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.