Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On guns and stuff . . .

The recent hullabaloo about guns on college campuses sent me reeling back to my high school days. I know, I know, it was a different time then. The 1960s and 1970s had some dramatic and traumatic events in our nation that rocked the very roots of our existence and, perhaps, changed the way the world looks at America. Civil rights, women's issues and space exploration were the hallmarks of that era and certainly paved the way for what we have become in the 21st century.

It was also a time when guns and rifles were common place, especially in South Texas. It was not unusual to see a gun rack on the back of a pickup truck. Those gun racks would have the obligatory .22 caliber rifle, a good shot gun and at the very least a small caliber rifle good enough to fire in the brush country and to hit a buck several hundred yards away.

My friend, Louie, had a gun rack in the light blue pick up Chevy truck that belong to his aunt Rosabelle. On selected week days, he would drive it to our high school, guns on display on the gun rack and all. Soon after school was let out and we were through with baseball or band practice, we would all pile into his truck - some of us in the bed - armed to the teeth with rifles, guns and knives. We were going to hunt rabbits, javelina or rattle snakes. We were going to hunt until the sun went down and the next day, at the very least, we would have rabbit stew or rabbit tacos to eat.

But, that is not the point. The point is that guns, especially in South Texas, were accepted. People knew how to treat guns and rifles. Fathers would make sure that children, especially boys, knew how to behave in front of these weapons (and they are weapons). In a rural community, it was not unusual to go out to some one's ranch or lease and have the young boys target practice with a small handgun, a 30-30 rifle and a shotgun.

My gun experience started when my father bought me a B-B gun for my birthday when I was six or seven. He then showed me how to "load" it, aim it and how to stand, crouch, kneel or lay down when I shot. He commanded me to go kill some birds. Dutifully, I went out into my backyard and started looking for the flying critters. I felt like Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. "I'm going to get me a birdy, I'm going to get me a birdy, I'm going to get me a birdy . . . .," and so on. I would sneak around a tree, look up into its branches, listen for the chirps and then. . . .

Well, the first time I did this, I was an utter failure. The great little Mexicano hunter came back empty-handed. I couldn't shoot the birds. They were so, well, pretty, and so in peace with nature that it didn't make sense to shoot them. And, I had already been told we couldn't eat "llos pajaros del pueblo (the birds in the city)." I was assured that when I grew up I would be taught how to use a shotgun and we would hunt for dove and quail and maybe duck. Those birds, I was told, we could eat. But, right now, I didn't want to shoot a bird I couldn't eat. It didn't make sense. But, wait, weren't chickens birds? It was too confusing for youngster.

I walked slowly up the porch. My father was in the living room drinking a beer and watching TV. "¿Que matatas, Manuelito (What did you shoot or kill, Manuelito?)" he asked. I was afraid to look him in the eyes. I was a failure. Out of respect, like many Mexicano children do, I looked down at the floor and was able to mutter very slightly, "Nada, 'apa (Nothing dad)." He let out and roaring laugh, uttered a couple of choice Spanish cuss words and said he would have to take me to my Tío (Uncle) Roberto to help me become a hunter of birds.

Within the next week, we visited Tío Roberto and his wife Carlota on the southern outskirts of town. I was told to pack my B-B gun. Tío Roberto must have been aware of my failures as a hunter-to-be 'cause he was waiting anxioulsy. After eating ice cream on the porch, he summoned me to the backyard. The yard was green and luscious with what seemed an unending sea of mesquite, huisache, oaks and elms. They were lush with green leaves on their branches. The huisache, in particular, was beautiful with a bright yellow bloom. I could hear the birds chirping all over, but I couldn't see them. My Tío Roberto said he would point them out to me. He gave me one more tip on how to aim. "Look at the bird, point the rifle at it and then look through the sight until the bird disappears," he told me in Spanish. "Then, steady yourself and shoot. Don't jerk your rifle, just shoot. And don't get nervous. A nervous hunter is useless. ¿Estas listo (Are you ready)?"

I nodded and yes and we were off on our adventure. We walked slowly, again like Elmer Fudd in the Bugs Bunny Cartoon. Finally, my uncle pointed to a branch on one of the oak trees. There we saw a beautiful blue jay, chirping along without a care in the world. How could the little bird have known a hunter had him in his aim? "You see him?" my uncle asked. "Quiet," he said. I just nodded, aimed and shot. In an instant, the bird was falling to ground and, with a slight thud, dead. My uncle was in a celebratory mood. "Eso, bien hecho, bien hecho mi hijo (That's it, well done my son)." I had completed a rite of passage, I suppose. My uncle walked away and demanded I shoot more birds. He told me not to go to the porch until I had a handful. I dutifully did that. I shot bird, after bird, after bird, after bird. I was good. When I went back to the porch, a large class of fresh squeezed lemonade was waiting for me. The smiles Tío Roberto, his wife Carlota and my mom were evident as my father arrived from a road trip. "How did he do?" he asked in Spanish. "Muy bien, muy bien. Ya esta listo (Very well, very well. He's ready)," my uncle said. "Ready?" I wondered. "Ready for what?" Well, for my continuous journey into the world of guns. Soon I would be handling .22s and 30-30s and next fall I tried a small .410 gauge shot gun. I truly had entered the world of the hunter. I would definitely know my way around guns and rifles and I would pass that knowledge on to my sons. My sons were firing guns by the age they were 10. When they turned 16, each of them received a deer rifle. My daughter also was taught how too shoot, but never really caught on to it. She just loved to go to the outdoors and look at the pretty animals. She doesn't like shooting birds (ha) of any kind. She also doesn't like shooting javelinas, although the young ones make the best tamales. She didn't mind if we shot wild pigs. They're nasty. Mainly, however, she loved the outdoors and often accompanies her brothers on hunting trips.

And, then I realized. The outdoors was the true link to my hunting legacy. It put us in touch with nature and gave us an appreciation of the cycle of life. It showed us how we can come together and mingle with nature (a true eat or be eaten world) and see how we can survive. I have no doubt my sons and I could survive in the wild as long as we had a rifle, some ammo and a knife or two.....

Which brings us to gun control. Recently, the Texas legislature defeated a law backed by Gov. Rick Perry that would have allowed college students to carry guns on campus. My, how things have changed. Half a century ago, my friends and I routinely had guns and rifles on our vehicles in the school parking lot for us to go hunting after school let out. We couldn't do that today.

When I attended college at Texas A&I in Kingsville, I always had a rifle in my truck and there were scores of pickup trucks with gun racks and rifles fully visible. It was a different world. For the most part, no one stole the guns. Imagine what would happen today?

I still go hunting, when I can. Although I have not shot a deer since I downed a 10-point buck in Rancho Soliz near Hebbronville on Dec. 28, 2006. I shot him with a 30-30, sans scope. As I saw the buck making his way down the sandero and through the well-worn animal trail toward my deer blind, I couldn't help but think back to Tío Roberto and his lesson, and also to the time my dad, a World War II veteran and a certified "expert" in the Army, was disappointed and laughed at me. I focused on the buck (he was chasing a doe), picked a spot on the brush country where I could get a clear shot, aimed the rifle and waited til he disappeared on the sight and - bang! He went down.

Somewhere, my dad was smiling. I took him to the shed by the main ranch house and my sons helped me skin it. My step dad, Amando, was so proud. "I do believe that's the biggest buck we've taken out of this ranch in some time, " he said. He slapped me on my back and said those now familiar words that I have used with my sons, "Bien hecho, bien hecho."

We mounted the buck. Every time I look at it I can't help but feel sad. Oh, but don't tell any one....

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