Paul Karrer is a retired teacher and has been published in:New York Post, Chicken Soup, The Christian Science Monitor, Teacher Magazine, Education week and The Salinas Californian, among others. He’s going hog hunting (well- trying) again in two weeks.
I taught 5th grade for about three-hundred years. I’m 64, into year 1¾ of retirement. And for some reason I keep on hearing from former students. By all political assessments I’m a Bernie Sanders Progressive. Grew up in the rolling tree-infested hills of Connecticut but taught mostly in a Latino hamlet outside of Monterey, California. Also did teaching stints in Western Samoa (Peace Corps-elementary science), Korea (college-level English), and England (teacher –training).
Anyhooo, I can’t say I grew up with guns a constant or a focus in any way. But I did buy (through the mail) a .36 caliber black powder, percussion cap 1851 Navy revolver ($19.99) as an 18-year-old. Still have it. A real bitch to clean, I might add. A friend and I would tromp the woods and shoot until dead the occasional abandoned rusty 50 gallon oil drum crossing our path. Fired a friend’s .22 and a shotgun once or twice. That was it for gun exposure.
About six years ago for the hell of it I ambled into a local gun shop. Just snooping on a foggy Saturday. Close to the coffee shop I habituated. Owner had a friendly, nearly blind dog on the floor. I always wanted a lever action 30/30. Just thought they were cool. Perhaps it was from watching The Rifleman on TV in the 60s. So I started the process to buy a Marlin 336. Unbeknownst to me a former student, C.J., walked in and said, “Well, I always thought you were a cool teacher and now I think you’re even cooler.”
Nice kid, great family. They owned a circus in Florida once upon a financial adventure – no BS. As a kid he’d showed the class plenty of photos to prove it. He’d been my student 14 years previously so he was 24.
“Hey, we gotta go hunting sometime.”
“Sure,” I replied, and I meant it.
My policy has always been if a student reaches out, I reach back. Which is probably why I got subpoenaed to testify in the penalty phase of the Aurora, Colorado Batman theater shooting. Jimmy Eagan Holmes – the shooter was my fifthth-grade student. Another student of mine — and a favorite, I’ll admit–got a life sentence at age 13 with nine attempted murders. Long story-for another time perhaps. I visited him for two years nearly every month in level 4 max security in Salinas Valley State Prison. He was clad in chains at the ankles, waist, and cuffed with neck-to-collarbone Chinese tattoos for visual dessert. Not the way I remembered him as a kid. We played one chess game through the mail just shy of three years. (I won).
Point being – in my book a teachers’ connection with kids doesn’t conclude at 3:45, or in June. For me it goes with me to the end. When I’m planted. Each to their own, right?
So, C. J. and I started conversing via text. The years flew and he’s thirty now. Park ranger, married, got a kid. We had lunch a couple times over the years.
“Mr. K,” he said with the same enthusiastic-energy-filled smile he wore in fifthth-grade, “Really, we gotta go hunting. Ever been pig hunting?”
“Only thing I ever hunted was butterflies and they mostly flitted away.”
“Well,” he pushed the point, “What about a pig hunt? I’m going later this year in March with a good friend and his dad. You should come.”
“I don’t know anything about pig hunting. Nothing.”
“Do you have a rifle?”
“I bought a 30/30 that day you saw me in the gun shop. Embarrassed to say, I never fired it.”
“Well, fire it and let me put a good scope on it.”
Soon thereafter I did fire it a few times. We met at the local shooting range at Laguna Seca. He brought his tyrannosaurus-killing .308 and sighted in my rifle at 100 yards. Plus he loaned me a kick-ass scope. “When we’re done pig-shooting you can give me back the scope.”
One hundred yards is far in my book. Here was a kiddo I taught 20 years ago and he’s taking care of me like a mother hen. He knows guns. He knows ammo. He knows hunting. When I fired at the target 300 feet down range the explosion of the rifle reverberated. (Gotta wear eye and ear protection) The rifle kicked back into my shoulder. Left shoulder in my case because I’m a leftie. I got to lever-action eject the bullet casing past my face, which I’ll admit I liked, both the levering and the ejection. Since it kicked back so hard I had to make sure the scope didn’t punch my eye or I’d get a black eye, if lucky, significant eye damage if not. But that means for a few seconds I can’t see where I shot. Kinda cool. I had to refocus on the target and check – did I even hit it? I did, right in the orange. Mamacita! Oh, baby Jesus. A liberal is hooked.
