A Creed for the Future

On the Range

A letter to my three-year-old grandson, Creed Alexander Ferguson:

Dear Creed,

Yesterday your grandmother went for a walk up the creek and discovered a porcupine busily killing another tree. She came back and asked for a gun and I handed her your Henry .22.

Of course, you don’t know you own a rifle. But you’ve owned it before you were the proverbial glimmer in your mother’s eye or the source of her morning sickness. You’ve owned it since the day I found it on sale in a gun shop and reasoned I might have a grandson some day.

Some might think I should have kept this little rifle NIB, or New-In-the-Box. But I think it should be ANE, Almost New-but-Experienced. Since its purchase it’s stood in my gun safe like a Boy Scout among soldiers, soaking in the atmosphere of gun oil and powder while waiting for occasional field trips in fresh air. When you come of age the little repeater will be properly broken in and available for years of use.

May it be ready for you, you ready for it, and a world ready for the two of you.

When I was young, boys graduated from Daisy BB guns to .22s. It was common to see young guys headed into the hills with rifles on their shoulders and adults paid them little notice. More boys had fathers in the home then and the fathers taught gun safety.

Boys, and the girls who showed interest, learned that safe gun handling rules were carved in stone. There was no wiggle room, no allowance for cheating, laxity, or inattentiveness. When one is ten years old having a firearm is not a "right" that can be argued in the judicial system, it is a privilege and a privilege only.

Boys "plinked" in those days. They walked to gravel pits, rock quarries or a relative’s farm and assassinated cans and paper before being assigned rabbits, crows, squirrels, and skunks. There was a respect for the privilege that kept them from risking its loss. A rifle taken away for bad behavior was a sad pronouncement of being found untrustworthy and immature.

In those bygone days many schools and civic organizations had rifle clubs and competitions. Guns were not a forbidden fruit whispered about in hallways like lewd jokes. Guns were guns. Youngsters might become marksmen at an early age yet never choose to hunt. Guns did not have to kill things to do their job. Guns could shoot pinhole groups that helped earn college scholarships, appointments to military academies or spots on the Olympic team.

The young people who did hunt learned early about the cycles of life and death. To be honest, many fought back tears the first time an animal died by their aim -- crows and cottontails seem light, fragile and warm held in young hands. They felt remorse not because hunting and killing is bad but because life is precious. They didn’t grow in stature by the taking of life but in making prudent and responsible decisions whether game was taken or not.

"Trophies" were whispered about but it wasn’t talk that was encouraged. "You can’t eat the antlers," the dads, uncles and older brothers would remind us. Hunting, except to protect property, was for putting food on the table. If an animal was shot just for the thrill of it grandmothers were likely to boil it in a pot and serve it for supper. Animals that needed killing were a different matter: the fox, weasel, or skunk raiding the hen house, the rabbits destroying the garden, even the beloved pet with a broken a leg. It was an honor when the woman of the house called because a job needed doing.

"It builds character." That phrase was heard a lot then because the mentors had survived the Great Depression and World War II. If youngsters got a scrape or cut they "rubbed a little dirt in it." No one thought of calling ambulances and lawyers. Imaginations hadn’t been mesmerized by television and video games and movies were as morally instructional as they were entertaining. Old Yeller was a story boys could relate to.

Life did not change as quickly then. Now values, laws, and traditions can be cast aside like litter and I’ve no idea, grandson, what the world will be like when you are old enough to handle the little Henry.

But I know what I hope for. I hope for schools that are safe not because guns have been banned from private ownership but because students have been taught respect, honor, and self-restraint; I hope for entertainment that glorifies neither violence nor appeasement; for music that uplifts the human spirit rather than defiling it; affordable tennis shoes that feel soil, grass, rock, and water beneath their treads as often as they feel concrete and asphalt. My hope is that school and civic organizations again instruct youngsters in gun handling and marksmanship and for a society that honors the hunter and hunters that are worthy of that honor.

I hope our drug and fame obsessed culture realizes there is no athlete as conditioned as a high-altitude hunter, no euphoria surpassing a mountaintop view, and no therapy better than exercise and fresh air.

I hope sportsmen carve a path back through the social underbrush to traditional values rather than following a popular culture that emphasizes shallow achievement and self-aggrandizement. I hope common sense rises from obscurity.

This message has some big words and lofty ideals in it, Creed. I don’t expect you to understand all this at age 10 or 11 when I open the gun safe and put the Henry .22 in your hands. But I am hoping that perhaps sometime, maybe in your 20s, you will sit high above timberline admiring views angels, eagles, and stalwart souls know. A rifle will be at your side. It won’t be the Henry .22 of course. It will be back in your home, a bit rougher for wear. Maybe at that time you might reach into your pocket and remove a yellowed piece of newsprint. Unfolding the dry and wrinkled paper, you read this column softly, but aloud, and let these words be released into the thin air like feathers on a breeze.

Or perhaps it will be in a tree stand after hours of observing sunlight and shadow, hearing twigs snap and leaves rustle; or in a canoe on a crystalline lake, a paddle tracing the surface with rippling signatures.

Somewhere at sometime I hope this column proves prophetic in its hope and a young man who has grown as solid and strong as a tree releases these words as a prayer for his own son and grandsons to come.

With that goal, the little Henry sits quietly in the gun safe, a Boy Scout among soldiers, a responsibility yet to be fulfilled, a hope yet to be seen.

It will be here waiting for you.

Love, Granddad.