There’s a reason I won’t kill anything. Not even the lowliest cockroach. It comes from a time in my youth when I was supposed to learn how to be a man. I was only about 10, maybe 11. My dad took me dove hunting.
We traipsed through cornfields and through fences. The land was vast, about the biggest thing I ever experienced. I had, of course, seen the plains stretching for miles from behind car windows. I had been in the Missouri woods with my dad deer hunting, freezing late-autumn mornings when my restless kid-self couldn’t sit still or stand the long.
This was different. To be out in so much space, under such a big and unobstructed sky made me feel alien and small. The mere loss of the sense of place intimidated me. The plains stretched out for miles. Even rows of cut corn stalks marched to the horizon. I looked down fencelines that disappeared in the distance.
My dad never killed or even saw a deer when I was with him. I remember him falling asleep up against a tree. Morning was easing into early afternoon. The intense chill of the morning had lifted. I, too, was sleepy. But my unstoppable urge to hold that rifle kept me awake. I so wanted to feel the weight of the gun, to hold it to my shoulder and pretend to shoot at an innocent animal. The rifle just out of my reach, my eyes wandered. The woods awed me, and I reveled in the yawning gap between the forest floor and the canopy.
Since being out in the open was new to me, I felt the edge of adventure beneath my ribs. Fear crept along the collar of my jacket and up the back of my neck. I felt so exposed, as if anything or anyone could swoop down and carry me away.
I carried a shotgun, the first time anyone had tasked me with such a grave responsibility. I itched to use it. We were walking in a group of men. I was the only boy. I felt important, part of a cadre of people who knew something no one else did.
We split apart, each of the men retreating past the hemp and dried Johnson grass along the fencelines and ditches to different parts of the field. A couple walked along the fence toward a shelterbelt, a couple holing up in a copse of oaks and hickories. My dad and I wedged ourselves into a corner where we could see no one behind us. The men in front disappeared.
The day was bright, the sun rising in a wispy blue-and-white sky. We stood in the hemp and waited. This wasn’t like deer hunting. My dad told me stories, which he could never do while hunting deer—silence and stillness being the most important parts of hunting wily, alert deer. Here it didn’t matter that I fidgeted. I could walk around, ask my dad innumerable questions, and shake off the cold.
My dad changed when we went hunting. At home, he was a frustrated, often violent man. Behind his newspaper and beer, children were supposed to keep quiet and let the working man have his relaxation. Out in the cornfield, he was a different man, almost gentle. His instructions on how to raise the shotgun to my shoulder and lead a dove were warm, almost heartfelt. I could feel a sense of pride in me, his boy, going through a ritual that only men shared.
Guns began thumping around us. Flocks of dove swooped in over the shelterbelt and into the field. I heard the pepper of shot falling in the tall grass around us. I had a notion from deer hunting about how dangerous a rifle could be. My dad taught me never to fire a gun into unknown space, the possibility of a bullet hitting someone far outweighing the reward of getting a deer. But here, the men behind us kept shooting and raining shot down on us. Granted, it was falling out of the sky after it lost momentum, but it frightened me all the same. What would I do if someone shot my dad? I suddenly felt very alone while standing there with my dad.
Then, a flock shot out from behind the grass behind us and into the open air. My dad raised his gun and fired one shot. Then, another. Finally, a third. With each of his rounds, he dropped a dove. We walked out into the field to retrieve our birds. They were soft and warm in my hand. There was hardly any blood, the 12-guage shot having hit home and killing the birds immediately. The dead fascinated me. I kept waiting for the wide-eyed birds to flutter, to bob their heads.
This went on for a couple of hours. Not all my dad’s efforts were as successful as the first three. He downed a couple more birds and let me shoot wildly into the sky, allegedly trying to hit a dove. The excitement of raising a gun and firing, feeling the power of the recoil charged my insides.
Winged birds hopped and flopped around, panicked and trying to get away. I thought I could see the fright in their eyes. My dad stooped to pick the injured birds up. Then, he took the heads of them one by one between his bent fore- and second fingers and popped the heads right off, like pulling the flowers off dandelions.
I was horrified but determined not to show my emotions. This was a man’s game and I liked the feeling of being accepted as one of group.
The men gathered back up after a couple of hours, the time for shooting past. As we were walking toward the camp where the men would drink coffee and nap, a flock spiraled into the field above us. Immediately, the guns went up and the shooting began. Out of the six men, they bagged around eight birds. At least three of them were still alive.
Then, my dad handed me a living bird. It quivered in my hand, its feathers the softest thing I’d ever felt.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Pull its head off. One quick motion.”
I stood with the bird in my hands. I could look into its eyes and see the pain, the fright, the helplessness.
“It’s injured,” said one of the men. “You’ve got to put it out of its misery.”
I stood there, surrounded by men who expected me to do what a good hunter would do—end the life of his quarry in a humane and quick way. But I couldn’t pull the head off that dove. I felt embarrassed and hurt.
“My boy,” dad said to the other men, nodding. “He can handle it.”
“Just go ahead and do it,” another of the men said. “It’s over in less than a second.”
“Yeah,” said another, “I doesn’t hurt them. Do it.”
But I couldn’t and then I wouldn’t. I wanted the bird whole again, in flight. I wanted to dial time back a few minutes, a few hours and never have been in that field with a gun, with other hunters.
Finally, after a few minutes, my dad grabbed the bird’s head and popped it off while I still held the dove in my hands.
“Goddammit, son,” he said. “If you’re going to be a man, you gotta do what a man does.”
I began to cry. I didn’t want to be a man. I dropped the gun to the ground and started to run toward the camp. Stumbling over the furrows and tripping on cornstalks, I ran and kept running until my side ached and I couldn’t run anymore.
That was the last time I ever when hunting with my dad. I didn’t ask and he didn’t offer. I wasn’t a hunter. I was unable to look into the eyes of a living thing and do what couldn’t be taken back.
It has always been my way to take spiders outside, scoop up ants and put them on the porch, catch flies, assassin bugs, cinch bugs and June bugs, and let them out the door. I find cockroaches, cast them out the door, and clean so their friends can’t make a living in my house. When fly fishing, I apologize to the trout I catch before I throw them back. I go out of my way to keep from stepping on ants on the sidewalk. I’ll even shoo a biting mosquito before I swat it.
I haven’t eaten meat for 23 years. I avoid leather. I don’t do fur. If I won’t kill even the humblest animal, I refuse to ask anyone to do it for me. It’s my deal. You do what makes your conscience right. For me, I’ll continue walking my street after a rain and return the earthworms to the grass from the wet concrete.