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Sometimes the greatest thing we give is what we give up.
Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, a bird-hunting man lives in the past, the present and the future at the same time. On an October morning, he lives for the moment. But he remembers old days and old dogs, and looks forward to new puppies and seasons yet to come. And when he has a minute to dream, he dreams of shotguns, because he always needs a better one.
Back in the late 1940s, my dad dreamed of a Sweet Sixteen, the 16-gauge version of John Browning's venerable semi-automatic. In time he got one.
What Dad saw in the Sweet Sixteen was hard to understand. He was used to better. As a boy, he learned to shoot with a Baker 12-gauge side-by-side that my grandfather, a county sheriff at the time, had taken away from a man who had shot his wife with it. The Baker's 28-inch barrels had no choke whatever, and despite its checkered past, it was a grouse gun as lithe and pitiless as a leopard. By the late 'twenties, though, when Dad was in his teens, the Baker's old twist-steel barrels had shot loose. Grandpa gave Dad a D.M. Lefever to take its place.
Then came 1942. I was born, and men Dad's age were sent around the world to play the sport of kings. When that was over and things had settled down, Dad scraped together enough money to buy the Sweet Sixteen, and the Lefever was moved to the back of the gun rack.
The Sixteen was the first shotgun Dad had ever bought with his own money, and it was the first new gun he had ever owned. I suppose that's why he treasured it so. At any rate, it didn't take long for Dad and the Sweet Sixteen to make progress among the grouse.
Sunday afternoons in October and November were grouse hunting time for Dad, and his post-hunt rituals are among my earliest and fondest memories of him. First, there would be a heavy clumping on the back porch as Dad kicked the clay out of the cleats on his boot soles. I would run to meet him in the back hall. He'd stand the cased Sweet Sixteen against the wall behind the door and show me the birds. There always seemed to be at least two.
Then he would put the birds in a grocery bag and tuck them in the icebox to cool, so they would be easier to skin and dress. We'd have supper, and then he would clean the birds on the back porch, carefully fanning out the tail feathers so I could add them to my collection.
And then he'd take the Sixteen down to the basement workshop, put a strip of old carpet on the workbench, carefully disassemble the gun and clean it.
The smells of those grouse-hunting Sunday nights were as memorable as the sights. There would be the mingled scents of muck, sweetfern and juniper on Dad's boots, the aroma of his pipe tobacco – Skiff Mixture if he had some extra money, Edgeworth if he didn't – the supper smell of Swiss steak and stewed tomatoes, the clean, sulfury smell of the birds, and the bite of nitro solvent and gun oil down in the workshop.
Through all this, childhood was waning. Before long another milestone was reached: I turned twelve and was judged large and reliable enough to start hunting myself.
A "first" is always memorable: first kiss, first car, first punch in the nose, first shotgun. After supper on Christmas Eve, 1954, Dad headed down the basement stairs and motioned for me to follow. In the workshop was a cabinet where the Sweet Sixteen, the old Baker, the Lefever and my Savage single-shot .22 rifle were stored. Dad opened the cabinet and took out a slender wand of a shotgun. He pivoted its top lever, swung the barrels down, and handed it to me.
"There you go," he said. "Take care of it. It's a Fox."
I had heard enough shotgun talk to know that a D-grade Ansley H. Fox 20-bore ejector double like this one, with a sweeping flame in its oil-finished walnut and deep engraving on its frame and fences, wasn't just any old bird-banger; it was one of the finest shotguns ever made in the United States. And it lay there in my hands like a princess who had asked me to dance.
Dad smiled. I babbled. I looked down the Fox's gleaming bores, closed its action and tentatively raised the little gun to my shoulder. And then I looked into the cabinet and realized that the Sweet Sixteen was gone. Dad had traded it, and God only knows how much cash, for the Fox.
"But..." I said, pointing to the cabinet.
"Oh," Dad said, "the Browning was just a machine. This is a gun. And besides, I still have the Lefever, and there's about a hundred years of wear left in it."
Brave talk, intended to make me feel better. But I realized, a little bit then and a lot more later, what Dad had given up. For better or for worse, the Sweet Sixteen had been his dream, and Dad had moved his dream aside for me.
Well, you're probably thinking, big deal. Parents inconvenience themselves for their kids all the time, and usually the kids aren't even aware of it. But on that evening when I was 12, I tried to understand; I could see that Dad had given up something he wanted very much so that I could have something even better.
There are a lot of ways to show love: a smile, a touch, an apology, a good meal. But giving by giving up is the truest way.
Years later, I sat in a dusty, overheated classroom at UW-Stevens Point. The professor was Dr. Jim Newman, a good and profound teacher who died young. He was a forester, but he was already getting a reputation as a forester who disapproved of cutting trees.
To keep us awake that October afternoon, Dr. Newman asked us to define conservation. Several of us tried. "Wise use." "Scientific management." "The greatest good for the greatest number in the long run."
"Trite," Newman said. "How about something original?"
Original? I tried something I had read somewhere: "Protecting the future from the present."
"Good, but not original," Newman said. "Now boil it down to one word."
I looked out the window. One word? Earlier I had been thinking about how I would rather be out chasing grouse than sitting in class. The Sweet Sixteen popped into my head. "Giving up something," I thought. "Trading...substituting..."
"Sacrifice," Newman said.
"Sacrifice," he said. "That's what conservation is. Don't believe it when they tell you that conservation 'pays.' It doesn't; it's not a matter of money at all. It's doing good, doing good across generations, even across centuries. It takes sacrifice, it takes guts. We're always cutting trees someone else planted, we're always taking. We've got to give back more than we take; that's obvious. The hard part is knowing what to give and how to give it."
Like most people, I had thought of conservation as something good and honest. That's why I was studying it in college. But Jim Newman made me see that conservation was love in action, that it was painful and expensive, and not an option but a commandment. Dr. Newman had done some real doctoring. He injected me with an idea: that we must conserve to survive, and that we must survive because someday our species might amount to something.
Well, that was years ago. Jim Newman is dead, and I am getting old myself, and the world is run by stupid, hollow men who have never given up anything, who chase the quick fix and the easy money and are never satisfied until they have it all.
Even so, a better future is right there in front of us; it's uphill, but it's wide open. Love and courage will get us there. Is there enough love to go around? Have we got the guts to face down the hollow men? Who knows?
Oh, and by the way, if you need to know what's in it for you – there is an immediate reward for sacrifice: You get to feel like Dad did when he traded off the Sweet Sixteen.
That is if you're lucky.
Musician and author Dave Crehore writes from Green Bay. He recently retired from a career as a DNR journalist and information officer.