This morning I was visiting my brother, sifting through his attic in search of old photographs, records and whatever else I might find. “Do you want this?” he asked, rummaging behind a card table, stacks of chairs, discarded clothing, board games, jigsaw puzzles and Christmas wrapping. Staring at the eighty-some year old rifle, reminded me vividly the last time I held this very gun in my hands…
The 1925 Eatons Fall and Winter mail order catalogue had arrived in late August and by my father’s 11th birthday in early November, one section was barely recognizable. He couldn’t begin to count the times he’d shown his father that $3.95, .22 calibre Cooey on page 64. His persistence had paid off, the dream rewarded and the rifle was his. The female side of this partnership however held a very different view of gun ownership at such a tender age. His mother’s concerns appeared justified as Dad was given little, if any, knowledge of firearm safety and instruction. It was trial and error only and practice often consisted of firing out the kitchen door at the outhouse (hopefully unoccupied) nestled within the lilacs. Despite this rather harrowing beginning, he became a crack marksman.
Dad never garnered any appeal for “sport” hunting but throughout the passing years “old faithful” soldiered on in the never-ending battle of groundhog reduction. To our father, the rodent’s depopulation was a justifiable aspect of farming, no less important than fence mending or machine maintenance. A large burrow could break the leg of an unsuspecting cow or dislodge a carefully built load of baled hay in seconds. Thus, groundhogs and target practice were the only accepted and allowable use of firearms.
A long time friend of our father’s, Hugh Hayes, owned a then state-of-the-art semi-automatic rifle, complete with telescope, and the two enjoyed a healthy rivalry. Somewhere a safe distance from buildings, a wooden target would be set up and the duo would test their competition skills. Although a near relic at this point, Dad’s 40-year-old rifle seldom missed its mark. I guess all those groundhog notches had to count for something.
During one weekend’s competition, Hugh was experiencing remarkable hard luck. Dad’s brother-in-law also happened to be visiting that day and joined the competition using my father’s rifle. Aubrey watched patiently as Hugh fired shot after frustrating shot.
“There’s definitely something wrong with the scope!” exclaimed Hugh in disgust as another bullet missed its intended destination.
“Do you mind if I try?” asked Aubrey.
Hugh relinquished the firearm and Aubrey squeezed off several shots, all hitting the target’s centre. It wasn’t difficult to see the exhibition had rankled Hugh. Aubrey savoured the moment by staring at the distant target. “Well boys, I guess there’s nothing wrong with the gun!”
When I struck off on my first hunting expedition, I’d be about fourteen. The lessons Dad acquired over the years, he passed to me. Never shoot at anything unless you are 100 per cent certain what it is and never load your gun until you are ready to use it. Simple and straightforward. Rule number one had special meaning following the day Dad spied the furry coat of a groundhog sunning itself on a large rock by the creek, a couple hundred feet from where he was standing. “That would be a perfect shot,” he thought. Just then the groundhog moved away from its perch. It was me. I’d been sitting with my head propped against the rock, lost in some boyhood dream and all that was visible from Dad’s vantage point was my medium brown hair. Now the point isn’t whether my father would have taken a shot at the “groundhog”…he wouldn’t…but rather the fact he even considered it!
I ventured out with the old rifle three or four times that summer…never hit a thing, although I always lied when asked…”Yea, I nailed a couple.” I couldn’t seem to line up the sights properly. It must have been that turned-in left eye. I remember hiding behind a tree one evening when a groundhog appeared from its burrow just a few yards away. I fired…and missed. I probably could have lopped a rock at it with better results.
After that embarrassing episode I wandered over to our neighbour’s clover field, thinking perhaps this change of location would also change my luck. I inserted a .22 mushroom into the chamber and took a position behind a bale stook of second cut clover. A few minutes passed before I was startled by Howard MacMillan’s booming voice. Often it didn’t take much to set Howard off so my first thought was he might be angry I was on his property.
“How are you making out?”
“Well you’re welcome to all you can shoot. They’ve made a damn mess of this field!”
At ease now, I figured a small lie wouldn’t go amiss. “Yea, I got two tonight.” I knew that would impress him.
“Young Harry Leppington was over here last weekend,” Howard remarked momentarily …”and he shot seventy-five!”
My final hunting expedition that summer began no different than the others. Along the creek bank, then along the line fence that extended towards the maple bush at the north end of our farm. It had been an unbearably hot August day and although past seven o’clock, the sultry air was still oppressive. Therefore, the mountain ash halfway between the creek and bush seemed the ideal respite. I sat down and leaned my head against its gnarled trunk, the gun on my lap. I tried to imagine all Dad’s rifle had been through and how different life must have been when he was my age. Picking it up, I marvelled at its uncomplicated mechanism. The firing pin hits the cartridge, heats and explodes the powder, sending the bullet down the barrel. Ignition; Expansion; Explosion; Expulsion.
I stared down the barrel…Even with an unloaded gun, if Dad had witnessed such a flagrant disregard for safety he would have taken the rifle from me for good, but here I was with my eye tight against the barrel, staring to see inside. I could see just part way, but perceived enough to substantiate Dad’s claim that a rifle barrel was finely spiraled on its interior surface. “That gives the bullet its velocity and sends it in a straight line.”
I was approaching the edge of the bush about fifteen minutes later, when I spied a groundhog just 50 feet away. I had been practicing the previous evening and felt confident. I slowly reached into my pocket and retrieved the box of shells. Removing one, I guided it towards the chamber, not diverting my eyes from the target. The bullet wouldn’t insert for some stupid reason and I cursed under my breath at the delay. Any second my intended victim could easily catch my scent and retreat. Frustrated, I looked down at the rifle…There was already a bullet in the chamber!
I don’t know when, why, where or how I happened to leave a live shell in that rifle…but it certainly quelled my appetite for hunting that night…and provided plenty of food for thought during the long walk back.
“How many did you get?” Dad asked upon my return.
“None,” I answered honestly for once.
“I guess you scared them all,” he added.
“Yea , I guess…”
That was over fifty years ago and I don’t believe I’ve held a gun in my hand since…until today.