Sunday, December 18, 2011


     I grew up on a Texas ranch. Snow fell rarely, but when I was seven, I woke one December day to find my world covered in white and lit by winter sun in a clear, pale-blue sky.
     My father was seated at the kitchen table when I went to get breakfast. Daddy was still in his pajamas. That was odd. Usually he was dressed by the time I awoke.
     "Can't work today," Daddy said, "'cause of the snow and ice." Daddy was a contractor and built custom homes. Not tract houses. A day off was a rare thing for him. Rare as snow in Texas.
     The radio played while I spooned up my Cheerios. After each song, the DJ recited the list of schools closed due to weather. When my school was called, Daddy looked at me and grinned.
     "No school for you today," he said. I munched my cereal. "What are we gonna do?" I shrugged.
     "I know," he said. "Let me show you how to hunt possum."
     I knew what a possum looked like from pictures in books, but I had never seen one live. "Okay," I said.
     "I'll get the rifle," Daddy said. 'The rifle' was a .22 long rifle. The only times I had seen him take it from its case was to shoot diamond-backs and copperheads and the occasional rabid skunk.
     So he got dressed and prepped the rifle while Mom bundled me up in layers topped with a pom-pom ball on a red woolen cap with earflaps that tied underneath my chin. She poured Daddy a Thermos of coffee and me another of some hot liquid. She made sandwiches on white bread. I know Daddy's was pimento-cheese spread. Most likely mine was bologna with Miracle Whip.
     Suitably dressed, armed, and provisioned, we left by the back door and passed through the gate. My dog barked her protest when we left her chained up, but Daddy said she would crash about in the woods and scare away the possums. Hand in hand, we traipsed across open pasture until we came to the woods. With nary a look back, we plunged into a forest of bare-limbed trees.
     If I recall aright, we trekked for an hour or two, and Daddy showed me a couple of tricks of woodcraft. We did not say much. Daddy was the kind of man who preferred companionable silence to idle talk.
     We stopped and drank our drinks and ate our sandwiches. I remember the woods were awful quiet. The only sounds were creaks of limbs heavy with ice and snow.
     Daddy showed me how to shoot the .22. Look down the sights. Breathe in. Breathe out. Squeeze the trigger. A .22 don't have much kick, but when you're seven, not much is enough. I think I fired the gun twice.
     After that, we hunted a while more, maybe an hour or so, until we found it.
     The possum.
     There it was, not twenty feet away from us, rummaging around on a limb, trying to find something to eat. It was all white and gray and brown, and it had the beadiest eyes I had ever seen.
     Daddy was holding the rifle at port arms. I wondered when he was going to shoot the possum. He couldn't miss from this range. This was what we had come for, I thought.
     We stood there in those woods, snow all around, and watched that possum struggle to find something, anything to eat on that limb as time ticked by. Minutes passed, and we didn't move. At last my father spoke.
     "It's got as much right to live as I do."
     Without firing a shot, we turned and trekked out of the woods and across the pasture back to the house. Daddy went out to show me how to hunt possum. Instead, he showed me something better. I've never forgotten the lesson.