Months and many many 30/30 shots later I found my old bones heading to a 14,000 acre ranch in the oak tree speckled hills of Coalinga, in the middle of nowheresville 50 miles south of Monterey as the crow flies.
Our entourage comprised four of us. My student C.J., his work pal M, M’s dad R, and my antiquated self. Those guys lived hunting. M had a $2,500 rifle, light as a feather, with a scope that cost another $2,500. R, the dad, had a muzzle-loading .45 caliber rifle. Father and son fished and hunted together. The three pros were encased in camo gear and carried other appropriate, effective, light hunting accouterments – packs, extendable tripods for steadying a rifle for long shots, binoculars which could detect the pubic hairs on cockroaches at a mile, windage and distance calculators – magic stuff like that.
The father, a devoted cigarette smoker and Alex Jones aficionado, was a couple years younger than me. He still worked as a union pipe-fitter, complained about the Dems and tried to air more than a few conspiracy theories. His son, M, continuously exerted a calm resolve I’ve always envied. He’d say time and time again. “Hey, Dad, we agreed no Alex Jones. No Alex Jones.” That stifled the Alex Jones rants mostly, but not the cigarettes.
We’d paid for guided hunts Friday – through Sunday, a heated cabin, with shower (unusable due to nasty sulfur smell), ATV guide-driven ATVs, and a heck of a lot of walking. The most I’ve done in years.
I’d been the good little green, clueless hunting novice and taken my two-day hunting course. Passed my California state hunting test (94%- you need 80% to pass). Actually learned a lot in the course and liked it. I’d paid for my pig tag. (In order to shoot a pig in California you need a license and a tag. You kill the pig, place the tag on the carcass, and record and report the kill ASAP to local game warden, etc.) My further attempt at joining the brotherhood of hunters started earlier with the purchase of a camo jacket. I’d Scotch-guarded the hell out of it and did the same for my boots.
To be honest, some apprehension consumed me. One – I didn’t want to be an old fool in front of a student who’d revered me once upon a time. And the hair on the back of my neck tingled at the thought of being around people with loaded weapons. Therefore, I had some mantras.1 Do NOT shoot anyone. 2 Do NOT get shot. 3 Do NOT miss shooting the piggy-wiggie. 4. Don’t be a moron. Don’t be a moron. Don’t be a moron.
Weather was not on our side comfort-wise. Rained off and on. Sun came out now and then. Our guide sheperded us into a monster Ford with our hunting gear, and hopes. At a nearby ranch we separated into two groups. My student C.J. and my-antiquity – father and son in the other group. Father and son got in a quad. CJ and I got to sit on the back of ATVs, rifles slung over our shoulders. Well, actually a rifle slung over his shoulder. I, the green novice, had moroned and not brought a rifle sling. A basic for any hunter with a clue. The result being I had to hold on to an ATV with one paw and the rifle with the other. Moron!
I’d also moroned even earlier. The telescopic sight CJ had so patiently sighted for me had come loose at the brackets which held it. He’d told me use one drop of Loctite on the scope screws. I had. But there were two sets of screws, one held the scope itself. The other was a mounting rail to hold the device, which held the scope. That mounting rail screwed directly into the barrel. I’d failed to use Loctite on those screws. The scope was useless now as it was no longer sighted properly. I understood what a fifth-grader felt like.
I — no CJ — had to take off the scope. The three professionals had telescopic sights for distance shooting and I only had the sights on the rifle (called “iron sights” – learned that in my two-day hunting course.) Translation, I had to shoot real close now. No complaints from any of them.
Day one we we’re driven up hill and down dale on our ATVs or quads. Spotted golden eagles, mountain-lion-killed deer, lots and lots of deer, turkeys, quail, and cows. We’d stop at high points and everyone took out binoculars scanning the hills, under oaks, trying to differentiate cows and deer from pigs. One guide was the 14-year old grandson of a guide. Kid knew his stuff, great eyes. At the crest of a hill, all of us on foot, he scooted down and pointed. A group of pigs rooted beneath a clump of oaks. We squatted, down-wind.
I’d read as much as I could about pigs and You-Tubed the heck out of the subject. The guys had confirmed, pigs don’t see well, hear superbly and smell even better.
