My Father’s Guns

Mj 618_348_my fathers guns
Courtesy David Vann

My father gave me my first gun at age seven. It was a Sheridan Blue Streak pellet rifle, powerful enough to kill squirrels if I hit them in the right spot. The giving of the gun was a ritual, my father’s pride and pleasure as he showed me how to pump the rifle, how to pull back the bolt. He even read a poem from Sturm, Ruger & Co. about a father and son – used it to teach me safety. Never point a gun at anyone, never leave a gun loaded but always assume a gun is loaded, always keep the barrel pointed down.

This was very soon after he and my mother had divorced, and we had only the weekends now. Roaming his 90-acre ranch near Lakeport, California, one of those weekends, I didn’t realize the rifle was pumped and loaded, and it fired as I walked. Luckily the barrel was pointed at the ground. But my father turned around, the disappointment clear on his face, and my shame was nearly unbearable.

The next year, when I was eight, he gave me a 20-gauge shotgun, for hunting dove and quail. That gun felt inevitable, as if it were a given that couldn’t be turned away from. As if we were put here to hunt and kill and the only true form of a day was to head off with a gun and a dog, hike into the hills for 10 or 12 hours, and return with meat and stories. That shotgun became an extension of my body, carried everywhere, the solid heft of it, cold metal, a sense of purpose and belonging. I gazed at it in the evenings, daydreamed of it during the week at school, looked forward to when I’d head out again.

When I was nine my father gave me a .30-30 Winchester lever-action carbine, the rifle used in all the westerns, and he actually went down on one knee when he presented it to me, holding it in both hands, as if it were a ceremonial sword. “This is the rifle I learned on,” he said. “This is what we pass down through the family. The rifle I hunted with when I was a boy, the rifle I shot my first buck with, the rifle you’ll shoot your first buck with. It’s a good gun, an honest gun, with only a peep sight, no scope. You won’t be shooting long range, and you’ll need to hit the buck behind the shoulder.”

He moved back to Alaska then, where I had been born and spent my early childhood, and when I visited, a tourist now, we flew into a remote lake with a floatplane, camped on a glacier, and slept with our rifles loaded, a shell in the chamber, beside our sleeping bags. “If a bear comes,” he told me, “the bullet from a .30-30 will only bounce off his skull or bury in his chest and not do anything. You’ll have to hit him in the eye or in the mouth if he roars.” There was no moon. We were the only humans for a couple hundred miles, and I lay awake imagining the bear attacking my father in the middle of the night while I tried to sight in on an eye in the darkness. This felt like the nature of our relationship: I saw him only during vacations now, and we were supposed to cram half a year into a week. It seemed like an impossible task.

I shot my first buck at 11. A rainy weekend in September 1978, on the White Ranch, my family’s 640-acre hunting spread in Northern California. A two-hour drive away from civilization, it was the entire side of a mountain, with high ridges, enormous glades, pine groves and springs, ponds and switchbacks, an old burned area, and even a “bear wallow.” Our entire male family history was stored in that place. As our Jeep pickups crawled along the fire roads, my father and uncle and grandfather would tell me the stories of past hunts. It was a place of triumph and shame, a place where all who had come before were remembered.

My father flew down from Alaska every fall for this hunt. He was in his late 30s then, a dentist like his father, in years of despair: grim-mouthed, hair receding, thin, impatient. Everything in his life had somehow gone wrong, and his depression was something I had no way of understanding at my age. But he hadn’t always been like this. He’d hunted here from when he was a boy, and he was known then for being lighthearted, a joker. Whenever he came back here, he could see each year recorded in the place, wonder who he had become.

At 11, I could think only of who I would become. Shooting my first buck was an initiation. California law said I wasn’t allowed to kill one until I was 12, but family law said I was ready now.

I imagined sneaking up through pine trees or brush to make my first kill, but the weekend was rainy, so we hunted directly from the pickup. It felt unfair, even at 11. The deer would be standing under the trees in the rain, flushed out from the brush. I stood in the back of the pickup with my father, holding on for the ruts and bumps. And when I saw the buck, hidden mostly by a stand of half a dozen thin trunks, I immediately felt pounding at my temples. “Buck fever,” we called it. Heart going like a hammer, no breath. The moment of killing something large, another mammal, something that can feel individual – that moment is not like any other. You could call it many things – brutal, wrong, irresistible, natural, unnatural – but what it felt like to me was straight out of Faulkner, the rush of blood and belonging, of love for my father. This was the largest moment of my life so far, the moment of being tested.

