Guns formed me—there’s no denying it. They worked on my body, bruising it in all the right places. Recoil and report learned they couldn’t scare me off. Each weapon wrote angry truth on me. Some boys take their licks after school, perhaps fending off bullies, perhaps bullying others. But I got my knocks from a Remington. The act of being hit and hitting back are two sides of the same conversation, and there are plenty of things to learn from what that kind of language has to say given enough time, attentiveness, and grit.
The men of my family, the distinct personalities who have made me who I am, were found parts jammed into rough agreement. My uncle was my substitute father. Why he took on that role, I’ve never been completely sure. Perhaps it was to have a captive pupil, someone to drag along to Civil War battlefield sites so he could teach the legacy of defeat. Or maybe it was simply to fill out his bachelor life, turn back middle-aged loneliness with the added bonus of feeling like he was helping his sister. Those two rarely spared a kind word for one another, but I suppose both were getting something out of the arrangement, and there was never much argument about how I would spend my weekends. My father had never been around other than for a couple of halfhearted visitations, and when I was seven, a cousin told me that he’d died. At the time, I didn’t think to ask what from.
So my uncle took on the business of raising me up. I adopted his habits, aped his mannerisms. His obsessions became mine. Few men in this life have enjoyed handling guns as much as he did. Evenings before the television were spent with disassembled Marlins, Brownings, and Smith and Wessons, both long guns and short. He showed me how to punch bores with wire brushes and then follow through with cleaning patches folded into the shape of soft diamonds. The way the guns gleamed afterward gave me a sense of something shared, something mutually accomplished.
And then there was the firing range. The practice of shooting and the need to belong to a proper idea of manhood were quickly soldered in me. A day spent on the firing line shooting at beer bottles on an empty power line let me know something about myself, about how well I could accept the punishment of a rifle’s kickback. That moment of composure and necessary self-mastery as I touched the tip of my finger to the trigger was everything. The reckless, urgent violence belonged to the bullet. The control was mine alone.
As I got older, I was brought along on hunts, made part of the deer camp. I worked hard, cleared brush by hand, carried salvage lumber, ripped down rotten deer stands. This earned my place and guaranteed I had a bunk and access to as many practice rounds as I needed. We hunted in the mornings and evenings, but the middle of the day was devoted to target practice.
I learned the geometry of aligning iron sights and scopes to the strike of the bullet on distant targets. I perfected my form, the consistency of execution. The rifle was held exactly the same during each shot—the angle of the sight to the eye, the tension in the grip, the meld of the cheek to the butt stock—so that the rounds appeared within a tolerable distance of one another on the target. These groupings, usually three shots, had to be close enough to one another to be covered with a quarter in order to take a worthwhile measurement. Then it was only a matter of a few clicks on the rear sight V-notch, and another round or two to confirm a cut of the bull’s eye.
I was patient in my apprenticeship. I liked gaining the confidence and readiness of excellent marksmanship. The crack and hard follow on of the rifle or pistol doing what it was meant to do split through everything else. The practice of putting rounds on target was pure definition.
When as a teenager, I learned that my father had killed himself, I didn’t feel grief. There was no center for emotion, no entry point for trauma. Life doesn’t yield such psychic conveniences. It was only another story, a blur in the fog. But today, whenever I pick up a rifle and sight, I cannot help but think of my father. I cannot forget the shot he took, a shotgun in the mouth, leaving the simple matter that comprised his character on the bathroom tile. The fact of it grows larger as I grow older, as I near the age he was at the time of his death. One day I will be older than my father ever was. I often wonder what shade of wisdom I should have gained by that time.
When my uncle was a boy, he learned to disappoint his father, the same way his father had been a disappointment in turn, by the simple fact of being who he was. For starters, they bore the same name: William Virgil Dodd. My grandfather was a junior, my uncle the third. Though I only knew my grandfather the last seven years of his life, the old man made a strong impression on me. He was largely kind and patient, instructive, bearing himself like he knew I was paying close attention. Even in retirement, he worked hard, picking up odd jobs in the community, employing his natural handiness in small tasks, mostly in barter. Our family never lacked for seafood suppers because of the door repair he did for a local restaurant. The delivery men were hard on screen doors apparently. He showed me how to tie a neck tie and use a carpenter’s square. He read Br’er Rabbit stories to me before we took afternoon naps together in the long Georgia afternoons.
