Winters in Hopeless during the time I was attending The Blessed Virgin of the Bleeding Heart Elementary (I’ve changed the names of the town and school) were often harsh and sub zero temperatures often lasted for days and even weeks. During such severe temperature dips exposed skin can easily freeze within minutes. If you’ve ever taken a breath quickly through your nose in such temperatures you know how painful it can be – and in such circumstances people take quick, shallow breaths in the short time they venture outdoors.
During the weekends in the winter we would frequent a property my parents had in a remote northern community centered on a large lake – over almost 100 kilometers long. The severe winters froze the ice solid, making it a great time to ice fish, target shoot or cross-country ski – all of which I did with my family in the winter times. My father flew a Stinson aircraft – and he had skis on it for flying in the winter. I loved flying with him. He was a good pilot and took care flying when I was with him. On clear days we would fly over the lake and find quite places to land and set up cans to shoot.
I secretly hoped that I would be able to take my father’s rifle to school and shoot the priests, so I always took my target practice lessons seriously. My father was a crack shot – he had been a marksman in the military with the Parachute regiment in WWII. It was on a weekend in December when my Dad took me out for a day of flying and target practice. We left early – at first light as my Dad would say – and flew for a bit. My Dad liked to drop the plane when we flew – suddenly in the air – much like the feeling on a roller coaster. He knew I liked it when he did that. After about forty minutes of flying we found a section of the lake that was far enough away to do some target practice without disturbing anyone around. We landed and found a good direction to shoot in, snowbanks in front of cutbanks. This way our bullets couldn’t hurt anything but that cans and bottles we had brought along. My father was a big supporter of “pack it in, pack it out” long before it became mainstream. I set up the row of assorted targets. My father brought out the .22 pump action rifle. He told me it was mine, as every young boy had a rifle when he was a kid. He grew up in the 1920’s in a community called Ootsa Lake. The community that once was a settlement for hunters, pioneers and settlers was flooded and the remains of his early home now rests under water, and did even when I was a kid. My father had bought me a BB gun a year before, and taught me the safety of handling any kind of weapon. Even though I secretly desired to use my training to ultimately revenge myself at school, I appreciated the time my father and I spent together. And soon enough he had me loading the rifle and getting ready to test my aim on the cans.
It started to snow before we began to practice. If you have lived in northern communities during winter, the snow – as it falls – acts like a sort of muffler – deadening sounds around. It places an eerie deafness all around. It was just my father, myself and the sharp crackling of the .22 that could be heard on this particular snowy day.
After about five minutes of practice (I had been doing pretty good – especially since we did not rely on scopes when we were shooting) a strange pungent sound filled the air. A skunk must have been shocked by the sounds and sprayed near us. We continued to shoot, but the smell became smaller – my Dad – ever the woodsman – put his hand on my shoulder and asked me to be quiet. He had heard something. We began to walk towards the targets. As we got closer, we saw it. A skunk, not much bigger than a kitten, was laying behind our targets – not more than ten feet behind them. It was caught in a trap. It was emaciated. The area was well used by trappers (people who set clamps with bait on them to lure small game. It appeared that this small skunk had stepped on the trap and both of its legs were caught in it, shattered as the trap shut itself on the animal. It had been there for some time as it had tried eating it’s legs away as a means to escape. What was left of the lower half was bloody and skeletal. It had drifted into sleep and was close to death before we arrived. There was no saving it. My Dad was upset to see this little thing squealing in pain as it laid there, still trying to escape now that it had heard the gunshots close by. I was holding the rifle. My fathers’ command was serious and direct. “For God’s sake, shoot it.” I had the rifle. I had never, never killed a living thing before. Suddenly my target practice was going to be put to the test, but this time on a living creature. I started to shake as I brought up the rifle’s stock to my shoulder. “Shoot it!” I took aim and squeezed the trigger. The skunk banked sharply to the left and dropped. A split second it was up again, squealing even louder. “God Dammit, put it out of its misery”. I had to take a second shot. I was trembling now, and I felt queasy. I squeezed the trigger again. For a second time the skunk banked (this time to the right) and dropped again. But once again it was up and continued to squeal. I had only made the poor thing suffer even worse. “Jesus Christ” my father said as he grabbed the rifle from me, shoving me aside in doing so. With an action that can only be explained as that of a trained woodsman, hunter and soldier, my father reloaded the rifle, and had fired it so quickly it was shocking to me. He killed it instantly. I had been responsible for only increasing its pain in the last moments of its life. My father did the only thing that could be done (what I had tried to do) and put it out of its misery and suffering.
I had never killed anything before. Let me rephrase that. I had never seriously attempted to kill anything before. I felt sick to my stomach in what I had participated in. My father did what he had to do. We walked over to the lifeless body of the skunk. Hot tears were rolling down my cheeks. I had only grazed each side of the skunks’ body with my shots. My father had killed it instantly with his single shot. I asked if we should bury it. My father told me it should be left out for other animals to eat. He pried the trap open and let the lifeless body drop into the snow, black and red laying on the cold white blanket of the ground. He looked at the trap and said that the trappers had to take responsibility for the traps they set, and somehow he could tell the trap had been out for some time, probably forgotten. We didn’t resume target practice that day. In fact, that was the last time I fired that .22. A few years later I would use my skills at Circus Circus to win stuffed animals, but it was the last time I ever harmed an animal. My desire to kill vanished that day. As we flew away I looked out the window from the cockpit of the airplane. The dead body of the skunk was a little black dot surrounded by dots of red. Food for wolves. I regretted the pain I caused that little thing. I was even more upset that somehow I had failed my father. I had tried to do what he asked, but I couldn’t. Killing the skunk was the only thing that could be done, and I hurt it even more. We never spoke about that day again. For some reason that was the last time we went out like that. Though my childhood was being ripped away from me at the school I attended – on that day – the day that my father and I shot a helpless skunk, I grew up a little more as I saw firsthand the preciousness and fragility of life.