One Christmas, perhaps in the year 1960 or 1961, I was around the age of eight or nine, I was gifted a Red Ryder BB gun. The gun, technically a BB rifle, was, I considered, a gift from God to me. To a youngster brought up with the likes of The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers as cowboy's hero's this rifle equipped me to vanquish imaginary outlaws and right the world's ills or-- to bring back wild meat for the table.
Behind the rural Methodist parsonage in Northern Michigan where my family lived was a mixed forest of deciduous and conifer trees. The forest was replete with wildlife of all types and to a child's imagination was a veritable wilderness. Shortly after Christmas, it was a cold and blustery day, with snow piled high in January drifts. I slugged through the snow powder with my BB gun slung over my shoulder seeking game of any sort. Gregarious chickadees floated among the low lying shrubs and bushes, with a general friendliness uncommon to most species of birds. They floated around me like errant clouds, chirping with their characteristic chick-a-dee song and chattering. One singular bird alighted close to me. Not thinking I took aim and shot it without mercy. It tumbled out of the bush dead at my feet. I was stunned that I could kill so easily without compunction. I can still remember the shivering notion that occurred to me that life and death were just flipped sides of the same coin and that a single flip could render in the blink of an eye either life or the end of existence.
It would make a good end of this tale to tell all of you that this was a life-altering epiphany and that I never wantonly took the life of a living thing again. It didn't work out that way. I still hunt for game birds. My dog Blue, an English Setter and I ply the woods for hours at a time, seeking upland grouse or fleeting woodcock, but I readily admit that often this is just an exercise for doing nothing at all besides watching Blue do what he was bred for. I rarely shoot the old shotgun that I own and I still think often of that chickadee. These days the chickadees land tenuously on my camp porch railing and are a welcome sight for an old man. I suppose it took the life of a chickadee to awaken a sense of conscience in a small lad. I don't really know if it takes the death of an innocent to awaken compassion but sadly, I suspect it does.