But like most of the Dodd men, my grandpa was prone to bouts of drunkenness, crawling through the house on all fours and hollering, pained by the chemical madness afflicting his better reason. My grandmother tried to shelter me from his fits, but I saw more than the adults believed I did. I don’t remember feeling frightened, only betrayed by the realization that he was the helplessly contradictory mess that real people always are.
Sometimes, when he was of a calmer turn, he brought me into his bedroom where we would eat canned ravioli and Vienna sausages he kept in his louvered closet. He avoided my grandmother as much he could, the best parts of their marriage broken long before by terrible fighting and resentment, and he kept this space as his own private larder. While we ate, he would tell me stories, often about hunts he had gone on, taking my uncle along with him. They would drive to the mountains of north Georgia in the fall, pitching great canvas tents under skies so cold they seemed on the verge of cracking. I would imagine deer bounding across ridgelines, bears tiptoeing through sleeping camps, their nostrils wide and hot. And then I would see my male kin moving out through this strange wilderness, rifles and scatterguns tilting from their shoulders as they went out into the woods together.
When my uncle told me many of these stories years later, they took on a different cast. He recalled many of the same events, but in his versions he was always alone, circumscribed. He spoke of “Daddy,” but there was a distinct if fond sadness in his tone. There was no doubt that some profound break had occurred. My uncle was a mercurial and weak man, and his capacity to turn against those who had stood by him in the most difficult of times never failed to rob him of the kind of deep loyalty he desired. The few instances I remember of my uncle and grandfather together in the same room are colored with a kind of gloom and silence that spoke of some weight beyond my knowledge. Later, I would hear of drunken quarrels that devolved into fistfights and possibly weapons drawn, but I never learned the specifics of this discord. I still marvel at how dissimilar they were from each other, as much as I am now from them.
While my uncle had been a veteran of Vietnam, my grandfather never served in the military, having been too old to be drafted during World War II. It’s tempting to speculate on the tension this might have caused between them, but despite knowing how often the two could scrap like two cocks in a pit fight, I never remember my uncle being anything other than a grown-up little boy around his father. There was always something desperate in him, something frantic for approval, a desire to have his manhood confirmed. Even the military and a foreign war hadn’t been enough to give him that.
The three of us made only one hunt together. It was in the early spring, turkey season, the spring before my grandfather would collapse from a stroke in the middle of the night, quietly dying while I slept down the hall. I was staying with him and my grandmother a lot then. He would take me into the back lot and show me how to shoot squirrels and check them for wolf worms before skinning the critters out.
He and I were working outside mowing grass on his riding silver lawnmower when my uncle swung up the rutted drive in his Cadillac Eldorado, bouncing twice hard before kicking gravel across the grass in a sudden stop.
“Pack your gear,” he said, half breathless. “The woods are slap full of gobblers.”
My grandfather threw the mower’s shift into neutral and cut the engine.
“It’s the right time of year for it, I guess,” he said.
“I’m telling you, Daddy. You’ve never seen anything like it. I must have had half a dozen birds within range.”
The old man glanced over his shoulder and squinted.
“That right? Where they at then?”
My uncle ignored this jab, telling us to hurry up. Pretty soon the prospect was too much for my grandfather to pass up. We went into the house, made a phone call to my mother to tell her we’d be out of touch overnight, equipped ourselves with camouflage, thermoses, box calls, shotguns, and shells. Within the hour, we were clearing commuter traffic, headed south for the promised land my uncle claimed to have discovered.
We got in late, too late to even step into the woods for any afternoon scouting. It was nearly twilight, and storm clouds were gathering low and hot. You could feel the menace of electric turbulence coming on. We hurried into the longhouse and dumped the Piggly Wiggly groceries on a mildewed card table. Just as we got settled, the sky simply opened, the rain falling straight down and heavy. It struck the tin roof like something it meant to crush.
