Grandfather served in World War II on the islands of Okinawa, and was damn proud of it. He talked on-and-on about “those rascally slants” and “those French faggots” and how they owed their very existence to the pride and endurance of the Great Country. Grandfather grew up in Westport, but during his military stint, he was stationed on the coast near Beaufort, South Carolina, and never left.
As a child, we drove to the Lowcountry to see my grandparents twice yearly, once during summer and once in autumn. In my thirteenth year, I fought the annual autumnal voyage because my team was playing in the district championship. In a rare instance at home, Father, in his stern manner, brushed off my resistance and forced me to go. A special weekend was planned by Grandfather for me, he said, which was “much more important than some silly soccer game”. Begrudged, I rode those twelve hours, dreading the weekend awaiting me.
As we neared Guyton, Father told me to “straighten out your attitude”. He said that Grandfather was taking me to a special hunting club, where I would learn how to shoot a gun. “I may shoot a gun, but I hope you don’t expect me to shoot an animal.” He responded, “Only if, and when, you want to…or you have to.” Maybe the weekend would not be as bad as imagined. I looked up to the rear-view mirror to smile at my father, and in that oblong mirror, a sinister look reflected, an eerie delight grinned back, leaving me uneasy. The anticipation of a terrible weekend returned.
We arrived on a Thursday night, and I was immediately shifted into Grandfather’s Suburban, like transient cargo thrown into the hold for a connecting flight. Apparently, neither of my parents were chaperoning this important weekend. I was at the mercy of Grandfather, and whatever delusions he held important for those particular moments. As always, Simbi, Grandfather’s driver, sat dutifully in the pilot’s seat and chauffeured us to the destination. We rode in silence for two hours. I peered out the tinted windows across the miles of pine and marsh as they whirled by. Grandfather sloshed through numerous single malts, clinking ice. As we neared the hunting club, Grandfather interrupted the silence with slurred quippings about a hog he killed during childhood and the joys of blasting a high-powered weapon directly into the kill-spot of an unsuspecting animal. “Such actions are what define men,” he told me.
All the other men of the weekend’s party had arrived before us, and locked the gate to deter the trespassers that inevitably poached such rich hunting lands. When Simbi pulled to the gate, Grandfather jumped out and picked the lock, a skill he learned when the “fuckin’ nips got him” one time in the war. “They only had me two days. Guess the slant eyes couldn’t see my escape,” he told me, laughing at his own joke. We sped toward the lodge as if on a mission. Simbi sailed down the road through the pines until we saw the flicker looming ahead.
The Suburban slid across the sandy dirt and stopped, sending a cloud out across the humid marsh. Grandfather ushered me toward a small cabin and instructed me to go to sleep. We would wake early, and there was no sunlight to waste. He brought me to the hunting club to “make a man out of me.” And being a man required me to wake up before the sun. No grandson of his was going to be an “artist or faggot soccer player.” He was determined to steer me in his direction, to inject machismo, to direct me toward a life more fitting of my family lineage. I wondered what Grandfather expected me to become. Which manly activity did he envision for me? I pondered this question in the bunk of the musty cabin as I drifted toward uneasy sleep.
I woke before the first splatters of sunlight to sharp pricks from some needled device that Grandfather carried, the same one he used to pick the gate lock the night before. In seconds, he transformed me from flannel pajamas to camouflage jumpsuit and rubber boots. Since none of the other hunters were stirring, Grandfather saw the opportunity to scout the land unopposed. We rushed away from the camp down a line of pine saplings toward the ponds that dotted the marsh. He had tracked a group of deer to a clearing on a previous weekend, and wanted to scout them before anyone else had the opportunity. He aimed to “take out the entire family.”
We walked, as the sun rose higher, finally arriving at the clearing where Grandfather assured me the deer tracks would be revealed. He inspected a set of tracks, and after a few moments, declared that the deer must have passed earlier. Without further attention, he whirled around, grabbed my shoulder, and directed me back to the trail. He began talking about the pond, which we had passed earlier, and how one of those prehistoric crocodiles, of which I was fond, made its home there. The topic of conversation interested me no doubt, as I had recently learned about alligators and crocodiles.
“Crocodiles do not live here, Grandfather. The animal is probably an alligator,” I said to him. “Horseshit,” he replied. “All those big scaly reptiles are the same. Crocodile, alligator, doesn’t matter. Call them what you want to.”
He explained the aggressive nature of crocodiles, and how this particular specimen was extremely ferocious, known to chase hunters as they approached. “It, like all crocodiles, could smell the fear of men,” he said. And for that reason, “one of man’s purposes was to subdue such beasts, to teach those scaly bastards their place on the food chain.” I squirmed at the brutality in his statement, though I didn’t understand at the time.
