Some family ties can only be born of gunpowder. This sounds like some deep-South rednecked bullshit, but it simply represents truth to me. Raised on a small dirt farm in South Carolina under the demands of work that would often leave hands bloodied and spirits despondent, gunpowder provided the best and only real communication my father and I would share. It was a recurrent theme in our lives. Most of the time my daddy spoke to me in grunts and gestures, with a firm and often unforgiving hand. If not for the balance of love provided by Momma, I may never have known that life was anything other than an uneven and desperate landscape as rocky as the soil we tilled for the cotton that barely fed us. Momma saw to it that I knew affection, that I learned of God in church, and drank the very marrow from the teachers and books that sustained me in my haven hours at school. I could talk volumes of her and her deep effect on my life, but this is not her tale.
My father was a quiet man, the son of a quiet man, and his knowledge of love lacked anything but the most rudimentary concepts. Daddy worked the land, protected us, and fed us. The expectation of tenderness would have been too much to ask of him. Each morning, I awoke to a dark world with the weight of my father’s strong, knotted hand on my shoulder. That hand did not shake me, nor pull nor push at me. Through that heavy mitt, my father passed the gravity of his presence to me, and I would wake instantly. There were chores to be done, the makeup of which often depended on both the season and my age. We never lacked for work whatever time of year, whatever the weather. My going to school only put Daddy on edge, it was time I should have been at the farm. He didn’t see a lot of use in school in the face of work that needed to be done. But my attendance was non-negotiable with Momma, so Daddy relented on that one thing.
When I was six, Daddy got me my first rifle, a bolt action 22. I was given the rifle as a privilege, not a toy or as people see it today - a right. Through obedience and hard work, Daddy felt me ready for a gun. We used guns to hunt food and to occasionally kill vermin that went after the chickens or picked away at our feed stores.
Daddy first taught me to clean the gun. I learned to always make sure to remove the ammo first, particularly the round in the chamber. Then came the repeated lesson of disassembling and reassembling the gun until I was as proficient as a six-year-old could be. Daddy taught me how to clean the barrel and taught me why we oiled the weapon. He made sure that I knew that when the gun was not with me, it would be unloaded and in its rack. Leaving the gun lying around would have lost me the gun perhaps for good. The gun became part of my chores with its own set of consequences. I sat raptly with Daddy, listening intently to his teachings and admonitions. When Daddy and I worked with the gun, he talked to me and not at me. He shared both a passion and rite of passage with me.
Daddy began taking me hunting with him for small game. We hunted squirrel, rabbit, and birds mainly. On hunts we didn’t speak because we didn’t want to spook the game. Whatever food we brought home was food we wouldn’t have to buy, and we never hunted beyond our need. Though silent, we communicated through looks, glances, and hand signals. In hunting, Daddy and I found our sacred time together, our secret language. Father and son, man and boy elevated to equals through the gunpowder.
Sometimes Daddy would see something like a rabbit and take the shot. Sometimes he shared the shot with me. He would look my way and point. Then I would raise my rifle quietly to my shoulder, aiming along the oil dark barrel through the forked site at the quivering prey. Daddy told me never to shoot straight away but to calm myself before the shot. To take three breaths, and on the exhale of the third one pull the trigger to let breath guide the bullet. Daddy taught me killing even little things was never anything but serious business. If a bullet was off and the animal lay suffering, he taught me the mercy of finishing the job with my knife so as not to prolong the pain, and also to honor the act of hunting for food and not sport.
Hunting became a repetitive task to me, a duty to fulfill. Taking an animal thrilled neither my father nor I. But being alone with Daddy in something that we shared, something private outside of our home selves, is where lay the joy in these outings for me.
As I grew, Daddy shared other rites with me, extending our bond in the gruff way of men. He shared beer with me after hunts beginning when I was eleven. At thirteen, he passed to me his father’s 12-gauge shotgun (immaculate with my father’s care and his father’s care before him over the years). At that time, I began to accompany him on deer hunts. During those outings along the dirt backroads, I learned to drive our rusted three-speed pickup.
I realized somewhere along the line that Daddy was teaching me how to be a man, not by word, and not by sitting me down and telling me a lesson. Daddy taught by example through chores, through beer, through driving, through the gunpowder. I absorbed these lessons as devoutly as I absorbed each subject taught to me in school.
A couple of years after Momma died from the flu and just into my adult years, I learned the hardest lesson as Daddy lay dying with stomach cancer in the same ramshackle house of greyed and crumbling wood that he and Momma raised me in. Even if there had been anything the doctors could have done for Daddy, he would not have accepted. He made up his mind early on at Momma’s graveside that he couldn’t live without her.
I was able to help care for Daddy through his illness. My first job was only twenty or thirty miles away from him. Neighbors helped during the day, thankfully, and I sat with him in the evenings and on the weekends. One day my father motioned me close to tell me something. Through parched lips and with breath already smelling of decay, he asked if I would get his pistol from the case in the front room because he hadn’t the strength to get out of the bed. I did not ask what it was for. I knew he was in constant pain, and I knew he just wanted to be with Momma. Without being told, I loaded the gun before handing it to him. He did not say anything, simply looked at me then at the door. Daddy was a quiet man. I kissed his forehead, then left the room, obeying him for the last time. I still picture him whispering through dry cracked lips, keeping count with his breathing. One, two, three. The final act of gunpowder between us.