THE EVERYDAY HUNTER: Growing Up With Guns

It was a cold December 2, 1963. The snow was thigh-deep and heavy on the trees. Although I was only 11, my fledgling scouting skills throughout the summer and fall indicated lots of deer were living on our 22 acres in Scandia, so I pestered Dad until he agreed to include me in the opening day of buck season.

I remember Dad letting me hold the rifle while on stand. If that was a violation, it was an innocent one and we didn’t see a single deer to tempt me.

Looking back 50 years, it seems strange that an 11-year-old would be handed a bolt action rifle just 10 days after a bolt action rifle had been used to shoot President Kennedy in Dallas. I remember Mrs. Wall bracing herself and choking back tears as she told our combined fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classroom that the President was dead.

Ten days later, Dad and I weren’t thinking about the Kennedy assassination. We were thinking about deer hunting.

For so, so many – and for me – guns were a normal part of growing up. Often I’d step off the school bus and scan the back fields for woodchucks before going into the house. Once in a while, I’d grab a rifle and pop off a shot.

Come October, I’d rub a foot from a dead rabbit on Mitzy’s nose to get her all wound up before turning her loose to chase cottontails. Mitzy was my beagle. But I wasn’t a bloodthirsty killer, nor did the rabbit’s foot bring me good luck – I never killed a bunny until I was 15.

To excuse my pathetic shooting skill, I lay blame on the second-rate guns I carried. My .22 rimfire was an ancient single-shot of some unknown brand, in pretty rough shape, with half of a Lincoln head penny fixed to the muzzle for a front sight. Despite its faults, I shot my first woodchuck with that old gun.

My first shotgun was a Model 258A bolt action 20 gauge made by J. Stevens. It had a removable box magazine that wanted to fly to pieces whenever I unloaded it. Miraculously, I once knocked a grouse out of the air with that decrepit shotgun. My buddy, Tom Huber, was amazed at the shot I made. I hid my own astonishment by faking a nonchalant attitude.

As kids, we were gun owners, and we grew up on television shows that were nothing like what kids watch today. We watched Matt Dillon bring law and order to Dodge City, Kansas. We saw a single dad named Ben Cartwright raise Adam, Hoss and Little Joe with consummate parenting skill. We rooted for the Lone Ranger as he fought for justice with Tonto at his side and left grateful people wondering “who was that masked man anyway?”

Those heroes, and many more, were the good guys, and we loved them. We admired the fact that they never pulled the trigger unless the bad guys shot first. We understood they used guns for self-defense and self-defense was part of law and order.

In my teenage years we moved to town and I traded for a Model 37 Ithaca 12 gauge pump at Ted Thelin’s little store on Cobham Park Road. After spending fall days in classrooms at Warren Area High School, I’d drop down over the hill to our house, change my clothes, grab Mitzy and my pumpgun and head back up the hill to hunt rabbits on school property.

I must have carried that shotgun across the football team’s practice field dozens of times – always waving to Coach Shea – but never once was stopped for questioning. Accountability came the next day when Mr. Shea would ask, “Did you get any rabbits?”

Those were the days when people didn’t assume guns were for killing people. Shouldering a shotgun as I walked across school grounds never needed a second look. In fact, despite often being armed on school grounds, at graduation I received an award for character.

I doubt everyone agreed about my character, but today a kid can’t get away with carrying a gun on school grounds even once, for any reason. And be recognized for character? Not a chance.

Those were the days when kids were always on the side of the good guys, and we aspired to be one of them. Those were the days when the bad guys sometimes learned their lesson and showed they were redeemable.

Those were the days when Tonto called the Lone Ranger “Ke-mo Sah-bee,” or “trusted friend.” Those two men, from different races, were bound by a moral code. And we were bound to our heroes by that same code – a code that was important to growing up with guns.