We walked by the pond as we returned to camp. Grandfather looked for the crocodile, more so than the deer, even stopping at certain spots for a better view. “Damn crocodile never shows itself when I want it…just like those damn nips.” He stood there perplexed and mumbled under his breath for a few minutes, which culminated with the blatant realization, “…but that ignorant beast can’t deny a bloody chicken.” I heard the last statement clearly, as if he wanted me to understand it. The image of freshly killed chicken sickened my stomach. I was unaccustomed to such bloodshed. He ushered me along from the pond toward camp, this time at a brisker pace. We spoke no words as we walked, and exchanged no gestures as a grandfather and grandson should.
When the camp came into view, he stopped, grabbed me by the shoulders, and squared them to him. He bent down and peered into my eyes. “Today, boy, you become a man. Today.” It was the first time I witnessed the shimmering darkness in him. It dripped off my grandfather like it always had, only I didn’t recognize it before. I’ve seen it many times since, on Grandfather, Father, and all my uncles. A boy’s innocent observations never detected it. On that day, I identified it, and then became a man.
We entered the camp and Grandfather launched into his tirade, an explosion I’d witnessed countless times. He blatantly lied – “the crocodile approached us as we passed by the pond on our early morning walk.” He further embellished by saying that the crocodile chased me, his defenseless grandson, who “didn’t even know how to load a gun.” I watched the way Grandfather dealt with the men that disagreed with him, the ones that called him out on his bullshit. They just didn’t believe that animal would confront a human being.
We both knew he spouted lies. He shot a glare my way, a gesture that no grandfather and grandson should share. I would not deny the truth of his claims. I refused to create the ire that contesting his story would ignite. I ducked my head and shuffled toward the lodge, attempted invisibility, to avoid the situation I realized was mounting. He noticed me slinking away, and shouted to “get your ass back out here.” Again, I did not deny him.
I re-traced my steps to where the six men of the camp gathered. At that moment, I was drawn to the fire, the source that warmed and fed the camp. Beside it, for the first time I saw a young boy sitting. Feeling some connection, I approached and sat down on the pine log beside him. We were the only boys in the camp that weekend. I was thirteen and he, I guessed, was seven or eight. Both of us were in formidable times of life, though separated by a few years. We each said “hey,” and then sat in silence – two young males about to be shown what it was to be a man, by Grandfather’s definition.
Grandfather’s tirade progressed. The other men attempted to calm him. He spit and kicked and flung words like “dumbass” and “worthless” and “beast” around the camp. The other men looked at each other in shock, which led to the acceptance that he could not be subdued. “The crocodile must be shot, must be killed, today,” he convinced them. I am not shocked that they submitted. He would not be denied, as the case always seemed.
Grandfather cut the padlock on the shed where weapons were stored. He disappeared inside to find his favorite weapon – a shotgun, the gun with which he had massacred so many “fucking slant eyes.” He emerged with a grin upon his face. His weapon was chosen. The crocodile would meet death that day. Grandfather gathered more supplies to lure the beast from its lair – a long piece of rope and a large chunk of chicken meat fresh-killed, which was supposed to be eaten that night for dinner. Part of his sales pitch included the fact that “the entire camp would dine on the finest Lowcountry crocodile that evening, a treat millennia in the making!” None of the men tried to stop him, even as he stole part of their dinner. I guess they realized the seriousness Grandfather mustered in succumbing to his desire. Perhaps they thought he would not follow through on the threats. But I knew they were not threats, more like promises. He followed the same script like always.
When preparations satisfied Grandfather, he stuffed his coverall pockets with enough rounds to kill a rhinoceros, grabbed the chicken and rope, and slung the shotgun over his right shoulder. He peered over at me again, demanding in silence that I join him. I did not want to go. I had borne witness to Grandfather’s violent tendencies before and did not care to attend this particular performance. Of course, he did not accept my denial. Instead, he motioned with his left hand and scowled, “get your ass up and start walking.” And so I did.
Grandfather stomped off toward the pond, like a hero headed off on another quest. He towed me behind, as if an invisible leash connected us. Some members of the weekend’s camp did not join our journey. They preferred not to witness such irreverence aimed at an ancient creature, especially one that showed no palpable threat. Three of the men, however, decided to trail along behind us, no doubt to keep an eye on my grandfather. They understood the danger associated with a man with a gun and a mind for revenge. One of the men, the de-facto leader of the camp, was the grandfather of the younger boy with whom I shared a few moments beside the fire. I noticed that the boy also walked with the group. Perhaps he had never witnessed such misdirected temper, but he focused ahead with curiosity as Grandfather trudged forward. The group walked in silence. All I heard were footsteps, the symphony of crackling leaves, scurrying creature feet, and squeaky rubber boots as men traveled to see certain destruction.