After we’d eaten steaks off a hibachi grill with some mixed potatoes and onions, we moved out to the covered porch area, though it lacked anything in the way of flooring, and the water in the yard ran up under our boots so that we sloshed mud whenever we ventured a few steps. Lightning bleached everything. My uncle unscrewed the cap on a plastic traveler of Jim Beam. It passed back and forth between the two men while I listened to the language in their mouths turn to gum. I knew it was time to go to bed when they began cursing under their breath, eyes bright in the strobe.
There was a buried anger between them that terrified me, the same kind of rage and capacity to hate that lives in me as a grown man. It’s easy to blame so much on event and circumstance, but I can’t know what causes this darkness in my family, why we wreck our bodies and minds with alcohol and self-pity. Something burns in us. Dodd men hold up a mirror to each other by the very fact of their existence, and the similarities we see in each other expose this confusion, this lack. This was what I saw between my uncle and grandfather. They could not forgive each other for the things they had in common, just as they could never stop loving each other for the same reason. The woods and the hunt were their escape from a world that seemed increasingly foreign and indifferent to their deepest identity. They were trapped together finally by the same passion.
As a grown man, I suffer many of my uncle’s and grandfather’s fundamental incompleteness, but the fruits of my experience have borne themselves distant from their roots. Like them, I have managed my relationships with those I love poorly. I have seen how this has affected my own son in particular. He has too often been a second thought in my life, deferred by abstractions that seemed so important at the time. I expect a toughness in him that he shouldn’t have to take on as his own. Also, the dangerous loneliness and distorted suffering that drinking causes has been part of my failures as a human being. I have the same capacity for acrimony and bitterness they did. And I’ve seen what it is to fall short of my ideas of what a good man should be. There are fewer moments more profoundly desperate in a life than that. I hope it was the same for them. I want to believe that the ache of their deficit testified to the worthiness of what they were trying to become, but it’s hard to be sure.
Perhaps that’s where the greatest departure was. Even as a boy, I understood that I moved through the world differently. There was caution in my actions, weight in my hesitation. I find great importance in the well-balanced moment. There is beauty in comprehending the absolute complexity of a specific etch in time, irreversible and potent. These men never seemed to grasp that regret might numb them to what remained of their lives. They simply collided with one another, fiercely opposite wills playing out against mutual antagonism. The conflict itself was reflexive, mindless. The real violence between them was in its essential meaninglessness. They battered each other because it was a way to injure themselves, and that was ultimately the only way they knew to wait out death.
I am terrified of not only death, but also emptiness. I want to find the hidden corrections that will make my life matter, wherever they may lie. I believe they can be found somewhere in the coolness of self-possession. I am still looking, still trying to catch my breath.
When he was eight, I took my son Ethan to a deer camp in Columbus, Georgia. The Chattahoochee River to the west is big and brown, a slow border with Alabama. The lease was one of many within a large tract of land exploited by the Mead paper company. The reclamation pine was all straight and tall, simple vertical strokes on the landscape. These trees, too, would likely be harvested in time, the thinned forest razed for cheap pulpwood. It was more a farm than a true hunting ground. Small particleboard cabins had been set up where the various hunt clubs held their leases. My uncle and his longtime hunting buddy, Charlie, had hauled down a small camper on wheels and built a longhouse around it, bolting the exterior walls and roof in place so that the entire structure could be disassembled and moved if the lease wasn’t renewed the following season.
I looked forward to taking Ethan out in the woods to see what we might see. Then, later, we could shoot for a while. Ethan and I were up earlier than the others the next morning. I wanted to clear camp before my uncle and Charlie had time to wake up and slow us down with their coffee and cigarettes. I wanted to give my son a chance to have a better understanding of who I was and how the woods could be so important to a boy. He was quiet as we mounted the trail, but he often is, and he seemed good-natured about tramping out into the crisp predawn dark. That spoke well of him. He wanted to commit himself to the hunt without complaint. He wanted to be part of the same life I did.
