Sunday, November 3, 2013

Finally Bagged One

When I was young, the woods were my playground. I fished, burned things, made slingshots and bows. I used my scout knife to whittle absurdly sharp arrows that flew sideways and broke with astonishing ease. Which was cool. Because I liked whittling arrows.

I was a strange kid, which is kind of like saying 'I am a person who eats food', but it is true. I was a strange kid. I wanted, more than anything, to be rooted to a place. To not move all the time. And yet I was obsessed with birds. So, perhaps I just wanted to be untethered, but led by my own capriciousness, not the whim of the United States Government. 

I read about birds obsessively. I spent hours looking through my mom's old field guides and I looked for hawks everywhere I went. And I always saw them first. And my folks called me 'eagle eye'. And they were right. 

Raptors were my favorite. I stared at glossy pictures for hours. I can't remember what I thought about when I looked at the birds. Maybe I thought about nothing, which would certainly have been a relief. In hindsight, I worshipped hawks. They were beautiful, but strong. They were agile, but deadly. They were free to fly wherever they wanted, soaring on updrafts. They did not worry about where they would be moving next. They did not need friends. They were probably the closest thing to being free that my mind could comprehend at six years old. They were my heroes.

As I got older, I got better at making bows. I learned to make thicker arrows that flew straight because I notched feathers into the butt ends. When I was ten or so, I asked Santa Claus for a real bow. A compound bow that would send arrows into the heavens, straight and fast, plunging back to earth like a Peregrine Falcon.

My Dad bought me a BB gun. I don't know why. I really wanted a bow, but I was not disappointed for long. I was too young to understand that guns could be anything other than fun. And I was a good shot. Eagle eye, they called me, remember? I made a shooting range in our garage and it was a good BB gun. Pretty soon, I could shoot the flame off a candle. 

My sister was older than I was and she did not want to fly; she wanted to find a book that never ended. A wonderful book that would stay with her, day after day. Year after year. She did not understand that her spastic brother, four years junior, just wanted to talk to someone. She was the only one who was experiencing anything close to what I felt. But she did not want to talk. She wanted to read and to be left alone.

There were many things that I considered a game that my sister did not. I wanted someone to play with. She did not. I wanted someone to tell me that it sucked that we had to move so much. She wouldn't. I was annoying. She knew how to stop it. Fast. My stomach still clenches when I think about it. 

I loved the gun. I loved the gun because I was a good shot. I loved the gun in that way young boys have of imagining things that will never be. Things that I didn't even want. Things I thought I should want. 

I shot through BBs by the hundred. I also clipped Q-tips in half so I could shoot the gun inside. Tamped down the end of the barrel, ten pumps, that Q-tip would fly a good twenty feet. And it would fly straight, especially when wetted with Juicy Fruit spit. 

So, I shot Q-tips at my sister. It wasn't a cool thing to do. It didn't hurt, but it violated a lot of things. It involved pointing a gun at my sister. It was wasteful. It was immature. It was everything that I was not supposed to be. It was careless.

I don't think my sister ever said anything because I don't remember getting in trouble, and I still have the gun. It would have been taken. No doubt. I don't know why my sister didn't tell anyone. Maybe for the same reason I never said that every argument ended with me in the fetal position crying, the ache inside me spreading.

Things escalate. That would be a pretty good subtitle for the autobiography I will never write. The story of JD Mader - "Things Escalate". 

I never had a pet when I was a kid and I didn't really like animals without wings. I mean, I didn't dislike them, but I also didn't feel bad shooting my neighbor's cat in the ass. One pump. Cat took off like a bottle rocket. I never would have hurt an animal. I shot myself point blank with one pump all the time. In the foot. The stomach. Sometimes the temple. The eyelid, once. I knew the cat would be fine. It's not one of my prouder moments, but I wasn't one of those kids who tortured animals. There was enough torture going around.

I don't remember when I started shooting at the grackles and black birds that sat in the top of pine trees, level with my bedroom window on the second floor. I shot at them with Q-tips and they rarely moved. Sometimes, I would get close enough that they would flap away, indignant. I only did this when my parents were gone. I'd smoke cigarettes on the roof and shoot Q-tips out my window. 

