Amongst the suitcases in the Chevy Astro Van, was my father’s new Remington 1100, along with the Montgomery Wards 20-gauge pump shotgun. It had been eighteen hours since we had packed the shotguns and left Kansas City. The trip had been filled with quick bathroom dashes, meal breaks on the go, and was very long. Accompanying the four of us, was my mother’s father, Abuelito Jorge, who was visiting from Guatemala. We were determined to arrive on time to partake in a family dove hunt. It was the mid-80s and my father’s parents had relocated from Kansas City to McAllen, TX a couple of years prior.
We were getting close. Signs had gone from English to Spanish. The entire feel of the land felt different as if we were in another country. The van turned and I immediately recognized the cul-de-sac that had become a sort of compound composed of just familia. It was a mixture of colored stucco houses with Spanish accents. The family neighborhood was surrounded by agricultural fields. My grandparent’s home had a large orange grove behind it. I could see droves of doves flying about.
Before my father could set the vehicle in park, everyone hurriedly escaped from the family bus. Our noisy departure must have signaled my grandparents we had arrived. Greetings were forthcoming as I saw my grandparents and the rest of the family approaching. We instantly transitioned from speaking English to Spanish. After a smothering of abrazos y besos (hugs and kisses), we set off to unload the van. Suitcases were placed into our own respective guest rooms. I quickly returned to the van only to watch my father carry the gun cases to the backyard.
The smell of Spanish food consisting of caldo de pollo (Spanish styled chicken soup), homemade tortillas, elote (grilled corn), and carne asada wafted throughout the house. However, most of the aroma was coming from outside. Steaks were being grilled on a parrilla made of worn reddish bricks. I could see a line of lawn chairs spread out. You know those aluminum and webbed multi-colored thrones referred to as “vintage” now, but popular during the time period. This is what I knew to be as “dove chairs” until I was exposed to the likes of buckets with their swivel seats and camouflaged stools years later.
The men had gathered around the grill. My father had already changed into proper attire for the dove hunt. His green splotched camo t-shirt matched Tio Carlos’ and Glenda’s new husband, “El Jeff”. All three wore weathered blue jeans and well-seasoned cowboy boots. Both of my grandfathers would idly sit and watch as spectators, while the women folk cooked. A trio of 1100 shotguns were stacked against a pile of wooden boards, along with several cardboard boxes of shells. The lone twenty-gauge pump stood alone amongst the heavier, more powerful twelves. I made my way into the chorus of “men talk” that consisted of a mixture of English and Spanish, to accommodate the gringo (“El Jeff”). Words such as “palomas” and escopetas” were heard – doves and shotguns. I could hear them talk about the forthcoming shoot as it was NOT going to be a hunt. The rules were easy…shoot towards the blue sky.
Mama Linda appeared and took a large ceramic plate full of steaks away. Before I could squeeze in closer the men dispersed. They each grabbed their semi-autos and shells and walked away into the short green grass. Each of the lawn chairs were moved to that “perfect” spot along the fenceline. I followed behind my father with the twenty gauge. He stopped at the closest chair and set his 1100 against a wooden fencepole and the ammo boxes alongside the lawn chair.
I watched him meticulously place red cartridges into the dark-brown elastic shell holders in his vest. It was late September, and it was hot. My thoughts were interrupted suddenly as the first fast-flying Texas dove whisked by. Before I could say anything to my father, several more passed over us. It had begun.
Popping sounds began to pierce the air. My father finished placing the last shotshell into the Remington’s tube and raised the shotgun into the air. Boom! Boom! Boom! He swiftly grabbed three shells from his vest to replace the empty hulls that jettisoned onto the grass. Did anything fall? My attention was transfixed onto my father. His tall silhouette outlined by sunrays with the 1100 outstretched pointing into the blue sky is all I saw. He was my hero. My father’s excursions into the fields to chase wily pheasants and scurrying little bobs, were more like curiosities. I wanted to emulate him…as all sons want to do.
Doves were swiftly flying away from us and across the adjoining orange grove. Some took their last flight and spiraled back to the ground. Just as quickly as the action started, it stopped. My father, Carlos, and “El Jeff” climbed over the barbwire fence to retrieve downed birds. I stood next to the lawn chair waiting for them to emerge. The green citrus trees were full of oranges. September is prime time for harvesting mature oranges. It made for a tropical backdrop for a dove shoot.