By first light, we had settled into a ground blind, sitting only a few feet apart. We each passed the morning with a book, reading a few lines and pausing to scan the woods, watch the early fog rise. Since he was first able to read, Ethan has been able to immerse himself in books. He is studious and focused in a way I admire. I’ve always been hectic in my attention, putting down a book after a couple of minutes to think about what has passed under my eye. It’s odd to recognize some quality in your child that in no sense belongs to you. There, in the enigma of individual character, might be the reason we really desire to have children. Not so much to guarantee a better future as to experiment with a different set of personalities, to see how the world might turn out under the guidance of hands that aren’t our own.
Shortly after ten, we heard footfalls. I placed my hand on Ethan’s shoulder. He carefully folded his book and sat waiting. In a clearing no farther than twenty yards away, a fox appeared. It is so often like this in the woods. You are still and expectant for so long, surrounded by ambient sounds that may suggest the possibility of game but almost always end up being the scratching of squirrels or the slow welter of blown leaves. And then, apparition-like, something lovely simply happens. The fox nosed along the trail, alert but unaware of us. I could feel the gathering energy inside of Ethan, the appreciation he felt for the creature. A sight that was completely outside of his expectations, made live and immediate.
It reminded me of a hunt I’d made when I was close to his age, twenty years earlier. My uncle had taken me to the Bankhead National Forest in the foothills of northwestern Alabama. It had been a leafy spring, and we’d chased wild turkey for several days before finally sighting one the last morning of the trip. He was a big tom who answered quickly to every little scrape and click on my uncle’s calling box. Somehow, I’d managed to spot him before my uncle had. When I whispered that the bird was in view he didn’t believe me. To show him, I pointed the turkey out. For years afterward, he blamed the loss of the bird on my movement, the animal’s natural spookiness assigned to the inexperience of the boy he’d brought along. It became a missed opportunity for him, but for me, the turkey was a mystic connection. I wanted the fox to be the same for Ethan.
When we got back to camp, my uncle and Charlie were back from their stands and were drinking their mid-day beers. After a while, we brought out all the rifles and pistols, and spread them on a table that signified the firing line. I laid out the Browning .22 lever action. I planned to give Ethan the rifle, and I believed this would be the proving grounds he needed in order to understand what the gift meant. It had been mine since I was a teenager, and I thought it was time he had part of that history for himself.
Yet when the time came and the empty beer bottles were placed against the backstop, anxiety crept in. I was not ready to see him taking the rifle in his hands, handling it with the maturity and respect I knew I could trust him to have. He laid his cheek to the stock and sighted, but the rifle seemed an awkward match for his frame. He jerked the trigger and the round winged off into the dirt. I told him to try again with the same result: a jet of dust where the slug had hit short.
I stepped aside, forsaking my position over his shoulder, the place where I was supposed to stand and advise him to hold low, release his breath, and squeeze the trigger until the report surprised him. I became suddenly aware of emptiness in the litany of marksmanship. I knew that no matter how many times I repeated the particular phrases of shooting technique to my son, they could never mean the same thing to him as they did to me, and that in fact there was a fallacy there that I’d failed to acknowledge. I realized, too, that I didn’t want him to have that knowledge. My love of the gun wasn’t something I wanted him to inherit. Such a love brought burdens that I couldn’t wish on him.
That was the last time I took Ethan shooting.
It can become so easy to construct an opinion about something when the pieces aren’t coming together like they should. But congruence is not so simple. There are hidden flaws, always. Those broken lines are where we can sneak up on truth, ambush all the easy deceptions.
This is the memory that interfered with shooting that day with my son: I had just turned eighteen and had some money in my pocket. Now that I was legal, I needed to exercise that legality in any way I could. Surplus military weapons had flooded the American market in the wake of the civil wars in what had been Yugoslavia; they were available in most department stores with a sporting-goods section. I drove out to the local Goody’s and looked over what they had in stock. I still had a couple of guns my uncle had given me over the years, but they had lost their luster. I needed something new, something militant. These were weapons that had seen the practiced hands of soldiers. They had real bite. I handled one of the Mausers, weighed its substantial heft. Perhaps it had been blooded. Perhaps it had killed more than targets and mere game. I paid in cash and carried it home.
