in peace despite the trauma of war, to die in bed, and to die surrounded by his children. What’s more, he wanted to be there with me when I pulled the trigger. I was more truly myself in that moment than in any other I had shared with him during our lives. It didn’t even matter that he did not see what happened. I knew what happened.
Throughout my life with him, I had been no one at all. But not that day.
Not that day.