By Cynthia Close
We were driving from Boston to my parent’s home in New Jersey. Pete had the rifle in the back of the van. It was Thanksgiving and deer season in Jersey. My folks lived on the side of a gravel road in Mine Hill, not the kind of industrial landscape usually associated when anyone mentions New Jersey. There was a densely wooded area behind the house.
My dad, having served as a B17 bomber pilot in WWII, left any interest in weapons of war behind him and never went hunting, but when he met Pete his testosterone level rose. He became interested in hunting equipment. He bought professional hunting bows and a target on a tripod that he set up where the yard met the woods. The bows were huge. It took incredible strength to pull the string back far enough to send the arrow to the target. My younger brother and I humored dad and gave it a try. My brother was no athlete. I can’t remember if he managed to hit the target. I certainly couldn’t. Mom didn’t venture out of the house. She was safely ensconced in the kitchen with the turkey.
Pete, the ex-Marine, served the country late enough to miss Korea and early enough to avoid Vietnam. His natural athleticism was recognized by his superiors who selected him to represent the Marines in the 1600-meter event in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He effortlessly excelled at anything he tried and this Thanksgiving he wowed the family with his ability to get a bull’s-eye every time. Even while downing a few beers, his aim stayed true. After dinner there was still enough light to go hunting. It was doe season. Pete had a special license that permitted hunting doe outside his home state for a limited time. He retrieved the rifle from our van and suggested I join him. Everyone else opted to stay home.
The woods behind the house emerged abruptly at the edge were Dad stopped mowing the grass. Pete gave me a fast track lesson in hunting. He showed me how to walk without making noise; a seemingly impossible task on the crunchy brown oak leaves that blanketed the ground. Then there was the gun. He wanted me to shoot it. I’d never held a gun before. I resisted. Annoyed, he said,“Learn how to use a weapon and you won’t be afraid.” So heavy, I struggled raising it to my shoulder. He demonstrated how to aim and warned about recoil. His hand supported the barrel while I aimed at a tree. “Pull the trigger slowly!” he commanded. POW! My ears were ringing, and the shock to my shoulder almost knocked me down, but I didn’t fall.
“O.K., that’s it! I did it once and don’t want to shoot again.”
It was a beautiful late fall afternoon, and the woods seemed so benign. Pete urged me to stay. Reluctantly I trudged on. We’d been walking cautiously over an hour, pausing occasionally to look and listen. Pete held the gun comfortably across his body. I’d almost forgotten why we were here. The low setting sun sent deep shadows across the leaf-strewn ground. Pete stopped. Not moving. Not speaking. I glanced to my left without turning my head and saw a deer, motionless, about 75 feet away. The delicate creature appeared as a statue, dappled light serving to camouflage its light brown body. It was a doe. At this distance, it was a sure shot for Pete. I was standing to his right. He raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim. Mindlessly my heart pounded, bursting, without a thought, my arm flew up, propelled by an innate, barely acknowledged sympathy for all living things and pushed the gun straight into the air. BLAM! The deer turned and disappeared. Pete stumbled slightly and turned to me in shocked disbelief. I had yet to absorb my radical act. We walked back to the house in silence. He never took me hunting again.
Fast-forward 45 years. I am now a well-worn woman of 70, no longer married. Irrational confidence has propelled me through decades of living a vibrant life in cities in the U.S. and Europe, pursing careers in the arts and film. I’m comfortably retired in Vermont’s largest city which is hardly a city at all. When I told my Boston and Manhattan friends that I would be moving to Vermont to be closer to my grandchildren in Montreal they thought I would shrivel up and die. “You don’t drive!” they said in mock horror. And–“you don’t ski, or hunt, or know anything about tapping maple trees for syrup.” While all that was true, the storied Vermont environmental consciousness and liberal politics (I live two blocks from Bernie Sanders) had a decidedly au courant vibe not unlike the Harvard Square hip in Cambridge where I most recently lived.
Nature remained an abstract concept best admired from afar. I preferred firm concrete under my feet rather than a leaf covered forest floor. I hated camping and the quite dark of a rural road terrified me. I wanted to hear my neighbors night and day to know I was not alone. Now, for the first time in my life, I lived alone. Not only alone, but in a place where nature cannot be denied. The fact this dramatic change was by choice feels both strange and yet inevitable. Perhaps there is something hard wired in our human DNA drawing us back to our primal source as we age – the ashes to ashes, dust to dust scenario. Finding another man to share what’s left of my life would be a buffer to aging and I figured this effort would take time.
