I shot my Dad. Right in the back of the head. It was an accident.
On a quail hunt at 12 years of age my 12-gauge shotgun felt as heavy as an elephant rifle — and as deadly. With six of us in a bowed line we could safely shoot at a certain angle. But, of course, the twists and turns and the snagging brush caused our line to writhe like a drunken snake.
I had excelled at shooting squirrels and rabbits. But a quail shoot was different — more hunters, unknown terrain, prancing dogs. Dad, who had loved hunting since he was younger than I, wanted to pass the thrill of bird-hunting to his sons. In that he succeeded. Especially thrilling for me was the rise of a covey of quail followed by the popping of shotguns, followed by the erratic fall of two-three-four birds. Then some beautiful dog trotting with a quail caressed gently in its mouth. To this day I cannot guess who enjoyed the expedition more: the humans or the dogs. I do know that Dad had passed from the triumph of the shoot to the enjoyment of the dogs. Like connoisseurs lovingly commenting on fine wine, these older men delightedly observed the dogs traversing the field. Hunt, scent, stalk, point followed one upon another like a choreographed ballet. Canine poetry in motion.
For me the great marvel was the flush. Some hunter prodding a bush with a kick would launch the covey. Up the birds would rise in a fluttering, pause midair, then retreat in a collective cloud. Even today the memory of that sound stirs my blood.
On that occasion this covey weirdly rose and flew towards us. Instinctively I raised my weapon, swung right to follow their flight and fired twice, dropping two. My instinct had been honed by months of shooting sheet — the tragic flaw being that skeet never flew into the crowd. Dad’s hand flew to the back of his head. “Damn! You got me, boy.” Turning toward me, the wounds were hidden, but his hand was touched with blood. “Let’s see,” said Uncle Bull, a family friend. “Yep. Gotcha good. Five pellets. Nothin’ deep …, well, I always said you had a hard head. Thanks God for favors.” The question was put to Dad: What to do now? “Well,” he mused, “we came out to shoot. It’s a perfect autumn day. I say we shoot some more birds. Besides,” (and this was classic Dad) “it wouldn’t be fair to the dogs.” A quick field triage and we were back in the hunt.
Me? I fired no more shots that day. Sitting in the station wagon crowded with happy hunters and happier dogs, I could only stare at five red dots, each accusing me like the stigmata of Christ.
At home Mom greeted us. “So how’d my men do?” With hunting vests large with birds we all knew that dinner would be quail with a rich sauce and wild rice. “Well, we got 17 quail — and little Brad almost bagged me.” After a quick kitchen triage Nurse Mom diagnosed, “Let’s pop those pellets out. But as for the quail, you shot the darned things; you clean ‘em.” Liturgy from the Feast of the Hunt. While Mom extracted the pellets and Dad regaled the room with the exploits of the dogs, I at the kitchen sink cleaning the birds trembled on the verge of tears.
That evening the loud, joyous noise of supper exploded as stories and jokes cascaded one over another. Except me. I stared long and silently at the uneaten plate. All afternoon Dad had allowed me to brood. But now he turned me his full attention. “For gawd’s sake, Brad. It was an accident. Lighten up.”
Yes, I began to cry. The storm brewing that afternoon burst forth like a Kansas thunderstorm. Hiccupping and coughing, the heartfelt cry, “I’m sorry” struggled to be said, but must have been heard as “Ah-ah-ahnnm saw-ah-ah-wy.” But the assurance had come with the authority of Sinai. It was an accident. Lighten up.
And it was true. And I believed it.
On that long trip home I had worried over those five red dots like some old crone fussing over her worry beads. I fondled them — and to no purpose. At that age my imagination, immersed in Greek and Roman mythology, was replete with fatalistic tales of inescapable curses. Sons fated to kill fathers — then hounded to doom by the avenging furies. My doom is come upon me, I mused. Cursed — at 12.
Years later I would explore that central question of all societies: How can we live together? Plato and Aristotle asked that question of the city-state. Cicero of the republic. The question can be asked at any level of community life — the nation, the neighborhood, the parish church, the circle of friends, the family.
The classical thinkers, both Greek and Roman, were locked in a closed system. Some hurt or harm arises like a microscopic cancer cell — and the inevitable tragedy must be played out. Paris prefers Aphrodite in beauty — and Troy is razed. Creon proscribes no burials for traitors — and Antigone is slaughtered. Aeneas indulges a sexual fancy — and Dido dies a suicide, birthing an enmity that nurtures three Punic Wars. There is no way out! Cursed!
That night at supper my father showed me a way out — out of this bleak, closed system of fate with its blood-letting train of blame, recrimination, resentment and revenge. Forgiveness. This is the God-offered door taught by prophets and apostles — and by Christ the Door. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Accidents abound in every community. So when they come, forgive. Otherwise — madness.
* * * * *
A decade later on a similar hunt a covey rose and flew errantly into the hunters. And similarly a blast took a hunter lightly in the neck. “Are you okay?” Dad quickly jogged to me. “Dunno. It stings, but….” I turned to the field doctors to assess my wounds. Uncle Bull offered his diagnosis, “Well, Bob, you spent a lota money putting something in these brains. Ya don’t wanna go spillin’ ‘em out so casually.” Another field physician grinned, “Yeah, at least wait til the boy graduates next year.” Dad seriously, “Are you okay? Do you want to go home?” “Nah. I took only a few pellets. I’m alright. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to the dogs.”
Alone later that morning, trying to flush out some birds from a hedgerow, Dad repeated his apology. I assured him it was alright. Then, lamely, I joked, “Besides, now we’re even — after I shot you.”
“Did you?! I don’t remember.”
And you know what, reader? He didn’t.
Until recently the Rev. C. Bradley Wilson served as the interim rector at St. Philip’s Church, Charleston. In late May he begins as interim at St. Helena’s, Beaufort.