So it was that night last season in Lavaca County with my son and two of his friends. So it will be, I pray, for thousands of years to come. No one was anxious for a video game that evening; no one wished to be back home or watch TV. The trip back would come soon enough, so "bedtime" didn't exist. The hypnotic magnetism of the campfire bound us close together and we drew it in like a precious breath.
That wonderful night, like so many others, remains tightly locked in our memory banks. And even now, some five months before deer season opens, we anticipate the ritual with an eagerness that can only come from having been there before.
So many children, so many grown men and women, have yet to go there. In the midst of a 100,000-acre wonderland like the Rocker B or the tiny confines of an urban state park, the effect is still the same.
Our kids are troubled, as well they should be. The punks they deal with today are armed with more than fists, and their appreciation of life has withered with the years in the face of a numbed society. They're just kids, I tell them, kids who in all likelihood have never in their lives had someone take the time to sit them down by a fire and let them speak their minds, to tell of their problems and have an elder sit and listen without judgment or interruption.
We cannot, I tell them, cure all the ills of the world. We can't explain the hypocrisy of Hollywood, where one day an Uzi-packing movie star guns down a dozen innocent people in the first few minutes of a cellophane universe and the next day shows up on a cable talk show to warn us of the inherent danger of owning a gun.
No one pulls the trigger nowadays; just listen to the media. The gun, they tell us, simply "went off," as if some evil and unseen force somehow centered the sights and squeezed the trigger. How can we make sense of it all, tell them what it means and why it happens and then send them back to a schoolyard that might someday become a bloody battleground?
I can't. I suspect no one can.
I do know, however, that the unholy scenes which erupted in Jonesboro, Ark., Springfield, Ore., Littleton, Colo. and so many other unseemly places frighten us to the core. It's not the guns which mortify us so; had it been, we would have witnessed a litany of schoolyard shootings in the "Old West" that so many now condemn.
Did the "Cowboy Way" die with Gene Autrey? Are hunters, and the children they raise to respect and revere life, to blame for the terrible change? No more, I assure the boys, than the fact that cars exist is to blame for all the innocents who have been taken from their families by drivers who couldn't separate the whiskey bottle from the steering wheel.
Self-esteem? You have to earn it, I tell them. No one can just give it to you. Respect for life? Perhaps you won't fully understand that, either, until you've dropped the hammer, walked up on a dead animal and realized that unlike computer game characters, the creature you have shot will not return to life.
Native Americans believed that a successful hunter should never brag of his kills, that to do so would bring the spirit of the creature back upon him to trouble his soul forever. The children I've taken afield aren't troubled by the animals they've killed and eaten. If anything, the ritual of hunting has shown them that there's a finite and irreversible line between life and death which we should respect and revere like nothing else on earth.
Tomorrow, perhaps, we will shoot a doe for the freezer. Or maybe, as the unsuspecting animal stands transfixed in the crosshairs, we will choose not to. Either way, we will gather that night around a gently glowing fire and tell each other of our decisions. Much more often than not, we speak of that which we had the privilege of seeing and in our fascination left alone. There are ethical, good people who hunt and kill animals, and there are those whose very presence in the woods through their own shameful actions seriously threaten our hunting heritage.
There are people who choose to hunt, and those who do not. Neither is right; neither is wrong. It's not for us to judge, for judgment isn't ours. We take our actions, good or bad, with us to our graves. And someday, with any luck at all, our children and theirs will gather 'round a fire just like this one and remember us with pride.
The embers finally turn gray, and the four of us hit the sack. Dawn will break before we know it, and with it a full day of decisions we can choose to make, right or wrong .
Minutes later, nestled tight in sleeping bags and listening to the excited yapping of coyote packs less than a mile away, one of the boys speaks up.
"Know how to restart that fire?" he asks.
"No, tell me."
"You just need to hit Control/Alt/Delete," he answers.
After the outburst of laughter and a subsequent silence, we are all fast asleep, with only our consciousness to keep us.
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