Thursday, March 16, 2017

George and the Woodchuck

Last year, I wrote about George, a wonderful fellow who was deprived 40 years ago of a promotion in the Army, but would not lift a finger to dispute the case, believing that it was not his place to argue with the Army.  He was just a simple soldier, and what the Army said was good enough for him.

Of course, at age 94 he finally did ask the Army to look into it, and in their inimitable fashion, they came up with a weak and ineffectual response that did nothing, apologized for nothing, and accomplished nothing.  George decided that was it, and took no further steps.  He left us in 2011 at age 95, comfortable in his service to the country.

A separate aspect of the same man's life is that he was a long-time champion marksman with both rifle and pistol, from his Army days in 1940 all the way into his nineties.  I even mentioned that in my piece on the Second Amendment last year.  He taught his sons to shoot, and both still do, as do his grandsons.

He also taught hunter safety classes, which were, and maybe still are, required in his state before one could get a hunting license.  George did that for a number of years, and graduated hundreds of young hunters after imparting the essentials of safety in the woods when armed.

And so it seemed completely out of range, as it were, that with all that skill, and all that knowledge of hunting, he didn't hunt.  I guess it took a while before my brother and I realized the incongruity of his not hunting, despite his marksmanship and accuracy, and obvious familiarity with the sport.  He did not go hunt in the woods, but rather competed at ranges, with targets.

At about age 14 or so, we were living on a large property, with a long building in the back area that George had converted into an indoor shooting range, complete with steel deflectors behind the targets and all the required accoutrements. 

As rural as the property was, it had its share of wildlife, including our share of woodchucks.  They were more a pest than anything else, digging tunnels and leaving an occasional tunnel entrance in the lawn that one could trip on and break something.  Fortunately that never happened, but it didn't make them any less of a nuisance.

Not infrequently we would see the woodchucks themselves, and would amuse ourselves by whistling to them from 50 yards or so.  They would then sometimes stand up, and as kids we would think about going out and shooting them.  George, our dad, would nod and chuckle and say "Sure, one of these days."

I might have been 14 or 15 or so.  It was probably in an autumn weekend, we were finishing lunch when through the window I saw a woodchuck out there by the range.  I told Dad there was a perfect opportunity to "get one", and we went to get my rifle, a Mossberg .22 with a peep sight.  We unlocked the cabinet, got the rifle and headed outside.

I'm sure I was a bit excited as we quietly took a position 150 feet from the woodchuck, which was still out there where it had been.  I softly whistled to get him to stand up, loaded up and aimed, at which point my father taught me a lesson that, 50 years since, still is with me ...

He reached over to the barrel of the rifle, pressed it down a bit and said "We don't have to do this."  I remember being a bit disappointed, but understanding there was a message.  I unloaded the rifle and we went inside, leaving the woodchuck to do what woodchucks do.

Oh, what a lesson.  Shooting a stupid old woodchuck was not sport.  Humans were a lot smarter; it was not an accomplishment but, rather, the work of what today we would call a bully.  If we shot the woodchuck, we'd have to dispose of it, which is certainly an unpleasant task.  And Dad, not a particular animal lover, at least had enough respect for the forces of nature to let this animal live its life, at least until eaten by a bear.

We never discussed, or had a need to discuss, that incident again; it wasn't a big deal to him apparently.  He could hit a dime repeatedly at 50 feet even without a scope, over and over without missing it, but shooting a woodchuck was not as important as raising a son with the right values.

In 2005, we had a small party for him when he turned 90.  We have a very, very small family, so each of us had a chance to say something after dinner.  I related that story to the group at the table, and it appeared for all the world that he had completely forgotten the incident entirely!  To him, it was simply another in a long-forgotten list of interactions, and he was quite surprised that it had made such a lasting impression.

I can only hope that I taught my own two sons anywhere near as well as he did.

Copyright 2017 by Robert Sutton
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