My father’s mind is okay. It’s his body that’s shot. He has trouble walking, with balance and his arthritis has bent him forward. My mother’s body is like a tank; she just keeps plowing ahead. It’s her memory of Dad that’s gone South. She thinks there are two Bill Hartmans, and she doesn’t like one of them. She asks Dad every day if he has seen her husband. He gets so frustrated and upset I get afraid for Mom.
When I stop by today, Dad requests a shotgun shell.
A shotgun shell? I’m suspicious. I question him gently about his treatment from nurses and staff, about the food, and about Mom’s condition…is it getting him down, again?
No, is his answer.
My father grew up blowing tree stumps from fields on our family’s farm. He’s been hunting for wild game since he was eight. This 92-year-old man understands explosives. “Why do you need the shell?”
“It’s that damn squirrel outside my window.”
“You’re going to shoot a squirrel right through the glass?”
“He eats all my bird food. I could blast the bugger right through the wall.”
He has no gun. I’m imagining a hammer tapping a nail into the end of the shell, setting off the gun powder, exploding shot…blood, broken plaster and shards of glass. “Dad, how do you plan to blast the bugger with the shotgun shell?”
“I’ll take the BBs out of the shell, load them into a straw and blow his tail right off… right through this open window.” He leans forward and points. “I’ll hit him in his ass!”
“I’ve been saving them from the dining room.”
“Well, if you can get rid of that squirrel it could cut down on the bird seed bill. Think you can get this window up?” I say as I unlock the window and check it for ease of opening.
“If I can’t I’ll ask your mother to help me.”
I look at my 89-year-old mother, fast asleep in her chair. “What about this screen?” I bend down to investigate. “It looks like it fastens from the outside. Mom can’t just walk out a door to pull it off. She would set off an alarm and you’d both be caught.”
A line slices Dad’s forehead between his eyes. After a long pause he looks up “That BB will only make a small hole in the screen.”
“Okay. So I haven’t worked out the screen problem yet.” He rubs his forehead. “I might just ask Rusty, my maintenance buddy, to pull it off for me. He’s the one who feeds my birds. Say, I’m going to need some more wine. Will you bring me some next time? The box in the refrigerator is old.”
Later that day my husband and I shop at our big box mega market for a small box of sweet Merlot. Dad insists gallon boxes get old and spoil…like milk.
“What if your father inhales a BB instead of blowing it out?” my husband says as we maneuver the maize of aisles looking for hunting equipment.. “If they’re lead, he could die.”
We both gasp at the amount of live munition lining the shelves, and finally locate BB’s. “Let’s find some shot that’s digestible about the same diameter as a BB.” We purchase biodegradable air gun pellets and drop them off later that day. The grin on Dad’s face is equal to my husband’s…partners in conspiracy. And I am an accomplice…just as guilty as they are, if we are caught.
Dad demonstrates blowing pellets through his plastic straw, but the shot is too large. “I’ll ask my buddy, Rusty, to bring me a small piece of copper tubing.” my father says. “He said he would help me with the screen.”
“I’ll talk to Stan, our Research and Development guru,” Bob says. “Maybe he can fabricate some kind of blowgun for you. But Bill, you can’t use it on the nurses.”
That brings a twinkle to Dad’s eyes. “Okay. But Bob, it can’t look like a weapon, or they’ll put us both away.” They both laugh.
“This blowgun. It would be used for squirrels only, right? I need you to promise me you won’t use it on Mom.”
“Okay, I promise,” he says too quickly, and laughs again.
I learned about promises from the master.“Dad, when I was growing up you made me promise never to pick up hitchhikers. Remember that? I have been tempted over the years, but I have never offered a stranger a ride. I kept my promise to you.”
Dad smiles. “Good girl.”
“Now here’s the deal. If one day you get really mad and decide to use your blowgun on Mom, I’ll find out. The nurses will call me. When that happens your only daughter, your youngest child, will go out for a drive and pick up the first hitchhiker she sees. Understand?”
Dad nods agreement. He’s not smiling.
All through this conversation Mom has been napping in her Lazyboy. Her eyes snap open and she says, “Mickey helped me dig a hole in the back yard to bury that big rock that got in the way each time he mowed the grass. I helped him push, and push, and push until the rock rolled in. But the hole wasn’t deep enough. So, we had to dig that big rock out of the hole, and make the hole deeper. Mickey helped me roll it back in.” She fell back asleep.
A week later I stop to check on my father’s blowgun. Stan, director of research and development at our company looks disappointed. He tells me he has tried blowing the shot through different lengths of quarter-inch copper tubing. The digestible pellet consistently drops to the lab floor less than a foot from the end of the tube. He has tried using an air compressor to increase the velocity air through the pipe. The pellet fared no better. He tried a heavier ball, a steel ball bearing. It shots further, but the speed was still too slow to hit the squirrel hard enough for him to feel it. At last Stan pulled a hand-made slingshot from his back pocket. “This should educate a squirrel,” he says. “Your father must have used one of these when he was a kid.”
Stan is right. I show Dad the slingshot on my next visit. He is delighted. He loads a pellet like an expert, pulls the plastic pouch, and lets it snap. His shot ricochets the pellet off the wall, bounces it off the ceiling and hits mom in the shoulder.
“What? What was that?” Mom is suddenly awake.
“Dad, how about wearing your glasses when you shoot that thing? I’ll hang one of these stuffed animals on the wall for a target, and you can practice hitting it. Mom, you put your glasses on too.”
My mother is smiling, enjoying the excitement of the pellet bouncing off the wall, the refrigerator, hitting the glass on a picture hanging on another wall, a vase of flowers, but never on the target.
The squirrel is safe for now.
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