My Dad was the managing editor of the Rawlins Daily Times. Until then we had lived in little Gilbert Iowa where he had been a photojournalist for the Ames Daily Tribune and had made quite a name for himself. In those days he still spoke fluent Spanish and the Iowa police and highway patrol would call him in, to be an interpreter for Spanish speaking perps. He scooped a lot of crime stories this way. He had been given this new job in Rawlins and barely gotten started when Kennedy was killed. The Kennedy assassination happened while I was in school. I remember it vaguely as a kind of happy event, in that I didn’t really understand what was going on, but our teacher said something had happened and school was dismissed for the day. We were all going home before lunch. And then she burst into tears.
In those days in the news office, there was a ticker tape contraption that ran under a glass dome like a weird terrarium, and bells would ring on a scale of one to ten to indicate the gravity of the incoming information. By this time they knew Kennedy had been rushed to the hospital but didn’t know if he would live. As the bells solemnly dinged out everything stopped. The office was frozen in time, hushed except for moving lips whispering of numbers. "... seven ... eight... nine..." When bell number ten rang, they knew without seeing the tape the young president was dead. A few days later Dad was in the living room sipping on a can of beer and eating pickled pig’s feet watching a TV broadcast of Oswald being moved between facilities.
I know the part about the pig’s feet because I was in the kitchen with an empty glass in my hand waiting for my new super powers to appear. I'd just drank down a batch of pickled pig’s feet juice, mixed with Kool aid, something brown with green fuzz floating on it, and a gob of ketchup and was waiting for the result. I had just read “Showcase Comics #4” the origin issue of the Flash, where Barry Allen is doused with chemicals and simultaneously struck by lightning, hence becoming the Flash - "the Fastest Man Alive". Dad yelled from the living "Goddamn! They shot Oswald!" He was out the door - for a moment the fastest man alive. We didn’t see him again for two days.
Wyoming was a nice place for a kid, in the short time that I had there. It was in Wyoming I acquired a skill. I was a shy bookish kid with learning problems. I wanted to make friends; I just wasn’t good at it. In English class I discovered something. I could tell stories. My first written story ever was called "Dinosaur Island". Something like the TV show "Lost", with some assorted people shipwrecked on a volcanic island that turns out to be full of dinosaurs. The people are rescued just as the island is sinking for forgotten reasons into the ocean. The teacher had me read it in front of the class and the kids loved it and yelled for more. It was the first time I'd ever impressed anyone and I was hooked. I'd discovered something I might be good at.
Wyoming was also where they found out I needed glasses. Riding through the scrubby plains in Dad's old rambler, he would yell back over his shoulder to look at the herds of prong horned antelope which were as common as sparrows. I couldn’t see them and got headaches trying. That was when Dad got the bug for hunting. Fishing he'd done all his life, but hunting was something new.
He started out with a beginner's rifle, a mild mannered twenty two caliber Remington and practiced shooting cans until he became good. His friends from the paper took him hunting using their bigger guns, and once he came home with a winter's worth of antelope meat. I wanted to go hunting too. At ten years old I was already a gadget freak. Most modern weapons are beautiful technological instruments. A good rifle has beauty and harmony of form and function, the way a Japanese sword or an antique camera has tactile beauty you want to hold in your hands. I work with soldiers and see M16s every day, but they're different, the way a cheap ballpoint pen is different from an antique fountain pen. One you sign forms with. The other makes you want to write something brilliant, something worthy of the instrument. I wanted to use Dad's rifle, for no other reason but that it was beautiful.
On dad's part he wanted I think to pass on the ancient legacy among generations of men, going back to the days of the mammoth hunt. A boy has to know where meat comes from. It doesn’t come from women. It doesn’t come from the kitchen or the grocery. Every time you eat a chicken or a fish or a steak, something that wanted very badly to live, something gentle that was minding its own business, had to be killed. That's an important thing to know.
A twenty two isn’t the right tool for bringing down an antelope. You'll hurt it, but you won’t kill it. But it has no recoil and it's a good rifle for a kid to learn on. We began with the cans on the fence. Maybe before I was ready, we packed up early one Saturday in the spring as the snow was melting and lit out for the prairies near Medicine Bow.
