“Keep your eyes on where that barrel’s pointed. You never know what can happen.”
I knew this wasn’t the time to be ignoring my father’s advice. There had been times when I didn’t consider his advice to be applicable for me, but this wasn’t one of those times. I knew that, because he was referencing the object I was carrying in my hand at that very moment. It was a tool for what he and I were about to do. We were going dove hunting, and I wasn’t carrying just anything. No, in my hand was a three-shot, pump-action, .410 shotgun with a gold trigger. This was serious business, for several reasons. For one, we weren’t here just to shoot clay targets. We were here to hunt the real thing. Two, this was a big moment, for I wasn’t here just to sit on the tailgate and watch from a safe distance. I was going to be involved. I had my own gun. I could take my own shots. We were finally on a level playing field. So I took his advice and paid careful attention to the barrel.
To say something like “you never know what can happen” to a young, over-analytical boy with a wild and vivid imagination is nothing short of encouragement to make that boy dream up the wildest possible scenario that he can imagine. And that’s exactly what I did. What did he mean by that? And why did he say it as if he had experienced it? Had he seen something wild happen? I kept two hands on the gun, pointing the barrel down at the ground. But my eyes were on the ground beneath me. For all I knew, I could trip on a rock, fall over onto the ground, accidentally point the gun up at him, and accidentally happen to have my finger on the trigger as I felt the impact of the fall. I raised my eyes to the safety switch on the gun and my throat dropped into my gut. There was a red dot showing, and I knew what that meant. That meant it was ready to fire.
My mind raced as I panicked instead of switching it off. Was it loaded? Surely it couldn’t be, right? Had I loaded it? Did I even know how to load it? Had my father loaded it? I flipped the safety back on and kept my eyes forward, hoping my father hadn’t noticed my grave mistake.
We set up on one side of the field and folded out our camo seats. I looked out at the field and wondered where all the doves were.
“Now, they’re probably gonna be flying from that direction,” he said as pointed his finger towards the left side of the sky. “When they come, you’ll have to get your gun up quick, or else you’ll miss them.”
I gripped my gun tighter and boasted to myself in my mind. I was determined to be the quickest shooter around, and I was going to surprise him with my quickness.
“When they come, don’t go firing as soon as you seen them,” he continued. “Wait ’til they fly in front of you so you can shorten the distance.”
I lifted my eyes to the farthest point on the left. That was quite a long ways away. Waiting seemed to be the best.
“And remember, you’ll have to aim just a hair in front of them since they’re flying.”
We sat and waited for the birds to fly. He reinforced all the material about gun safety that he had given me before. One thing he said in particular stood out to me, and that was to keep the gun level with the birds. In other words, I wasn’t to raise it up high or aim too low, but I needed to keep it up high enough in the air to match their flightpath so that I could follow them as they flew.
Doves flew over, and we raised our guns quickly and shot. We shot, pumped, shot, pumped, and shot again. All misses. Reload. Wait for more to fly. The process repeated. There was waiting in between, but it was filled with anticipation, for the high speed action of the shooting was worth waiting for.
Eventually, my patience came through for me. Two sole birds flew right in front of us. Some of the birds had come toward us, only to fly over head or take off the other way, but these came right in front of us. I raised my gun, pointed it at one of the doves, and followed it, waiting for the perfect moment when my aim was steady and my breathing was stilled.
BAM!! The dove dropped, but my so did my gut. I had waited a long time to fire. The dove had flown from the left, to the front, and to the right. That’s when I had fired. But as I came back to reality and fixed my focus back on where I was, I saw it. The sight that had made my gut wrench. The barrel of my gun was inches away from my father’s head, and he had yet to move.
I had never seen anyone be shot before. I had no idea what it would look like. My mind wasn’t a gratuitous one, so my image of a man being shot was not as gruesome as it is in reality. But I did know what it meant to be shot, especially in the head. And at that moment, I watched in horror as I waited for an eternity to see my father move. His head was intact, but as I said, I didn’t know what I had expected to see. For all I knew, it was the impact of a bullet, or of shotgun shells in this case, that caused the fatality. And as I held my breath, waiting for him to move, I wondered if I had made the gravest mistake of my life. Had he paid the price for my mistake that had come from me not heeding his advice?
Just then, however, he relaxed and turned to face me. I asked if he was okay, but the gunshot had apparently left his ears ringing. It was a moment before he answered. I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but it is safe to say that a fair bit of correction took place.
Thankfully, while I had been in fear of my father’s life, he had kept his eyes on where the dove had fallen, something that had never crossed my mind as being important. We walked over across the field to the place where he had seen it drop. I had never seen a dove up close. I had only seen them in pictures, most of which had been illustrations. I was excited to finally see one.
We came up to where it had dropped and found the bird lying on the ground. To me, all was quite well, but to my father, something didn’t seem right. He stared at the bird in silence and cocked his head to the side. I looked back and forth between he and the bird, trying to understand what he was thinking.
“I don’t think that’s a dove,” he said finally.
I was shocked to hear such a thing. Not only had I failed in gun safety, but apparently I had failed in shooting the right bird.
“What is it?” I asked.
He looked at it for a few more moments, still apparently working his guess out in his mind.
“I’m pretty sure that’s a pigeon,” he said.
Had I been older and more informed than I was, I might have cared more about this news. But all that I really cared about was that I had hit something on my first hunt. I had been allowed to hunt with my own gun like any other adult, and I had made contact. So what if it was a pigeon. It sure looked like a dove to me.