Mickey Mantle and my mom's Sunday morning breakfasts of French toast and bacon were what I most loved in 1957. But not as much as bird hunting with my dad. Around Wichita, Kan., acres and acres of golden wheat and Indian corn made for great bird hunting. My dad was an avid trap shooter and bird hunter. We probably had more pheasant, quail and duck on the dinner table than chicken or turkey. My older brother and I would sometimes leave with Pop in the early morning, jump in the '54 Chevy and drive about 120 miles northwest out of Wichita to around Great Bend, Kan., where pheasant and quail were plentiful.
We would stop at a farmer's house and ask if we could hunt on his property. Most of the time we got the go-ahead — the birds damaged the crops. My dad had his Winchester Model 12, a classic 12-gauge pump-action shotgun with a 3/4 choke and a ventilated rib that held six 2 3/4-inch shells that he could fire off faster than anyone I've ever seen. My older brother had a 12-gauge double-barrel Stevens and I had the hand-me-down single-shot 12-gauge Montgomery Ward Special. Got praise from Pop once as I downed two quail on a covey rise with two shots (that's a fast reload, shooting from the hip).
Many times walking the fields in knee-high wheat we would see feral cats doing their own hunting. Pop told us to shoot at them, but only to scare them away. They took a toll on the bird population, snatching the eggs and the young.
Late in the day we had our limit, three pheasants each and half a dozen quail. A couple more quail would make a feast. Ever tasted quail or pheasant? Tasty indeed. Pop would never shoot over the limit. Time to head back to Wichita. We walked along the hedgerow leading back toward the Chevy. Almost back to the car, a small brown cat with black stripes jumped out in front of the ragged path, startling me. Without aiming, I pulled the trigger. Immediately I shouted over to Pop that I had shot a cat but I couldn't see it in the tall wheat. When I came out of the knee-high wheat, what I saw still bothers me to this day.
There was this little cat, crawling on her belly, her hind legs dragging behind her. Across the clearing were three kittens crying for their mama. Pop came over to me and said, sternly, "You know what you have to do now." I stammered and told him I couldn't. I leaned my gun across the barbed-wire fence, and told Pop I didn't want it anymore. I walked back to the Chevy, my thick black Buddy Holly glasses steamed over from the tears as I heard Pop do what I could not.
To this day I've never felt the depth of hurt I felt at that moment, and it has been 53 years. We returned to the car and I sat in the back seat, bawling my eyes out. Pop took off his hunting vest and laid it on my lap. It was heavy, a man's vest after all, with oversized pockets on the front that he used to carry a pheasant or two while we hunted. It seemed he had forgotten to pull out a bird. I opened the pocket and there were the three kittens, all starting to cry for mama. Pop didn't say a word. He didn't have to. I knew what I was going to do.
Every day before school I would use an eyedropper to feed the kittens. I would brush and pet them until almost late for the bell, then take off running the mile to Clark Elementary. At 3:30 I'd tear off for home. And thus the days repeated themselves until the kittens, now named Binkie, Winki and Dinki, were weaned and found three homes nearby and lived long, happy lives. I haven't picked up a gun since.
Terry Kennett lives in Dunedin.