I never thought I’d become a hunter. Grew up in Kentucky, watching my dad and uncle head out to either hunt quail, rabbits, or ‘coons. They always seemed to have so much fun, and the quail, well, it was always memorable to eat.
I fell in love with a tall, lanky graduate student from Inman, Kansas, who travelled to Murray State University in Murray, KY, intent on getting his Master’s Degree in Fisheries Biology in 1986. It was love at first sight for me….for Mark, well, it took a little convincing on my part. I used all my feminine wiles and threw in alot of homemade cooking to seal the deal. I fished with him non-stop, and walked with him during many a freezing cold winter, tromping behind a bird dog in pursuit of pheasant and quail.
When the boys came along, I decided I was busy enough doing the “mom” thing, and Mark began hunting more on his own or with friends. I loved to hear his great detailed stories of how he and his dog worked as a finely-tuned team to bring home some of the best upland game bird eats we’ve ever had. A couple of years ago, Andrew starting walking the wheat and milo fields with his daddy in Kansas. Andrew, well, he was only allowed to carry a bb gun. Mark was steadfast in his belief that his son should be 10 years old before being responsible enough to shoot a shotgun. They went lots of times, hunting dove in September, then heading back for Thanksgiving and Christmas for quail, pheasant, and turkey.
I loved to watch them walk out to the pasture, guns at the ready, dog snurfling along in front of them, already working the field. They have the same gait…the same stature…the same long, lanky body type. They walked exactly the same, mannerisms, the way they hold their heads, the way they use their hands to tell a story, and have the exact same broad, handsome smile.
|Dove hunting, Kansas homeplace, Sept. 2010|
Mark had big plans for Andrew (and possibly Ben, we haven’t decided if he will want to hunt or not, and that’s okay). At 10, A.J. would first take Hunter Education, required in the state of Texas for those born on or after 9/1/71. Then he would be fitted for a shotgun, just his size. And whenever dove season rolled around, in September of 2012, they would finally get to walk out to the pasture, side by side, BOTH of them carrying a shotgun. And, oh, the memories that would’ve been made.
Mark’s dad took him out at about that same age on the home place in Kansas, teaching him the finer points of hunting; at the same time, he instilled in Mark a love for the land, outdoors, hunting, and fishing that literally charted the course for his entire life. It was what he loved. It was what he was passionate about. And, in 1988, he graduated with that Master’s Degree from Murray State, and began a career that has been both notable and fulfilling. He wanted to do the same with Andrew. But his plans got cut short on July 30th of this year.
What should I do? I’ve had one shotgun clinic experience, I’m pretty good at skeet, for a left-handed girl from Western Kentucky, but I don’t know the first thing about upland game or migratory bird hunting. It’s my job now, whether I think I’m up to it or not, to get Andrew Joseph Howell out on that beautiful Kansas pasture and kick up some pheasant and quail with Miss Maggie May leading the way.
I didn’t know where to begin. An email came into my outdoors mailbox, advertising a TPWD mentored waterfowl hunt at the local state park, scheduled for December and January. Hmm…hunting with either a game warden or experienced instructor, one-on-one in a duck blind, while the park is closed to all other hunters? This definitely piqued my interest. A couple of phone calls & emails later, I wrote an Outdoors column on this hunt, had the park put together a Hunter Education class for those of us who needed it in order to hunt, and registered us for both.
Hunter Ed is a 10 hour class. That’s a long time for an adult to remain focused and alert, think of how an almost-10-year old must feel. We started last night, finished today with a 50-question, multiple choice test. Pass it, and we get certified. Fail it, we have to re-take it, sit through another 10 hour session, and won’t get to hunt in January. No pressure, right? Andrew was engaged, attentive, and even asked pertinent questions, better than his mama could. Sitting side by side, we took notes, talked about what we were learning, and readied ourselves for the exam, best we could. As I went for one last restroom break before the test, I prayed to God and to Mark, if someone had to fail, let it be me. I wanted A.J. to pass that certification more than I’ve wanted anything for a long time. He wasn’t getting his hopes up, but I know my super-competitive son well enough to know he would be crestfallen if he didn’t pass.
There were about 10 of us in the class. He was the last to finish. These questions were hard, geared toward folks older than he was. He had to take his time to read each one, and I told him there was no hurry. Some of the others began talking loudly and cutting up. I asked them most politely to tone it down so he could concentrate. As he walked up front to turn in his test, he turned around with a big smile on his face (it’ll look just like his dad’s in a few years, I just know it). He felt good about things.
And, in about 10 minutes, the instructor called Andrew Howell’s name first. HE PASSED! With an 85% score, he outscored at least 3 adults in the class. Just when I thought that smile couldn’t get any wider—it did. And Mom, well, she passed, too, with a score of 90%. Not bad for a woman who didn’t think she’d ever hunt.
|A.J. with his instructors, holding his Hunter Ed certificate!|
But my boy…our boy…A.J. is now certified by the TPWD Hunter Education program. He’s not ready, by any stretch of the imagination, to pick up a shotgun and go hunting tomorrow. But this was an important and necessary step in the big picture. We walked out of that hall, and saw the most awesome sunset over Lake Arrowhead, after a day of clouds and heavy rain. He stopped and remarked, “Mom, isn’t that one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen?” To which I replied…”Why yes, son, it is.” while staring at his profile.
It was a momentous day for us two Howells. We took a tangible, positive step toward our goal of hunting quail and pheasant next fall. The mentored waterfowl hunt will be another one. Friends have generously offered their help in target practicing, skeet shooting, fitting him with the proper gun, and other necessary pieces that we’ll need to put the plan into action.
We talked, really talked on the way back to town. He and I have developed a deeper appreciation for each other, and he told me today that he can talk to me about anything. That used to be what he told his dad. And whenever I told him that I was sorry that it couldn’t have been his dad bringing him to that Hunter Ed class, and that I was a poor substitute? He replied that I was “real close to being as good as Dad” and that I was a “close 2nd” in his eyes. There is absolutely nothing he could’ve said that would’ve made me feel more loved or beautiful in his eyes.
So, we’ll continue taking these baby steps, with a goal in mind. What does it say in the Bible? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Mark, Mark’s dad, my dad, my uncle, and so many more!), let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1,2.
With all of the witnesses’ help, we can do this. A tall, lanky 10 year old and a 48 year old former “girly-girl” together will make hunting and outdoor memories in a daddy’s physical absence. Cause it’s the right thing to do. I pray Andrew continues his connection and love for all things outdoors, and I’m gonna do everything in my power to give him more than ample opportunities to do so. In the process, I’m going to learn alot, too. Mark, you’re still showing us the way. You may have big shoes to fill, but you left a clearly-marked pathway….