In the beginning, I only craved birds I could shoot and eat. But over the years, I’ve morphed into a watcher.
This last month, Betty and I have been driving around the West and observing a trove of avian critters.
Red-tailed hawks perched on every high point around the marshy fens near Klamath Falls, Oregon.
On the Sonoma coast, we spotted marbled godwits and willets nudging sand as the ebbing tide left prey for them.
In New Mexico, we sought cranes, the sandhill variety, thousands of them to delight all the photographers with the long, long lenses. And then the frantic eruptions of huge flocks of snow geese.
In Arizona where the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert meet, we sought the elegant trogon, which to me is a holy grail of birds. Why? Maybe it’s the word. Elegant. That’s nomenclature not often common in the milieu in which I’ve existed.
In my early years it was mourning dove, Gambel’s quail, chukar, ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey.
My father loved to go fowling and I think it was something that his brothers and he did all the time during the depression. They lived in a house with fourteen or fifteen relatives and siblings. There was never enough to eat.
I’ve chased quail of multiple species across sorghum fields and desert flats, the undulations of sagebrush country. I’ve hidden in the woods as my hunting partner tried to gobble up a big tom, and I’ve scaled frozen hillsides chasing chukar through ten-degree dawns.
When I was young, I loved the chase and the thrill when what you shot plopped in a miniature cloud of dust.
I always considered myself someone who respected nature and especially the things I hunted. There were rules and requirements and there was proper behavior, a respect for the quarry, the law, and your fellow hunter, and for the landowner, too.
But I think the best of us often fall off the wagon as we wend our way through life. I recall northwest Kansas, the early 80s. Blue-knuckle cold and raspy wind and a gaggle of hunting partners with Springer Spaniels.
Back then I was sulled up like an old black bull that’s wandered off into a quicksand bog, and no matter how hard he struggles, can’t get out.
A man from Colorado Springs and I broke off from the hunting group and hiked around a big marsh, cracking sick and dirty jokes, laughing about stuff that the rest of the world wouldn’t see as particularly funny. At that moment, I felt the two of us were kindred and cynical, somehow bonded.
I noticed a flock of small birds fly into a bush growing next to the rough trail where we stalked. As we drew close, the sounds of their chirps and singing reached out and circled me like hymns you’d hear in the Christmas season and the red and blacks, mixed with the varying shades of russet in the surrounding soil and vegetation created a color palette that thrummed.
I stopped. Something boiled my guts like big heartburn. I lifted my twelve-gauge and hulled away, one, two, three times.
Gunpowder stench drilled into my nose as a slow smoke coiled from the end of my weapon’s barrel. I stomped to the bush but the only thing I found were tattered leaves on the ground.
I spewed a string of vulgarisms and something about not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a fiddle when I noticed my companion looking at me askance.
Our camaraderie hightailed like a flock of starlings that just figured out that a northern goshawk is swooping in for the kill.
For decades, the memory of all those pretty, scattering black and red birds has fluttered into my mind, me feeling like a creep who keeps bugging the head cheerleader at the high school prom.
I am not sure why but I perpetually ponder the need for killing. When I was a kid with a BB gun, we shot at doves and sparrows and anything else that moved, including each other.
One day I rode my bike past the J home and the three J brothers were out in the vacant lot next door. I lifted my BB gun and shot F, the oldest brother, in the ass. The report of that BB hitting its target rushes at me across the dusty decades.
Later, I learned to kill doves and quail with a shotgun and mule deer and pronghorns with a rifle, and then I joined the Marines Corps and the tenor of the killing changed. In Vietnam I tried like hell to kill communists, but I’m not sure I was successful.
One evening during the Siege of Khe Sanh, I snuck down the trench as incoming roared, exploded and shook the red ground beneath my feet. On top of the platoon’s command bunker lay one of my Marine buddies. He gripped an M-14 rifle with a starlight scope. I asked him what he was up to.
Right then I wanted to “kill gooks,” too. They’d surrounded us, pounded us, killed our mates. They had scared us into realms where fear was so powerful, multilayered and pervasive that, if we lived, we would never escape its ability to reduce us to skittering, paranoid animals for the rest of our lives.
I climbed up there and demanded to be part of the action, and he complied. He wasn’t excited about it, but in the spirit, I suppose, of brotherhood and Semper Fi, he handed me the rifle. Its cold stock felt like manna in my hands. As I placed my eye to the scope, I witnessed blurry images of heads and shoulders popping up and down across a long distance and those are what I shot. I don’t know if I hit anyone, but damn it, at the moment, I needed to. And maybe I did kill someone and maybe there’s a picture of him, or her, on a shelf somewhere in Hanoi, a remnant of a person.
And at the time, shooting at those North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t feel any more momentous than shooting at white-winged dove the first day of hunting season.
And now, as I recall the sneer of the man out there in the cold Kansas wind, I suspect that something was wrong with me when I shot at those innocent little birds in Kansas, and my need to go around shooting them was the tip of an iceberg of another order.
Maybe it still is.