The Serious Part of Childhood on the River and Elsewhere …Milestones
When we think of our progress down the river of life, there are milestone memories from which all else seem to evolve. Certainly, learning how to swim well enough to ditch the hated life jacket was a milestone for all river kids. My own proficiency in the water contributed largely to the situations I ended up in as an adult. I’ll always be glad I was well taught and I’ll always consider with sadness that many kids never learned the comforts and joy of the water world.
I’d like to share another milestone from my childhood which has an underlying sermon of timeless importance. It will come off like it is all about hunting and guns. I will fail miserably, dear reader, if you do not leave the page thinking about right and wrong and basic human dignity.
I am still blissfully ignorant about our family status during those childhood years. Were we poor, or middle class? Now that I can measure the really important things, I realize we were as rich as we needed to be and then some. Our mom was a great cook and typically set the dinner table to a sagging point. In the summer months it was frequently small mouth bass as the center piece. Our dad was very good at providing them and I got to fish with him from a very young age. In the fall and winter most meals seemed to be built around ducks, deer, grouse, and rabbits…lots of rabbits. Obviously, someone had to kill these critters and render them fit to be table fare.
For my father, I suspect there was a spiritual part to being the man of the house in the way that a good man could provide for his family on his own terms. It is a major part of the hunting and gathering ethic. It all rubbed off on me for which I am grateful.
The role of Daniel Boone
Nurtured as a toddler Daniel Boone, I longed to be armed with my own gun and set forth into our local wilderness to slay all manner of beasts for the table. I was sure I was ready to be armed long before my father would consider it. His off-putting comment was always the same. “You can get a gun when you can mount the 12 gauge shotgun and are willing to absorb its serious pounding.“ The normal first real gun was the .22 rifle. My father correctly held that these things were the most dangerous in young hands since they did not kick and made little noise. Few kids could be instilled with the terrible lethalness of the little .22 which made it easy to get in trouble. So, I was well into my teens before I got the .22.
Oddly, my milestone entry into the hunting scene was under the tutelage of my mother. She had been reared in the Adirondacks and was no stranger to guns and hunting. I can’t recall what prompted the occasion, but one fall day she got out the big 12 gauge and took me hunting, sort of. Our family house was situated on what was known as Edgewood Point. On the front side was the “upper bay” and the river. Out the back door were woods and meadows which then seemed big and secretive. Mom and I headed down the gravel road and got just out of sight of the house when she said, ”Look, there’s a partridge.” I did see it as pointed out. It was strutting through the brush the way they do when they are getting ready to burst into flight. Since this wasn’t a sporting lesson, Mom shouldered the shotgun and let the bird have it before it took flight.
So close to home, and we already had the makings for a toothsome roast dinner. A little further down the road we detected a cotton tail rabbit and the shotgun is in my hands, pointed in the general direction. I pulled the trigger for the first time and it hurt like hell on my bony shoulder. The rabbit got away unscathed. It wasn’t long after that right of passage that I was entrusted to take the shotgun on my own in pursuit of the local rabbits. Like it or not, I was usually assisted by our Airedale. This dog was not as effective as a beagle, but was a hunting fool and could be counted on to flush rabbits out of brush piles. Once a rabbit took off, it was tricky to shoot safely at it as the dog was so fast it was usually right on the rabbit’s heels.
As fall ran into winter the dog and I developed a standard routine. Once home from school, I’d change into my wilderness gear, put a stale biscuit or two in my pocket… (I didn’t have access to hardtack like Daniel Boone did, so I made do with the hard old biscuit)….and with a few shotgun shells in another pocket, I would sally forth. Dog and I would cut through the patches of woods around Edgewood, the old stone quarry, and on up around what is now Keewaydin State Park. We did ok with the rabbits and the odd grouse. Being in the bloodthirsty stage we would shoot any woodchuck or raccoon we came across. The Airedale had been bought from hunting stock and it loved to hunt and would kill anything on four legs it could catch. We made a good team. I must admit to killing wantonly, but the rule was whatever I killed had to be eaten.
The best part of these regular forays was waiting on the Keewaydin shoreline. In those days there were few open holes in the ice. Being so swift in that area, I could count on finding some open water. Invariably those holes would harbor ducks and I made myself crazy trying to bag one. I am sure divine intervention kept me from a bad end in those days as I frequently traversed very thin ice trying to sneak up on the elusive ducks.
The route home was always along the shore or on the ice. It was easier on the then skinny kid and the dog since we would get real tired, or real hungry towards the end of these hunting expeditions. Of course fall and winter water levels would reveal all sorts of interesting flotsam and junk stranded for easy examination. Muskrat runs were easy to find and the dog loved to try to dig them out. The shore route home followed the big white pines which were a staging area for the bald eagles. It was not unusual to startle one and have it take flight directly overhead. Close up like that, I was always concerned at their size. I was sure that they were capable of swooping down and carrying away a skinny kid, or certainly my dog.
I can’t remember exactly how old I was when I started this traipsing of woods and shores with a gun and a dog. In hindsight, I would admit there were inherent dangers in my chosen pastime. I am convinced my parents knew this. I am equally convinced that there were multiple object lessons to be learned by being turned loose in this way.
The lessons of “No”
There are only a few really important things that set the stage for my becoming the young nimrod. First, I was well taught what “no” meant. My father firmly believed that a parent has to instill the meaning of “no” by the time a child is three years old. This was accomplished in the old fashioned, well proven ways without quarter. I was taught the difference between right and wrong. I was taught to marvel at and respect all manner of god’s creatures. I was taught the primordial pride to be savored by decently harvesting animals to be shared with family and friends. And, I was most certainly taught of, and well convinced of, the monstrous power of shotguns and rifles.
