Life with my stepsons was better than most folks could hope for, and yet in the early years, I wanted more. I married Jim in 1999. James was twelve. Chris was eleven. My own sons were twelve, five, and three. We lived in Washington State and the step boys lived in Florida.
I tried to blend this family of five sons, to make something tangible, something minivan-ish and cohesive out of my new life with expanded brood. But limited to summer vacations and holiday breaks, nothing stuck. No real brotherly love developed, and the increase in maternal instinct I was certain would blossom withered on the vine. I was failing.
I was desperate during that late summer trip to rural Ohio to visit Papaw, Jim’s grandpa. Papaw waged war against groundhogs chewing holes through his dilapidated red barn. The rodents gnawed at the wood planks of his porch, infested and weakened building foundations, reclaiming the land. Papaw grew too old to fight. A month prior, he injured a hip in a fall while shooting at one digging up his flowerbed.
Chris held tight to Papaw’s old Sears and Roebuck .22 rifle. He wanted to be a man, to take care of his great-grandpa’s problem. Jim showed him how to load the gun. Papaw pointed to a field pocked with burrows. But no one lectured about safety, about the dangers of shooting toward the road, the house, other houses, cars, people, domesticated animals, or his own limbs. None of that. With rifle slung over boney frame and a box of rounds shoved in the back of baggy jeans, he marched over a mowed corn patch to hunt groundhog.
I sat on the porch, pressing mother-bones deep into the seat of a ladder back rocking chair. I bit my lip, trying hard to stay out of man-business. Papaw, Jim, and James sat laughing at Chris. He had gun, bullets, and permission to kill, but lacked the marksmanship to succeed.
A groundhog popped up. Chris fumbled with the rifle, made too much noise, and took too much time. This happened over and over, much to the delight of the porch crowd. On each occasion, the critter spooked, or grew bored and sauntered off before Chris fired a shot.
Frustration built. I saw it in the sag of posture, heard it in the the stomp of Nike hi-tops crushing stubbles of old corn as he walked. I imagine he tried to block the laughter out, but failed. He needed to kill a groundhog to be a man, to shut his big brother up, to please Papaw, to make Dad proud.
He popped off premature shots, all misses. I flinched eight times to the beat of the rifle’s recoil.
I taught basic rifle marksmanship in Army boot camp while serving as a drill sergeant several years before marrying Jim. I helped train hundreds of young soldiers to shoot. I knew better than to give a kid a rifle and ammo without instruction and safety briefings. But I don’t think that was what really nagged me that day. The rocking chair could no longer hold me.
Dry stalks scrapped my bare legs and sandaled feet as I tip-toed my way to his position behind a large oak. Chris tried to use the tree trunk to support a standing fire posture after giving up failed attempts in the prone. His neck, forearms, and face were chaffed from lying face down in the field. He looked mad enough to cry and adjusted a Green Bay Packers cap low on his brow. I studied the tree bark until he regained composure.
“Yeah, stupid gun.”
“Rifle looks good for an antique. Want me to show you a couple tricks?”
“I can shoot. Don’t need help from a woman.”
“Ah, right. How bout I sit here with you? Maybe help you spot?”
I am an excellent shot. I earned marksmanship badges for the rifle and pistol in both my Army and Coast Guard careers. But I never shot for sport, never hunted, never helped shoot an animal, never wanted to.
Chris popped off another eight rounds, all misses. I said nothing, but maybe I breathed a little too hard when that ninth groundhog stood up, stared in our direction, and bent over to munch a patch of clover.
“You think you can do better?”
“No, I didn’t mean…”
“Do it then. Go ahead. ”
Before I had time to think, Chris stuffed the rifle in my arms and shoved me from my kneeling position behind the oak. I stood and pulled the rifle hard into my right shoulder, finding that sweet spot – the natural pocket that forms when my arm cocks back and my index finger gropes the trigger.
Tacit knowledge takes over. This is how it is when you do something over and over again. You hear a cadence, a beat by the numbers, singing out the steps in your head. Subconscious. A flip of a switch to autopilot, you act. Breathing stills, a shallow trickle low in flared nostrils. Left eye shuts. Right eye tunnels through peep sites. Cheek meets worn wood of the butt stock. Muscles contract and relax as soles grip the earth. Sensations dull, except that gentle pressure on the tip of your trigger finger. The round bursts without expectation. You never expect the burst, a true sign of a great marksman. Anticipation leads to involuntary flinch. Flinch sends the trajectory off course. You never flinch. Flinch, even a little, and you fail.
I heard a high pitched squeal, a rustle of cornstalk, and nothing. Even the porch fell quiet. Dust and sulfur filled my mouth. I smacked my lips at the dry, shook the ringing blast from my ears, and wiped carbon sting and grit from nose and eyes.
“Holy shit,” yelled Chris. “You got him.” Chris ran up to groundhog and came back toward me, jumping and skipping. When he reached me, he wrapped his arms around my waist. “That was awesome. You killed him. Blew him a new asshole.”
I didn’t feel awesome. I walked over to inspect my prize with the kid dangling from my waist. He hugged me with abandonment, exactly how I thought I wanted him to. I craved his affection, but buckled under the weight. He felt too heavy now. I knew he’d only grow harder to please in the future.
I looked down at the fury little thing. It was cute. I thought of Bill Murray and a goofy movie I watched at least ten times with my own kids. I thought of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog of Pennsylvania, how each year of my childhood, Grandma reported if the groundhog saw his shadow, and if we would have an early spring. I thought how Grandma never killed anything to bond with me, how I never killed to bond with my own three boys.
I handed the rifle back to Chris and started to cry. By the time I reached the house I was bawling. Chris joined the porch of laughing men. But now they laughed at me, a silly woman crying over dead groundhog. I felt like a failure.