I saw two points on one side of the buck’s horns, making it legal to shoot. I levered a shell in the chamber and raised my rifle, but my father put his hand on my shoulder.

“You have time,” he told me. “Rest an elbow.”

So I kneeled down in the bed, rested my left elbow on the side of the pickup, much more stable, and looked through the peep sight, lined it up with the deer’s neck. I couldn’t shoot the deer behind the shoulder because its body was hidden by the trees. I had only the neck, long and slim. And the sight was wavering back and forth.

I exhaled and slowly squeezed. The rifle fired, and the neck and head whipped down. I didn’t even notice the hard kick or the explosion. I could smell sulfur, and I was leaping over the side of the pickup and running toward the buck. My father let out a whoop that was only for killing bucks, and it was for me this time, and then my uncle did it, and my grandfather, and I was yelping myself as I ran over ferns and fallen wood and rock. I charged through the stand and then I saw it.

Its eyes were still open, large brown eyes. A hole in its neck, red blood against soft white and brown hide. I wanted to be excited still, I wanted to feel proud, I wanted to belong, but seeing the deer lying there dead before me in the ferns seemed only terribly sad. This was the other side of Faulkner, conscience against the pull of blood. My father was there the next moment, his arm around me, praising me, and so I had to hide what I felt, and I told the tale of how I had aimed for the neck, beginning the story, the first of what would become dozens of tellings. And I slit the deer with my Buck knife, a gift from my father, slit the length of its stomach, but not deep, not puncturing innards. It seemed a monstrous task. I had both hands up to my elbows in the blood and entrails, not the overpowering foul bile of a deer that’s been gut shot but foul nonetheless, ripping out the heart and liver that I would have to eat to finish the kill, though luckily they could be fried up with a few onions first, not eaten raw. I pulled out everything and scraped out blood, cut off testicles, then my father helped me drag it to the truck. He was grinning, impossibly happy and proud, all his despair gone, all his impatience. This was his moment even more than mine.

The next day, in the lower glades – wide expanses of dry yellow grass on an open hillside, fringed by sugar pines – I saw another buck. It was in short brush off to the side, a three-pointer this time, bigger. I aimed for the neck again but hit it in the spine, in the middle of its back. It fell down instantly. Its head was still up, looking around at us, but it couldn’t move the rest of its body. So my father told me to walk up from behind and finish it off execution-style, one shot to the head from five feet away.

I remember that scene clearly in all its detail. The big buck and its beautiful horns, its gray-brown hide, the late-afternoon light casting long shadows. After all the rain, the air was clear and cool, distances compressed, even in close, as if through a viewfinder. I remember staring at the back of his head, the gray hide between his antlers, the individual hairs, white-tipped.

“Be careful not to hit the horns,” my father told me.

I walked up very close behind that deer, leaned forward with my rifle raised, the barrel only a few feet from the back of his head, and he was waiting for it, terrified but unable to move. I could smell him. He’d turn his head around far enough to see me with a big brown eye, then turn away again to look at my father. I sighted in and pulled the trigger.

The next year I began missing deer, closing my eyes when I shot. We were on an outcropping of rocks over the big burn, an area consumed by fire years before, with only shorter growth now. A buck leaped out from a draw and bounded across the hillside opposite us. My father hunted with a .300 magnum, a gun he’d bought for bears in Alaska. It was an outrageous caliber, sounded like artillery, would tear the entire shoulder off a deer.

My dad was an excellent shot, but this deer was far away and moving fast and erratically, dodging bushes and rocks. I was firing too, but only pointing the gun in the general direction, closing my eyes, and pulling the trigger. I opened my eyes in time to see one of my bullets lift a puff of dirt about 50 feet from the buck, and my father saw this too. He paused, looked over at me, then fired again.

This was the last time we hunted, and we never talked about what happened.