As for our pigs, another ATV in the distance spooked some cows nearby and that spooked the pigs. They flew enmass. Their colors surprised me. Orange, blond, and a few all black ones. No chance for any of us to even get off a shot. And I would not even consider shooting unless told to. (I added another mantra– DON’T SHOOT COWS). The guide had shared horror stories of hunters making that error. A thousand dollar error at least.
During hilltop, binocular-scannings the guys exchanged stories. Mostly hunting, some politics. The main guide was a school resource officer. Pretty quiet most of the time. But if he spoke it bore listening to.
“Any crazy stuff the hunters ever do?” I asked as he scanned a half-mile away.
Put his binoculars down. “Oh yeah… I can tell when the guys come in with fancy tech gear. Expensive toys. Can tell they never used ‘em before. Still shiny. And AR-15s. Had a bunch of Syrian restaurant owners come in from Santa Barbara. I left ‘em alone for two seconds. They ran into some pigs and it sounded like Afghanistan. Completely unloaded every bullet they had. You guys pay $700 for all this, that’s for one pig. They had to pay for every pig they shot, big ass check. But it wasn’t safe. I’ve had to knock guns out of hunters’ arms. Thought they’d kill someone.”
So, I asked, “What happens if I shoot a pig and another one is behind it?”
“You have to know what you’re shooting. You hit two, you pay for a second pig.”
“What’s a second pig cost?”
Addendum mantra, I thought – Only shoot ONE DAMN PIG.
CJ had asked me to bring a chess set, so I did. He said he hadn’t played in years. We each brought our own food. I brought a container of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate dunkers, a full-length salami sandwich from Campagno’s in Monterey by the Defense Language Institute, a bunch of liquefied yogurts, a ton of banana chips, dried cranberries, apples and tangerines. They brought real food; burgers, buns, ketchup, mustard, and hog sausage CJ shot the year before. They were suction shrink-wrapped and labeled “Pork- Spicy Sausage – CJ” on the wrapper.
Another group of hunters showed up in the only other cabin. Two guys from Bakersfield. CJ informed me hunting custom demanded that after we shot our hogs and these amateurs didn’t, we’d get to put our hog’s balls on their cabin door. Also, since it was my first pig, I had a choice…either drink pig blood or take a chomp out of the heart.
Oh, joyous homey customs, I thought.
I replied, “Ever heard of trichinosis?”
“Your choice. Blood or heart. Only a little bite.”
The three of them had a glimmer in their eyes. I added, “You guys ever see Apocalypto?”
The dad hadn’t. M had. “Great movie, he said,” You gotta see it.”
“Well, I bring it up because one poor green virgin goes on a hunt. The group kills a peccary and the poor schmuck has to eat the balls.”
M didn’t say anything. We played chess, ate our food. CJ brought a big-ass jug of whiskey from Costco. Surprisingly R and M didn’t want any. That made me happy as I had wondered if alcohol would be involved in the hunting. My inner voice felt maybe R had a drinking problem and he didn’t want to tickle it. And M was being a good son and not encouraging him. But I was the moron with no rifle strap and no scope so my ability to perceive things correctly left much in doubt. And perhaps those two were just smart, responsible, ethical hunters. Alcohol and guns don’t mix. CJ and I drank a little, very little.
In the rustic primitive cabin, a propane heater kept us warm. Bunk beds had been constructed with two by fours. Thick mattresses on each. A sinkless, kitchen counter held a microwave and a Keurig coffee maker minus the plastic coffee pods.
Next day, frost crystalized the ground cover. It’s cold but sunny, and I’ve dressed appropriately from the start. Thermal heat absorbing t-shirt, denim shirt, cotton high collar sweatshirt, camo (Scotch-guarded, remember) hooded jacket, topped with a thick down vest. The liberal virgin might be gored to death, crushed in an overturned ATV accident, or shot accidentally or intentionally, but he ain’t gonna’ succumb to the cold or so he though.
Drove, walked, peed in the hills – no pigs.
Following morning, our guides picked us up and we ATV-ed it again. Up the hills, mud as thick as potato-soup. When we walked–and we walked el mucho–the mud picked up straw. Then the straw picked up mud. Our feet became entombed, double and triple their normal size. Reminded me of the World War II pictures of German soldiers fighting in Stalingrad, their feet encased in felt, fur, and rags. We all stopped whenever possible to scrape the boots with rocks, outcroppings, trees, or stumps. Once in a while we’d just snap our feet rapidly and the mud would fly off. When we rode the ATVs, mud speckled our faces, jackets and accumulated at the ankle level. No biggy – we’re hog hunting.
