When I was a kid, over 40 years ago now, I think I was in grade 7 at the time, Friday night was kind of special. How this became special I cannot remember, nor can I remember how I ever came to be involved in this activity. It seems what was special about this activity was the score, and the coinciding peer pressure. Getting one down the center was the ultimate goal and doing so frequently was some kind of achievement.
I’m not talking about bowling here; that was reserved for Saturday mornings. This was a school-related activity, or at least it happened underground, beneath this one-story elementary school, the one where I spent grade 5. The oddity of this didn’t even hit home until just this very day. You see I was always told that this underground facility was built during the wartime for training purposes. It was a shooting range. There were perhaps 10 or so alleys, the targets seemed much further away than the pins at the bowling alley, and the circles on the paper seemed so very small…and I had great eyesight.
My friends and I thought this was pretty cool. None of us owned the 22-caliber rifles; they stayed with the bunker and we just bought our weekly supply of bullets. There was no time pressure or anything, just the pressure to score highly on a weekly total of 100, kind of like a percentage. So at the end of evening the boys and I would compare our sheets and I was never much better than average, so it wasn’t so much fun. On the other hand, no one beat me at bowling, which was so much more fun.
It seems this was a winter activity and only lasted a few months. When it was over one or two of my friends were awarded pellet guns by their parents. It was springtime by then. In no time at all there must have been about half a dozen of us with these guns. Mine was one of the cheapest as my parents probably had less money than all of the others, so I was kind of envious of some of the others’ units. This too was a competition. Pellets were pretty cheap and the river was very close.
The implication of that was that there was no problem exploring our favorite paths along the river, surrounded by plenty of ample bush and trees, only now we had arms. We usually wondered in pairs, perhaps three if there was an odd number. For practice we would shoot at tin cans and so the competition continued, though it didn’t stay at cans for long. You see there were birds to shoot, and the prowess became the hit rate on sparrows and robins, shot for no other reason.
Thankfully I was not very good at this activity, and regretfully I never thought much of what I was doing. I don’t remember this hobby lasting more than one summer. Neither do I remember when everyone else stopped. However, I do remember as clearly as this evening’s supper how I came to cease and desist. It happened on a very fine day and I was standing on the river bank right next to a big bend in the river. For whatever reason I was all alone. I had my pellet in my gun in case a bird should come along.
Sure enough while looking around this bend I spotted one flying, more like gliding along the path of the water. It wasn’t a sparrow or a robin though. It was a bird like none that I’d seen before, more like a great blue heron. By the time I noticed the beauty of this magnificent bird I already had my gun raised to shoot. And then it happened. I saw this bird for what it was, but more than that it spoke to me in that wonderful silence, as if to say to me in a very gentle voice, “Why do you want to hurt me?” And as I sensed this my arms fell to the side. The question remained unanswered and I’ve never shot a gun of any kind since.
I’ve seldom had such a moment of clarity, and such a calm and peaceful one at that.
So fast forward 30-some years and you will find me in a very confused state. It is in the fall and like so many people, I am immersed in a battle without even knowing it. The tragedy of 9/11 is still very fresh and there is this talk of taking action, a part of the battle of the hearts and minds. My children are with me at this time, they are around 10 and 11 years old and I am driving them to school one day. I don’t know how it came up, but there must have been a question that arose on this issue of war. I hadn’t been able to make any sense of the news, couldn’t understand any of the arguments, but I did mutter something about the need to protect freedom.
Well the discussion pretty much ended in one of those other moments of clarity. It happened very spontaneously in the form of a question that kind of answers itself. So in response to my comment on freedom, one of my children said something that will stick with me as long as I can think. She said, “But daddy how they be free? They carry guns.”
Today when I see the birds there is freedom I see and a togetherness that is so truly inspiring and of course I am a dreamer and I wonder if we will ever be that together. It seems all I can do is hope.
PS – The picture at the top is yet another unpublished work of mine, still in progress, but almost finished.