I have no idea what compelled me to load the gun with BBs. I suppose, since I had never come close with a Q-tip ... maybe I didn't make the connection. Maybe the candle flames had been snuffed in my mind as they had been in the garage. All I know is that, one day, I loaded the BB gun, pumped it ten times, aimed at a black bird high in the tree and barely visible - an impossible shot - and I pulled the trigger. Just as I had been taught to do. Just how I'd practiced. I held my breath with one eye closed and gently squeezed.

When the bird fell, I was dumfounded. It spiraled to earth like the ducks on Duck Hunt. My heart stopped. I dropped the gun and ran to the yard as fast as I could. The bird was still alive. I had hit it in the eye, and it was bloody, gasping. Suddenly, the boy that I thought I was evaporated. Because the boy that I thought I was would never have shot a bird. And if he did, and it didn't die, he would have put it out of its misery. Like a man.

The boy that I was did something I will never forgive him for. He ran inside and got two plastic bags. He put the bird in the bags. He watched it open and close its beak, making intricate patterns in the blood that smeared the inside of the plastic. 

The bird wouldn't die. 

I didn't know what to do. The gun was upstairs. I was in the yard, tears streaming down my face, a dying bird suffocating in my hand. I remember thinking how beautiful the ink black feathers were. 

I dug in the dirt with my hands, frantic. I tore my fingernails and pulled roots and stones from beneath my mother's favorite bush. I put the bird inside the grave, still alive when I put it in the ground. Still alive when I scooped handfuls of dirt on it. Still alive when I went upstairs and washed my hands and put the BB gun in the back of my closet. I knew I would not get caught and that was the worst part. 

I know the bird died eventually, but in my mind, it will always be under eight inches of dirt, gasping, eyeless, with it's head pressed against bloody Zip-Lock.


  1. The flow of the words *compel* a person to keep reading. You've got a magical gift.

  2. Definitely. I could not stop reading if I wanted to.

  3. I think I know that feeling -the shock at your own thoughtlessness, at the discovery that you can be 'that kind of person'. It happened to me wh I was eight. My sister was six. She had a doll - a Betsy Wetsy (for those old enough to remember). She got hers before I got mine so mine was newer. I had begged for it and finally got it for Christmas. I coveted my doll more than anything.

    One day I was angry at my sister. the reason is long forgotten. But in my rage I took her doll and lobbed it as hard as I could down the basement stairs. The moving eyes fell back into its head, broken. I cannot explain the shock I felt, or the remorse. I imagine it is the same feeling you felt when you shot that bird.

    I did my best to repair that doll, taping its eyes back in place, but of course they no longer opened and closed. But my shame and my remorse were so acute that I offered to swap dolls with my sister, to give her my most treasured possession, really the only one I truly loved. To this day I don't know if she refused the offer to make me feel worse or if she genuinely loved her 'own' doll better in spite of the injury. I'm afraid to ask her. I still feel that guilt.

    1. Yes! There are some things we will never forgive ourselves for. It is the ones who don't feel the guilt that scare the hell out of me.

  4. Reading that piece got me thinking about my own childhood:

    A cornfield can be anything when you're 8 or 10, young and foolish.

    You are a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition making your way across a continent. Maybe in the morning you are Dr Livingstone exploring the Nile, carving through the jungle. Hunger overcomes you and the natives provide a lunch of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. After lunch you decide you are now Stanley, searching for Livingstone.

    A cornfield can be anything because it is nothing. It is blank. An all encompassing sameness. It is whatever you want it to be.

    Will you focus on the soft kiss of the corn silk against your bare skin as you carefully make your way between the stalks?


    Maybe you focus on the brittle sharpness of the dried husks that cut your bare skin as you careen madly through it.

    It's nice to be 8 or 10, young and foolish. Inevitably though, time passes. If you're very, very lucky, one day you will wake to realize that you can be old and foolish too.

    A cornfield can be anything when you're 8 or 10.....or 56.

    1. Wonderful. And the same can be said about a blank page. I love both. :)

  5. I was introduced to firearms at a young age.  I can remember my first BB gun that my Dad bought me.  It was a single pump air rifle.

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