On Christmas of my twelfth year, I received a brand shiny new Winchester .22 rifle from my parents.
It was a bolt action Model 69A with a five-shot magazine and iron sights. Before I could use my new .22 however, I was required to take an NRA hunter safety course, and only then could I begin to target practice at the local range under the watchful supervision of my father. I’ll bet I fired over a thousand rounds at paper targets as well as another 500 rounds plinking at tin cans. I had to become completely familiar with my rifle and demonstrate that I could shoot accurately with it before I was able to actually go squirrel hunting with my new rifle almost a year after that magical Christmas morning.
My father and I had probably spent several dozen sessions in gun safety, gun handling, target practice and finally learning about the game I intended to hunt. I learned that having a gun was a huge responsibility and that I had to treat it as the deadly serious activity it was. Over 50 years later, I still have that Winchester .22 and it has seen an awful lot of use. There are scratches in the walnut stock, worn spots in the bluing on the barrel, and the front sight is broken, but replaced with a 4-power rifle scope. My father refused to let me get a scope at first, because as he explained, first I had to learn to shoot proficiently with the old-fashioned iron sights. Only then, once I had mastered iron sights, could I graduate to a scope.
At first glance it seemed as though my gift that Christmas long ago was an object made of carved wood and machined steel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. That gun was simply the tool that my father used to instruct me in a host of things. It was countless hours of lessons in responsibility, it was a tool used to teach me patience, and persistence, and ethics. I learned that if you kill something you have a moral obligation to eat it, or utilize it in some other fashion, or both. Not only did my first squirrel end up as the centerpiece of a squirrel stew, but I had to skin the critter and make use of the hide as well. To waste one of God’s creatures was something that ethical people never considered. With that little .22 as a tool, I learned that we never killed without purpose and that we owed it limited our kill to only that which we could use.
Growing up, there were many other gifts that served similar goals, using fly rod taught me to become an not only a fair caster, but a student of the ways of the trout. I learned how they were born and grew, how they hid from danger, and what they ate. I observed kingfishers diving into a stream and water ouzels walking on the stream bottom, with minks prowling its edges. I observed how poor logging practices could destroy a stream, and how responsible logging could preserve one. I learned to tie ugly flies that would catch fish instead of pretty flies that impressed fishermen. And I learned that if you kept a few smaller fish to eat and released the larger ones to breed, that fishing could remain good indefinitely.
The most important thing I learned from these gifts was that the material things in life were relatively unimportant but that the lessons you learned from the person who gave you the gift was really the important part. The real gift was not the object one received, but rather the time invested in teaching how to properly use it. The most important gift of all was to receive a tiny part of the person who gave of himself. While the guns, or rods, or warm coats found under the tree may last a relatively long time, the love and time invested will last a lifetime.
A generation later I trained my kids not so much in casting technique, but in the ethics of catch and release. They too learned how to shoot using iron sights before they could move on to using scopes. Getting binoculars or spotting scopes or cameras is great, but learning how to use them is better. The best gift of all is the gift of yourself. As we approach another Christmas season, heading to the stores or malls or shopping online are fine and dandy. Maybe when we do pick out a gift for a loved one, it will be a gift that requires us to give a little bit of ourselves. I hope all of you have a delightful Christmas season and that your New Year brings you much happiness.