I learned to shoot just after my seventh birthday with a .22 caliber rifle my parents gave to me as a gift. I actually wanted the latest Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman action figures but I hid my disappointment as well as I could. My older brother already had a gun of his own so I knew this day was coming. My Dad had been hinting about for weeks. In retrospect, I probably should have been grateful that they took the time to gift-wrap it.
Dad took me to the local garbage dump and set up a bunch of bottles for me to practice on. He was far more excited than I was. He resolutely went over an endless list of safety precautions, teaching me how to properly handle my new weapon and detailing the enormous responsibility it was to have a gun of my own. He was not remiss in his duties but the obvious issue of giving a gun to a seven year old was never discussed.
I did not hit a bottle until my fifth or sixth try but when I did I doubt he had ever been happier. We both breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. I felt his hand on my shoulder and the warmth of his body as he drew me close to him. I heard him say he was proud of me.
Once I learned to control my breathing and steady my arm I was knocking the bottles down with some regularity. Maybe, I thought, he sees potential in me. Maybe this is the way I can convince him that I am good enough. I silently vowed to become an excellent marksman and a skilled hunter. One way or another I was going to convince him to love me.
My excitement at the prospect of a newly formed bond with my Dad was short lived.
A bear, maybe 350 lbs. or more, wandered out of the woods in search of a free meal at the dump. He was across the trench from us, about fifty meters away, so we were in no imminent danger.
I looked up at my Dad, utterly terrified at what his response would be. “Do I shoot him?” I asked.
When he smiled at me and gently shook his head I knew that I was spared.
“Keep an eye on him,” he said. “I’m going to grab my gun from the truck.”
I watched as the bear meandered slowly down the dry clay bank and began to snuffle through a half empty black garbage bag. He would stop every few seconds and sniff the air, swing his majestic head back and forth, until he was satisfied that he was alone. He was unaware that he was being watched. The sun was bright that day and the way it gleamed off of his fur reminded me of velvet.
My Dad returned and handed me his 30-06. As he knelt down beside me I began to shake.
He laughed, mussed his hand through my hair and said, “The kick from this gun would knock you flat on your ass. I just want you to get a closer look”
Relieved, I lifted the heavy rifle and found the bear through the scope. This was a beautiful animal. In extreme close up I could make out every detail; muscles rippling beneath jet black fur and a tiny patch of white at his chest, the tan fur around his muzzle which gave way to sharp yellow teeth, and his small dark eyes.
“Dad,” I whispered. “It’s like I can look him right in the eye.”
He reached for the gun. “That’s exactly where I’m going to put the bullet son.”
Time froze as I watched him raise the rifle and train it on the bear. He brought his eye down to the scope and rested his finger against the trigger. I wanted to react, to shout at him to stop, but was paralyzed by the sudden ugliness of what was about to happen. I swung my eyes back to the bear and watched in muted horror as its front legs buckled and it slouched forward dead, seemingly before the explosion of the gunshot crashed into my head.
I turned back to my Dad in shock and when I saw him grinning down at me I knew that there was no real hope for us. I did not want to be a part of his senseless violence or the joy he seemed to take from it. I did not want to know him that well. My head, still ringing from the close proximity of the 30-06 blast, was reeling. I wanted to cry but dared not. I wanted to turn the gun on him. I wanted him to be somebody else, a callous stranger or a figment of my imagination.
“Let’s go load him in the truck,” he said to me.
Sickened, I reached down and picked up my birthday present and handed the .22 over. “I don’t want this,” I told him.
I started the long walk home. He did not call out after me. The eerie silence that settled over the forest would haunt our relationship for years to come.