Birthdays were not a big deal in my family when I was a child. I would awaken on the morning of each January 12, walk sleepily downstairs, and my parents would greet me cheerily with happy-birthday wishes, but no thoughts of gifts or parties entered their minds. Since my birthday is only a couple of weeks after Christmas, my mom had already taken advantage of the holiday to give me and my sister all of the socks and underwear that we would need for the following year. We received toys at Christmas only from Santa; any gifts that came from our parents were filled with practicality.
A few of the neighboring kids had birthday parties, though, and I remember one of them distinctly. The event took place at the house of a friend of mine, and before we partook of the cake and sang, my friend’s father directed us in a series of games. We were perhaps seven years old, and one of the games was to write down as many first names as we could think of. The party participants numbered around ten, and I didn’t have even the awareness to write down the names of the kids who were sitting at the table. I recall producing four or five names, and when the game ended, I learned first-hand the words “booby prize,” because I had won it.
Another instance has to do with my sister. By the time she was in the third grade, she was fed up with our family’s lack of a birthday tradition, and she decided to have a party on her own. Unbeknownst to our parents, she invited several little girls over, took them to her room, and had her party, which my mom discovered in midstream.
Mom got the hint, and the following year, she organized a formal gathering for about twenty little girls who showed up in cute outfits to play games and partake of snacks, cake, and soft drinks. The event satisfied my sister’s yearning for a party, and never again did she request another.
Frankly, I never felt a desire to have a birthday party, and I became so accustomed to my birthday’s being a low-key event that my parents took me completely by surprise on my tenth birthday by giving me a gift. I descended the stairs that morning to find a .22 caliber rifle leaning against my chair by the breakfast table!
I was ecstatic! Not only was the rifle the first birthday gift I had ever received, it was the coolest one I could possibly imagine. Receiving it was a rite of passage for me, and in some ways, I think of my childhood as divided between the pre-rifle and post-rifle times.
Nothing is the same when you are ten years old and you own a rifle. I began to take it with me to the farm, and immediately using it replaced the things I had done there before. I hiked along hedgerows and across pastures and shot at anything that moved. My marksmanship at that age was not great, though, so small animals and birds were safer than the uninitiated might expect. If you have ever hunted squirrels in a forest, you know what I mean. At ten, I was unwilling to sit still long enough for the resident wildlife to come out of hiding.
As I carried the rifle over hill and dale, I learned some interesting things. For instance, I found that crows will fly away immediately if you approach with a gun. If you have no weapon, you can get reasonably close, but with a rifle in hand, no way. Later, when I was in high school, I would stop my car and get out first without the rifle and then with it to confirm the crows’ uncanny awareness of weapons. Only on one occasion was I able to shoot one, and that was a lucky shot at long range that I aimed a foot or so over the unwitting crow’s head.
The same is true for rats. I would lie prone for hours waiting for the rats that lived near an old well by the barn to move into the open, and they would do it if I had no gun. With the rifle at my side, though, I would see nothing but snouts and eyes in the dark holes of the building’s crumbling foundation. A couple of times, I shot into the holes out of frustration, but not once did I get a decent shot at an unwary rat.
Aside from lying in wait for difficult prey to sally forth, I sometimes went on the prowl for easier game. I would arise before dawn and take the truck on country roads looking for rabbits. In the wee hours of the morning, rabbits emerge from the brush and ditches at the sides of the roads to shake off the dew, feed on the grasses at the edges, and enjoy the warmth that emanates from the gravel roadways.
I would stop the truck with the lights shining on some rabbits, get out, and try to make a kill. Often they would run just at the last second, but sometimes I could pick one off before it dived into the weeds. I used the .22 on these occasions, because I considered shooting a dumbfounded rabbit with a shotgun to be too easy. Seeing the weapon’s sights in semi-darkness is challenging, however, so the rabbits always had a fighting chance. I owned a dog that loved to eat rabbits, so my prey was never wasted.
One morning a bit after dawn, I became overly engrossed in the hunt and followed two rabbits through a fence and into a pasture. They ran into a brush pile and hid, and I saw that if I could flush them out, they would have a long run to the next hiding place. Shooting a .22 at a cottontail that is running over open pasture is fun and challenging, and I was anxious for the opportunity. Unfortunately, however, the brush pile was close to some grazing cattle and to a farmhouse, and an angry farmer shouted at me from a distance. I sprinted to the truck, hopped in, and drove off as fast as I could as the man ran down his driveway shaking his fists in the air. That was the last time I hunted on that country road.
When I entered high school, my aunt and uncle bought a farm with some pastureland and a small lake a few miles from our farm. In late summer, when our own work was done, my dad and I would visit them, and while he had coffee and conversed with my aunt, my cousin and I would hunt frogs around the lake with our .22 rifles. The frogs were small and difficult to see, so shooting them was fun.
Once, a mallard duck flew between us and across the lake about ten feet above the water. My cousin and I were standing about a hundred feet apart, and without a thought about gun safety, we both shot at the flying duck and brought it down. Although each of us believed himself to be the one to have generated the fatal shot, we shouted for joy, and neither of us claimed the kill.
Some other shooting adventures took place at a sediment lake near our home. In late winter, the snow melts and the runoff flows in rivulets across the semi-frozen ground to larger streams and eventually into the lake. A group of friends and I would take our .22 rifles on hikes there and shoot at paper cups that we outfitted with sticks and rocks that we pretended were invaders that we picked off as they descended along the windy streams. At close ranges, the cups were easy to hit, but if we stood farther away and waited until they tumbled down little whitewater rapids, the sport was more challenging and a lot of fun.
My father purchased the rifle, a Remington .22 bolt-action, at a pawnshop in 1961. The bore is in good shape, and the firing mechanism works smoothly. Recently, I refinished the stock and blued the barrel and receiver, and the piece you see pictured is the finished product. The gun’s value is several times greater now than before I accomplished the refurbishment.
I have one last story to tell about my .22 rifle. A few years ago, I was living in El Paso, Texas, and I returned there after spending the Christmas holidays with my family to find that my home had been burglarized. I lost a number of important items, including a pair of binoculars that had belonged to my grandfather, a classical guitar, and I thought, my .22 rifle.
I was devastated for weeks afterward, but life went on, and eventually I decided to move back to Kansas City. As I was packing my things, I discovered the .22 rifle in a closet leaning against the wall behind some garments! I was ecstatic! My relationship with my childhood rifle had been reborn, and now I display it in a case with several rifles and shotguns. I prize all of my firearms, but this one is dearest to my heart.