Growing up in 1960’s Petaluma as a young boy in our family included the American right of passage of getting and learning how to use your first gun. Done correctly, this happened around the age of 12 and that young boy would have been running on the esteemed training wheels of all later long-guns, the BB gun.
Well, my dad made sure that his one son had that BB-gun and it proved to be a nice one. Most BB guns are spring powered meaning that you load a small handful of BBs into a built-in magazine, then you cocked it which both chambered one BB and compressed a strong spring, leaving the gun ready to fire.
This was fine for most dads but my father knew that his company had a pigeon problem down at the terminal. This large warehouse had a high, open truss roof so you could see all the wooden triangles that held up the roof. For 1960 Petaluma, it was impressive to look at from the loading dock. The problem was that a heard of pigeons had nested in those trusses, from where they thanked their home builders by pooping on everything from trucks, drivers, freight and the office management; anyone actually, anyone who dared wander out into the pigeon -poop war zone. This build up a healthy hatred for these flying rats and dad was determined to exercise some pidgin population control.
This required a BB gun with enough power to kill a pigeon but not enough to blow a hole through the roof, so he got me a gun with a small compressed air chamber and built-in pump. This was much more fun than the popular spring powered Daisy’s that most boys got. I was now much better armed than my peers.
Two quick pumps and I had tin can hole-punching, BB fun. Seven pumps and that gun was accurate way up to the warehouse pidgin hangout. But because additional pumps were non-linear and had a diminishing return on investment, any pumps beyond 15 did nothing more, but the high-powered BB shot out of the gun with that much air pressure behind it yielded a loud, satisfying CRACK and if you aimed well, easily brought down those pidgins. The uninjured pidgins would scatter, fly about for a moment of frenzy, calm down and land back on the truss just in time for your next chambered and high-pressured shot.
This is where I learned how to aim a long gun at the mighty age of eight, and earned the thanks of the crew working the terminal warehouse.
I was 12 when I got my first shotgun (a used 16-gague pump) from my dad’s dad. My dad took me with him whenever he went out to the original Petaluma D-street shooting range out for shotgun practice, because my dad loved to hunt duck, goose and pheasant. I loved mastering the skill of blowing those small clay disks (also called pigeons) to dust with that old gun.
I was a bit more leery of the whole hunting thing and didn’t warm to it as much as simple target practice.
I well recall when dad bought me my first hunting license and took me over to his favorite pheasant field somewhere over in the marshes near interstate-5. I considered myself a master of exploding those ceramic pidgins at the shooting range. If it didn’t dust the disk on the first shot, I would cycle through additional shots fast enough to shoot down most of the larger pieces. It took skill and was huge fun. But today, dad and I were after pheasant – Dad’s favorite. I was excited, but leery of how this was going to work. It was cold. I didn’t know this place. There would be lots of other hunters and an actual pheasant will never be a clay pidgin.
But my best friend was with me. Pam, my dog had been hunting with dad and knew her job well. She kept looking back at me with those eyes that, in this context said something like, “Just keep up and trust me. We got this.” Okay, I thought. Let’s do this.
Dad and I were assigned both sides of a large drainage ditch to hunt. That ditch cut a straight line through a very large field. Good habitat for pheasants I was told.
After a long 45 minutes, we hadn’t seen any pheasants . We weren’t seeing anything to shoot and I was anxious to show my dad that I could hunt. After another half hour of walking with gun ready, I glanced across that creek and thought, wow! That is one huge, turkey.
But – what do I do now? I didn’t know. I wanted to be a good hunting partner for my dad, but he never said anything about turkeys. It was on his side of the ditch about halfway down the bank, so dad couldn’t see it, just like I couldn’t see the bank on my side. If I called out my question, that would spook the bird to flight and I would miss the shot waiting for the answer. I quickly decided to go for it and let dad advise me after the fact. As a kid, the standing rule was, when in doubt – shoot it.
