Looking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun is as horrifying as gazing into the maw of a rabid dog. Looking into the barrel of a loaded shotgun held by your son is more horrifying still.
Had I not turned when I did, this transgression might have gone unnoticed. My son did it unintentionally. He was hamming it up with his brothers while we were squirrel hunting with a friend and his dogs, and during a moment of inattention, my son pointed the loaded 20-gauge at my head. I turned to look at the four boys who were laughing about something one of them had done, and when I did, I found myself staring into the gun barrel.
At almost the same instant, I found myself staring into my son's eyes. A look of total horror blanched his face.
I did what I felt I had to do. I took the shotgun and unloaded it. "Go to the truck," I said. "And stay there until we're finished hunting."
Tears welled up in his eyes ... and in mine. Without saying a word, he turned and headed back up the hill, sobbing uncontrollably. The other three boys fell silent.
My friend looked into my watery eyes and shook his head. He and I both knew we would continue hunting, but the joy was gone from it.
I've stressed the need for gun safety since my boys started hunted with me. Always identify your target before pulling the trigger. Know what's in the vicinity of your target and beyond before shooting. Use your gun's safety. Never cross obstacles with a loaded gun. Never place a loaded firearm in a vehicle. Use extreme care when loading and unloading firearms. Avoid horseplay when handling a gun. And keep your barrel pointed in a safe direction.
The boys, I'm proud to say, have been good students. They're safe hunters. The incident related earlier is the only time I remember any of them making a big mistake. It was a mistake, however, that could have led to tragedy, and the boys were well aware of the consequence for such actions -- sitting out of the hunt to contemplate what happened.
What my sons didn't know was that I made the same mistake when I was fourteen. I, too, had been taught all the rudiments of gun safety. And rule number one was never point a loaded gun at someone -- not briefly, not in jest, not accidentally, not ever.
I did it one day though. While hunting rabbits with an uncle and several of his friends, I unintentionally swung my shotgun barrel toward my uncle's face. When he turned and saw my gun barrel pointed at him, my eyes caught his. I knew instantly I had screwed up in a huge way. Tears welled up in my eyes.
He took the shotgun and unloaded it. "Go to the truck," he said. "And stay there until we're finished hunting."
The hunt had scarcely begun when this happened. I had six hours to sit in the truck and contemplate my mistake.
When the hunters returned, my uncle said nothing. Nothing needed to be said. He knew, and I knew, I would never make the same mistake again. My uncle also knew that because I had learned that lesson, the chances of me ever accidentally shooting a fellow hunter were now infinitesimal.
During the next three decades, I discovered that many hunters have not benefited as I did from the tutelage of conscientious elders, and as a result, I would see two men escape death by the narrowest of margins.
The first incident happened while I hunted squirrels with a school teacher and his elderly father. Several times, the father haphazardly pointed his shotgun at his son or me. The teacher found it necessary to point out his father's carelessness. The father, however, paid little attention.
We had stopped to listen to the dogs when it happened. The old man set the butt of his shotgun on the ground. The gun discharged and blew away the bill of his cap. He fell to the earth in a heap. I thought he was dead. Fortunately, he was unscathed. He had only fainted.
Years later, I watched, horrified, as a friend was shot by a fellow pheasant hunter. Several of us were driving pheasants toward a line of "blockers." When the pheasants flushed, they usually flew straight up and could be safely shot well above the blockers' heads. One pheasant didn't rise, however; it zoomed away just above the stubble. An overeager hunter beside me fired on it and shot my companion who was in the line of blockers. Again, I thought I had seen a hunter die. And again, thankfully, I was wrong. My friend sustained relatively minor injuries from shot pellets that penetrated his scalp and fingers.
The incident that affected me most was one I read in an accident report. It was the opening day of deer season. A 42-year-old man and his 10-year-old son were climbing into their stand. In his haste, the father tied a hoisting line to the muzzle of his bolt-action rifle. With a quick pull, the gun would be in the stand in an instant, no trouble at all -- or so he thought.
Only one of my sons made a mistake that day, but four sons learned a lesson. We still go over the rudiments of safety every time we hunt.
The rifle hung on some unseen object, causing it to discharge. The bullet struck the man under the jaw and exited explosively through the back of his head, killing him instantly.
Imagine what it must be like to watch your father die from such a careless act. The thought is too horrible to contemplate.
When I told you that looking down the barrel of a gun held by your son is horrifying, that's what I meant. It's not horrifying because you're afraid of dying. It's horrifying because you wonder how your son would be affected if you were accidentally shot.
My own son will never forget the humiliation of being sent back to the truck on that hunt. I will never forget the morning my uncle sent me to the truck for the same reason.
Humiliation, however, is a far kinder teacher than death. It broke my heart to treat my boy that way. It's an act I'll never forget. I did what I had to, however, and I don't regret it. I'm sure my uncle had similar feelings.
Only one of my sons made a mistake that day, but four sons learned a lesson. We still go over the rudiments of safety every time we hunt, but I'm proud to say I've never again looked down the barrel of a gun carried by one of my boys. I don't expect I ever will.
This article may not have been full of great stories of wonderful hunts, but hopefully it is a reminder that we all need to be safe out there and to pass that knowledge onto the next generation of hunters.