It was time. It was time to become a man, my father said.
One of the traditional fall outings for our family in Iowa was to go into the country armed with gunnysacks in search of black walnuts. Sometimes the nuts, encased in thick green and black hulls, could be found under trees beside country roads. But more often, after getting the farmer’s permission, we would go through gate after gate to the area where the walnut trees lived. The ground would be covered with the tennis ball-sized nuts. It was not unlike hunting for Easter eggs, except there would be much work to do before eating any of the riches.
We took the walnuts home, spread them out on the garage floor, and ran them over several times with the car to crack open the hulls. After they’d dried out for two weeks, my dad, grandfather and I would put on old work gloves to keep the black stain from our hands, and sit on the garage floor where, one by one, we peeled off and separated the dried hulls from the shells. As we did this, we shared memories of past outings, of rich Lazy Daisy Cakes with brown sugar, coconut, black walnuts, and raisin frosting, and of the black walnut taffy, fudge and penuche that would be made at holiday time. The buckets of hulled walnuts were then taken to the furnace room in the basement to dry out further before cracking, and being used in cookies, cakes, and candy all year long.
It was on such an anticipated journey that, unknown to me, I would be tested to see if I was a man yet. My dad always brought his shotgun along in case monster rabbits, squirrels, tigers, or bears attacked us.
I must interject here that the reason my grandmother had such a difficult time in childbirth was because my dad may have been born with a BB gun in his hands. He was born hunting. Every hunting season was on his calendar. He hunted pheasant, quail, duck, rabbit, squirrel, deer, elk, and even raccoons with coonhounds. Since he had grown up hunting, he was disappointed and confused when I didn’t jump with joy to go with him to see animals destroyed.
We did try to eat everything he killed if it wasn’t too full of buckshot or too badly blown away. If he ever bagged a deer, however, he gave it to another “big-time game hunter” to eat. My mother never cooked or ate venison. We did not eat raccoons. They were usually torn apart by the hounds anyway.
It was my dad’s nature to hunt. I can’t condemn him for that, but somehow I was born wearing an actor’s costume and asking for a little more stage light. Killing animals and birds was not and is not my nature.
On that day, my gunnysack was getting heavy to pull along the ground as I found new sources of treasures. Then I heard my dad say, “Well, looky there, way up in the top of that tree – there’s a big squirrel’s nest. I’ll just go to the car and get my gun. We’ll see if you’re a man today, Donnie.”
I knew what he meant. I guess I wanted to be a man, but I was afraid to shoot the gun, and I sure didn’t want to kill any squirrels. I fed them nuts from my hand on our back porch!
When Dad returned with the shotgun he placed it in my arms. “I’ll show you how to hold it and help you aim. Be careful now,” he said, “it’s loaded.” Dad crouched behind me, helping hold up the heavy gun. “We’re going to aim right at that big nest and see if there’s anything in it.”
I didn’t want to cry. I wanted to be a man, but the tears were running down my cheeks. “I don’t want to do it,” I said. “I don’t want to kill squirrels.”
“Oh, come on, Donnie,” he said, “you can do it. Be a man today.”
Then my mother said, “Don’t make him do it, Phil.”
“He needs to,” my dad shouted. “Now come on, Donnie, point the end of the barrel right on that nest. That’s it, and when you’re ready, pull the trigger slowly. Now, it’s going to kick a bit, but I’ve got you.”
“Kick a bit.” Never heard that before. There’s another reason not to pull the trigger, I thought. “I don’t want it to kick,” I said.
“Well, it won’t hurt you if you hold it tight against your shoulder.”
I felt terrible. I wanted to be a man in my father’s eyes, but I didn’t want to shoot that gun. Is that what you had to do to be a man? I cocked my head to the right so I could see the tip on the end of the barrel in the middle of the sight, and with my dad’s help holding up the gun, I resigned myself to the task of becoming a man.
I pulled the trigger. Bam! Kick it did. Knocked me back into my dad’s chest and we both fell backwards. It really hurt. Tears were coming. I couldn’t do anything about it.
My dad said, “Good job, look what you did.”
Most of the nest was blown out of the tree and there were two squealing, squirming squirrels on the ground. I was crying hard by that time. I didn’t care if I was a man or not.
My dad took my hand and we walked over to look at the bloody squirrels on the ground. “Now you need to finish them off, son,” he said. “Put them out of their misery.”
I knew they would never have been in any misery if I hadn’t pulled that trigger. Through my tears I shouted, “I don’t want to do it. I won’t do it.”
“Come on now,” my dad said, “take the gun and be a man.”
My mother was there with us by that time, also crying, “Phil, stop it for pity’s sake. He’s only six years old.”
I broke away and ran back to the car, jumped onto the back seat and covered my ears with my hands. I heard it anyway. Bam! I knew those little squirrels were blown to pieces, and it was all my fault. If only I hadn’t pulled that trigger!
With the sacks of walnuts and the gun secured in the trunk, we began the long, excruciatingly uncomfortable ride home. No one said a word. Everyone was thinking.
My dad’s thoughts probably were: “Is my only son ever going to be a man and want to go hunting with me?”
My mother’s thoughts probably were: “Why did I let that go so far? He’s too young to kill.”
And me – well, I had many thoughts and questions: “I want to run away and never see my dad again. Do I have to kill to be a man? Are guns what make us men?”
I hated my dad with a six-year-old vengeance. However, with the passage of time and a somewhat more “grownup” point of view, I began to understand his passion for the hunt and his need to initiate me into his world, for his own sake, as well as for his image with his friends.
That was the last time I remember gathering black walnuts with my parents. Many years later when I was teaching at a university in Illinois I took my own family hunting … for black walnuts.
Now in the autumn of my own life, I have a loving wife, four sons, two daughters-in-law, two beautiful grandchildren, a gratifying, successful career in theater, education, and storytelling, and many loving friends whom I treasure greatly.
Sometimes when I feel especially happy with my life, I want to say to my dad, who may be looking down on me, “Am I … in your eyes, Dad, am I a man yet?”
Don Doyle was a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University where he taught courses in theatre and storytelling for 30 years. He is a past board member of the National Storytelling Network, and is a full-time professional teller. He narrated the CD, Platero & I, a poem by the Andalusian poet, Juan Ramón Jiménez, who won the 1956 Nobel Prize in Literature. Frank Koonce played guitar. Don can be reached at email@example.com.