The big man dropped the tailgate on his truck and opened the box door, beagles spilling out and leaping to the ground in assertive eagerness. The crisp smell of fall with its damp morning kiss, and foliage on a fast track to becoming shades of yellow and crimson in a few more weeks met us as the aforementioned dogs scattered to various compass points.
Two teenagers checked their shotguns, the rack-rack of 20-gauge pumps providing justification that rabbit season was open and we meant business. My friend’s father had trained those dogs all summer long, and if ever there was a morning to prove them—this was it. Maybe I shouldn’t tell this story, because in McNeill, a man and his dogs abide precariously within the realm of the sacred. But it is possible he won’t read this. Maybe he won’t know. A stern man in those days, he’s mellowed over the years. But I’m wise enough not to push those proverbial buttons too hard even now.
Before he could scold us about something we were doing wrong, (we always were in those days) the dogs yelped in the distance; their voices changing in a tenor that was obvious. The first rabbit came barreling through the forest moments later. They are fast creatures when pursued, and on most days the dogs are well behind when they make their appearance. This one picked a route between me and the stern man, and I disappointed him by not taking the shot. As the rabbit sped by, he tracked it with his rifle (adults used rifles) and dropped it moments later as it crossed a fallen log. I felt bad about it for the rest of the morning—I should have taken the shot. Yet I also knew that a shotgun in close quarters can be unforgiving, and my own father had warned me incessantly about pointing one in the general direction of another human. But I always wanted to prove myself to this rough man, and wished from my silent depths that the first rabbit of the day had simply chosen another route.
He retrieved the downed animal and carried it back to the nearby truck without looking at me. Too fast! I thought. Didn’t have time to think. And finally… I let him down. I looked over at my friend, but he was shaking his head, too. I knew he was glad it was me and not him in that situation. Years later I can look back on that moment, assured in the knowledge that I did the right thing. But then as now, I know I should have tracked that rabbit and blasted him when he cleared the area between us. Instead I froze as the moment passed me by, and if I had wanted to make an impression that morning, I surely did.
The dogs, meanwhile, had faded in the distance. We walked silently in the last direction from which we had heard them earlier, but our trek went on a lot longer than it should have. The silence between me and my friend's father was deafening, and the day was already ruined for me. I’d like to say at this point that I got a second chance: we heard the clarion call of the dogs, a big rabbit appeared, and I put him down with a precise shot made with a skill and an accuracy that belied my fourteen years. But it wasn’t to be.
It was hours later when we found those prized beagles—asleep under a tree in the middle of a dormant soy field. The contempt for me and the shot not taken swiftly faded as his anger for the dogs he’d striven so hard and for so many months to train manifested itself. I won’t go into the details; instead I’ll leave it as he was not happy about it and we’ll go from there.
There were other hunting trips, and we took many rabbits over the years from the fields and forests around our small town. The sternness and associated agitation between he and I did not last as I grew older. He taught me many things along the way, both about the great outdoors and life in general. In the end I don’t know if he changed that much or if it was merely a matter of maturity on my part—probably a combination of the two.
We were so different, you see, and so far apart in everything. Polar opposites. So why did he accept me and befriend me in the first place—a boy with too much hair and crazy ideas that usually didn’t line up with the standards held dearest to his own heart? I guess it was my friendship and closeness to his son that mattered the most. That son and I remain close to this day, and as a result, my relationship continues with his father—and we’re on good terms.
John writes: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” It is on account of my relationship with G_d’s Son, that He accepts me today despite all of my faults and misgivings. Without that personal relationship with Jesus, I’d be just another lost soul out there on the highways and byways of life who missed the mark or didn’t take the shot—searching in vain for an impossible way to make things right with G_d.