Words & Photography by BRENNAN CIRA
Somewhere west of Dallas, between a patch of live oaks and mesquite trees, I held my grandfather’s shotgun for the first time. An old gun, not quite as old as he, but his. I held it in the spring morning light on a dried-up creek bed near the Trinity River. The first steps towards my love of the outdoors were taken that day, with him. The cool night air deposited its quicksilver on the grass banks, rewarding us early risers. As mockingbirds chattered, I spent the morning learning how to shoot.
I missed a lot. “Shoot with both eyes open,” and, “mount the gun to your cheek, not your shoulder,” hinted his unmistakable drawl, while I tracked, clumsy as a newborn calf. I slowly found my legs and gained coordination, breaking a piece off a clay then connecting squarely with another. His encouraging advice threaded choppy movements into fluid motion as increasing shards of orange clay tumbled to the Texas dirt. I began to feel the shotgun as something that fit, like an old jacket softened by time.
After the final shell popped from his Ithaca, and the last wisps of black gun smoke curled in pursuit. We cleaned up. Bearing a bruised shoulder and a bag of spent shells, we walked back to his sun-bleached Suburban. We took the long way home, and soon it was time for breakfast. With Sinatra playing from his stereo, grandpa fixed eggs, bacon, and a fresh batch of his industrial strength coffee. Stomachs full, we went upstairs for a lesson in gun cleaning.
The final round coverage of The Masters would begin shortly. After all, Sunday is a religious day. Our pews came in the form of his prehistoric leather recliners, and The Masters theme song, our gospel.
As he showed me how to disassemble and clean an over-and-under, the conversation drifted to his days using it. I held it in my hands, awestruck, visibly admiring its rugged history.
Like my grandpa, the hardened block of wood and steel between my hands showed its age; receiver dinged, stock scratched and gouged, and even a few raw spots show where the bluing had rubbed away on his hands over the years. The shell ejectors work when they want to! This gun, used, not abused, developed its patina one mile at a time. As a young man, he laboured and saved for close to a year to pay $300 cash for it. Buying on credit, in his eyes, nears levels of sacrilege only rivalled by purchasing a Ford. For a fistful of cash, a handshake, and a smile, it left the shelf in the tiny gun shop near Fort Worth, destined for the field.
Made to last and hammer forged by American hands, it downed doves on the plains where DFW Airport now sprawls, long before the air traffic control tower broke the horizon and the rumble of 747s scared off the flocks of revered birds that called it home. It earned his trust in the duck swamps of Louisiana, on quail hunts on the outskirts of Midland-Odessa, and in search of sage-grouse on the high plains of the West. My grandpa carried it, mile after mile, under the longleaf pines of Georgia, over the flaxen wheat fields of Kansas, and through the arid air of the Arizona high desert. His Ithaca; the first gun I learned to handle, respect, and trust in a dried-up creek bed not far from the shop it left nearly four decades prior. Thus began my love of hunting, and the pursuit of all things beautiful.
While my grandpa’s shotgun has plenty of hunting life left in it, he does not. In fact, his days as a hunter gave way to idle night at roughly the same time he taught me to shoot. Tired eyes and a banged up shoulder make it quite a strain on his vision and body. Hisfrost-filled jointsno longer break free on fall days. He spends much of his time tending his rose bushes or volunteering at the golf course near his home. A man like him stays busy; the work never finishes for old Texas bulls. As summer draws to a close every year, I can hear the excitement in his voice when I call to tell him about my hunting plans. My father, the second Tom Cira, and I make an annual pilgrimage to the pheasant hunting mecca: South Dakota’s famed Golden Triangle. With the largest wild bird population in the country, it attracts serious upland hunters from all over the world. I know grandpa longs to go, to hear the cackle of roosters, the beating of flight feathers, and to feel the rush as the sky fills with droves of amber, sienna, black, and red, but Father Time’s plans accommodate no one. I plan to treat this year differently. I will leave my Beretta at home, stacked neatly in its case. This year, his old Ithaca will return to the road for another hundred miles in the field. It will feel right at home as I aim my old truck West; South Dakota’s rippling amber hills beckon and call it to arms once more. Though the roses need watering, he’ll be there, step for step in the morning light. We have many more miles to go.
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