The borrowed shotgun

By Larry Dablemont, Contributing Columnist
Posted 12/27/23

I turned eleven years old in October of 1958. When we floated the river in November that year I just sat in the front of the old johnboat, peering over the front of the blind, wishing I could hunt …

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The borrowed shotgun


I turned eleven years old in October of 1958. When we floated the river in November that year I just sat in the front of the old johnboat, peering over the front of the blind, wishing I could hunt too. Dad said I was still to young and small of stature to carry a shotgun. But when we would float upon a group of mallards, watching those big beautiful greenheads swim out from the bank, uneasily suspicious of that floating blind that concealed us, I would pretend.

My dad would get close, then turn the boat sideways, drop the paddle and grab his old pump-gun as the ducks would flush. I knew he wouldn’t miss very often. Soon we would be picking up two or three mallards to lie on the front of the boat before me, behind the blind, where I would smooth their feathers and marvel at their beauty. I would always wonder what it was like where they had come from… perhaps Canada, the magical far-away wilderness a world away from my beloved river.

The greatest thing I had ever happened to me occurred just after Thanksgiving, when Dad brought me a borrowed shotgun that he said I could use for awhile. It was small, loaned to me, he said, by my old friend Bill Stalder. Ol’ Bill, one of the pool hall regulars, was a great riverman himself, my grandfather’s trapping partner. I held it and pretended we were floating the river as I aimed it at make-believe flying ducks. It was a magnificent little 16-gauge single-shot hammer gun, an Iver Johnson, with a shortened stock that just fit me. It was used of course… a gun made years before I was even born. But to me, the faded blueing and worn forearm made it even more wondrous. I wondered if someone, grown up by then, had once used it as a boy when it was new, to bring down ducks and quail and a squirrel or rabbit.

Dad took me out that very day and let me shoot it at cans on a log. I missed the first one, but hit the next two, and wanted to shoot at more, but shells were too expensive, about 20 cents apiece. When we went out to get a Christmas tree, Dad let me carry it before him with a shell in the barrel, broken down for safety. I got to shoot at a rabbit, but missed. We hunted ducks each weekend that December, floating the river as we always did. But this time I sat in the front of the boat with my borrowed shotgun, breach closed, and when a flock of mallards jumped before us the recoil nearly pitched me backwards off my seat when I fired. As the flock winged on down the river, I had to ask Dad if I got one. I hadn’t pulled a feather.

Finally it came time to take the little Iver Johnson back to Ol’ Bill, a week before Christmas. But dad had told me that next year when my birthday came, he and I would go out and try to find one like it just for me. That helped a little, but who was he kidding? We’d never find a little shotgun that fit me like that one had. My dad was six foot three but my Mom and I were just a little over five feet. I was sure I wasn’t gonna grow… Mom hadn’t! I was the littlest kid in the seventh grade, such a runt that I didn’t have any friends, except for those aging men in the pool hall.

There would be a big dinner with grandparents and relatives on Christmas day of 1958, with a ham and a turkey for us all. Dad had won both at the turkey shoot before Thanksgiving. On Christmas morning my sisters ran to the Christmas tree to anxiously grab their gifts. One was a big doll that seemed to make them so happy. My sisters were crazy like that… dolls!

It wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas for me. I picked up one package, and feeling it, I knew it was a shirt. Mom and Grandma made all my shirts. But there was a second wrapped package way back under the tree, probably store-bought jeans. I couldn’t reach it so Dad said for me to lie on my belly and crawl back and get it. I did, and as I reached for it back behind the stump of that cedar tree, I saw the stock of a shotgun sitting behind it, out of sight. It was Ol’ Bill’s 16 gauge, Iver Johnson break-open hammer-gun. I nearly upended that tree going after it!

I don’t reckon there’s much more I need to say about the Christmas I remember from when I was eleven years old. A thousand memories of great times in the outdoors began that day. Many of them come back to me as I gaze upon Dads old ’97 Winchester pump gun, which hangs on the wall of my office; and I can see that little shotgun from my boyhood, hanging beneath it.

It causes me to thank God for this wonderful life He gave me as a Naturalist-Writer going forth from Christmas of 1958. But as I do I remember the greater gift He gave us all… back nearly two thousand years ago.