Monday, October 12, 2009

The Family Shotgun

As a native born Texan, I've been shooting guns since I was 6 years old. It was family custom during Thanksgiving and Christmas family get-togethers in East Texas that my father and his brothers would pull out the old family single shot 12 gauge that they took game with as kids. Their shooting wasn't for sport, it was to put food on the table. Deer, birds, wild hogs and a variety of other animals were always a welcome addition to the family diet.

My Father's people came from East Texas, up near Lake Palestine. Indeed, many of the lifelong friends I've had came from East Texas roots. It was funny how growing up in Houston, at least until the influx of northern families who worked for oil and other corporations in the early 1970's, how just about everyone I knew in Houston as a kid had people in East Texas.

Our old family shotgun wasn't anything fancy. It was a single shot 12 gauge, possible of the J.C. Higgens variety sold by Sears back then. My Father's first recollection of it was when he was a kid, and used to watch his Dad and older brothers hunt with. One day, when my Dad was about 7 years old, although he had seen this old shotgun fired many times but had never shot it himself, he was dispatched by my Grandmother to round up some birds for supper.

My Dad had been schooled in gun safety, and how to operate the gun from the first time he had seen it shot. So that cold autumn day around 1941 or so when my Grandma handed the shotgun to my dad and told him to hustle down to the big oak tree near the tank where currently hundreds of blackbirds were congregating and get her some birds for some blackbird pie.

My Father was taken aback. His Dad and brothers were either out in the fields or off fighting WWII, so despite the presence of many sisters, he was the man of the house at the moment. He told me he gulped and took the heavy black shotgun. He broke it open like he had been told to do, and grabbed a couple of shells from the nearby box.

My Grandmother didn't say anything, I guess she knew he was ready to go hunting for the first time. My Father had wanted to shoot that gun since he could remember, but now that the time was at hand he wasn't quite so anxious to shoot it by himself.

He knew that you kept it unloaded and broken open until it was time to do some shooting. So as he trudged down the hill in that pasture towards the big oak tree that held the flocks of blackbirds, he said the gun felt heavier than it had ever felt the countless times he'd been allowed to hold or carry it by his Dad or brothers.

As he made his way down the 2 acre or so hilly pastureland that divided the house from the pond and the creek and the trees, he said he was scared. My Dad said he knew the gun kicked a lot, because he had seen his brothers and Dad shoot it many times. In his family, you didn't waste shots, and you didn't shoot for fun. Shells were expensive, and they were a large and poor family.

So I suspect my Father worried as much about missing his target as he did about how much the gun was gonna kick.

He finally reached the bottom land, and put a shell into the single chamber of the gun. He snapped it shut, then pulled the single hammer of the shotgun to the half-cock position. That was how he'd been taught to do it. You put the trigger on half-cock because that was the safety, and you wouldn't fully cock that hammer until you were ready to shoot.

He stealthily approached the tree through the wooded area that surrounded it. The tank was pretty big, about an acre in size, and there was a good sized spring fed creek that ran on the other side of the dam of the tank. My Father crept up to the tree from the backside, near the creek, which was more wooded than the approach from the house.

He'd hide behind large bushes and small trees and in the thickets of weeds and vines that pop up in shady areas of the East Texas woods. Finally, he got close enough to the tree and pointed the shotgun into the middle of a flock holding hundreds of birds.

He remembered to squeeze the trigger slowly, and not to close his eyes. He'd been allowed to dry fire the gun a couple of times, and he knew he would jerk instinctively as the firing pin hit the shell, because unlike the times before when he had fired the empty gun, this time it would be making a lot of noise and actually shooting.

The next thing he knew, after hearing the sound of the explosion from the shell, was that he was on the ground with the gun next to him. He was shaken from the recoil, and for a moment he wondered what had actually happened. He began to get his wits about him, remembering slowing pulling the trigger before being on the ground. He worried that he might have wasted a shell and not hit some birds to take back up the hill to his waiting Mother.

He rose to his feet, picking up the shotgun and dusting it off. As he walked over the the tree, he began counting birds on the ground. He had brought a small canvas potato sack to put the dead birds in, but he quickly filled it up. He ran that load up to the house, and then returned with another bag to get the rest of the birds.

He was estatic. He had killed more birds than he had ever seen his brothers or Father get with a single shot. He knew they would be eating good fresh meat for the next few days, as often their diet did not include fresh meat. Much of their meat was smoked, since ice boxes was what his folks had to keep food fresh. His family literally made, ate or grew everything they ate. So to be, for the first time in his life, the provider of food was a big accomplishment for my Dad.

His Grandmother made a big deal about how many birds he had gotten with just one shot and how much food she was going to be able to make with this many birds. She quietly, without saying a word, peeled back my dad's shirt and rubbed some kind of linemint on the dark purple bruise that already marked his shoulder from the kick of the gun.

My Father then sat on the porch and cleaned the gun, using the cleaning kit that was kept in the old wooden cigar box. A thin rope with a lead weight tied to it was the cleaning rod, and old pieces of shirts and such were used along with powder remover and gun oil to clean and oil the shotgun until it's next use.

When the rest of his family got home that day, they made him out to be a hero, and a little man, bringing home food for the family.

So every time my family used to gather when I was a kid, all of the menfolks and their sons would gather outside my Grandmother's home and we would shoot the shotgun, usually at a can or jug. It kicked A LOT harder than the other 12 gauges I've shot since then, but it was one of the first guns I had ever shot. Still, for all the brothers as they grew older, shooting the old 12 gauge family shotgun was something that brought back good memories to them as we gathered for family get togethers.

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