My father, Gary L. Shelton, taught me to hunt. The first time he took my brother Chris and I was on a dove hunt over a small western Kansas farm pond, the night before the first day of school.
Chris had just passed his hunter's safety course, and I was still a couple of years from holding a gun, but I was as giddy as a yearling black lab on his first trip to the field.
A strong, husky man, my dad was a man of few words, but everything he said and did was with great intent. It was important to him to teach us respect before he taught us how to lead a bird, so to make a lasting point, he gathered our attention, pointed his Winchester 1400 12 gauge at a volunteer sapling a few feet away, and blew it in half.
True to his form, all he said was, “Now imagine what that might do to you.” That was in the mid-1980s. Dad was a crack shot, so he limited out fairly quickly. Chris managed to knock down a few birds, and we went to school the next morning with a great story.
Through the years he taught us more lessons, some on safety and others on the metaphorical connection between hunting and life's lessons, but the most important lesson he taught us through hunting was the importance of family.
In September 2011, Dad was 61. Retired now, years of physical labor had taken its toll on his body. The strongest man I had ever known had one artificial hip, one artificial knee and diabetes. Merely walking from the bedroom to the living room couch was a laborious chore for him now.
But when I called from my home three hours away in Ponca City and asked him to organize a dove hunt with his three brothers on our farm pond near Larned, Kan., he was now the giddy one.
He made all the arrangements and spent the week in his metal shop, fashioning a seat that attached to his trailer hitch since he couldn't walk the rough terrain of the cattle pond.
That evening, the birds flew from every direction, and we each went through a box of shells. That is, except my dad. Since he couldn't hunker down among the deadfall surrounding the pond, he attached his hitch seat and watched most birds fly well outside of his range.
I felt guilty that he wasn't getting any shots, and, apparently, so did my uncles, because just before sunset, we repositioned the truck so he could intercept the birds right as they came over the hill to the water. It worked, as the last bird of legal light came over the rise, right at all of us.
We all held up as Dad stood unsteadily, lifted his same trusty Winchester, and needed only to cycle one round through the chamber. It was the last bird of the evening.
As dusk passed into night, we sat on our stools in a row and cleaned the birds, laughing and rehashing old hunts as only a close family can do. It was only one of many hunts we had all shared together. None of us knew that by the end of September, Dad would be gone. We tend to not recognize the best times of our lives until they are past and we are left with only memories.
It took nearly two years' worth of planning, but earlier this month, we all assembled for the first Gary L. Shelton memorial hunt. For a long time, I had seen this day as the final step in the healing process — going back to the same pond where Chris and I took our first shots, and Dad took his last. Or, maybe I was just hopeful my aching heart would magically heal.
There had been little talking on the drive out there, only a few well-timed jokes from a few of the passengers, perhaps to lighten the mood. We all knew what this hunt meant. It was our way of honoring a man whose few words and many actions touched the lives of so many.
I could spend lines talking about how the doves came in droves, or about who made the most memorable shot, or about the purple bruise on my right shoulder from firing so many shots, but what really mattered was what Dad preached.
He had once told me and Chris that he felt closest to God when he was in nature. Well, I feel closest to him when I hold my shotgun and carry on the tradition that he taught to me.
So afterward, when the doves had been cleaned and all the guys stood around the tailgate looking at each other, a toast was raised in his honor and a tear or two was shed, and the family looked up and admired the stars in the darkening sky.