Making memories that will never fade

Published 9:46 pm Saturday, September 5, 2015

A boy’s first gun is a powerful thing. It burns memories that never fade.

My first was a bolt-action .22 rifle that my father handed down to me. I couldn’t have been more than 8.

Its dented, wooden stock and slightly rusted bolt lever are part of my childhood. I first learned to use it hunting squirrels on my grandparent’s farm. Though I was never a sharp shooter, that .22 rifle dropped many a squirrel from their perches.

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I can still smell the fall leaves, hear them crunching under my feet as we walked along the creek bank with heads tilted toward the sky. We’d sometimes ride horses down to the creek and leave them tied to a tree while we hunted. I can still picture the horses tied there.

The soft crack of the rifle firing was both alarming and intoxicating. The smell of gunpowder, even the minuscule amount in a .22 round, was addictive.

Though I have forgotten much through the years (I can’t remember what I did last week), those memories remain.

When the leaves begin to tumble to the ground, and fall beats back summer’s oppressive heat, I always think of squirrels and that .22.

I remember the smell of a hunting vest filled with a day’s limit. I remember sitting with my back against an oak, silently as a boy can, watching and waiting.

I remember taking a shot — and missing — and watching my father hit what I hadn’t. Be patient, there will be others he’d say.

I remember my disgust at having to clean those squirrels, their tiny bodies splayed out like lab rats. I don’t believe I ever actually ate any of them, and still haven’t to this day. My mother’s description of “tree rats” has stuck with me through the years.

As I grew older, that rifle was relegated to the gun rack and rarely used. I moved on to bigger guns and bigger targets. At some point, it ended up behind the seat of my father’s farm truck, rusting away and neglected. He kept it handy to ward off buzzards when a new calf hit the ground.

But on a recent visit back to the farm I reclaimed what was once mine. The barrel is rust-colored, the bolt stiff, but it still shoots fine.

I brought the rifle home knowing I would some day pass it down to my oldest son. It seems that time is here. He’s two years into a BB gun and has shown enough responsibility that I’m confident he can handle it. The patch of woods around our home is small, but it’s full of squirrels just waiting for the shaky aim of a 9-year-old.

But part of me doesn’t want to turn lose of something that has meant so much to me.  I know it will one day occupy a special place in his childhood memories, but I’m not ready to let go of mine. Though I am far from an old man, the passing down of a gun is a stepping stone toward growing old. There will certainly be others — buying a teen’s first car (I have five children, there’s no way they’re all getting a car), paying for college, paying for weddings (I have three daughters), burying parents. The list goes on and on, and this one seems like the first small step on a slippery slope.

But I’m reminded of those same words that followed a missed shot years ago — be patient, there will be others.

Luke Horton is the publisher of The Daily Leader.