I was fortunate enough to have been born and to have spent my life living in a part of America where the climate is conducive to outdoor living year-round.
The San Diego of my youth was the fabled “sleepy Navy town” of yore; scrub-filled canyons and mesas extending to the beach and the communities that sprouted up along the coast.
My earliest days, before being shuffled off to Catholic school, were spent at a beach a few blocks away from our home. Because we were poor, a day at the beach with a packed lunch was the locus of cheap entertainment on the days when it was “too nice to be inside watching TV,” which was in black-and-white. My earliest memories are of scurrying along the waterline, my back browned by the sun, digging up sand crabs and putting them into a bucket filled with water and sand into which they would burrow once again, believing they were safe from large probing toddler hands. When I grew bored they were dumped back into the surf where they no doubt buried themselves again only to someday be temporarily kidnapped once again by another bored child.
I was a born hunter and collector.
Because we were poor, my brother and I fished on Saturday mornings with our dad on his day off because it was cheaper than buying store-bought fish. We were given the choice of early mornings on Crystal Pier or going to St. Brigid’s for Catechism classes. Saturday morning cartoons were not an option. Fishing always won out because Crystal Pier offered hot chocolate, something never found on a nun’s menu. At an early age we learned to tie a hook, gaff a fish, and to handle a knife for when cutting was called for. We dropped lobster traps in what is now called Tourmaline Surf Park, retrieving them late at night, measuring them in the beam of a flashlight, making sure the tasty crustaceans were legal-sized.
When I was eight, I attended gun safety courses put on by the NRA at the local community center where thick-necked men with serious faces and butch haircuts promised us hell and worse if we mishandled a rifle or a shotgun. There was no Eddie Eagle cartoon character who spent his time talking about the 2nd amendment because the important thing was to learn not to shoot yourself or someone else. It was serious people teaching the next generation how to safely hunt and not just how to shoot.
I waited another year before I was actually allowed to carry a shotgun, serving instead an apprenticeship in the field, walking and watching and learning and carrying the kill in the back of my new hunting vest.
When the time came, I was given a .410 single-barreled shotgun by my uncle and spent days at a shooting range learning how to lead and squeeze.
The first time I was allowed to hunt, we were walking a dirt-clod field in Imperial Valley during dove season. In dawn’s very early light, I spotted the distinctive beat-beat-glide of a single dove almost directly above us, but way out of range. After pleading with my father to let me take a shot because I had waited so long, he finally relented. I tracked the bird to the best of my then non-existent experience and pulled the trigger. Far above us we saw the dove lurch, followed by a small puff of what were no doubt feathers, and then it plummeted to the ground, the victim of an overachieving bb or two that managed to find its mark.
I was a natural born killer.
Depending upon the season, we hunted pheasants, dove, quail, and duck. When it wasn’t hunting season, we fished. On summer nights we walked the edges of the vernal pools that used to dot the parts of San Diego that are now suburbs, gigging frogs for their legs. They really do taste like chicken, as did the rabbits we hunted as they hopped up to those same pools to drink at dusk.
We did this, not for the sport — although there was an element of that — but because it was a way to supplement what we ate.
And we did this for years, raising and breeding hunting dogs, spending hours in the garage at night reloading our own shotgun shells and hand painting decoys.
We felt safe in the field because the NRA had taught us how to be safe; to know where everyone else was when you pulled the trigger, to keep your weapon pointed at the ground, to open the breech and extract the shells if you weren’t hunting, to keep you finger off of the trigger unless you had reason to pull it.
As I grew older I began to notice a different breed of hunter; men who showed up with multiple shotguns as if they were golf clubs needed for specific shots. While most of us wore jeans, t-shirts and hunting vests, these newcomers dressed like they were going on safari, wearing bush hats, shooting jackets (in the 100 degree heat), and cargo pants with more pockets than there existed implements to fill them. You would see them walking the fields; shotgun draped over one arm, can of beer in the other hand. We learned to stay away from them.
For these men hunting was a manhood thing, a way to get in touch with their alpha male, a way to prove they weren’t soft city dwellers and what better way to do that than to get together with some buddies and shoot some guns at whatever moved.
