Scene One – REAL MAN – Mequon, Wisconsin, April 1960
Strings screech, hum, and sing with never intended song. Gold and black-varnished maple, the color of sunlight in our windowless garage attic breaks over Dad’s knee. Splinters, like dead autumn leaves, drop to the floor.
He holds wreckage of a mandolin aloft, as a victorious hunter lifts his kill. “No one ever uses this damn thing.” Dust, the stuff of creation, coats his hands and pants. “You need music lessons to play it. Who has time for that? Here, Bobby, toss this junk in the trash.”
My feet stick to the tongue-in-grove brown stained pine floor with glue of uncertainty. Facing this giant of a man, who could destroy in an instant, my voice quivers. “Dad, why did you wreck Mother’s mandolin?”
He moves slowly toward me. A naked 60-watt light bulb, hanging from red pine rafters, drapes his ten-foot shadow over me. “Listen son. A man I don’t like gave the mandolin to her. You’re in high school, too young to understand, but old enough to know what a man has to do. He must show he’s boss. Real men are winners. Wimps are losers. Which do you want to be?”
I squirm in his shadow; the weight of his question holds me rigid. “A man, I guess.”
“What’s that?” Dad booms.
My feet break from the bond and I step deeper into his shadow. “A real man. I want to be a winner.”
Scene Two – TAKE THIS GUN – Mequon, Wisconsin, October 1960
“Dad,” I say.
I move closer. “Could I go deer hunting with Jimmy and his pals over Thanksgiving weekend? I’ve never been to deer camp. Do we have a rifle I could use?”
Dad lays the morning edition of The Milwaukee Sentinel on the coffee table and springs from his tan leather lounge chair. “Come to the garage with me.” We climb a creaky wood stepladder to familiar brown stained pine boards in our attic.
“Take this gun.” He hands me a hex barrel, model 1892, lever action, 25-20 caliber Winchester. “It’s not exactly a deer rifle. The bore is a bit small, more of a varmint gun, but it’ll do.”
The rifle’s honey-varnished walnut stock reflects dim attic light. “Some goofball tried to hammer his initials into the gun metal,” Dad says. “Bullets go in here. Cock the lever to place a round in the chamber. Release the safety and pull the trigger. That’s all you need to know.”
The gun is heavy with a weight of responsibility I will soon understand. “Do I need shooting lessons?”
“Nah, I told you all you need to know.”
Scene Three – IMPERFECT BLUNDER – Hayward, Wisconsin, November 1960
One month later we bump along Forest Road 73. Two tire ruts run through endless white pines. Morning sun peeks through frosted boughs, crystals of brilliance in frigid air. Last night’s snow dusts the woods. Jimmy drives his father’s Ford pickup. Tommy rides shotgun. I sit in the truck’s bed, Dad’s Winchester cradles in my lap. Pete, Billy, and Rudy ride beside me with camping equipment and essentials for deer camp.
An Outdoor Wisconsin television show warned hunters that rifles are easily discharged if riding in a pickup. Easing my finger slowly clear of the trigger, I snap the safety on. I finger the gun’s disfiguring H K initials, an imperfect blunder. Who was HK? Was he a real man? Did HK wonder if he would kill?
We lurch out of ruts and stop at the bottom of a valley. Jimmy leaps from the cab. “Everyone out. We’ll pitch camp after we hunt.”
“Okay guys,” Tommy yells with the voice of a drill sergeant. “Line up behind Jimmy. I’ll hunt with him. Billy, you’re next, then Bobby. Pete and Rudy will bring up the rear.”
I fidget. “Hey Tommy, how will we hunt?”
“We’ll drop off each pair as we hike. One of you will sweep the woods to drive a buck into the open. Your partner will wait in the clearing and have first shot. We’ll keep a half-mile between pairs to minimize injury from stray bullets.”
We laugh, stomping cold feet. Tommy continues. “Coach Lombardi would say, ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.’ Whoever bags the first buck will be winner of this year’s deer camp.”
I lever a bullet into firing position, flick the safety on, and follow Billy. My Winchester points away from Billy toward the trail. Prairie grass changes to brush that pull my arms and legs. Fingers of woody interference poke my hands.
Billy slows. “Buck,” Jimmy says in a loud whisper, “fan out.”
Billy moves right. I follow, snapping the Winchester’s safety off. Bang, a thunderbolt rocks my life. Varmint gun kicks upward. My bullet snaps a branch over Billy’s shoulder.
“What the hell!” He yells. “Are you trying to kill me?”
Scene Four – DECISION – Homestead High School, Mequon, Wisconsin, December 1960
“Mr. Wagner, I’d like a hallway pass to visit the music department,” I say.
His eyes rise from papers he’s grading. “Bobby, leaving homeroom to visit the music department is unusual. But, you’re a good student, so here’s your pass.”
I clutch my pass, folding and unfolding the paper as I walk to the lower level. Paper turkeys, pilgrims, and pumpkins that adorned last week’s corridors have been replaced with wintery holiday decorations. Silver stars and cotton puffs intended as snow, promise change.
Music Department in gold letters on the glass door greets me. “Come in,” a vigorous voice, commands. Dr. Evans scans my pass. He wears wire rim glasses and rubs his white goatee. “What can I do for you, Bobby?”
“I want to take mandolin lessons.”
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Richard Wilberg, MS, PLCC, ACC
Creativity Coach for Personal Fulfillment and Career Success
About the Author
Richard Wilberg writes fiction, creative non-fiction, self-development, and career counseling articles. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.