I had nothing to hunt. I had moved to a small college town where I knew no one. I attended classes at the community college and stayed indoors, watched television, read. I had time to think and get bored. I cleaned the rifle, ran through the rituals of handling it for the sake of possession.
It is so dangerous to become shaped by our family history. The attraction of repeating old sins should never be discounted. There’s a powerful physics there that’s hard to take seriously because it seems limited by its source in something as transient as imagination. But it’s there, real and immediate as the air we breathe. When I first learned of my father’s suicide, I wondered what it would be like to step inside a room and know you would never leave it. People often revile suicides as cowards and egomaniacs, but I’ve never felt that was true. Such explanations seem facile and self-interested. Like Hamlet, I admire the will of the suicide, the furious sense of purpose and the commitment to private act. A person’s death is poignantly their own. It isn’t an object lesson.
As a teenager, I thought I was a depressed person, one who lived with a destructive symbiont. I thought it was inevitable that I would face a rifle bore. The actual idea of firing a gun into my skull seemed so abstract that it wasn’t frightening. Instead, I saw the trigger as the purest relationship between action and effect. God and ghost.
But over the years, the answer of the gun became closer, more focused and more disturbing. I realized that I had come closer to suicide through the simple act of concentration. I wanted to join the fatal moment, and in wanting it, I had built a different impulse into my psychic makeup. The gun was more than an object. It had become a totem, a door into myself and my father. Opening that door was just a matter of a few acts, so final and simple in their arrangement as to seem sacred.
I opened the action of the Mauser and inserted a single cartridge in the chamber, rode the bolt forward until the brass disappeared within its mechanics. The thing was loaded, absolute. I flipped the safety free and put the barrel in my mouth, leaned my head against the sheetrock. This was the true and awful eroticism of the weapon. The idea of the gun had bent me to it, hobbled me to a single moment. There had never been another way. The squeeze of the trigger was irrelevant. I was nothing in its magnitude.
There is a basic lie burrowed within all the codified and reasonable principles of handling a gun. It is that the tool handler controls the tool. But that isn’t the case. We cannot move through our lives without suffering the many small damages of what we can’t control. We are constructed by a chaotic string of events, deep randomness. We are battered by the things we make, and our logic is dependent on frames of reference that are in perpetual drift. The appealing fiction of the clean, professional shot is that it essentially tells a story. The repetition and patterning of those grouped rounds argue for the roles of habit and stability, which of course have very little to do with the way we actually live.
That day with Ethan, as we drove home, I knew I was lucky that my son was who he was, and that I had the sense not to try and change that. To force the gun on him would have been a double crime, of both imposition and carelessness. Fathers are heartless in what they can inflict out of a desire to be the kind of man they believe their sons will admire. I have tried, instead, to become the kind of man I should be. I hope that he can see that.
I still try to take Ethan to the woods when I can, though we don’t hunt or shoot targets together. I think he humors my love of the outdoors, the fly-fishing, canoeing, and bird-watching that are my passions. His love of the natural world is different. He is a friend to any household or stockyard animal. It wouldn’t surprise me if he ends up an ethical vegetarian when he’s grown. We both wept openly when we had to have our dog Tessa put down last winter. It’s one of the few times we’ve hugged that I can remember.
I talk to him sometimes about hunting, but I never seem to get around to the actual planning of a trip because I think the idea is more appealing than the act. It’s impossible to know what it would be like for him now that he’s almost sixteen, how he would meet the challenge of lifting a rifle at a living thing. I’m not sure how I would fare now, either. It would be different from when I was a boy and killed deer. It would be harder. I think that’s a good thing.
But I am certain that if he did touch the trigger and ended a life, he would cry. He would weep as much as he did the day our old sweet Tessa dog died on the veterinarian’s table. I’m proud to know this about him. I believe it speaks well of a man to cry for an animal he has killed.