It was the usual rite of a rural upbringing, and the time had come for my father and me to take part in it ourselves. When I was 11, he took me to the end of the cornfield, set up a hubcap and had me shoot at it.
The shock of a 20-gauge is dazing the first time, and it takes a boy the next handful of shots to unlearn flinching when he pulls the trigger. Nonetheless, much like how I was shown everything else on the farm, my father had me do it once before we went into the woods to hunt squirrels.
Like the rest of rural America, true enthusiasm lies in deer hunting, while squirrels were a boy’s game. Squirrels cavorted in the woods for the purpose of the young to learn how to handle a shotgun, giving them a target worth pursuing. The letter of the law in New York reads that one isn’t allowed to hunt small game until they are 12 – and only with a parent.
I had the sense that other boys also went out with their fathers before that age, as it was generally agreed upon but never spoken out loud that such laws were to protect urban hunters from themselves when they came into the area.
We soon came upon a fat gray squirrel climbing a tree 10 yards away. It froze when it saw me. I aimed, pulled the trigger – and watched it scurry out of view. “Do you think I got it?” I asked my father.
My father stayed in and watched football most weekends after that, but I went back to the woods every Sunday – and sometimes on Saturday if I could get away with it. The next figure seems like a myth, but I’m fairly confident in its verisimilitude: I missed the next 21 squirrels I shot at. It may be the earliest example I can point to of a truth I would eventually come to know well – namely, that I start off extremely badly at everything I do.
I still know the exact branch in the woods where I shot the first squirrel. I nearly ran home with it, the heft of it swinging in a plastic grocery bag. I didn’t know how to best commemorate the moment, so I cut off its tail and nailed it to a piece of plywood. Eventually, the plywood would be covered with the tails of gray squirrels, with dates written below them in marker.
Looking back now it appears like a grotesque act, but it seemed important at the time to keep count in some way. What I was really tallying, however, I’m still not sure, whether of some form of progress or a childhood passing.
Squirrels are a fair bit of work for the meat one gets, but my bigger problem was that my mother wouldn’t allow me to bring them in the house. Eventually, I took them to my grandmother’s place, who reluctantly helped me put them into soup. It seemed like an unlikely and heavily providential gift when my grandfather’s hired hand agreed to take all the squirrels I shot home with him to feed to his grandmother.
Not only did I not have to skin the squirrels myself, they were going to feed an elderly woman who, if she was eating squirrels every weekend, probably didn’t have a great life. Only in writing this down now do I suspect that maybe my grandfather forced his hired hand to pretend to take my squirrels, keeping them from coming in his own house.
I persisted in squirrel hunting for a while, even as age dictated that I move onto large game. In everyone’s eagerness for shooting deer, squirrel hunting remained something apart for myself. It was a way for me to know our land on my own terms. I had my own places I would walk and my own thoughts about them.
One of the things I have to show for it is a stuffed black squirrel I have in my room back home. It is the first black squirrel anyone in our family had seen on our farm, and it was still twitching in the back of my coat pocket when I brought it home, so excited was I. I had done something no other man in my family had done.
Still today, the smell of gunpowder and the weight of a squirrel in hand are sensory details of my upbringing. When I explain it to people around me now, they first can’t believe that an 11-year-old would be running around on his own with a shotgun and, second, that a person would eat squirrels.
Squirrel hunting is still something I point to in order to explain my childhood. The idea of it seems to carry an explanation in itself.
I went back home last Christmas. Before leaving, I got out the shotgun again. It wasn’t small-game season, but then again, I wasn’t a city person who those rules applied to. I made one of my old loops through several woods, but it wasn’t until the last gully before the dry cow pasture that I heard a squirrel rustling. I saw it and drew upon it immediately – but didn’t shoot.
I don’t know why. Instead I crouched down and watched it. It stopped, perched on a branch and then disappeared around an apple tree. When my father asked later, I told him I didn’t see anything, and he remarked how that was a shame. I told myself it would have been too much work to skin it anyway, but there might have been something more to it. In any case, the squirrel must still be there now, lucky not to have any rural childhoods occurring around it.
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.