I turned 13 that fall, after the hunt, and I saw very little of my father. At Christmas he was having troubles I didn’t understand, was crying himself to sleep at night. He wrote a strange letter to me about regret and the worthlessness of making money. At the beginning of March he asked if I would come live with him in Fairbanks for the next school year, eighth grade. I wanted to spend time with him, but I was afraid of his despair. I was afraid, also, of the kids I knew in Alaska, who were already doing drugs at 13. I wanted badly to say yes, but I could feel a terrible momentum to what my life would become in Alaska. So I said no.

Two weeks later my father called my stepmother in California, where she’d moved after their divorce. He was alone in Fairbanks in his new house, with no furniture, the ides of March, cold, sitting at a folding card table in the kitchen at the end of a day. He had broken up this second marriage the same way he had the first, by cheating with other women. And now my stepmother was moving on. She’d found another man and was thinking of marrying him. My father had other problems I would learn about later, including the IRS going after him for tax dodges in South American countries, failed investments in gold and a hardware store, unbearable sinus headaches that painkillers couldn’t reach, and he told my stepmother, “I love you, but I’m not going to live without you.”

She was at work in an office at the time and couldn’t hear well. She had to duck behind the door with the phone and ask him to repeat what he had said. So he had to say again, “I love you, but I’m not going to live without you.” Then he put his .44 magnum handgun to his head, a caliber bought, like the .300 magnum, for grizzlies, capable of bringing a bear down at close range, and he pulled the trigger. She heard the dripping sounds as pieces of his head came off the ceiling and landed on the card table.

After my father’s suicide i inherited all of his guns. Everything except the pistol. My uncle wanted to get rid of that, sold it right away. But I was given my father’s .300 magnum rifle, and though I had stopped hunting, I began using that rifle.

I learned to break it down into several parts that I could fit into my jacket. Late at night, when my mother and sister were sleeping, I rode my bike through our suburban neighborhood into the hills. I’d ditch the bike, find a spot hidden in trees, and reassemble the rifle. I sat in the braced sitting position, elbows on my knees, that my father had taught me, calmed my breath, and eased slowly back on the trigger. The recoil was so powerful it literally knocked me flat. But nothing was more beautiful to me than the blue-white explosion of a streetlight. The sound of it – the pop that was almost a roar, then silence, then glass rain – came only after each fragment and shard had sailed off or twisted, glittering in the air like mist.

I also sighted in on people. A man with the curtains open in his living room, the crosshairs on his chest, a shell in the chamber, the scope powerful enough that I could see him swirl the drink in his hand. I had done this with my father. When he spotted poachers – hunters trespassing on our land – he would have me look at them through the scope.

I was a straight-A student, was in student government, sports, band, but I came to live a double life for the year after his suicide. No one would have guessed I was sighting in on neighbors and shooting out streetlights.

I don’t think I’ll ever entirely understand that year. I told everyone my father died of cancer. I didn’t have a real conversation with anyone about it. Instead, I shot things. A year of the most basic brutality, a year I’m lucky to have escaped from without hurting anyone.

I was an insomniac – and would be for the next 15 years – and as I lay wide awake in bed every night, I couldn’t help thinking over and over about the .44 magnum my father had used to kill himself. I had fired it once, at maybe 11 or 12 years old, and though I had used both hands, it flew back so hard it nearly hit me in the face. But the scariest part was that it fired with only the slightest pressure on the trigger. It was difficult to put your finger on the trigger and not have it fire. So what I kept wondering was whether my father had really intended to kill himself. What if he was just thinking about it, just testing it, or what if he had one moment of deciding but it was only a brief moment and, with the hair trigger, that was enough. I wanted to hold that pistol in my own hands, feel the possibility, feel the heft of it and know what it felt like pressed against my head.

I finally sold my father’s guns when I was in graduate school. I needed the money, but I also just didn’t want them in my life anymore. What I really wanted was for them to have never existed. But once I sold them, I was surprised by the terrible feeling I had, like I had sold off a part of my father. I had so little of him left.

Twenty-nine years after my father’s suicide, the feelings I have toward him haven’t diminished, haven’t faded over time, but I have nothing to attach them to. If I could hold his .300 magnum now, would he come back to me – some closer memory, some echo of hiking with him through live oak and manzanita, watching him raise that rifle high over his head as we pushed through the brush? If I remember that rifle, really focus on it, I can remember the sunlight on my father’s light-brown curly hair, receding, his lopsided grin as he looked down at me. But more than that, I can remember how the moment felt, what it was like to be there with him, to hunt with him.

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