This Old Gun

By Mark McCollough

 

While writing this little essay, my father slipped the bonds of this Earth in the glow of a pumpkin-orange harvest moon. He once told me that he planned to go to the “happy hunting grounds.” No eternity of singing in heavenly choirs for Dad.
It was Christmas morning 1971, and I was 14. Wrapping paper was strewn knee-deep around the living room. There were new cowboy boots, a plastic ukulele, Hot Wheel cars, and the mandatory pajamas from Grandma. As my brothers and sister opened their gifts, a long, narrow box emerged from under the heap of presents. It had my name on it.
It was my turn to open a present. The heft of the box was substantial as I slid it out from under the back of the Christmas tree. The shape of the box suggested some sort of weaponry, but it was no bb gun. I glanced at Mom. Her jaw was set, and she eyed my Dad in a “what-have-you-done-now-Curtis?” look. Dad had a sheepish look on his face. I was caught between a rock and a hard place and the only way to break the palpable tension was to send the wrapping paper flying. I opened the box to see a new Marlin lever action 30-30 carbine. I felt proud and a bit scared. Dad grinned and said, “We won’t have to borrow a gun for you to hunt next year.” Mom’s silence intonated a thousand unsaid words. I muttered veiled surprise and thanks, not knowing what words might be exchanged between Mom and Dad that evening.
What possesses a father to buy his son a gun? I suppose it is a rite of passage. It’s Dad’s hope that his son will carry on the hunting tradition. It’s a nod that you are growing up. You can be trusted and handle some responsibility. Maybe my father hoped that I would enjoy a lifetime of hunting and solitude in the woods, just as he had. Mothers may understand some of this, but this memorable gift had something to do with a father bonding with his son and knowing that it’s not going to be very many more years before his boy walks out the door for good. Maybe Dad thought it would be a memento to remember the few years hunting with him. Now, 48 years later, I realize that there was more wrapped up in that Christmas gift than a rifle.
My Dad grew up on a farm and did not have a chance to hunt as a youth. There were morning and evening barn chores or at least that was an excuse. In the 1920s, my grandfather was accidentally shot while hunting rabbits. He carried shotgun pellets in his leg for the remainder of his life. Grandpa (and likely my grandmother) were reluctant to allow their son to hunt.
Dad bought a squirrel rifle shortly with his first paycheck from the local grocery store. Shortly after, he discovered a Harper’s Ferry flintlock musket in the attic. That led to a lifelong passion for flintlock rifles and deer hunting.
My new gun spent its inaugural year in its box for safe keeping. Dad found some light loads to introduce me to rifle shooting. The following summer we sighted the rifle in at the local range, and I was ready for deer season.
Nearly five decades and 22 deer later she is little worse for wear. I’ve had a monogamous relationship with the 30-30, and it is my constant deer hunting companion. The bluing is long gone from the receiver from years of wear. I’ve worn out several leather slings. A gouge in the walnut stock is from a long slide I took down Tom Young cliffs chasing a buck many years ago.
The rifle served me well. I never missed or wounded a deer with the 30-30. The short-barreled carbine and quick action worked well for my style of still hunting. The thicker the brush the better. It instinctively rises to my shoulder and stopped many skulking bucks in their tracks.
Like any hunting partner, the 30-30 is not without faults. It’s the misfires and misadventures that I remember the most. For many years it was one bullet, one deer, and boxes of shells purchased in college lasted me well into my middle years. There was a Thanksgiving when our kids were young when a fat crotch horn ran up to me, stopped, and posed broadside a scant 25 yards distant. I shouldered the 30-30, squeezed, only to hear just a “click.” I jacked another shell in, but the buck waved good-by with his tail a-flagging. It must have been fate, as that afternoon I shot a 10-point a scant shy of 200 pounds. One of my favorite hunting spots I call “misfire junction.” For two years in succession bucks walked down the same trail. Both times the gun misfired on the first round, but I got him on the second try. Thank goodness my box of K-Mart special shells are finally depleted.
While writing this little essay, my father slipped the bonds of this Earth in the glow of a pumpkin-orange harvest moon. He once told me that he planned to go to the “happy hunting grounds.” No eternity of singing in heavenly choirs for Dad.
My mind drifts far from the deer stand. Why do sons insist on using their father’s old rifles, even if they misfire from time to time? Bonds between a father and son are forged in that hand-worn steel. There’s a cherished memory for each scratch and dent in the stock. An old deer rifle develops a patina, polished by shivering hands and falling snow. With the passing decades it develops creaks and groans. Like we do.
A twig snaps and rouses me from my reverie. The shuffling sound of a hoof in frosty oak leaves. A glint of antler. The flicker of an ear in the sumacs at the edge of the woods. Dad’s hand is on my shoulder, and he whispers, “Steady now son. Take your time.” The little 30-30 comes to my shoulder…

As a youth, Mark McCollough hunted deer with his father Curtis in the hills and dales of western Pennsylvania. He can be contacted at ellmcc25@yahoo.com

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