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By Al Wellman
I'm from a family of introverts. Our happiest hours are spent alone exploring seldom-traveled woodland trails learning the value of stealth when observing wildlife, and the importance of silence to recognize sounds. On the days when New England weather kept him indoors, my father's boyhood was shaped by reading Jim Corbett's tales of hunting big cats in India. The eastern cougar had been exterminated from colonial Massachusetts, but feral house cats still followed their larger relatives' hunting behavior where second-growth woodlands reclaimed pastures no longer grazed by the horses replaced by automobiles. House cats are very destructive predators to American small game species. So, in the days before golf replaced hunting as the preferred outdoor recreation of wealthy men, the public service message on the back of Massachusetts hunting licenses requested hunters to shoot any cats they found in the woods.
As a weapon to duplicate Corbett's feats, my father initially used loads of birdshot in the heirloom rifle his great-granduncle had brought home from the civil war. The long muzzle-loader was a bit clumsy for a schoolboy, and the click made when he cocked it often alerted the cat to danger before he was able to aim and fire. When my father expressed the need for a double rifle of the sort used by Corbett, my grandmother recognized an opportunity to encourage her son to improve his social skills. She bought her son a double-barrel shotgun with the condition that each Sunday would be spent attending Sunday school before wandering the woodlands. When my father reached the age of 18, he purchased an M1903 Springfield match rifle from the Director of Civilian Marksmanship with which he was able to hit cats at distances as great as 100 yards consistently.
My father spent World War II as a naval officer aboard amphibious ships. During the cleanup after amphibious landings, he could not resist the opportunity to leave his crowded ship for a quiet walk ashore. On the pretense of gathering intelligence, he would board the boats shuttling supplies and wounded men between the fleet and invasion beaches. Once ashore, he would search for some quiet piece of woodland he might explore to relieve stress. The difference from the woodlands of his youth, of course, was the probability that some enemy soldiers might have selected the same piece of woodland as a refuge. So, his first priority upon reaching shore was to search damaged landing craft to find a rifle abandoned by a wounded infantryman.
My father tried to forget his woodland encounters when he and I recounted our military adventures. Although he often retold stories of watching the explosions of an approaching stick of bombs until the last hit his ship, and later being strafed by Messerschmitt fighters on Sicilian beaches while listening to the rumbling growl of enemy artillery shells exploding in the wet sand, the memories of face-to-face combat were too painful to recall. Only once, when alcohol had relaxed his inhibition, did he recount such an experience to me, and my brother-in-law (also a Vietnam veteran). I wonder how many more he might have been able to pretend he had forgotten, as I wonder if private practice professionals can match focused VA specialists' comprehension of the recurring anguish caused by veterans' memories of the faces of those they killed.
During the invasion of Italy my father was walking through a supply dump where crates had been stacked in a grove of trees to conceal them from aerial observation. He suddenly encountered a German scout on a similar intelligence-gathering mission. Both men immediately attempted to shoot the other, but my father's cat-hunting experience prevailed, and the German's helmet came off as he fell. My father then recognized the dead man as the boy who lived next door in Massachusetts and was stricken by the realization he had killed his boyhood friend. The German wasn't really the boy next door, of course, but rather a perception of recognition that we are all brothers.
Al Wellman was a second-generation United States naval officer whose combat participation was limited to launching guided missiles at RADAR images.