Some memories come back strong, some barely there. This memory is weird because details have faded, and yet it remains vivid still. I’ve told this story before, but writing it out every time helps me process what I’m feeling when the memories come back.
Once upon a time we had a dog that wasn’t right. Whether it was bad genes, bad upbringing, or some combination between the two the dog wasn’t socializing with humans or letting them into his pack. I guess I was a bit of a wild teenager, but my Dad decided I should learn the lesson of what it means to kill a dog. I must have been 15 or 16 before I got a drivers license, and I remember it was the summer time with a clear blue sky. My older brother was still living at home, I think, so maybe it was just time that the old man tried to pass on one last life lesson to remind young hellion of his own mortality. I don’t know if the topic will ever come up in conversation, but odds are Dads memories are as screwy as mine are and if he’s managed to forget that day, I’d be glad. Maybe Dad that day didn’t want to teach me anything, maybe he’d just killed enough animals and wanted someone to share the burden with that day. The answer to that is probably lost to time, and I’m at peace with that.
But, when you are given a chore you do it, and so I set out to kill a dog.
I dug the hole so deep, about five feet down, and the managed to get a leash around the dogs neck and got him drug to the hole. He fell in, and cowered in the bottom, the cool damp earth must have felt good, and he was far away from that scary man who had him by the neck. Afraid of me, he would have crawled deeper into the dirt if he could, too afraid to get closer to me and jump out of the hole and try to make a break for the alder and pine forest strip that separated my folks house from the farm beyond. So he cowered, and I waited over him. Can’t remember how long.
My dad brought out a 22, an old pump action Remington that has been in the family for a very long time. It belonged to my Great Grandfather. It failed, wouldn’t fire. So Dad got another rifle, a Springfield 87A often called a “gill gun” because of the vertical milled gas ports on the left side of the action. The problem was that rifle had a scope on it, and I couldn’t get a decent aim to hit the part of the brain that would make it a painless kill. I’d dug the hole too deep to get the muzzle down where it needed to be to hit without aiming, and too narrow for me to get in there with that crazy dog.
I can still remember the crack of the action, and the crimson splash on the white fur as I unloaded the whole magazine tube into that sad, frightened animal desperate to put it beyond fear or pain. I think I had to reload that tube at least once. It wasn’t a clean kill.
Dad said he was sorry for bringing a rifle I couldn’t aim, and I wished I’d thought through the problem a bit more so he wouldn’t have to feel sorry.
I don’t remember shoveling dirt over the dog, but I know that got done, and my mind felt detached, and ashamed it had taken so many bullets.
Years later Dad and I had to butcher a goat, and this time I used my 1911, which wasn’t a firearm either Dad or I had available all those years before. One clean shot to the back of the head below the horns, the hollow point obliterating the brain before the goat flopped to the ground. It was a clean kill, and I didn’t make a mess of it. Getting it right the second time doesn’t make up for a messy first try, as you can’t re-write the past any more than you can wish it away.
But sometimes, I think about what that dog saw, looking up from that cramped narrow hole, and how it felt as each bullet ripped through bone, skin and muscle until the blackness covered its vision and the world turned silent. Maybe that was the lesson Dad wanted me to learn, I don’t know. But I have learned from it, that killing isn’t something that comes naturally or easy, that there isn’t any glory in it. If you do it well there is the grim satisfaction of a hard job done well, and if you make a mess of it at least the relief when it’s over.
I now have two sons of my own. I went to Iraq shortly after the first was born, and Afghanistan shortly after the second came into the world. In another ten years or so my sons will be the ages that my older brother and I were about the time I killed that dog. I’ve managed to survive my life choices more through dumb luck and Divine Provenance than any sort of skill or wisdom on my part. I don’t know that I’ll make the same choices my Dad made, but there are no guarantees that my choices will be any better. I do hope that my boys become better men than their father. But time will tell.