We were hunting jack rabbits, a beginners’ animal. They're smart and fast on their big snowshoe feet, but a couple of them together in a pot can still make a nice stew. We trudged through field and stream, and it was nice just being somewhere with Dad, about manly work without the company of women.
Right around noon, Dad found a muddy trail of footprints near a half frozen brook lined with blooming purple flowers. As we were climbing up the creek bed, the rabbit that made them suddenly burst from behind some sagebrush and took off like a missile. Dad got off a shot but missed and the animal disappeared. We followed its tracks again, and after a moment, Dad put his hand on my shoulder and we kneeled down. He pointed at thicket of sage brush.
Squinting through my little horn rims I could barely make out where his finger was pointing, until the rabbit moved, probably scrunching down and watching us through the dry leafless branches. Dad passed me the rifle, and took the safety off. I put the stock to my shoulder as he’d taught me. It was heavy and the muzzle dipped down as I tried to lift it.
"Do you see him?" he said. "Wait till you can see him."
I made out a slightly bigger lump in a bush full of lumps and said yes.
"Don't get excited," he said. "Aim slow. Line up the bead in the front with the V in the back and look out a little past the barrel. Let your breath out a little and hold it. Squeeze, don’t pull."
I tried to line up the black barrel, and he reached out and steadied it. "Bead in the V. Take your time."
Most gunshots are single syllable sounds. A Berretta automatic pistol, Army issue, makes a single concussive "Pop!" when it goes off and your hand jumps no matter how hard you hold it. A twenty two doesn’t jar your hand at all and the gunshot is a two syllable sound.
I squeezed the trigger, everything exactly right. "BRACK - IT!" exclaimed the gun.
Nothing happened. No rabbit. "Did I get him?" I said, almost giggling with excitement.
"We'll have to go see." He said. He reached over and put on the safety. "When you walk, point the barrel down and away from people. Always know where the end of the barrel is."
We approached the sagebrush carefully, watching for the rabbit if it burst from cover.
Looking back on it, knowing the habits of animals a little better now, I think I know what happened. This jackrabbit is running from two large predators. It hides behind the nearest large bush, ready to high tail it if they catch on. Speed and alertness is all nature dealt it. A rabbit, like a fly or a deer, occupies that dismal place in the scheme of things as pure defenseless food. It exists only to reproduce and be eaten by other animals. It is watching us, facing us straight on, perpendicular, to offer the smallest profile. His belly and torso are pressed tight to the wet ground because he has been through this many times before with other predators and he knows the thing to do is hunker downwind and to make himself tactically small and sit tight. If he's spotted, his strong hind legs are coiled against the ground like a track runner in the blocks, ready to spring out and run like hell. I think the hot bullet must have entered that space between earth and bunny, skimmed along the surface of the ground against the tight pressed pelt, running the length of the animal, in a shot of such freakish precision; it could only be accomplished by accident. Annie Oakley could not pull off a shot like this.
The rabbit did not run from the bushes though it was alive and conscious. It had been sliced from cute bunny nose to cotton tail as neatly as with a veterinarian’s scalpel. It crawled, dragging its steaming entrails behind in the cold air and the spring mud, doomed but still trying to get away with its last puzzled gasp. It was the only thing it knew how to do, not to give up. Not to surrender.
I went crazy. I was dancing with the loaded rifle, crying and screaming “Kill it! Kill it!” I was too ape-shit to shoot, I could only scream. Dad snatched the rifle from me, furious, aimed and dispatched the poor thing in a shot.
A rabbit doesn't understand there is such a thing as a gun. Or that such a thing is possible. It had done everything it knew how to do, exactly right, because it understands big things want to eat it. It had won. Then, while it was doing everything exactly right, a hot whining, invisible demon sliced it's belly open from below. What would be the thoughts of such a dying animal? It must have wondered what the hell had just happened, what it had done wrong. Fear. Run. Can't run. Crawl. Then another demon put out the lights. Many creatures die without ever knowing how it happened. I wonder if it was like that for Kennedy.
As we went home, neither of us spoke. Mom cooked the rabbit but I wouldn’t eat it. Something inside between Dad and I had been damaged. I had failed some test I didn’t even realize I was taking. It would take years to get it right again.
Fiction By C. Sanchez-Garcia