Television was a new thing in those days. Kids watched the Howdy Doody show. The Roy Rogers Show was about as violent as it got. The cowboys shot guns from horseback or the seat of the stage coach. There was never any blood or gory scenes. Watching TV was a family affair. Kids didn’t have private access to such things, in fact, they didn’t have any privacy at all. They got parented closely until the embarrassments of puberty became an issue.
The notion that guns could be used to shoot another person, other than in the “great war”, was a totally foreign concept. When a kid got old enough, they learned that such horrendous bad behavior had equally bad consequences. Murder was pretty much unheard of and it was understood that the consequences of being a murderer could mean getting strung up, or a smoking end sitting in “old sparky.”
So, I grew up with guns and slew things with near abandon. Some of us got into “sport” which seemed great fun at the time. Summer did not have any hunting season. We took to the river in our various boats and marauded in the backwaters and swamps. We shot at carp wallowing in the shallows. We shot at the bullfrogs which could be stalked along the shores. We shot snapping turtles. I must admit to shooting a blue heron once. In my defense, I was put up to it by a couple of old river rats. They insisted that they were wonderful eating. They knew I was very gullible about things that could be eaten. I made an impressive long range shot with a .22 rifle, managing to hit a heron smack in the head. I dressed the heron out and roasted it in my mom’s oven. I tried enthusiastically to eat it, found it really awful, and got very sick on it. I’m sure it was the source of many guffaws amongst the old river rats. These were the same adults who encouraged me to shoot the pigeons that lived in Boldt Castle. They were very good. They also insisted I should try redwing black birds, but I never figured out how to shoot ‘em so there was anything left to eat.
In my late teens, whitetail deer started establishing themselves along the river and on the islands. This meant we graduated to big game. It was wonderful to bag one and make that sizable contribution to the family food supply. Many of these deer were killed on islands which probably are best un-named. The net result of my boyhood adventures was getting a deep respect and comfort zone with guns as well as considerable proficiency. When twists and turns of fate presented me to the military, I had a pretty useful skill set which did not require a whole lot of refinement.
It is no wonder that the hunting and the boats and the crazy untrained scuba diving lead me to the SEAL Team. I was a prime example of the young men that gravitated to this organization. I had lots of loose screws, a profound need to be tested, and to be able to measure myself against other men, and yes, my father. My sense of adventure had overcome common sense.
The real thing
This may be hard for those without military experience to understand, but please believe me as it represents the punch line to my story. The Seal Team took a kid who led a sheltered, idyllic life on the river…..an unworldly kid and one who was vulnerable by virtue of all the above. The training and the programming and the strategic thinking was intense and relentless. The exposure and the building of monstrous ego takes the kid to the psycho place they needed to be. When it is enough, you not only volunteer for absurdly dangerous things, you truly want to do it. There is a competition for a spot on the 7-man squads.
The point is, if you are subjected to enough and trained enough, you will eventually yearn for the real thing. You will want to do the real thing, almost mindlessly. I had the opportunity to develop a friendship with a stalwart fellow from the much lauded German Kampfschwimmers, which was the Germans version of our Seal teams. This guy was superbly trained, big and strong, and very intelligent. But he lived with a huge remorse….he never got to do the real thing. With a couple drinks in him, he was tearfully jealous of his American counterparts.
The great malaise
Here we are today. I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I have yet to solve life’s great mysteries. But I have figured out there is a great malaise creeping around our society. Parents no longer parent and discipline kids. They foist them on school systems which are forbidden to discipline them. The kids are immersed in disgusting violence which is put out as entertainment. They wander aimlessly through childhood without being made to understand that life is a constant process of decisions. Every decision has a consequence leading to bigger decisions and bigger consequences. There are always consequences. The game gadgets are perverse in their violence without a consequence …just a score. The kids are getting the total immersion and training which will make some of them wonder and eventually want to do the real thing. The pillars of our society now agonize over recent inhumane events and have the audacity to pretend that our society is not simply reaping that which they have sown.
We are so blessed here. Teach the kids how to hunt and fish and turn ‘em loose on our spectacular river and they will become fine and thoughtful citizens. Bring police, military, and authority figures into our schools and teach kids about law and order. It is more important than making kids with no interest sit through music and art and shop and home making classes. Consider the impact on young minds that the ghastly anti smoking adds have. Perhaps it is time to introduce similar campaigns which portray the grim realities of carnage done by guns on humans and the horrific consequences to be dealt out in prisons. I think a video of a lethal injection or electric chair session would be a suitable deterrent for the would –be thrill seeker.
This is certainly a diversion from the treasure trove of stories I would like to share. I get so upset pondering this stuff. It makes me wish it wasn’t quite so cold on the River. I need to chug around in a boat for a while, maybe catch one pike for dinner, or perhaps just drift along for a while and stare over the gunnels to watch what is going on just above the weed beds. I hope you feel the same.
By Hunter Grimes
Hunter Grimes served in the Navy from 1966-1970. In 1968-70 he was with UDT 21 and Navy Seals. He is currently owner of Diverse Construction Group, LLC. He attended SUNY Oswego, University of Alaska at Fairbanks and Syracuse School of Forestry. Hunter is certainly a genuine River Rat – a reliable term given for those who spend their lives on, in or under the River. In 1989 Canadian author, Shawn Thompson wrote his book, “River Rats: The People of the Thousand Islands.” Page 68 has the Hunter Grimes story. Hunter and his wife Martha have devoted their lives to their community, both being recognized for their volunteer efforts and leadership.
Editor’s note: Yes, Hunter I did not leave this page without thinking about right and wrong and basic human dignity – I thank you for that.