CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Memory is a funny thing. At times I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast two hours ago, and at other times I recall tiny details from seemingly trivial events decades in the past.One of those memories got triggered just this morning, when I spied a gray squirrel gathering beechnuts from a tree near my workshop. Suddenly I was 13 years old again, bouncing down the school bus steps, so excited I could hardly contain myself.At long last, I was going hunting!A friend, Larry Campbell, had invited me to go squirrel hunting with him as soon as we got home from school. Larry was several years older than I, and had taken on the unenviable task of introducing a geeky, bookish mama's boy to the joys of the outdoors.
Larry was there when I caught my first fish, a chub, from the creek behind his house. He took me on my first 5-mile hike, and he told me the obligatory ghost stories during my first overnight campout.I wanted to go hunting, too, but didn't own a gun. My parents remedied that with the Christmas gift of a poke-stock 20-gauge shotgun a few months after I turned 12. They told me I could go hunting the following fall, a couple of months after my 13th birthday.Like all good mentors, Larry made sure I was ready by holding a target-practice session a few days before the hunt. He knew I was deadly with a BB gun, but he wanted to make sure I could handle a shotgun's recoil.I must have passed, because he said we'd go hunting after school later that week.The hike to Larry's secret hunting spot took about an hour. When we finally arrived, in a shallow cove just below a ridge, he pointed to a large oak."That's your spot," he whispered. "I'll be on the other side of the cove, about 100 yards up that way."It takes a few minutes for the woods to return to normal after humans move in. I leaned back against the tree and scanned the treetops for signs of movement. Heeding Larry's advice, I kept my head still and moved only my eyes.Birds started chirping. A chipmunk scampered across a fallen log.And ... I fell asleep.A stirring in some nearby leaves awakened me. I opened my eyes and saw that the sun, still well up in the sky when we arrived, had sunken behind the ridge.Great. My first time hunting and I slept two-thirds of it away ...
The leaves stirred again. I swung my eyes left just in time to see a squirrel hop from the ground to the trunk of a small sapling just 15 yards away.Slowly, cautiously, I lifted the shotgun from my lap and inched it toward my shoulder. The squirrel caught the movement and started running along a limb. I thumbed the gun's hammer back, and when it clicked the squirrel froze.BOOM!The squirrel thumped to the ground, dead."Did you get one?" I heard Larry yell."Yeah!"
He ran down the hill, clapped me on the back and shook my hand. "Congratulations. You're a hunter now!" he said.I looked down at the squirrel cradled in my left palm. It was a big one, heavy-bodied, and I passed it to my right hand to examine its underside. My left hand had drops of the squirrel's blood on it.A hunter's first blood - the stuff from which long-lasting memories are made.