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by Roger Voight
Thanksgiving was only a couple of days away, and I was but newly sixteen. Our regular trip from LA to Sacramento to spend this special day of Thanksgiving together with my mother's family had been a part of my life from the time I was a small child, as inevitable as the changing leaves and cooler weather. Yet, this year was very different. My certificate of completion of the hunter-safety course still crisp in my hands, this was to be the first year I actually got to carry a shotgun and truly participate in the annual pheasant hunt with my father – a sort of Bar Mitzvah, if you will, when I would leave the world of toy guns and pretend and be accepted into the world of men.
My father and I sit down ritually at the kitchen table, the air redolent of the smell of hunting and camping gear and cleaning oil for the shotguns. I carefully lay out each piece of the shotgun as it is disassembled, each part in its invisibly assigned place, properly oriented so that nothing will be missed and it could be reassembled without even the benefit of sight. Just the right amount of oil on a small, soft rag. Then each part meticulously wiped, then the edges, then the groves and every tiny hole. The tension on each spring is checked – everything depends on this preparation being done with quiet, perfect attention.
At last, everything is put together again. One last test, pull the trigger slowly (be sure the shotgun is safely pointed at the ceiling!), listening for that peculiar, sharp, metallic click as the hammer drives the firing pin into empty air that will tell me that the cleaning and reassembly is perfect. I slip the gun into its case, slowly, deliberately and with reverence, and stand it in its own corner, waiting for the place of honor in the car trunk, on top of all the other luggage, nestled protectively in the heavy coats and scarves that will protect us from the November cold.
I sleep fitfully, awakening when my father's hand shakes my shoulder. It’s still dark outside, but my father says we must get going now so we will miss the heavy morning LA traffic. A hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast, then we begin the long drive up the old California Highway 99. We are climbing into the Tehachipi mountains as the sun breaks over the horizon, casting its rich orange glow into the shadows of the curves on the narrow, winding grade known affectionately to the locals as “the grapevine.”
Now Bakersfield diminishes in the distance behind us as we enter the San Joaquin valley, the richest, most fertile agricultural region on earth. In this flat, open valley, we hurry north on the highway, ignoring the speed limit signs, ignoring the brown bent backs barely visible in the fields as the lettuce is cut and the melons and tomatoes are pulled from their vines and loaded into boxes along with the sweat of men's brows who know nothing of English and everything about fear of a uniform.
Now the sun is beginning to sink into the West, and the four-lane highway turns into a two-lane hilly road, and then just a gravel road as we reach the small farmhouse where my aunt and uncle live. Great joy and excitement at our arrival, but the question is soon asked: “How's the hunting? Where have the pheasants been seen?” And the shotguns are placed at the ready again, this time leaning against the crude pine planks on the back porch.
Another dawn approaches, and I pull on layer after layer of clothes. The guns are collected once more, and mine seems to quiver in my hands in anticipation. Then we are in the fields of brown, dried cornstalks and piled up remainders of the summer’s harvest. Slowly stepping through the fields, shivering in the cold and excitement, practicing perfect attention to every snap and rustle as we go.
Suddenly, there is an explosion of sound as large wings beat the air and a magnificent rust brown, green-necked pheasant bursts from the brush just a few feet in front of me. Instantly I raise the shotgun to my shoulder, tracking the bird in flight, leading just the right amount as my father taught me – and watch mesmerized at this magnificent sight.
BOOMI BOOM! My father's 12 gauge speaks loudly to my right, and the poetry I am watching disintegrates into a cloud of feathers and falls heavily to the earth. "You can't wait," admonishes my father. We run to the spot where the bird has fallen; there are but a few spasms of the beak and legs, then the eyes close and all is still.
I know I should be happy. Now the hunt had been successful, and this thanksgiving table will have a plate of fresh pheasant. Still, there is this persistent little voice: “I wish he had missed...."
I never went hunting again with my father, despite his anger and disappointment. For years, I judged that experience as bad and wished I could forget it. Today, as I look out the frosted window at another cold, snowy Thanksgiving morning, I hear Zen Master Dogen's words, "Flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds grow with our aversion," and I place my palms together and Gasho to that magnificent creature who died that day that my consciousness might begin the path to awakening, and to my father who planted and nourished the many seeds that lead me to another teacher who speaks again of meticulous attention and reverence.
© 1996 Roger Voight
Roger lives near Munich, Germany and provides training and coaching in personal effectiveness, conflict management and communication. He divides his free time between bicycling, aikido, gardening, painting, and discovering the joys of being alive. He wrote "The Hunt" as a Thanksgiving piece for his Zen teacher.