By Gisele Peterson
The more I pleaded with my father to take me gopher hunting, the more exasperated he became with my persistent nagging and me. My father just didn’t understand the importance I placed on the activity; because he wouldn’t take me, I was losing status with my peers. I felt excluded and alone; believing I was the only child in my 4th grade North Dakota classroom that had been deprived of this challenging experience. The other kids bragged every Monday about how many gophers they shot and about the difficulty of the shots. I just stood beside them listening, unable share in their enthusiasm; envying them this exciting adventure from which I was excluded because my father refused to take me gopher hunting.
Hunting gophers in the spring in North Dakota was a rite of passage in my youth over 30 years ago. Gophers could overrun newly planted fields eating the seeds and building tunnels in the earth, which disrupted the roots of the young plants. Fathers (mothers generally didn’t participate in this activity) would take their children out to shoot these pests, not only to reduce the gopher population but also to spend some quality time with their offspring. Even though the term “quality time” did not exist during my childhood, the experience did. Both of my parents spent time with my sister and me.
My father’s refusal wasn’t a method of punishment or neglect, but because he generally disliked hunting. Most men in our little community and most of my male relatives hunted for sport, while my father’s rejected this activity. At gatherings I listened intently to the stories about the buck that got away, or more rarely, the successful hunt. The triumphant hunter often shared some of the bounty and we would eat venison for several weeks. Which, truth be told, venison was not my favorite meat as a child. I would only tolerate the gamy flavor because while eating I imagined myself being the hunter, sneaking through the woods and shooting that buck on my first shot that others had missed – my skill obviously better than everyone else I knew.
My shooting skills were pretty good for a kid. Practicing with my BB gun was a daily ritual, which I enthusiastically embedded into my routine. I could hit the bulls-eye the majority of the time from a fair distance away. I would drag my father to watch my practice sessions, thinking I was being sly in my persuasive measures. The plan was to impress him with my shooting skills; to make him think I was wasting my great skill shooting only at a stationary target. He would stand patiently and watch for a time, compliment me and leave, with me feeling that he missed the subtle hint that he should take me gopher hunting. But in reality he understood my obvious ploys and chose to ignore them, hoping I would outgrow this phase and he wouldn’t have to take me.
My begging, pleading, and of course whining, finally did wear him down and he reluctantly agreed to take me out on Saturday morning. I spent Friday evening practicing shooting, checking my gun out, making sure I had a large supply of BB’s to handle the huge number of gophers I planned on shooting. It took a long time to fall asleep, and then dreams of my prowess as a great hunter kept my adrenaline pumping even in my sleep. I rose early and shoveled the pancakes in my mouth as quickly as possible eager to be on the way. My father took his time eating and drinking his coffee while he chatted with my mother, my impatience clearly written on my posture. Finally he finished; there was to be no more delay – I was actually going gopher hunting!
I almost ran to the pickup where my father properly stowed both my gun and his rifle. The ride out to the fields over dusty gravel roads in a noisy pickup with poorly working shocks was filled with human silence. I was self absorbed in my imagination, trying to guess how many gophers I would shoot, trying to analyze how much more difficult it would be to hit a moving target, knowing it was going to be a glorious day filled with conquest. I felt the pickup slowing and pulling over to the side of the road and I looked out the passenger side window. The sky was a vivid blue with only a few white fluffy clouds dotting its surface. Below the sky was the dark earth recently plowed with the furrowed lines of turned soil giving the gophers a stimulating playground to leap and scamper over. The field was covered in golden fluffy gophers romping, playing or just going about normal gopher activities. I could hardly believe I was here and had hundreds of targets to choose from.
My father retrieved our guns, handed me mine, and walked over to a small incline in the road which afforded a better view of the field. I followed him to the rise and scanned the field trying to choose my first trophy. I decided to select the big guy sitting up on his haunches, his side turned to me; he appeared to be the obvious target amid the throng of moving fur. My plan was to first pick off this easy one, and then I would move onto the more difficult moving targets. I planted my feet in the proper position. The coolness of the metal barrel seeped into the palm of my left hand as I raised my gun. Pressing the butt securely against my right shoulder, I cocked my head to see the target through the sight. It was better than I could have imagined; he was right in my sight, holding perfectly still just for me. I gently pulled the trigger, heard the shot, and saw the gopher fall.
It was not a clean shot. He squealed this high-pitched sound that made the hair on my arms stand up. He writhed on ground, gyrating on his back, wiggling side to side, his little legs pumping — all the while emitting this sound I had never heard before and never wanted to hear again. My mouth hung open, tears formed in my eyes. I was transfixed watching this torment that I caused. From the corner of my eye I saw my father raise his rifle, take aim and shoot. The bullet exploded into the gopher, mercifully ending the squeals and the thrashing. But leaving nothing but scraps of still flesh and fur where once a bright eyed rodent had sat. The scent of discharged gunpowder burned my eyes and tears freely rolled down my cheeks; I couldn’t believe I caused this situation. I was the reason we were standing there and I had caused that poor gopher’s death.
I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder and I turned to look up at him; I could barely see him through my tear filled eyes and when blinking failed to clear them, the back of my hand was employed. He waited patiently for me to meet his blue eyes and then tenderly said “Are you ready to go home now?” My mouth moved to answer, but no sound would come out, so I shook my head in the affirmative. He reached over and took my gun from my tense and sweaty hand, then gently turned me toward the pickup and patted me on my shoulder as encouragement to walk over and climb in.
I felt like I was in a bad dream, a nightmare of my own making as I sleepwalked to the vehicle. As I was seating myself in the pickup, I heard my father from the driver’s side mumble “Thank you God”. And I understood that even though the day had turned out nothing like I had imagined that my father and I now shared a special bond. He would never have to take me hunting again.
- Posted in: Mother's Wisdom