Why you should care

Because childhood memories make us who we are today.

Dan Gamble is an artist and writer living in Chicago.

I was still in grade school when I got the gun, a used .410 gauge bolt-action shotgun — the first and only one I would ever possess — along with a khaki brown, unlined canvas hunting coat and matching pants. The shells were barely the thickness of a No. 2 yellow wood-case pencil.

Wisconsin hunting season started early in October: days damp, shadowless and cold. We hunted land too steep or marshy to be cultivated. We hunted along train tracks and dirt-road weedy ditches. After the first few outings, I grew impatient. I was bone-chilled and fidgety and distracted by the peripheral. A creaking windmill, a rotting log, a chattering squirrel.

One day, as we headed toward a brackish pond hidden in tall reeds, I turned to see two mallards coming up fast, overhead, low. I stood, gun barrel pointed at the earth, and watched them fly by. “Jesus Christ,” my father said, “why didn’t you shoot them?”

My game pouch was christened with the blood of a rabbit killed by my brother. He asked me to carry it even though his coat was empty. I was done with hunting. The .410 was passed on to a relative, like an outgrown wagon or pair of winter boots.

My sister and I — the non-hunters of the family — were given the task of cleaning the birds.

 

But guns, shotguns and rifles hung on a cheap cherry-wood rack in the dining room, unlocked, unloaded, ammunition in an unlocked drawer below. To my father, a gun was never more than a tool. He was a pragmatic man; he had no interest in killing anything that wouldn’t feed his family. Whatever saved him the cost of store­bought meat — rabbit, squirrel, duck, partridge, pheasant, goose, deer — no matter how tough and tasteless, my mother managed to render it.

Still, my sister and I — the non-hunters of the family — were given the task of cleaning the birds. With dread, we’d anticipate the return of my father from his weekend hunting trips; if he returned with a pouch full of ducks or pheasants, we’d take the coat and a stack of newspapers and head down to the cellar. Beneath a bare light bulb suspended from a braided cord, we plucked — gently, not to tear the skin — the oily feathers with our small fingers, bird lice crawling and tickling our bare hands. The peculiar and indelible smell — of swamp and earth, flesh and decay — of the featherless carcass, the raw, pimpled pale skin, tinged bluish-green and violet.

High school, lunchtime. A group of us would caravan out to an unpaved loop hidden by box-elder trees where we’d smoke and hang out. A small town, northern Wisconsin. It was common for kids to carry shotguns and deer rifles in the trunks of their cars on school days; during these gatherings, hunting weapons would be displayed and admired.

Slumped in the front seat of a friend’s car, getting high, I heard a voice call my name. I turned and found a 12-gauge shotgun pointed at my face, two feet away. Then, gun pointed at the ground, laughter, a few snickers. “You should have seen the look on your face!” he said.

He came to school a few weeks later with the side of his head shaved, pink pimply bumps visible through the stubble, like a freshly plucked game bird.

 

One of those high school friends, our junior year, got shot in the head with a 12-gauge; it was Halloween night. He was sitting behind the wheel of his Chrysler, engine idling, across the street from a teacher’s house. Two others had come with; they had jumped out of the car and were lobbing eggs unsuccessfully at the front door when the husband came out and took a shot at the car. The driver’s side window was open. The pellets struck the side of his skull, but the distance was great enough to prevent the lead shot from penetrating bone. He came to school a few weeks later with the side of his head shaved, pink pimply bumps visible through the stubble, like a freshly plucked game bird.

After high school, I drifted, away from family and friends, from coast to coast and in-between: New Mexico, Arizona, Idaho. In 1991, I came to Chicago to pursue a career as an artist, back to the Midwest but still far from the rural Wisconsin landscape of my childhood. Unfamiliar with the city, hobbled by debt, I settled into a cheap ground-floor flat in a rough neighborhood. The first week I awoke to the rattle of gunfire, not the familiar booming percussive reports of hunters but malevolent sounds: sharp, cheap and tinny pops echoing down alleyways. A month later, a Sunday near dawn, two teenaged boys, armed with machine guns — Tech-9s — crept along the narrow gangway just below my bedroom window, where I lay sleeping. At the sidewalk they turned right and sprinted toward the street corner where two unsuspecting dealers emptied their clips, killing one boy instantly and mortally wounding the other.

Not long ago, I was walking home when an enormous crow flew across my path, close enough to make me flinch, and plunged into a sugar maple. Seconds later, it emerged, perched on a branch and then, struggling, launched itself into the air. It had snatched a fledgling — heavy and squirming, nearly mature — from a nest. Settling into a crook of a locust tree, it began to tear at the living flesh. Reflexively, I bent and searched for a stick or a stone to throw. But it was too late.

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