Lunch comes and goes. And we keep up the hunt. Fortunately the sun smiles on us and seems to follow, but nasty water-laden clouds in the valley to the west are down pouring like oceanic squalls and pushing our way. As we rise to 3,400 feet, the temperature dips. But truly it’s crisp and magnificent.
Our guide spies a troop of pigs, maybe a mile north on a ridge, three ridges away. I look and see nothing. CJ sees them and gets fired up.
“What’s the plan?” he asks our guide.
“ATV it above them, hike down the parallel ridge, wind in our faces.”
CJ smiles as we jump behind our drivers. I can’t believe our guides don’t wear gloves. The sun is starting to go down, and with it comes rain. I put my face down. Attempting to let my Indiana Jones hat take the brunt of the rain. It cuts rain on my face, but the wide brim catches the water and directs a cold, heavy stream to my thighs and all the way to my ankles.
Eventually we stop.
“You can chamber a bullet now, Mr. K.”
I smile and do so.
“Yes,” I reply.
We barrel-ass down a steep oak treed ridge. And implement the plan. We’ve arrived on the parallel ridge. The guide on my right and I stare at the next ridge. It’s maybe 200 yards. We see nothing. CJ is on my left. All of a sudden he hits the ground.
“Shhh,” he motions with a finger to his lips. And points below our feet. The guide drops to a squat. I do the same.
“Jesus, they are right there,” CJ points.
A hundred and twenty feet below at forty-five degrees, four or five hogs are rooting. An oak tree hides most of them.
“See the big black one?” CJ asks. “You take him.”
I click the safety off, stand, and aim. In hunting class the main point about shooting a pig was always shoot broadside, either behind the ear or super low behind the front leg. The pig keeps on moving. I assume CJ is sighting on a different pig. My pig faces me but doesn’t see me.
“Keeps on moving.” I whisper.
“You shoot when ready,” CJ whispers back.
I fire, and don’t see an impact, don’t hear it squeal, don’t see it spin or hit the ground. In fact just the opposite. The pigs–and there are a bunch of them, perhaps eight or nine– fly to the left. I fire off another shot, CJ fires and the guide tells me to stop.
“You don’t want to wound them,” he says.
The gods clearly display their displeasure at my inaccuracy. The sun is fading, it starts to snow, and we have to look for blood trails.
“We each gotta’ do circles,” The guide tells us and adds, “Unload your guns.”
We separate a bit, closest circle goes to the guide. I get the next circle, CJ gets the farthest. We are looking for blood or guts, and listening. Sun is dropping, snow is collecting on the ground. I’m not super happy as we are all crawling on our hands and knees through small trails in the brush. We yell to each other to keep in contact, and each is hoping he doesn’t come eyeball to eyeballs with tusks.
The snow is heavy, monster flakes. I know snow. I’m a Connecticut Yankee. This stuff kills when you’re wet. And I’m wet. Almost dark.
“Any signs, anybody?” the guide yells.
We hoof it up hill and banter.
CJ says, “That’s the first time I ever missed. My scope was set for 200 yards.” But there’s no blame or meanness in him. He wanted me to get a hog almost more than I did.
“Yeah, that’s the first time I ever missed, too.”
CJ laughs as we climb up the ridge, not cold at all, due to excitement and burning calories on the steep incline. The ground is white and getting whiter.
The guide says, “Damn copper ammo. You fired copper, right?”
“Yes, I thought I had to.” I replied. “Can’t use lead.”
“Correct,” says CJ. “We have to. Golden eagles and such.”
Guide continued, “With copper bullets, sometimes it goes right through them. You can’t tell. Lead flattens out, really hammers ‘em.”
We’re quiet the rest of the way up. Almost dark. It’s a good 20 to 30 minute ride back down to level to ground. Snow has changed to rain as we drop altitude. I’m colder than heck, but not shivering. That’s good. Pretty happy, actually.
Probably go again. On my way home, tried listening to Alex Jones. Couldn’t do it. Can’t expect too much from a liberal all at once, anyway.