Staring down the barrel of a gun


My father was a mighty killer of birds. As a small boy, in North Queensland, I recall sitting at his feet, breathing the smell of gun oil and wood polish while he cleaned his double-barrelled shotgun, which was kept in a tooled leather case. He made his own ammunition, collecting the spent cartridges and refilling them, then slotting them into a leather belt.

Most weekends we’d drive out of town, to go fishing, prospecting, (he dreamed of discovering gold or silver or uranium and making his fortune), or just shooting. Whatever the purpose, his gun was aways on the parcel shelf behind the back seat.

We’d drive to some promising bit of water on that arid landscape, roll out a swag, and tuck ourselves in early, to be awake at picaninny dawn.

Many a night, lying on the ground, my father and the I the only humans for perhaps a hundred miles, I lay awake in awe, mixed with nameless fear, gazing into the immensity of the sky, the stars limitless in number, ever farther, fainter luminous specks discernible beyond those I had thought to be most distant in the pure darkness. It made me feel very insignificant, and yet filled with the joy of being alive.

At dusk and dawn the flat plains stretched to an indistinct horizon at the limit of vision. The sun or moon rose over a distinct curve, as the earth fell away.

In the still dawn twilight, as the birds were just waking, we’d creep to the waterhole. If there were ducks, my father would move off in one direction and I in the other. It was my job then to scare the ducks into flight, so that he could shoot them as they passed his hiding place. He’d only get the one opportunity, but we seldom went home empty-handed. Then he’d strip off and swim out to collect the fallen birds, (until he bought me my first pet, a black cocker spaniel retriever, called George).

Sometimes the ducks would rise immediately and I’d stand, always on my father’s right, while he blasted away at his quarry. Understandably I’m now deaf in my left ear.

Ducks were the prime target, but he was not above shooting topknot pigeons and bustards. Pigeons were easy pickings, since they flocked in their hundreds. We’d walk through the spinifex until they rose up in front of us in a dense, whirring cloud. He’d sometimes kill as many as six with a single shot. I was very fond of pigeon soup, cooked by my mother in the billy-can over the fire, half a dozen little carcasses in a quart pot.

Bustards, turkeys to us, were big beautiful birds, which had the misfortune of being taller than the spinifex, although otherwise well camouflaged, with tan/grey/beige feathers. They’re now absolutely protected, but in those days it was open season.

If we were driving through grassy country, one or both of my parents in the front seat, concentrating on the road, my young eyes were recruited to scan the prickly, heat-shimmered landscape for any unwary turkey careless enough to show its head. At my excited shout, my father would stop the car in an urgent cloud of dust, leap out of the car and grab his gun. I had to keep the turkey in sight. Most often the poor creature would lurch into lumbering flight, far more ungainly than the missile-like trajectory of ducks, only to fall, almost inevitably, maimed or dead, back to earth.

Much as I was bred to see hunting as simply a means of filling the larder, I found it very sad to see these lovely creatures killed, then left to the scavenging eagles, minus their drumsticks and breast-meat. The meat was very tasty, but we were also guilty of using it for fishing bait.

Naturally I longed to emulate my father, the hunter, the killer, the protector. The best I could do as a child was to make a shanghai (slingshot) out of a forked piece of wood, a leather pouch and two rubber straps (brassiere elastic from the haberdashery was best). With these I spent countless hours shooting stones at tin cans, birds and sometimes other kids. The cans made a satisfying clang when hit and the kids yelped, then retaliated. I don’t recall ever hitting a bird.

Later I persuaded my grandmother to buy me an air rifle. I raised money for lead pellets by trapping mice, for which my aunty paid me threepence a head (and she provided the cheese.) I did manage to hit a few birds with the rifle, but they all flew away, until I raised enough cash to buy some metal darts to fire, and with one of these I succeeded in killing a topknot pigeon. My pride in the accomplishment, though, was tainted by an immediate feeling of guilt, made no better by my Aunty Molly’s horrified reaction when I took the deceased bird home for her to cook. She insisted I pluck it and gut it, then she pan-fried it for my lunch. Aunty Molly was the best cook in the world, and I ate it, because I felt that I must, having killed it, but I choked on every mouthful.

In my mid-twenties, soon after I  was married, I couldn’t resist buying a beautifully made gun, an under-and-over with a 22 barrel and a 410 shotgun barrel. My wife and I used to often go camping and I rationalised that I should have a gun for protection against snakes and to ward off intruders. We never encountered either. I fired a few test shots, and cleaned the gun occasionally, but I accompanied my father only once on a duck-shooting expedition.

I discovered that shooting a duck flying past at 40 miles per hour is rather harder than he made it look, but I did eventually manage to bring one down. My father, naturally, bagged a half-dozen. My mother was not a great cook, but prided herself on her wild duck recipe. On this occasion, however, I couldn’t bring myself  to eat a morsel. (See footnote.)

I kept the gun for another decade, in the back of a cupboard, until, in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, gun ownership laws in Australia were changed, and I gave it to my gun-fancier brother-in -law.

On our farm in Western Australia, tiger snakes and dugites are common, both highly venomous. I often see them, but I don’t have a gun, and I would’t dream of killing a snake. In fact I went to considerable lengths, at some personal risk, a while ago, to save a dugite choking on a piece of plastic.

Footnote: My father once invited a friend to lunch, to sample my mother’s home-cooked wild duck. I wasn’t invited, unfortunately. This friend brought along two bottles of wine, which he handed to my father, saying “Here’s something for your cellar.” My father served up one of the bottles with the rubbery duck, but apparently failed to appear sufficiently appreciative, until prompted. When I visited my parents the next day, my mother said “I think we had some kind of special wine yesterday. The garbage collectors got very excited about the empty bottle. She showed me the remaining full bottle. To my astonishment, it was a Chateau Margaux 1947! My father gave it away a few months later, as a Christmas present to his dental technician.


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