As things worked out, after a few false alarms, forays into relationships that left me tired and bored, I encountered a man whose life ran parallel to mine on opposite tracks. My new male friend was born into a large, disadvantaged family living in Vermont on the shore of Lake Champlain. I was born in Queens, New York City’s most diverse borough. College educated in Boston, I spent most of the 1960’s on the streets of that fair city, protesting the Vietnam War. He was the middle child of five kids often left to his own devices, and was drawn to the wildness of his surroundings where he became an expert fisherman in all seasons and learned to hunt, getting his first 6 point buck before he hit puberty. School was less a priority for him so by the time he hit high school the military seemed like a good option. Vietnam undercurrents were roiling the surface of things yet had not broken out in the full-fledged protests that found me in a student takeover of the president’s office at Boston University and later found him as a tank commander in the Marine Corps in the jungles of Vietnam. Bearing a Bronze Star for valor after enduring 6 years of intense warfare left my new friend battling PTSD that would not be recognized as an issue until decades after he returned home to bucolic Vermont. Smoking marijuana helped, a habit he picked up in the military. He avoided the more deadly heroin, which he said was rampant throughout the armed forces and most heavily used by those who served on the ground. Ultimately, it was a return to the woods, lakes, and streams of his childhood home where the sounds of the loons over the water on a foggy spring morning helped to drown out the constant ringing of tinnitus that invaded his head along with the nightmares he kept at bay with the comfort knowing his 22 caliber hunting rifle was in reach.
On the day we met, he was driving a white, 350 Super Duty Ford pick-up truck. We had agreed to meet for a getting-to-know-you drink on a cold January afternoon in a Burlington café. That drink stretched into dinner and later, after discovering I did not drive, he offered me a ride home, apologizing that the only vehicle available was a truck, suggesting that Cinderella’s coach was more apropos. That afternoon ended hours later in my driveway sitting silently in the dark, side by side high off the ground in the cab of that white truck. He was a charming storyteller, who knew how to use silence. Buoyed by his broad shouldered, cliché handsome Marlboro Man looks, I felt myself tumbling into something that felt suspiciously like love.
Our mutual physical attraction grounded the relationship. His tales of fishing salmon from the rivers of Alaska to the depths of Lake Champlain ignited idyllic memories of fishing with my grandfather in a tiny rowboat off the shore of Long Island Sound where I spent my childhood summers. My new man caught buckets of perch, northern pike, and bass that he cleaned, filleted, and cooked to perfection. He delicately fed me my first perch and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. He had a freezer full of venison. In preparation for the first party he took me to, he engaged me in making a huge pot of venison stew, along with BBQ venison back strap, a frequently requested dish from his circle of friends, most of whom were also hunters and fishermen. It was obvious he was held in high esteem.
We met in winter and by early spring he had cleaned up his favorite rod and reel for me and lured me with enthusiasm on to his boat, where I found myself breathless in the middle of Lake Champlain surrounded by the beauty of the still snow capped Adirondacks on one side and the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont on the other. I nearly fell overboard from excitement when I reeled in my first salmon, a keeper. He documented my catch with his cell phone camera as he now has done with each new achievement while he gradually acquaints me with a world of living and dying creatures beyond the human kind.
During the fall hunting season he took me scouting for deer. He treads lightly on the earth and has always been able to sneak-up and surprise me, even in my own house. I never hear him coming. This skill may have saved his life on the killing fields of Vietnam. He has a bow permit. I’d never seen a professional hunting bow before. Its lethal medieval look reminded me of the movie Hunger Games. Just the sight of it lifted the hair on the back of my neck. My nose twitched catching the whiff of fear as it rose from deep within my body. He hit the bulls-eye every time at the range where he had the bow restrung for the upcoming season. I stood watching in awe, my ruffled white blouse in sharp contrast to the camouflage wearing men and their women who at twice my size were better equipped to pull back on that bow and let it rip, as many of them did that afternoon.
After bow season comes rifle and after that black powder. He hunts them all. He has reached his quota every year he has hunted. The evidence hung on the wall above his TV and filled his freezer, feeding him long after the season was over.
His most prized gun is a 22-caliber rifle. A Remington Model 60 originally made by Marlin Firearms Company in New Haven, Connecticut, in continuous production since 1960, reflecting its popularity among hunters since the year it was introduced. He tells me it’s the most accurate gun he has ever used. It has a beautifully polished wood grain stock and he demonstrated how to site the target using the barrel-mounted scope. He very carefully showed me the proper way to handle this firearm indicating his respect for an instrument with the capacity to take a life, a power he had relied upon to save his own.
The more I thought about it, the more I was challenged to overcome a life-long fear of guns. I felt protected by this mans love. That love would insulate me from the inevitable political fallout if I revealed my newfound desire to shoot a gun to my liberal friends both here and back in the asphalt encrusted confines of my former life. Risk taking is not unfamiliar to me. As an artist and writer risk is an ingrained part of daily life. Those risks are largely existential, invisible, and rarely include the actual possibility of physical harm or even death. His experience of risk was at a whole other level. I confess my desire to shoot to my lover. His soft, quizzical smile, followed by quiet contemplation tells me he’s thinking over my request. Listening is another rare trait that has endeared him to me.
