November 2006
Happy Hunting Ground

Happy Hunting Ground

We are in the best time of the year in my opinion. Summer is over; there is a slight nip in the air. It’s not really cold but you can smell it coming. College football is in full swing, hot weather is months away and deer season is close.

People are busy as one-armed wallpaper hangers right now planting their food plots. Pretty soon they’ll be in a tree or a shooting house freezing and trying hard to remember what it was like to be sweating in this exact spot just a few weeks earlier.

Personally, once the season gets into full swing, I don’t have the mental capacity to watch for deer and reminisce at the same time. If I get lucky enough to see a deer to shoot, I reflexively think about what is behind my target that could get hit by a bullet should I miss and other safety concerns. This is a direct result for having shot a squirrel in my front yard while it was moving from one blackgum tree to the next tree and my grandmother’s house in the distance behind the squirrel in question. Dad stormed out of the house and wanted to know if I realized that her house was in line with my shot. “No” was definitely the wrong answer to give Dad. Now every time I shoulder a firearm, my backside begins to throb as a reminder to think about what is behind my target.

Dad was a stickler for firearm safety, with good reason. I’ll tell you something that until now, no one else in my family knows. When I was in the first or second grade, and living in Wyoming, Dad took us to the mountains to learn how to shoot. He taught us to shoot with a .22 cal single shot Winchester rifle. I am sure he gave my brother the same lesson he gave me, but I don’t remember it being at the same time. (As a younger brother, I never remember Dad teaching my older brother anything because I’m sure it happened when I was too young to know it. It just always seemed that he and Dad just instinctively knew how to do everything.)

Dad explained how the cartridge worked and how the rifle worked. This old rifle was the one he had been given when he was a boy, and my brother still has it. My nephews learned to shoot with it and so will my daughter. That old rifle has harvested a mountain of squirrels and can still do the job.

Dad explained the difference between a .22 short, a .22 long and the ultimate, the mighty .22 long rifle. He explained further that while some people used shorts for stuff like shooting well points and rats, most people hunted with the long, but we Ricks were long rifle people. He said that a long rifle has a lethal range of one mile, and I was impressed even though I had no real idea of how far a mile was in actuality.

He then explained how to use the “iron sights.” He set up cans on a log to shoot at with the rifle. As he began his instructional course with me, I was hooked for life.  Just the terminology was exciting. Words like “rifle” and “bullet” and “iron sights” were exciting and, I must admit, still are. Finally, we loaded the rifle and began to shoot the cans. I was in awe of his ability to fluidly raise that firearm, aim, shoot and whack a can in one smooth motion. Years later, I understood that because he had used the rifle most of his life, picking it up and shooting it was as natural and familiar to him as was the smell of grandmother’s kitchen and his old feather bed when he was a child. That old Winchester became an extension of his body.

When I finally was able to hit one of the cans, Dad treated me like I had just taken a bull elk. Inside I remember feeling that I had joined the ranks of the great mountain men we learned about in school and could shoot a gun just like Dad. Dad never passed up an opportunity to remind me that this small rifle, as well as a big one, is designed to kill something. It will kill whatever you shoot with it whether it is a squirrel, a deer, a pheasant or a person. He made us deathly afraid of the muzzle of a firearm because as he said, that’s the end that kills. We both were taught firearm safety so much that we don’t even have to think about checking to see if one is loaded, thinking about our backstop and making sure that what we are pointing that gun at is game and not a person.

Now we come to the part that has been a secret until now. Some time after that, a bunch of us kids were standing around having one of those childhood, “My dad can whip your dad…” contests when the conversation turned to hunting and fishing and then guns. Now remember, we lived in Wyoming where hunting is as much a part of life as it is here.  In our neighborhood everybody hunted something. We hunted birds; our neighbors behind us hunted deer. When fall rolled around, you never knew what was going to be hanging outside somebody’s house when you came home from school.

Anyway, as our conversation turned to guns, everyone started bragging about the guns their father had. I remember telling them that not only did my dad have a shotgun, he also had a “thirty-ot-six” even though I had no idea what it was. All I knew for sure was that it was a BIG gun with BIG bullets. Of course with a bunch of kids, we all tried to one up each other. Suddenly I had the topper. They were talking about the guns of their fathers and I brought up the fact that I had my own. There was silence. Finally one of them said, “Prove it.”

I said, “Fine, I will show it to you.”

I went in the house and got that Winchester .22 out of my dad’s closet and literally drug it out back for them to see. Where my parents were, to this day I don’t know.  All of the boys were impressed. I went into a long explanation as to how it worked and even gave my learned opinion on how it shot, my preference for “iron sights” over anything else and how while it was a .22 caliber, we only used “long rifle” shells. Thank goodness there were no bullets around or I’m sure I could have been talked into a demonstration.

It suddenly hit me that if I got caught by my dad with this rifle, in the back yard, with no adult and with a bunch of kids, I would probably die and no jury in the world would convict my dad. With this in mind, I wound up my seminar and returned the venerable old rifle to the closet all without being caught.

I guess the Lord had enough to do that day and he didn’t need to decide what to do with the soul of a man that had justifiably killed his youngest son for playing with a rifle; and God let me get away with it. Now Dad has passed on and the only one I need to be concerned with is Mama and I think I can take her if she decides to administer a retroactive ‘whuppin. I’ll let you know next month. Until then, hunt and shoot safely when deer season opens.

 Ralph Ricks is the manager of Quality Cooperative, Inc. in Greenville.