“You shot behind him.”
When the Old Man referred to dove, they were always a “him.”
I stuffed another shell into my .410.
“I led him just how you said.”
“They’re flying faster than you think. You shot behind him.”
“I think he outran that shot.”
The Old Man chuckled. I always felt taller when I made him laugh. In those years during my larval stages, I read a lot of humor, starting with comic books, then moved on to the humor section in the library. One of my favorite books has now faded into obscurity, “The Spooky Thing” by William O. Steele. It was the first book I can recall that made me get the giggles.
By then, I considered myself a comedian.
“Don’t shoot at the next one that goes by, just watch him and use your finger.”
Not shooting at a bird was beyond my comprehension. You had to shoot at them. That’s why we were in the field in the first place, and besides, I had three unopened boxes of shells to burn up.
We sat at the edge of a harvested field where the shooting had been hot and heavy for several days. Back then, you didn’t take the day off from work to go hunting on opening day of the season, so we played catch up that Saturday on a field shimmering with heat waves.
The trees on the other side looked as if they were underwater. It was a good backdrop, making the birds stand out. A dove came across from right to left, no more than 50 yards out and flying about 20 feet over the dry ground. Sticking my arm out as if pointing at something in the distance, I locked in on the little gray bird and followed it.
The dang thing outran me at first, and I had to swing my arm faster to get on it.
“That’s what I was telling you. They don’t look that fast in some ways, but in others, when you’re shouldering that shotgun and doing all the math in your head, they’re moving.”
“You’ll understand when you get older. You’ll take algebra in high school and study angles. That’s what we’re doing when we hunt dove and quail.”
“Did you take algebra?”
“I didn’t go to high school. Only went through the sixth grade.”
“Can I quit then, too?” I figured he’d set a precedent, and I hated math.
He eyed me.
“Shucks.” I thought that was a funny comment.
“I’ll shuck you, if you try and quit school.”
He out-joked me, and that was funny in a way, but then I figured out what he was saying and it didn’t seem funny at all.
“Now, get your finger in front of the next bird that goes by, like when you’re shooting. Pick him up and sweep your arm past him. Point about six inches in front of his nose.”
“The real six inches from his nose, or the six inches from the end of my barrel?” I thought I’d figured out a joke about angles.
“Whichever you want, but when you reach his nose, say ‘pop’ and then keep swinging.”
“That’s when you pull the trigger.”
One came in, following an established path only dove can understand. It was closer in, and seemed like a missile. I threw up my arm again and swept from left to right.
Can’t tell me what to say.
“See how fast he was moving?”
“Now you know why you were shooting behind him. I was watching and you just stuck the shotgun up and pulled the trigger. I think you probably figured the angle all right, but the bird’s faster than you thought.”
I stuck out my arm and pointed again, like he told me.
“I can shoot that one off the limb over there.” Funny again, I thought.
“You’re not your cousin Roger.”
I didn’t realize he’d made a joke at the time. Instead, I was shocked and embarrassed because I didn’t know anyone had been watching the day Cousin shot that bird off a limb. We were hunting the year before with all the uncles and other kinfolk and when he shot the bird. In cahoots with him, we told everyone it had been flying.
Apparently, we failed. I became interested in the heat waves, re-estimating my potential in being a humorist.
Thankfully, he didn’t pursue the truth.
“Now, get ready and let’s see what you learned.”
The next bird came straight in at us about fifty feet high, defeating the entire lesson. But somehow the idea of angles fixed itself in my mind. I still pointed all right, but higher, knowing the shot would expand and it would fly into the pattern.
The dove folded, landing several yards away.
“Good shot. Here come two more from the left. Get a shell in, quick.”
I shucked the empty hull, plucked one from the open box, and stuffed a fresh one into the chamber. Throwing the shotgun to my shoulder, I picked one of the pair, swept past my target and mentally said “pow” at the same time the shotgun boomed.
The bird dropped and bounced in a shower of feathers.
“Good shot, son! Go get your birds.”
So excited that I’d figured everything out, I ran out to retrieve them both, not realizing at the time that for the first time in my hunting experience, I’d taken two flying birds with two consecutive shots.
That day I’d learned about angles, and how kids are watched by old people when they don’t even know it.
Oh, and I don’t mentally say “pow” every time I shoot these days.