a story from my past, a father-son tale; a true story.
|I haven't seen my dad since the previous spring, and the impression I was left with told me he was not long for this world; a frail, thin, whithering scarecrowish shadow of his former self, sitting in his recliner in the corner, television blasting, as his hearing had failed and he wouldn't get a hearing-aid, wearing a surgical-type breathing mask attached to a tank, which fed his ailing lungs pure oxygen. He had smoked all his life, and it finally caught up with him.
There was a time when things were different, when he was a force to be reckoned with. A slight man all his life, he didn't appear very consequential, but he had his moments, and it was in those moments that his life was defined, and it was in those moments that he shone.
He looked at me, standing there with my suitcase, still wearing the mask.
And I remembered. I slipped, back in time. I heard the shots. Once more.
I despise sport hunting; abhor it, actually. However, when you're 15 or 16, and your father says you're going hunting with him, then, basically, you're going hunting. It doesn't mean you have to shoot anything; it just means you have to go. And this was the case in the late fall of 1982 or 1983, in the huge swath of State Park in upstate New York, where the wilds are never ending, and boys follow in the footsteps of their fathers.
I cleared the brush and looked at the rather large lake before me, shimmering magically in the early evening dusk, the sunlight still dancing upon it's surface, the vibrant orange-red fall foilage splashing colors all around me, and I stood in awe, for just a moment. It was beautiful. I moved closer to the shore, my rifle slung around my shoulder, the ground changing from woodsy terrain to soft lakeshore sand. A boy alone with nature, in all it's glory.
Movement. Further down on the lakeshore. People. Standing on a picnic table, which had been surplanted to the water's edge for it's obvious scenic affordabilities. A man and a woman. Why? Why would they....more movement. A canine? Maybe. Wolf? Unsure. Dog? Could be. Circling the picnic table. And I noticed the man held an oar, and now he was waving it at the beast. A grayish beast, fairly sizable. No. Couldn't be. There were no wolves here. None. My father told me that. Didn't look like a wolf, really. Looked more coyote-like, but big. Then another. More blackish.
The rifle slid off my shoulder, and I was now holding it, eyes fixed on the woman, who seemed panicked, scared. The man was waving the oar frantically. Yelling. They hadn't seen me.
The two canines circled the picnic table, and I felt my finger slip the safety off the rifle. I was scared. Something was very wrong. Those were not domesticated dogs. And they had a purpose. A plan of sorts.
Suddenly, the bigger gray one lunged at the oar, and the woman screamed; almost unconsciously, I raised my rifle, and had the black one in my sights.
I was shaking. My mind had switched into a 'fight or flight' mode of sorts, edging towards mild shock, or panic. I was alone. For the moment. I hadn't taken the walkie-talkie. No. Fucking stupid me. Why bring the walkie talkie when I was just strolling down to the lake?
'Dad, I'm going down to the lake. Be back in a bit.'
He and my Uncle George had looked at me, finishing their dinner around the fire. Canned stew. Yumm.
'Take the radio.'
'Na. I'll be back in 15-20 minutes.'
He just looked at me. I knew what he was thinking. If I was just going for an after dinner stroll, why take the rifle?
Truth be told, I had no intention of shooting anything, but I felt safer with it. Just one of those boyish things.
The walkie talkie felt heavy on my belt. I walked away. He started to say something, but my uncle interrupted him. Better that way. Good ole' Uncle George.
I dropped my gaze, letting the black one fall out of my rifle sight. Was I fucking insane? What if I hit the man, or the woman?
My mind, struggling from some low level panic state, offered more viable solutions.
Stay calm. Your palms are sweaty. You could lose your grip on the rifle. Fire a warning shot. Straight up. Scare them off. Do it now, before it's too late.
Fuck. God all fucking dammit. I hated firing that thing. It was monstrously loud, and the kickback would mean my shoulder would be sore for a week. The rifle I had was no starter gun. This was a motherfucker. My dad's pride and joy. And my dad never shot a goddam thing.
The black one moved around towards the woman, while the gray one kept the man occupied. She was screaming now, but out of earshot of my dad and uncle. I was sure of it.
Fuck. Fire the shot, or run back to camp. Make a decision. Now. No time.
I realized my father would have my head for not taking the walkie. goddam him.
I didn't hear the sound right away; no, that thunderous calamity would come after the powerful shoulder jerk, after I nearly toppled over from the recoil. And it was loud. Louder than all fucking hell. I hadn't really cleared the shot, so I blasted a branch clean off the tree nearest the woods-beach break, and I could see it was on it's way down to me, and god almighty, it sounded like a thunderclap. I was fucking deaf. I was sure of it.
The branch nearly hit me. Time froze, stretching out like a rubberband, slow-motioning in my mind. They were all staring in my direction; the man, woman, and two wolf-coyote-dog creatures.
My father dropped his fork and looked at my uncle.
'That's his rifle.'
The heavy gunshot sound carried into the distance, sort of echoing, just the way real thunder might, if anyone was listening.
God, my fucking shoulder.
The canines seemed unsure of themselves.
I had one bullet in the holding chamber, as the rifle only held two, so I worked the lever, moving the remaining one into the firing chamber.
The canines ran for the woods, or so i thought. I sort of relaxed, and it felt so good, as my body had been pushed to it's limits. It was over.
The man and woman stood on the picnic table, unsure of what to do. He was still holding the oar, defensively. The woman was trying to hug him, looking in my direction.
There was movement behind me.
Uncle George. Thank god.
The gray one reappeared at the treeline, and i knew, instinctively, he wasn't giving up.
He ran out on the lake beach shoreline, which wasn't much of a beach to begin with, and suddenly he was making a last ditch run for the couple.
Son of a bitch.
My uncle watched in horror, as he closed in, and oh my fucking god. He was fast.
And before the inevitable, a shot rang out, and a mighty sound it was.
And that was the last time my father ever fired.