When my father-in-law handed me the rifle that first time, I nearly dropped it, caught off guard by its heft. This was not entirely surprising, since I had never shot a gun in my life. Growing up in the suburbs outside New York City, having a heart murmur that kept me out of the Vietnam War, and spending my post-college years at a commune in the Northern California woods where hunting was banned and animal spirits were worshiped—all these kept me a gun virgin well into midlife.”Just try to hit the drum first,” Radcliffe told me, pointing at a blue oil barrel he’d set out across a field at his South Texas ranch.
I raised the bolt-action .270 and looked for the drum in the sights. “Back your eye away from the scope,” Radcliffe advised with a chuckle. “Otherwise you’ll get a shiner when the gun recoils, and people will think I’ve been beating you. That’s called ‘getting scoped.’”
We made an odd couple, my father-in-law and I: He, a true Texan, rancher, oilman, expert hunter, Harvard law grad, World War II vet; I, a Yankee, writer, ex-hippie, pacifist, ecology freak. Still fit and trim then at eighty, as he is today at ninety, with gray eyes and a rancher’s thin-lipped smile, he was dressed in his typical off-work wear: a tan hunting shirt, khaki slacks, and a beat-up round-brimmed fishing hat. I had on my trademark and most un-hunterly black T-shirt and blue jeans. “By the way, you need to get yourself some hunting clothes,” he told me with apparent disdain. “The deer are going to see you coming a mile away.”
For the first several years of my marriage to his daughter, I’d sniffed at Radcliffe’s overtures to introduce me to the pleasures of deer hunting. “Maybe with a video camera,” I told him once, and he rolled his eyes at my sixties-influenced opinions. In fact, one year I did go out stalking with his VHS camera, an early-eighties model the size of a Gatling gun, and took some terribly indistinct footage of what seemed to be either a big buck or Big Foot. Then, out of the blue, I gave in. Was it pure curiosity? A desire to please? In truth, I had begun to feel guilty for not taking Radcliffe up on his offer. For here was a man with so much knowledge of the outdoors, the earth, of life itself to pass on. It wasn’t his fault that two of his daughters had brought home Yankee writers instead of, more appropriately, flinty-eyed real Texans, the kind who own camouflage Suburbans and learned to shoot before they could crawl.
It had taken me a while to figure out how important deer hunting was in this family, in this whole part of the state, for that matter. Before Tracy and I were married, she’d informed me that Christmas would often be spent with her family in Laredo. No problema, I figured. Eat those sugary crispy buñuelos for breakfast, shop across the river in lieu of enduring mall madness, carol in Spanish. Feliz Navidad. Not being a hunter herself—she’d shot a buck when she was ten years old but was so disheartened by the experience that she never tried again—Tracy neglected to mention the deer thing. Christmas in South Texas, it turns out, is more about whitetails than reindeer. Deer hunting is a big deal all over Texas—last season some 420,000 whitetails were killed in the state—but in the brush country “buck fever” is truly a sickness. My wife’s mother, normally a paragon of social graces, will abandon any family gathering to pursue the eighteen-pointer she’s been tracking. All over Laredo people leave work early to head for their deer leases and blinds. The first question at Christmas parties isn’t, “What’d Santa bring you?” It’s, “Huntin’ much?” Or, more typically, “Seen anything?”
One year there was word of considerable poaching on various ranches in the area, so state game wardens helped set up a sting operation. A faux trophy buck with a monstrous set of antlers was created, set in a field on private property, partly concealed in brush, then attached to a system of ropes and pulleys so that it could be moved or pulled down if it was shot at. Sure enough, on the second day, a young fellow stopped his truck, slipped through the fence, and fired. Down went the buck. As the man ran headlong toward his prey, he was apprehended by a game warden. “Okay, okay, you got me,” he said breathlessly, “but just let me see my deer.”
I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to hold the crosshairs steady, but they kept flopping around uncontrollably. Then Radcliffe demonstrated how to use the gun strap as a brace. Much better. The blue target was relatively calm in the scope. “Squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull,” Radcliffe said.
I squeezed. Nothing happened. Perhaps I was taking the squeeze thing too literally, I thought. I squeezed again and sneaked in the slightest suggestion of pull. Something big happened. Lulled by the thousand harmless TV gunfights I’d watched, I was shocked by the power, the kick, the crack of the real thing. Guns stop time. Guns change the world. One moment there is silence, the next there is a break in the space-time continuum, a hole in the universe. Or at least, I hoped, in one blue 55-gallon barrel.
Radcliffe looked through his binoculars. “Dead center!” he cried. “Now try for one of the cans.”
Feeling incomparably pleased with myself and inexplicably confident, I aimed the gun at one of the three beer cans Radcliffe had set on top of the barrel but found I couldn’t hold steady on such a small target. Patiently, my father-in-law showed me how to shoot from a seated position, a kind of violent lotus pose, with the arm supporting the barrel resting on one knee. As if by magic, the crosshairs were tranquilized. This time, though, I succumbed too much to the temptation to pull the