The three men emerged with birds in hand. My father tossed me an orange. I smiled. With an outstretched hand, I moved closer to see the dove my father shot. The bird looked like it was in motion with its streamlined body and pointed tail. These weren’t grey birds at all. There were hues of very, light pinks and blues. Delicate came to mind. My father sat down in the lawn chair. I knelt beside him. He instructed me to make sure to keep him loaded by handing him shells or filling the empty slots in his vest. An important job for sure.
It wasn’t long for another flight of doves to fly over. My father stood and fired. One shot. One bird down. He stood up and motioned me over. Before I knew it, his hands were under my armpits and he easily picked me up and set me over the fence. My father was tall and thin, but his profession had made him strong. My Uncle Carlos had persuaded my father to find work as a carpet layer., carrying rolls of carpet up and down stairs.
My father pointed out into the grove. I turned and looked to the vast field of trees. With small openings that led into navigable rows, I walked down a bare dirt path at the direction of my father. I could only hear him saying, “Keep going.” Within moments, a barrage of gunfire erupted.
Doves were falling from the sky! I saw two land with a thud onto the dirt floor to my left a couple of orange trees over. I hurriedly scampered around looking for my father’s dove. A few feathers blowing in the light wind eventually led me to a small bird laying a few yards from me. I gathered it up and set off to retrieve the other fallen birds. After a bit of searching, more birds were scooped up before returning to the line of lawn chairs.
I haphazardly climbed over the barbwire fence and placed my father’s dove next to the ammo boxes and passed out the other birds to Carlos and “El Jeff”. While walking from lawn chair to lawn chair, more shots rang out. These guys were seasoned shooters, as not a lot of shells were wasted bringing the grey speedsters down. Arriving back with my father, he told me that a duo of birds lay in wait to be retrieved. I started towards the fence when I felt a tug. My father looked at me and said the birds could wait. He walked over to the Montgomery Ward 20 gauge and picked it up and presented it to me.
The department store shotgun was not a “pretty” gun, and it lacked obvious quality in its craftsmanship. However, to me it was like holding a custom-made Parker. Its wood was warm from the sitting in the sun. Admiring the shotgun, my father’s hand came into view with three yellow shells placed in his palm. He watched as I inserted each shell just as he had taught me. I loaded the shotgun with one smooth motion of the forend. My father stood behind me and began to remind me about gun safety. As he finished, as if on cue – a lone dove presented itself as it skirted over the top of the orange grove. I raised the barrel and fired. The dove continued its flight path unscathed. It must be something for a miss to illicit a smile and a pat on the back from someone you emulate so much. My father handed me a yellow shell to replace the empty hull that was ejected out.
My father turned and retrieved the 1100 and took a position a few feet from me. He continued to provide guidance on how to shoot doves. I listened and watched him shoot a pair flying over. While he continued to shoot birds, his instruction, praise, and affirmation in my misses encouraged me to keep trying. I never shot a dove that day. It didn’t matter. The joy I felt that day was in watching my father and family members participate in something that would become a family tradition. Little did I know these small hunting skirmishes were laying the groundwork for the both of us.
More shooting continued as the afternoon progressed. Doves were added to the pile. While I continued to miss…my father retrieved a lawn chair and placed it next to his. We spent the time talking and sitting and shooting at passing doves. I would like to think that he was seeing me as his equal or envisioning our time in the future as father and son walking fields together. I don’t know.
Though this story is not of a bounty of birds shot or anything particularly significant, it was special in that it was part of a handful of instances where hunting was becoming part of my life. Its subtle incursions into my youth impacted me greatly. There were times I did not understand how bird hunting with my father would play a major influence in later years. Because there were not a lot of photos taken at the time (it was just something we didn’t do – this is my biggest regret), the only things I remember were items that have now been passed down to me, his very first shotgun, the Montgomery Wards 20 gauge, the Remington 1100, my father’s FIRST bird vest (yep, the one described above), and his gun cleaning kit. Treasures.
These are what have brought back the memories and helped keep them alive. They have guided me in telling the stories of my father. To recall dozens of memorable hunts and even shooting doves from lawn chairs…
Written by Edgar Castillo