As he walked, Grandfather mumbled under his breath. Though I could not understand him, it seemed he was practicing a speech, perhaps the tall tale he would spin as we dined on crocodile flesh that night. Then, he stopped abruptly. He looked down at me. I saw love in his face, for the first time ever, and he stared through my eyes into the depths of my soul. I had craved such masculine attention, such emotion, from Grandfather or Father for so long, but never realized it. His stare sent chills down my spine and awakened the roots of the family tree residing at my core.
In that moment, he respected me, talked as if I was a compatriot. He explained the scene that would unfold ahead. He compared the killing of this crocodile to catching fish, except this fish would “tear your fucking body apart limb-by-limb and eat you for a mid-afternoon snack.” The rope served as the fisherman’s pole, and the chicken was the bait, a lure such an ignorant beast could not deny. When the crocodile lunged at the bait, a point-blank shotgun blast would “drop that dumb amphibian in its tracks.” The beast might squirm, as weakened creatures often do, but eventually, it would stop resisting and accept its fate. “That dumb fuckin’ lizard” would succumb to the greater intelligence.
“You ever blasted a shotgun?” he asked. “No, I have not,” I replied. “Well, son, you’re about to. And the first trigger you squeeze will be a kill-shot, just like all Easton’s…” At that moment, I understood the goal of the charade, the point of the entire weekend. He set me up to shoot the crocodile.
As planned all along, I would kill the crocodile. Grandfather demanded it, and I was loath to deny him. He expected me to pick up a shotgun, the weapon with which he killed so many. This is how Grandfather would make me a man. For the first time, I would wield death’s implement. With it, I’d deliver the fatal blow to an innocent crocodile, the contemporary of dinosaurs would grant my manhood – the twisted perception curdling in my blood. Like some piece of sadistic theatre, I was to kill an innocent beast. And it intrigued me.
Curiosity flushed my veins. I wondered about the taste of killing another living thing, but was torn by my mother’s teachings about respect for living creatures. Her image flooded my mind. How would she feel about me doing such a thing? I pushed her aside. Those feminine thoughts were not for the killing fields, but for the comfortable couch of overpaid psycho-scientists. Regardless of my attempts to dismiss the sensitive thoughts of my mother, they remained in the corner of my mind. I felt closer to Grandfather than ever before, and though it scared me, I noticed a growing confidence in him and what he showed me. And that intrigued me.
As we approached the pond, he explained the plan to me. From the left side, he would fling the rope with the fresh chicken onto the mudbank set at the back-edge of the pond. With a few yanks, the bloody meat would appear like an irresistible lure, and “that fuckin’ crocodile will charge it like a slant-eye in the forest.” I had no experience in such strategy, but it sounded credible to me. I would be stationed on the right side of the pond. He walked me over, pointed out “the sweet spot”, and instructed me on the proper stance. I would kneel down on my right knee, with my left leg bent out in front of me. He modeled how to hold the shotgun, then held it to my shoulder so I could feel it for myself. When I agreed that it felt comfortable, he removed it and stepped back. “Now take your knee, son.” He loaded the shotgun with his “favorite nip-blastin’ shells”, removed the safety, and cocked it. He handed it to me with one final instruction, “When I say now, aim it directly at that rascally bastard’s head and pull the trigger. That’s all you gotta do, boy. You send that lizard to hell!”
He moved left to man his post. I sat in my awkward position, balancing the wobbly shotgun against my shoulder. He tied the mass of chicken flesh with the rope, looked over at me with a nod-and-wink, and started twirling the bait above his head. He released the line and landed it on the intended spot. He sniggered at his skill for luring the innocent, and glared at me like a gargoyle, willing me to success in this endeavor, as if his salvation depended upon it.
I dropped my head. I could not look into his eyes. They were dark, and I did not want to be driven by such forceful things. Or maybe I couldn’t stand the thought of failing such lofty expectations. Though elemental questions and the image of my distressed mother remained in my brain, I was ready. My hunger for the kill was growing. Like a harbinger, it rose through my body.
I adjusted my knees and the shotgun on my shoulder. I focused my attention, my mind’s eye toward the destruction of the crocodile, of the fulfillment of Grandfather’s expectations. My heartbeat raced, my trigger finger felt strangely hot and cold. I drew one deep breath, and that was all that was necessary. Ice ran through my veins. My mother’s image disappeared, replaced by visions of some horrific theatrical production. Conscience slipped away like the nights in some pay-by-the-hour motel. I was prepared. Itching.
