I don’t remember Dad handing me my first rifle. I do remember killing my first rabbit. It was winter, I’d just turned nine, so, in Appalachian thought, I was two years late. It was time to kill something. But Dad hadn’t put pressure on me.
We were walking through four inches of snow in a field just a hundred yards from my papaw’s house. Dad was a patient man when hunting. He saw the rabbit first, which was sitting in some brush. Its fur was off white and blended with the snow, but the brush behind it made for an easier target. Dad said to raise the gun very, very slowly, don’t rush to draw the bead, and gently squeeze the trigger, all things that he had taught me before, all those other times I missed, always with a gentle voice that smelled like cigarettes and coffee.
I did what he told me. The rabbit stood suddenly, and I thought I’d failed already, having spooked it by raising the rifle barrel. But I squeezed and blood popped from the rabbit’s hide. Dad patted my shoulder, praised my shooting and said that, if I wanted, he’d let me skin it. That night we ate it.
Dad was an Appalachian white man to the bone. He’d been born in the east Tennessee sharecropping world, the agricultural system that had replaced slavery in 1865. The rich landowners who’d gotten all their work done for free turned to poor whites to do the farming. The system lasted until the nineteen forties. Dad was born in 1920, in a shack that stood on eight piles of stones as a foundation. If you squatted, you could see the bottoms of the tobacco stalks on the other side of the shack.
His mother used to give him and his siblings tobacco leaves to chew on to quell the hunger. He was three. They got paid once a year, when they sold the rich man’s tobacco. They shared, if that’s what you want to call it: Dad’s family worked from March to November on the crop, planting it, weeding, pinching fat horn worms off the leaves, cutting it in the fall and hanging it in the barn in preparation for the winter tobacco auction. My papaw sold it, handed parts of the wad of cash to all the people he owed in loans—the hardware store, the fertilizer and feed plant, the grocer, with interest—gave half of what was left to the landowner, took the remaining bills home and prayed for a decent deer season. The McPeeks killed from December to March, when they started planting the next crop.
We killed, as I grew up. Dad had gone from sharecropper to Navy vet to auto mechanic. In the seventies, there wasn’t much work. He’d go months without a job, even though he searched the whole territory for one. So, we went into the woods.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of a four-point buck deer laid out on our dining table. It was January. My parents had opened all the windows in the house to let the frozen air in. Mom, excited over the huge carcass on her table, put on a pot of coffee. Dad pulled out the butchering knives.
He’d shot the buck right through the heart. You couldn’t have asked for a cleaner kill. He punctured the deer’s abdomen and pulled the blade down the skin. Steam slipped out. Dad eviscerated, Mom caught the guts in a tin bucket. They spoke about the winter, all the deer meat on their table, how it’d fill the freezer, and how we’d be good for meat all the way to spring, words said all throughout his childhood, as though we were still waiting for the next crop to get us through. Cultural words. Appalachian. “Yeah boy,” he said, “we’ll eat good, real good.”
I had never gone hungry. But I understood the words. And I understood the rifle, along with my parents’ entire collection of weaponry: two .22 double-action revolvers; a twelve-gauge double barrel shotgun; a twenty-gauge single; the lever-action Winchester rifle that Dad used on the buck; large and small knives used for gutting deer, rabbit, squirrel, and turtles.
We were a traditional Appalachian gun-toting family. There was nothing special about it, nothing to get too excited over. Until the day Dad taught me how to shoot a pistol. I was pretty good, I could knock most the cans off Papaw’s wood fence. There was a thrill about the .22’s, the handguns that we never used on a hunt. Imagine my elation when I figured out that, when it came to hand-held armaments, I was ambidextrous. Ten years old and a gunslinger, Oh yeah. I couldn’t wait to show my new skills off to Billy, my best friend who lived across the street.