Every man learns the trade of fatherhood through a series of on-the-job-training blunders and successes, and he has few resources to draw on beyond his memory of how his own father raised him. Given the difficulty of the task and the vagaries of chance and circumstance in life, it is no wonder that some men do exceptionally well in the father business and some are abject failures. Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes.
– Clement Seagrave
Fathers and sons
It was the most amazing feat of rifle shooting I ever witnessed.
Eleven years of age, sitting in a southern Ohio woods on an October morning, shivering with cold in the hazy light of dawn, I first heard two squirrels doing their mating chase and then saw them running acrobatic laps around the bole of a hickory tree, about thirty yards away, four feet above the ground, sending bits of bark flying on each gravity defying circuit of the rough trunk. My father had also seen them and brought his .22 rifle to his shoulder when the squirrels were on the opposite side of the tree where they could not see his movement.
On their next lap he shot the trailing squirrel on the run, through the head, stone dead, and it dropped to the base of the tree. Less than three seconds later, the lead squirrel came around the tree again, also running at full speed and unaware that her pursuer had been dispatched. My father shot that one, too, through the head, and it dropped on top of the first squirrel lying below.
Two shots. Open sights. Thirty yards. At speeding targets the size of golf balls. Using an old Remington 550 semi-automatic, which I learned many years later was not the most accurate rifle of its era.
Two thoughts filled my head: first – my father was the greatest rifle shooter in the world; second – I would grow up and someday assume his place as the greatest rifle shooter in the world. The first of those childhood fantasies may have been true. The second was never a remote possibility; I became a mediocre shot with a rifle at best.
Since that time I have seen hunting companions make some impressive shots on running deer and antelope on Western prairies with a .243 Winchester sporting rifle, assassinations of prairie dogs at 400 yards distance with a varmint rifle in .204 Ruger caliber, and even a crow brought down on the wing with a bullet from a .22 single-shot rifle. Extraordinary shooting, but I felt there was as much luck as skill involved in those shots, and I could, perhaps with a few misses along the way, match them. I have never thought for a moment I could duplicate the back-to-back shots my father made on those squirrels.
If a final boost was needed to lift my father onto the lofty pedestal of hero worship that morning of squirrel hunting was it. All fathers are heroes to their sons. At least until we go through that painful time in our lives when we discover that they are men, not demigods, and they have feet of clay, just like us. Then we feel somehow betrayed by our naïveté and the blindness of our worship, and it may be many years before we can rebuild a loving relationship, this time a friendship between grown men rather than the intrinsic and instinctive bond between father and son.
During that most impressionable period of our boyhood years, say between the ages of six and fourteen, we create what proves to be an unsteady foundation for that later relationship because there is often much unrealistic expectation, both from the child-man-son toward his father and from the man-child-father toward his son. Every man learns the trade of fatherhood through a series of on-the-job-training blunders and successes, and he has few resources to draw on beyond his memory of how his own father raised him. Given the difficulty of the task and the vagaries of chance and circumstance in life, it is no wonder that some men do exceptionally well in the father business and some are abject failures. Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes.
A close friend of mine once confided that he felt his father “pretty much lost interest” in him during his early teenage years when it became apparent he would not become a star baseball player or a world class mechanical engineer. The irony is that he did become a world class mechanical engineer and industrial design innovator. But he, like most of us, will live out his life with a shadowed corner of his psyche reminding him that he does not, nor will he ever, live up to his father’s expectations.
Frustrated with my obsession with project details and quality and deadlines, my wife once pleaded with me, “Why don’t you just quit for the night and start again tomorrow?” to which I blurted out, “Because Dad wouldn’t like it!” A shadowed corner of my own psyche. Perhaps we all live in that shadow.
My father’s ghostly monitoring of my life has lightened somewhat over the years as my appreciation of him has grown. I look at the few photographs taken of him in his youth, especially those of his time in the Army in World War II, pictures of a skinny nineteen-year-old in the midst of another 200 skinny, shiny-faced boys in poorly fitting uniforms, smiling and eager to do their part in a world at war, blissfully unaware of the horrors they would meet.
I have become more understanding of what I once perceived as his shortcomings and more admiring of his strengths and accomplishments. A child of the Great Depression who was drafted while still in high school, he fought and survived D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, the hedgerow war across France, the Battle of the Bulge, the assault of Germany’s Siegfried Line, and the final months of the infantryman’s war until Germany’s surrender.
He came home to finish his education, marry, raise a family, hold down a weekday job and do contract work of his own on weekends for more than thirty years until a series of heart ailments and surgeries ended his working days. He was surely one of those men the journalist Tom Brokaw calls “The Greatest Generation.” Would I have done as well? I wonder.
I respect the character and the fortitude of the men and women of the Greatest Generation, but I know from first-hand experience that most folks of that generation carried a lot of baggage that was not so great: blatant racial and national prejudice, gender prejudice, intolerance of people and ideas outside the conventional, disdain for knowledge beyond their realm, unquestioning acceptance of the status quo. Late in his life and midway through mine, we found some common ground and could chain the guard dogs of our biases and passions. Through it all we could share hunting.
A faded black-and-white photograph of my father hangs in my “clubhouse,” the room where all my outdoor gear and memories are stored away. Clad in blotchy camouflage jacket and pants, face streaked with lines of camo paint, he stands beside a whitetail buck hanging from the rafters of my garage in a small town in northeast Nebraska – the first deer he took with a bow – bursting with pride but too reserved to show it, except for the light beaming from his eyes.
He was fifty-two, more than ten years younger than I am now. I remember feeling that Nebraska deer was a gift of sorts from me to him, a payback for all he had done to make me the man I became. And he did a lot.
The photograph was packed away in a box somewhere for years and years. When he died two years ago it came to light while going through his things. On my wall near his photo hangs his old Herter’s brand compound bow. In my gun safe is his Marlin 39 lever-action .22, a rifle he had wanted all his life and that my two brothers and I gave him as a Christmas present when he was forty-five. He shot that rifle even better than he did the Remington 550 that he used to make the two most incredible shots in the history of squirrel hunting. I could never come close to matching his rifle shooting skill, but I was probably a better wing shooter; that was a bit of an annoyance for him, I think, so we were even.
At the end of our years together, his pedestal of honor was not so tall that we could not see eye-to-eye, but he was still up there.
Damn, I was lucky to have a father like that.