Southern Legitimacy Statement: I entered this world in Florence, Alabama in 1950. My family dates from the Carolinas in the early 1700s. Family lore has my predecessors fighting the British along with Mel Gibson depicted in the movie The Patriot. Every moment divides our lives into before and after. Four years at Auburn University divides my life into never before and always after. Auburn is the nest in which adult Drew hatched. I’ve lived sixty-three years in Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Arkansas.
Becoming a Man
Thanksgiving of 1958 passed with hardly a notice. As an eight-year-old, I and nearly every other kid I knew had already been locked into the countdown to Christmas since Halloween. After suffering a lot of pestering and begging, my parents put up our family Christmas tree, a southern red cedar, in early December. Decorating the tree with strings of large bulbed lights, spherical glass ornaments, and lead icicle tinsel provided some relief. Then with the tree ready, our expectations continued to build every day. On December 25th, I discovered my Christmas had been under anticipated.
Dawn had not even glimmered when I, along with my younger brother and sister, woke our parents with shouts of “Can we get up now?” Mom and Dad seemed as eager to get up as we were. To my everlasting wonder and amazement, under the Christmas tree I found a brand new 20-gauge single-shot breech-loading shotgun. No starting with a puny BB gun for my father’s son. You might be thinking, that is a surprise. Some may shudder at the thought of giving a real gun to an eight-year-old. Those shuddering might be further dismayed at the thought of letting that child keep the gun in his room. My father, however, had a plan. As a hunter and antique gun collector himself, he wanted to teach his eldest son responsibility.
As mom made a Christmas turkey, gravy, dressing as dense as a fruit cake, and roasted sweet potatoes, Dad took me into the remote countryside to try out my new shotgun. But no paper target or old can would suffice for us. Instead, Dad started flinging a round, flat target called a clay pigeon into the air. In flight, the clay pigeon looked like a thin, black line. The target flew away from us so fast that if I blinked, it was gone. At barely eight years old and small for my age, I could hardly hold up the gun muzzle. After each shot, the shotgun’s recoil hurt terribly, worse than any spanking. But I knew instinctively that a man wouldn’t acknowledge any amount of recoil pain. And so neither did I.
Eventually I managed to clip a couple of the targets and even smashed one. Dad shouted out with pride. Then my father gave me an unexpected instruction. “I want you to shoot that tree.” And he indicated a little pine tree about the size of a baseball bat.
“Shoot the tree?” I asked.
“Yes, shoot the tree,” he repeated.
Now this still target was more to my liking. No way that this pine tree could fly away. Carefully taking aim and firing, I hit the little pine squarely at my eye level. The damage to the tree shocked me. All the bark had been torn away and the strong wood riddled.
“Now, what do you think would happen if you accidentally shot a man?” my father asked. No answer was necessary.
A couple of weeks later our whole family went on an outing in the country. In the 1950s, days many Depression-era abandoned farms dotted the landscape. We walked along an old dirt road through overgrown fields. My dad pointed into a little gully. “I’ll bet there are some quail in there,” he predicted. Then after returning to the car, he pulled my shotgun out of the trunk and handed it to me along with a couple of shotgun shells. My mother, little brother, and sister could watch me get my first birds. Dad pointed to the right. “I’ll go around here. The birds will flush out that way,” he explained, waving to the left. “You know what to do.”
And I did know what to do. There I stood, an eight-year-old with his finger on the trigger of a loaded and cocked gun. With the others watching, I couldn’t let those birds escape. My father started around the gully and the birds flew up, but not as he had expected. The birds flew directly between my father and me. Rather than fire, I calmly watched the quail fly away with the gun pointed safely skyward. The safety lesson of the pine tree had saved my father’s life.
As my father came walking back, my mother felt understandably shaken. She screamed, “I thought you were dead! He could have shot you!”
“It’s just a good thing he didn’t,” Dad answered with gruff pride in his son. That moment I felt like a man for the very first time.
That little shotgun is perhaps my most precious possession today. Every time I pick up it or other guns that my father left me, I think about that pine tree I shot. And I remember the satisfaction I received after handling the gun like a responsible man. As an adult, I’ve had the opportunity to teach many young people how to handle guns safely and responsibly.