Over the next few days he educates me further on proper gun etiquette. We go to gun shops. I want to buy my own bullets. I feel like a stranger in a strange land in these places where weapons abound. Consciously sucking in my breath, I draw my shoulders back, trying to look like I belong, worried these rugged people dressed in camo will spot me as a fake, an interloper, a threat. Driven by curiosity and now challenged by my own nerve to move beyond the borders of my fear, I walk out carrying the box of ammunition for the 22.
A dairy farmer on a dirt road far south of the city of Burlington opened a section of his property to informal target shooting. On the appointed day of my baptism into gun culture, we drive out to the edge of a field, blocked off by a rusted old iron gate, beyond which stands the target range, just out of sight. There is a weathered box attached to the gatepost next to a crudely written sign that suggests a donation be left as thanks for using the range. My man instructs me to hop out and open the gate so he can drive the truck through and on down the grass-covered hill, passing a small cud-chewing herd of cows bringing us closer to where we want to be. My excitement rises as lingering summer heat from the early fall sun gradually leaves my body. I’m dressed in tight fitting jeans and an equally body skimming T-shirt, so that nothing gets in the way of my handling the gun.
The “range” is nothing more than a large, relatively flat, grassy, open field, with 4 tightly packed hay bales set on tripods at distances from 25 to 100 yards. When we arrive three rough hewn benches behind table height wooden boxes set at the fields opposite end backed by a line of trees are occupied by a man and his two teenaged sons. They each had taken a position, we’d heard the gunfire on the way to the site, but they politely move over, giving us one of the spots.
I glance toward my man, my trainer, my mentor for reassurance and he nods for me to take a seat while he gets the ammo and readies the gun. The sun is now low in the west, not quite blocking my line of vision toward the hay bales. He shows me the paper target he brought before running to attach it to the bale at the 50-yard marker, making sure the other shooters hold their fire while he affixes the target. They decide to gather their equipment and pack up, leaving the range to the two of us.
The 22 is laying across the table in front of me, tame, its beautiful polished wood and metal gleaming like an art object, daring me to hold it in my hands. My attention is riveted on the gun. All I can see is the bullet being loaded for me, and I hear the oft- repeated instructions again, sounding as though they are coming from far away. He hands me the gun. It feels heavy with importance as though the weight of it is a cautionary reminder I now hold the power to kill in my hands. Elbows on the table, stock resting gently against my shoulder for support, finger poised near the trigger as I squint through the scope adjusting the crosshairs where I think they should be to hit the target. I’m totally focused. Squeezing the trigger, a sudden blast, I blink, the recoil feels orgasmic against my body. I have no idea where the bullet landed. He runs to the target, bringing it back for me to see. I’m shocked. A near bulls-eye. Suspicious I wonder if somehow he had poked a hole through the target ahead of time, as a reward. He insists, “no, no, it was you, all you, you did well. Try again.” Now I’m high. I’m eager to prove that the first time is not a fluke. I pick up the gun that now feels somewhat familiar. The bullet slides into the chamber. The crosshairs are right on target. I don’t flinch. Pulling the trigger, again the sudden blast echoes through my body with a warm rush. I’m hooked. I want to immediately replicate my actions. This scenario repeats itself 10 times. The last three my attention shifts to a dangling coffee can on a string that hangs in front of the target. He set it there to test my abilities. Blam, blam, blam. Now I’m ready to see how I have done. I carefully, respectfully, lay the gun down while he retrieves the target and the coffee can. Smiling, with a touch of pride he shows his earnest student the concentrated circle of bullet holes near the bulls-eye and the can peppered by black ringed punctures from all three bullets.
Satisfied, I help pack up our gear and hop in the truck. A man who has confronted death on the battlefield, and faced the ghosts that still haunt him at home has helped me to leave decades of unfounded fear rattling around safely inside a coffee can.
About the Author:
Armed with an MFA from Boston University Cynthia plowed her way through several productive careers in the arts including instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and president of Documentary Educational Resources – a film company. She now claims to be a writer.
To support this claim, she is a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine and writes regularly for Vermont Woman magazine, Art New England, Professional Artist magazine, and Art & Object. Her creative non-fiction appeared in the 2014, 2016, and 2017 anthology, The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop, and her essays have been published in various literary journals including 34th Parallel, Woven Tales Press, The Black and White Anthology, The Seasons of Our Lives, Across the Margin, Montana Mouthful, and Agni among others. She has read publicly at many venues including the Cornelia Street Café in NYC. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review launched in 2014.