And then I saw it, the beast that would make me a man. The eyes appeared first on the left side of the pond, aimed toward the mudbank, lured by fresh blood. Grandfather continued to stare at me. He didn’t notice the emergence of the beast. I tracked the rippled route it took across the pond, and thought about how natural the predatory position felt to me.
I peered around to the three other men and the boy, all crouched at the base of a young pine tree. They saw the crocodile. I could see it on their faces. They knew carnage would soon unfold. All their faces, that is, except for the boy’s. He sat wide-eyed, wondering what was about to occur. He probably didn’t contemplate the death he would witness, perhaps his first experience with a motionless body, the recognition of immortality. After all, who thinks of such things at the age of seven? I shook off thoughts of the boy. He reminded me too much of my mother.
I turned to focus once more when Grandfather realized the emergence of the crocodile. His cheeks flushed, tangible excitement exploded from his face. His soul nearly hopped out of its body, as he signaled for me to prepare for my first kill.
The crocodile climbed from the water, lumbered through the mud one leg at the time to the top of the bank, approaching the bait from above. As the crocodile reached the bank’s crest, it stopped and remained poised in stillness. It surveyed the strange beings crouched at points around the pond and calculated the best angle for attack.
Grandfather snatched the rope, sending the chicken carcass sliding down the bank toward the water. The crocodile lurched toward the chicken disappearing from his mudbank into the pond. And then, Grandfather stopped the slide with precision, landing the carcass on “the sweet spot” he had showed me earlier. The script was perfect. The next scene was set.
The crocodile slogged down the bank. With every muscle and tendon working in unison, it lunged at the chicken, ripping the flesh with its razor teeth and crusher jaws. Though it twisted its body into a death-roll, it remained on “the sweet spot.” I prepared for my shot, the shot that would make me a man. With only a few instructions, I steadied the shotgun against my shoulder, squinted my left eye, and lined up the crocodile down the barrel. I was ready, felt like a natural predator. Burning.
I inhaled. The image of a woman’s face appeared, her body contorted as she watched me shoot a defenseless animal at point-blank range. My mother sent her pleas one last time. Exhaled. I inhaled again. A sordid circus appeared before me, where half-dressed clowns tortured monkeys. Exhaled. I inhaled a third time. My shadow entered, or maybe it was another shadow. It watched with paternal pride, as if it knew me from long ago. I smiled. The moment of truth arrived, the first such moment I experienced. The harbinger called out.
“Now, son!” Grandfather exclaimed. My brain, my arm, my finger, my soul: none of them hesitated. I pulled the trigger.
The shell flew from the barrel straight toward the crocodile’s head. I watched it pierce the scaly skin, the beast began thrashing. The butt of the shotgun kicked back into my shoulder, nearly ripping my arm away. I was knocked sideways, landing with a thud on my back. The third breath, held deeply like an instinctual marksman does, burst out from me. I gasped for another.
Grandfather screamed with glee. “I drilled you, you fucking crocodile, you slimy mother fucker. I blew a hole clean through your fucking back, you piece of prehistoric shit! Semper Fi!”
No you didn’t. I shot the crocodile between the eyes, just like you told me to. I struggled to breathe, failed to speak, and so that thought remained inside me.
He hopped over to where I was sprawled on my back, with a broken shoulder I thought. “Good job, son. You are a natural! You make your grandfather and the rest of the bloodline proud, son! There is hope for this world yet! Tonight, we celebrate. Tonight, we dine on red wine and crocodile! Tonight, we drink to killin’ nips and crocodiles!” He jerked me to my feet, nearly pulling my other shoulder out of socket. He took the shotgun from me and threw it across his left shoulder.
He waded across the pond without fear and cocked the shotgun. The crocodile lay in a heap, its muscles flinched. He placed one shot squarely into the top of the crocodile’s head. The flinching stopped immediately.
With the remaining length of rope, he wrapped the snout and tied the tail to the two back legs, a technique mastered through many repetitions. He ordered two of the men to “drag that fuckin’ crocodile back to camp for us, will ya?” As he was accustomed, the men immediately obeyed him and trudged over to the pond. They grabbed the rope, pulled-and-tugged the crocodile all the way back to camp, until Grandfather pointed and said, “Right there’ll work just fine.”
Grandfather motioned for me to accompany him in the parade back to camp, like entering the village after a successful raid. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close to him for the first time ever. He was cold, but proud. Grandfather and grandson. It was the first time it felt like that. We found common ground. And I would never forget it.