The first time I remember that I saw my father cry was when we were living on a small ranch in the south-central Texas hill country, when I was seven or eight. There was a pond about half a mile from the ranch house where my father and his friends shot doves late summer and early autumn evenings. Beside the pond was a raised platform with a roof, and the shooters would stand on the platform in partial concealment, drinking beer, talking, and waiting for the birds to come winging in to water for the night. When someone knocked a bird down into the pond, the dogs raced to retrieve it; and the man whose dog swam back first with a downed bird won a bet, as of course did the man who downed the bird. Across the pond from the platform, there was a telephone pole standing in long grass and weeds.
I'd been begging my father for what seemed like an eternity to let me come to the pond when the men were shooting. He always said no, it would be too dangerous. Then one day he gave me an old 410 shotgun of his, took me out, showed me how to load and unload, aim, and shoot. And he must have told me that the men would hold off shooting until I'd got a bird and gone back to the ranch house.
Which was how I came to be sitting by a pond, in the early evening of a hot September day, in long grass by a telephone pole waiting for a dove to land on a wire. But I had buck fever and missed the first two birds, just sitting there no more than thirty feet from me. To the great amusement and guffaws of the men across the pond. I had better luck with the third dove and knocked it off the wire. It fluttered down into the grass where I found it immediately, not dead but alive and looking me directly in the eye. Its head and neck were beautiful and incredibly graceful, its coloring an astonishing grey. I called out, "Dad, he isn't dead." He said, "That's all right, son. Pick him up and pull his head off."
At first I simply did not believe my dad had said that. But I realized he did say it when he repeated with implacable and irrefutable adult logic: "The bird is suffering, son, pick it up and pull its head off." So I picked the bird up. And I said, "I can't, Dad." I could tell dad's anger was rising, and this put me on the edge of tears. He said, "Pull the goddam bird's head off, G.L., or you're going back to the house." In tears now, I repeated that I couldn't. "Pull the bird's head off, and put it out of its misery, or you're going back to the house and you're not coming back to shoot with the men." By this time my face was crimson with tears and shame and the only thing I could hear or see was a noise inside my head. I stood underneath the wires with the dove in my hand, bawling. Then I was running back to the ranch house.
I'm sure my mother and sister must have consoled me when I got back to the house, but I don't remember. The first thing I do remember was dad coming into my bedroom hours later, and he was crying. He told me he was sorry for getting angry with me. How he could understand why I didn't want to pull the bird's head off. And when I got used to pulling the heads off sparrows that I knocked out of trees with my BB gun, I could come back to the pond and shoot with the men.
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