When I was 10, Dad lived on a farm in New Hampshire with my stepmother and two of my sisters, and I went to stay with them that summer. There were no neighbors nearby and little else for me to do, so I stalked the woods around our farm with a .22 rifle. It was just a matter of time before I became a dead-eye shot.
Late in the summer an older cousin came up from Boston. He brought two friends and they all brought rifles and shotguns. They had come to hunt woodchucks, porcupines, barn rats, and whatever. Good luck, I thought. There weren’t many left, not the way I shot. But there were other places, deeper in the woods, where I could take them, where I could strut my stuff with the big boys and show ‘em what I could do.
But I had just finished the fifth grade, while they were old enough to drive and I soon discovered they didn’t want a little kid hanging out with them. Dad understood this even if I didn’t, but I hung close by hoping they’d change their minds.
They showed Dad their guns, which he dutifully admired. But I, the best shot in the room, was only allowed to look from afar because I was a kid.
Their plan was to camp in the woods and hunt first thing in the morning. But it was too early to go to sleep, so Dad, the great raconteur, invited them in and regaled them with his stories. Even I sat and listened, though I’d heard them all before.
Hours passed and, though they hadn’t come to sit around a living room, soon it was too late to look for a place in the woods, so they decided to “camp” in the barn. I pointed out that the barn wasn’t camping, it was a slumber party. They just stared at me, then left. Once they were gone, Dad took exception to my comment.
About half an hour later the boys were at the door again. They’d set up camp in the top loft, but it was still too early to go to sleep. They’d discovered what campers always discover: there’s nothing to do when camping except eat and sleep. So Dad invited them back in, delighted to resume his twice-told tales, and I, of course, hung around still hoping they would reconsider and invite me along.
The room darkened, the lights came on, and my father continued the evening’s entertainment. Finally, it was very dark and the hunters decided they had to go out to their camp. It was my last chance. I waited, but I was still uninvited. I sulked.
They left and Dad turned to me. My sulking and wisecracking hadn’t gone unnoticed. He started a lecture on my lack of deference to my elders—an adjunct to his ongoing lecture about my lack of respect for authority and position. Though my cousin and his friends were teenagers, they were my elders. This led to a tirade about my nascent skeptisism which he and other adults considered to be a fault. I hated these lectures.
But about then he was cut off by a loud scream from the barn. It was followed by another. Then there was a shot. Dad, who was rarely unsettled by events, stood slack-jawed in the middle of the living room. The screaming escalated and a barrage of gunfire ensued. Then a sickening silence followed. Suddenly, the boys burst through the front door, my cousin clutching a now empty shotgun, his friends empty-handed.
“What in the name of Jehoshaphat is going on?” Dad yelled.
Breathless and trembling my cousin said “Something’s in our sleeping bags...”
“I think we shot it.”
“Shot what?” Dad yelled.
They didn’t know, but my cousin and one friend explained how they’d clambered down from the loft in the dark. “I jumped,” the third boy said—15 feet to the floor of the barn in total darkness. They didn’t know what had happened to their flashlights. None of them remembered yelling. The other two had no idea where their guns were.
I wanted to take our rifle and go out to see what it was. Dad said no. He still didn’t know what it was in the loft. Ashen-faced, he took our .22 and a flashlight and stepped out into the night. The rest of us waited.
The minutes dragged until, suddenly, Dad came back through the door. He had their discarded weapons and broken flashlights. He dragged their sleeping bags behind him. It was the first and last time he ever climbed into that loft.
“What’s out there?” my cousin asked.
Dad didn’t answer at first.
“What was it?” my cousin persisted.
“Bats got into your sleeping bags.”
I started to laugh, “You almost killed each other ‘cause of bats?”
Dad cut me off with a scowl I can feel to this day.
We all sat in the living room. They seemed relieved, but none of them made eye contact with me. Every once in awhile I started to laugh again and Dad gave me that look again.
They now decided not to go back out to their “camp.” Besides, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen what a 12-gauge does to sleeping bags. It’s not pretty. Dad wouldn’t have let them go out there again with their guns, anyway. They spent the night on our living room floor.
But before the sun came up I heard them out in our driveway. Their engine was running. From my window I watched their car quietly coast down to the dirt road. They left and never came back.
The events of that night were the first solid evidence I had that I may be right about respect. Some 35 years later, after an incident on a job, a supervisor told me I should respect the position even if I didn’t respect the man.
I asked, if those who put that man in the position didn’t respect it enough to put a better person in it, why should I respect it? He didn’t provide an answer.
Dad could have taken the gun away from me that summer. As it was, he spoke frequently about the older boys and said he would never again let them hunt our property. But the fact is, I always had use of our gun after that, until Dad bought me my own. I guess we know who he respected.