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We all do dumb things.
What matters is what we do afterwards.
The temptation to be dumb keeps coming around; eventually most of us learn to resist it about half the time, and that's what's known as growing up.
The trouble is, growing up takes a while. Chances are you'll be a full-fledged adult, and more than likely a parent, before you accomplish it. Then the fun starts. You have to avoid being dumb yourself, to set a good example. But the hardest part is deciding what to do when your kids do dumb things.
If you have too much to say, they'll quit listening to you. If you're too sympathetic, they won't learn anything from you. The best you can do is to set some standards for them, be there to help, and then keep your mouth shut as your kids learn to deal with the stupidity they inherited from you.
Here's how I found some of that out:
For Christmas in 1954, when I was 12, my father gave me the Stradivarius of American shotguns, a 20-gauge A.H. Fox side-by-side that had been made in the 1920s and was just getting broken in. It weighed six pounds, four ounces, had 28-inch barrels, double triggers and a straight-grip stock that had already been shortened to fit some lucky kid of the Jazz Age. It was to be my grouse gun.
When winter finally let go of Manitowoc in May, Dad brought home a station wagon load of 20-gauge shells and clay pigeons.
Every Saturday afternoon that we weren't fishing, we'd put a box of pigeons and five or six boxes of shells into my old Radio Flyer coaster wagon and haul them to the big field behind our house. Dad would sail the clays out with a hand trap, and I'd bang away at them.
Dad taught me to raise my right elbow and form the shoulder pocket that God created for shotgun stocks. He taught me to lift the gun gently to my cheek and swing it ahead of the target. In time, I was hitting three pigeons out of four, some days even more.
Once in a while, Dad would bring his shiny-worn old 12-gauge Lefever out to the big field and execute a few targets. He would pivot from the knees, shoulder his shotgun with exasperating slowness, and turn those White Flyers into little clouds of black dust that would drift away on the breeze. He never missed.
"Just take your time and don't worry about missing a few, " he would say. "What matters is being safe and showing some good manners."
Yeah, yeah – I knew all that. But I was a 12-year-old grouse hunter who had never killed a grouse. I wanted a bird.
There were plenty of grouse in Manitowoc County that fall, and as we hunted our way through October, Dad was getting one about every third time he pulled a trigger.
But I was snakebit. The grouse didn't know how good a shot I was. About half the birds I flushed were either out of range, invisible, or on the wrong side of the tree. The other half I missed. I was nothing for five, then nothing for ten. By the time we got into November, the empty shells in the game pocket of my hunting vest had begun to rattle both my pocket and me.
One morning, as we walked down a trail into a cover we called the Sandhill, I spotted a grouse on the ground ahead of us. I stopped and slowly began to raise my shotgun.
"Don't shoot a sitting bird," Dad said quietly. "You won't enjoy it. Just walk toward him and take your chances when he flies."
My heart hammering in my ears, I tiptoed down the trail. Thirty yards, twenty-five, twenty. The grouse cocked its head and stared at me. It froze. I froze.
"G'wan, shoo!" I said.
The grouse flushed with a roar and flew straight down the trail. I missed twice; the bird topped out over some tall popples, banked hard left and glided out of sight.
Dad lit his pipe. "That's the way they are sometimes," he said. "Every now and then you'll run across one that sits there like a chicken. And it's no fun shooting chickens."
The Sandhill cover was a low, overgrown dune running north and south with a thick cedar swamp on one side. The dune was growing up in popple, white spruce and brambles, and it was grouse heaven. The birds roosted in the cedars and came out on the dune to eat buds and bugs and blackberries.
Dad sent me down the middle of the dune and walked parallel to me along the edge of the cedars. We hadn't gone more than a hundred yards when a grouse flushed in front of Dad and cut into the swamp. He fired almost instantly.
"Did you get it?" I yelled.
"I don't know," Dad said. "Wait there and I'll go look."
It was a cool, windless day with a high, gray sky, so quiet that I could hear the confidential "dee, dee, dee" of the chickadees, and the whirrs of their wingbeats as they danced around in the popples.
Then I saw something move in the top of a big white spruce ahead of me. It was a grouse, at least thirty feet off the ground, staring at me nervously as it perched on one of the short upper branches. I raised my gun, then lowered it part way. I looked around to my right, where Dad had disappeared into the cedars. I couldn't see him.
I raised the gun again and pointed its slender barrels at the grouse. "OK," I thought, "maybe I won't enjoy it but by God I'll have a bird." And I pulled the back trigger.
The gun cracked and the spruce needles jumped. The grouse toppled from its perch, dead. It fell a couple of feet through the dense branches and got stuck. I hadn't expected that.
Dad called from a distance. "Did you get it?"
"I'm not sure," I lied.
"Well, I'll be over there in a minute to help you look," Dad said. Good old Dad.
The horror of the situation soaked in. Stupid, greedy me. I had shot a sitting bird, I already regretted it, and now I couldn't even retrieve it. The tree was too big to shake, and too bushy to climb.
Looking down, I saw a piece of dead wood about the size of a baseball bat. I put down my gun, grabbed the stick and hurled it toward the top of the spruce. It fell short. There was plenty of dead wood around and I threw one chunk after another, but nothing could dislodge that grouse.
Then I heard Dad's voice behind me.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said, in a conversational tone. "Sometimes that happens. You shoot 'em and they fall right into a tree."
That was the lie I was about to tell him! My face burned and my heart pounded. How much had he seen?
Dad struck a match and drew the flame down into a fresh bowl of Edgeworth.
Almost accidentally, we looked at each other. There was a little smile around the corners of Dad's eyes. He knew! He must have been watching the whole time. And he knew I knew he knew.
"So it goes," Dad said. "We'll never get that bird down. Let's hunt 'em up; maybe we'll find some more."
But we didn't. We hunted out the cover and trudged back to the car. I deserved ten minutes of I-told-you-so, but Dad never said a word. Bless his old heart, not a word. And I never shot another sitting bird.
Dad and I hunted grouse together until 1982. The day at the Sandhill cover was never mentioned, until I brought it up on an October afternoon as we drove home from one of our last hunts. A light rain was falling and red leaves scuttled across the road. I told him the story I've just told you, and I thanked him for being so kind.
"I don't remember that," Dad said. "I don't remember that at all. But if you say so."
I glanced over at him but he was busy filling his pipe.
Dad's gone now and my wife and I have raised a daughter and a son. You're probably wondering how I dealt with them when they screwed up. But you know, I've been lucky. My kids have never done a single dumb thing. Not that I can remember, anyway.
Dave Crehore recently retired from his position as the regional public affairs manager for DNR's Northeast Region in Green Bay.