I raised my gun. The turkey was just standing there in plain sight – not moving. This felt very strange. I had many mixed feelings: not being sure I could or should shoot a turkey, whether my dad would approve or not and a surprising twist in my stomach as I realized, this was the first live target I had ever aimed my shotgun at; oh – and the bird was too close. At this range, a hit would carve out a 10-inch hole in the bird – very messy. Could I back up? Not without risking spooking the bird. Could I minimize the damage my shotgun would do at this length? Maybe – if I could pull this off, the bird would die quickly. Always a good thing because injuring an animal in a hunt and allowing it to suffer is thought to be cruel and amateurish. I wanted to be neither but had never practiced this type of shot. Normally – you don’t aim a shotgun in the traditional manner because your targets were almost always in flight.
Shotgun shells throw hundreds of BBs, called “shot” in an expanding pattern of cone shaped destruction as the targets gets further away. If the target is only about a yard away from the muzzle, you would be assured of a clean hole, about an inch wide through the target. A good range which leaves enough bird to serve for dinner, might be more like 25 to 35 yards. If you allowed your target to get more like 75 yards away, you would pepper them with BBs, annoying the target perhaps, but would likely leave them uninjured because all those BBs had by that time slowed down and no longer had the energy to penetrate their feathered mail clothing.
This turkey was close enough render unrecognizable if I served out a direct hit. I would look foolish holding up a ragged turkey leg as my first bird. My “grand plan” was to take off its head and mostly miss its body.
But with everything else going on in my head, I worked myself into a near panic of not being sure of what I was doing. A much more experienced me, would have lowered the gun, wished the bird a good day and moved on. Instead, I bit down, determined to not allow a good shot to pass by and tried to steady my aim. The longer I tried, the more tired my arms got and the more I struggled to get a good aim. The harder I worked, the more time passed and the harder this task became so when I finally pulled the trigger a huge explosion of mud and grass appeared several inches to the right of the turkey’s head, leaving an enormous crater. He turned to look at me, gave me the disgusted amateur hunter look and took his time about flying away. Even my dog, Pam, gave me a look that certainly said, “What are you doing?” My dad, taking notice of the loud report from my side of the creek called back to ask, “Did you get him?”.
“No – I missed.” I did not want to have this conversation yet.
Now I was angry with myself and was determined to get a grip and do better. This was just silly. I knew I was a much better shot than that. Pam and I continued down our side of the creek.
It was only about 15 minutes later that a pheasant jumped up and flew right across my line of sight. Years of clay pidgin experience cut in and I knocked the bird out of the air before I knew what I was doing. I should have been thrilled. But I wasn’t. I was even more annoyed with myself.
After a few years of bringing clay pigeons down, I watched in mild-self-loathing as that pheasant spiraled down from the sky and Pam jumped to do her job of finding and returning the bird to me. I lowered the gun, unable to force myself to feel good about killing that pheasant. I didn’t even like pheasant meat. I just wanted to be a good hunter like my dad and suddenly – that goal did not justify what I’d done.
So, recall that I was still pretty young, but I took the time to think this all through and it went like this. There was a legitimate purpose to taking out those pigeons at the freight line warehouse. Clay pigeons aren’t alive and were just innocent skill-building fun to shoot. But that pheasant – brought nothing to me. I didn’t want to eat him. I didn’t need to eat him and no one was counting on my hunt for their next meal. It wasn’t fun – so what was I doing out here?
The whole side of my brain that normally has some kind of answer for my dilemma, just went silent. I come from a long line of hunters and it would disappoint everyone (in my young mind, everyone that ever knew me of course) but I did not see a way to both satisfy everyone I might disappoint and resolve this conviction that was taking shape in my head.
I tried rabbit hunting with a good friend soon afterwards. I wanted to test my reaction in a different setting. I even got one because he ran. Too bad he didn’t know that turkey’s trick of just standing there forcing me to try and get a sound aim. But when I arrived home with the carcass, I was again reminded that I had no need of having done this. The rancher was most likely happy to have one less rabbit digging up his land, but I couldn’t even be sure of that. Recall that this was back in the days when a couple of lads could walk through the neighborhood with shotguns in hand and walk out to a nearby ranch and just shoot rabbits with no one giving it a thought.
I decided against surprising my mother with a, “Look Mom! I brought home a dead rabbit I shot. Can you turn him into dinner?” I ended up just burying the carcass in the back yard and eventually concluded that this was not the sport for me.
I still have that precious 16 gauge shotgun in my small collection. It is now a legacy gun which I rarely shoot – but dearly love.