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To shoot or not to shoot

Five physicans were pleased to discover they all had the same weekend off, so they decided to go duck hunting together.

They arrived at the edge of a milo field shortly before dawn and hunkered down in a blind.

When a small flock of birds flew toward them, the family practitioner stood up, squinted his eyes and whispered, "They could be ducks, all right. Let's just observe them, though, and if they continue to resemble ducks, I'll shoot them."

But the birds flew out of range.

As the next group flew in, it was the internist's turn.

"Those birds are certainly consistent with 'ducks,' " he said thoughtfully, "but we're obliged to rule out cranes."

And away they flew.

When it was his turn, the psychiatrist spoke in a calm, soothing voice.

"From my perspective," he said, "they do seem to meet most of our criteria for ducks. But is it ethical -- is it fair -- to impose my cultural biases on them? Do they regard themselves as ducks?"

And they disappeared into the radiant sunrise.

By the time the next flock approached -- a large one -- the surgeon leaped to his feet and blazed away. Bam! Bam! Bam! He reloaded with amazing speed and dexterity. Bam! Bam! Bam!

The sky rained crumpled birds. He turned to the pathologist.

"Those were ducks, weren't they?"

* * *

Whether or not to shoot is not a rhetorical question for a near-sighted adolescent.

What I lacked in visual acuity, I made up for in speed, and paradoxically, accuracy.

Usually our hunts involved just Dad and me (sometimes birds joined in the fun).

When hunting ducks, one may shoot birds of either sex. Ducks are monogamous, like their intellectual rival, a certain Kansas Representative in Congress. Shooting only drakes leaves a bunch of widowed hens, which can't contribute to next year's crop of ducklings.

Pheasants, however, are polygynous. One drake can offer his affections to a whole harem of hens. Shoot a cock pheasant, and his wives just take up with another dude. Shoot a hen pheasant, and next season's chick numbers will be diminished.

So the law prohibits shooting hens. This is problematic for a kid who can hear the birds' explosive take-off, and discern a moving blur against the sky, but not the color and morphology.

Dad figured that when a hen took flight in range of my Ithaca 12-guage, he should immediately holler "hen!" His eyesight was amazing, but he wasn't always quick enough. It really hurts to leave a well-shot hen behind for the possums and skunks to enjoy, but one always worries about game wardens. I was never tempted to turn myself in.

On those rare occasions when we hunted with a group of other guys, it usually took them a while to realize that in my company, shouting "hen!" was a prudent gesture.

Didn't always work. Ka-whoosh! The bird bursts upward from the stubble. "Heh ... " begins the hunter with 20/20 vision. Kablam! Puff of feathers drifts on the breeze. " ... nn," finishes my hunting partner, a split second too late.

I took to missing on purpose to avoid embarrassing myself, but that only shifted the focus from my inability to see, to my apparent inability to hit the broad side of a barn. (Isn't every side of a barn "broad"?)

What a hunter really hates is to wound the bird enough to bring it down, but not enough to otherwise disable or kill it. It scurries into cover, and unless there's a dog handy, wiggles down into invisibility, beyond retrieval, and probably beyond a healthy recovery.

Dad went to extreme lengths to avoid abandoning a downed bird. One cold, cloudy winter day, we crept up on a pond where a few ducks bobbed on the waves, and blazed away.

One duck landed in easy reach, but another splashed down in the middle of the pond, about 20 yards away. Dad wasn't about to leave it behind.

He stripped down to the buff, crunched through the crust of ice rimming the water, and swam out to grab the duck.

He was shivering a little, but not uncontrollably, when he regained the frozen shore. We toweled him off as best we could, using the outside layers of our warm coats and gloves, and he scrubbed the mud from his feet with handfuls of dry grass.

He claimed that for months afterward, his arthritic knee just quit hurting. So much for heat and rest.

Another dilemma is whether or not to shoot at a relatively distant target, since one's likelier to miss the bird entirely, or merely wound it.

That wasn't so much a problem for Dad, who carried a vintage Winchester Model 1897 12-guage, the famous "trench gun" of WWI. Allied soldiers used it when combat actually descended into the trenches, as soldiers competed to "clear the trenches" of their opponents. The Model '97 rarely missed at that distance, and provided close-quarters stopping power unmatched by rifle bullets.

Turns out, it was pretty good at greater distances, too. I saw him bring down a pheasant from an easy hundred yards away. Only one pellet hit the bird, but it hit hard enough to kill. Well, it hit hard, plus the solitary pellet pierced the bird's heart.

Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and

now lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net