Ol’ dads can make their sons very proud sometimes. There are magic moments when something they say or do – sometimes both – can make an 11 year-old feel like he’s in the company of a superhero. These moments and the feelings they evoke will stay with us until we’re ol’ dads ourselves, recounting stories of the ‘olden days’ to our grandkids that will pass into family legend. My ol’ dad was one such man and he left me with a wealth of stories that I cherish and recount with great joy and pride to this day.
My ol’ dad was a toolmaker by trade, for whom precision was both a religion and in his hands, an art form. In his later years he turned his hand to the gunsmith’s arts and in doing so turned me off shooting and onto archery. The thing is, by the time my ol’ dad got through bedding an action, floating a barrel, tweaking a trigger, loaded the shells, honing the mounts and mounted the scope, all of it had been done with such perfect precision that failing to hit a bullseye was 100% down to human error, and who wants a riffle that’s raison d’être is to make its owner look like a bloody idiot?
Bows, on the other-hand, are built with the obfuscation of incompetence in mind – traditional bows doubly so. There are all those wonderful vagaries associated with the myriad types of wood that arrow shafts are available in, and there’s the argy-bargy of conflicting opinion about what arrow spine is just perfect for what draw weight. Then you need to decide what types of feathers you’ll use – left or right-wing – and whether it really matters as long as you don’t mix them. Should you use parabolic or shield cut feathers and of what length, and should they be attached straight along the shaft with sinew, or are they best glued in place in a helical formation, and if the latter, should it be a left or right helical. Finally, if we ever manage to guess all that stuff right with such consummate precision that we’re in imminent peril of clevering ourselves right out of things to blame for the odd lousy shot, we archers can always rely on the ever-present mitigating companion know as the “archer’s paradox” as an excuse – hallelujah!
The archer’s paradox is complicated science and, woe is me, I was away they day they did science at school, but in a nutshell it goes something like this. When a wooden shaft is fired from a bow the stresses of acceleration result in the rear-end impatiently trying to accelerate faster than the front-end. Unfortunately, because the rear-end’s blinkers are out, it can’t pull into the right-hand lane and overtake the front-end in an orderly manner. Instead it tries to overtake the front-end by passing through it. Of course this is not possible because…of more science, and the result is a sort of bumper-car effect without the bumps per se. The rear pushes, and the front, not being in any particular hurry to get out of its way, allows itself to be pushed ever so slightly slower, while the bit in the middle, trying its level best to maintain some semblance of decorum, bellies and twists as it takes the brunt of all the resulting …science. The end result when viewed via the wonders of modern slow-motion cinematography, is an arrow that speeds determinedly towards its target in a sort of horizontal wriggling action reminiscent of a piece of spaghetti sneezed from the nose of the only animal with sinuses long enough to accommodate 28 inches of 5/16 diameter al dente pasta i.e. a giraffe.
My point is this; it’s really hard to turn a traditional bow and arrow into a precision instrument in quite the same way one can tweak a riffle and scope to deliver minute-of-angle accuracy. As a result, when I miss a target’s A-zone in competition, snagging a B-zone instead I simply examine the recovered arrow and say, in learned and considered tones, “I’m not certain I’m entirely satisfied with these new spruce shafts”, safe in the knowledge that my buddies will reassure me that a B-zone shot in the field would mean fresh game on the table nonetheless, and that’s all that really counts.
But the fact is, I know that were he still with us today, within a few hours of putting my bow and arrows in the hands of my ol’ dad, the two would be working in such perfect harmony that the Archery Alliance of Australia would be holding crisis talks to institute a new zone in the centre of the A-zone, which they would no-doubt christen the “bloody Mallard!” zone.
There was one occasion I remember very clearly, when my ol’ dad’s skill at tuning a riffle not only made me proud, but also made me realise that, in the parlance of the 1960s, he was ‘way-cool’ too.
We were living in the suburbs of what was then Sydney’s outskirts and we’d regularly pack-up the car and journey into dairy country to shoot a few conies in a little farming community known as Camden. My ol’ dad would carry one of his numerous .22s, while the trusty Browning .22-short was my riffle of choice and, coincidentally, the only riffle in my ‘collection’ at the time. I would come to refer to that old Browning as ‘Lightning’, not because it was fast, but because like lightning it rarely hit the same spot twice.
One day we pulled up at the farmer’s gate in Camden and while preparing our gear for the day ahead, another car arrived. The driver saw that we were also shooters and came over to introduce himself. A brief conversation about which direction we were headed in and what time we planned to return to our cars ensued, and it was decided that in the interests of safety all shooting should cease promptly at 10am to allow both parties a safe return. OH&S issues sorted, off we went to bag a bunny or two.
As we wandered off into the field I happened to glance back to find the other hunter looking at us over his shoulder with a snug little grin on his face. I reported this observation to my ol’ dad who, completely unphased, told me it was known as the ‘shotgun smirk’. Apparently the shotgun smirk comes with the purchase of expensive guns such as the Bentley centre-fire, and is pre-set to leap from the breach onto the new owner’s face where it surgically implants itself the very first time he manages to hit what he’d previously been unable to hit with “a proper gun”.
The day was very productive. My ol’ dad took ten young bunnies and as luck would have it, another two does whose Prozac scripts had run out, very accommodatingly leaped in front of Lightning with suicide-aforethought. With the freezer topped-up and the dogs sorted with food for a few days, we headed back to the car to get stuck into the business of dressing the day’s take.
As prearranged we arrived back at the car just after 10am, as did the Smirk to his credit, and as we searched the car for our field kits the Smirk opened an old and bloodied sugarbag and began laying out his day’s take on a nearby fallen tree that had been used by generations of hunters as a cleaning table. Like my ol’ dad, the Smirk had taken a total of ten bunnies, which he proceeded to lay out at strategic intervals calculated to impress. Field kits retrieved from the car, we proceeded to the same fallen tree and began to set-up, and it was at this moment that the Smirk set in motion circumstances that were about to make a little boy very proud of his ol’ dad.
“You were shooting rabbits, then” inquired the Smirk?
“Yes, rabbits, that’s right” replied my ol’ dad.
“Only, I don’t shoot rabbits with a riffle. Riffles is for foxes and pigs and such” the Smirk informed us.
“Oh really” said my ol’ dad with a wry note of incredulity in his voice, “and why’s that” he inquired?
“Well, .22s leave rabbits all bloody and bruised inside and no good for eating at all” said the smirk, and as my ol’ dad pulled his ten young rabbits from his bag and laid them out neatly on that fallen log, he calmly uttered the words that would burn themselves indelibly into an 11 year-olds memory for life:
“Well yes, a .22 can bruise them up a bit, you’ve got a point there…still, I don’t eat the heads!”
And there they were, ten bunnies every one of them taken cleanly with a single shot just behind the eyes.
To this day I cannot walk past a fallen tree without harking back to the day my ol’ dad taught me two very important lessons; the importance of remaining calm when confronted by an idiot, and the effectiveness of understatement back-up by raw talent.
I miss my ol’ dad!