It was no coincidence that, at this same time (this being early seventies), the NRA changed their focus from hunting programs to promoting gun ownership and defending the 2nd Amendment from imaginary enemies.
Each trip afield meant running into more men concerned with the idea of shooting but unburdened with any concept of the etiquette of hunting. For an adult, all you needed was the cash to purchase a gun and a hunting license and you were good to go forth and kill.
The last time my father, my brother, and I hunted together was pheasant hunting in Imperial Valley. We walked the short-grown alfalfa fields hoping to kick up a pheasant, or watched to see our German Shorthaired Pointer, Candy, go on point. When she did we would instruct her to chase the bird until it flew, at which time it was considered “fair game” to shoot it. Rule of thumb: you do not shoot a bird not in flight. Not cool.
Having worked the field, we returned to our truck to get water. By our truck were several other cars and trucks with hunters standing around talking and smoking and looking for shade in the ninety-degree heat. While we sat on the truck’s tailgate, Candy — ever the worker — kept sniffing around and doing what came naturally to her. Somewhere, possibly by one of the canals that separate many of the fields, she kicked up a pheasant and gave chase, the pheasant running several feet in front of her, refusing to fly. A large man, decked out in a bush hat, cargo pants, and vest with no shirt — his white skin blotchy and red in the heat — immediately swung his shotgun up despite standing amongst of hunters in all directions and fired off two quick shots at the running bird. Poor shot that he was, he missed the bird but sent up two large explosions of dirt no more than two feet in front of Candy’s nose as she skidded to a stop.
It was deathly quiet afterwards as everyone looked at him, stunned by what he had done.
My father quickly walked over to him, cursing all the way, grabbed the shotgun out of his hands by grabbing it by the barrel — no doubt burning his hands — and broke it open ejecting the spent shells. He then threw it end over end into the field. As my father berated him, using words I wasn’t well acquainted with at the time with but have learned to love since then, the hunter (known in family lore now as “The Great White Hunter”). His friends looked away and shuffled their feet, no one daring to come to his defense. I have no doubt, had the man shot and killed Candy, my father would have shot him if he’d had a loaded shotgun in his hand.
Having verbally unloaded on the man who didn’t dare to look upset that his gun was laying in the field somewhere, my dad said, “Get in the car boys. We’re going home.”
I don’t remember if he said another word during the two-hour drive back to San Diego.
When we got home, we released Candy to the yard while my dad went into the garage and cleaned the pheasants we had shot. Afterward he cleaned the shotguns before sticking them in his bedroom closet without a word.
He never took us hunting again, and we never asked to go.
Years later, when I was working as a roofer, I became friends with a co-worker who loved to hunt and we made plans to go down to the valley for the start of dove season on Labor Day weekend. I stopped by my parents house to pick up the 20-gauge shotgun that my dad bought for me when I turned fifteen; a beautiful pistol-gripped Savage with engraved silver-plating. It wasn’t there and neither were any of our guns, including the .410 that I used to shoot my first dove. My mother explained that my father said they were of no use to him anymore so he sold them. The new breed of hunter, the events of that day, made him lose his passion for hunting and he turned to the solitary and more ruminative sport of lake fishing by himself.
I used to hunt and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the hell out of it. But I wouldn’t consider attempting it now, in an age where gun-owners lump AR-15′s in with sporting guns. Where a lousy shooter can disguise his inability to shoot with an extended clip that allows him to keep shooting until he finally hits something, anything. Where hunters feel the need for silencers for God knows what reason.
The NRA has killed off the sportsman with their neglect and replaced him with the gun nut who spends more money on more guns, not out of a desire to feed his family, but to stave off a mythical jack-booted government bogeyman coming to take away those guns. This paranoid vision of America that the NRA sells is why we have the gun violence that we have today, because no sensible gun legislation can be passed because of what the father of one of Elliott Rodger’s victims described as “craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA.”
I’m not the NRA poster child that I was at age 8 anymore. I want nothing to do with those people.
I may be a natural born killer, but I’ll be damned if I’ll be an accomplice to murder.
[Vintage photo of boy with an air gun on Shutterstock]