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Updated: Jul 10, 2020

It’s been said that parents need to let their children make mistakes. Protecting them 100% of the time, while most likely keeping them clear of emergency room trips, dirt under their fingernails and having to move out before the age of 35, does nothing to teach them about real life. Kids learn valuable lessons from mistakes. In my case, I learned a lot.

Matthew! Don’t touch the woodstove! says mom. He’ll only do it once, replies dad.

Matthew! Don’t climb so high in that tree! says mom. Hell, he’s got a good 12 feet before it gets real tricky, replies dad.

For most situations, that’s how it went…mom’s yin to dad’s yang, mom’s kiddie pool to dad’s deep end. As far as learning lessons was concerned, that balance worked. But when it came to hunting and fishing, there was no mother hen. It was all tough love. And tough love has a balance all its own–follow directions or face the consequences. There are rules in the field…a natural and necessary order to things. Dad did his best to introduce me to them, but once I had reached the limit of my teenage ability to comprehend the rules and how things worked (translated: once my attention-span reached its limit), he left the rest up to nature to teach me. Getting some archery practice in at my parent’s house the other evening, dad reminded me of that balance. Careful, he said with a grin. There’s no camper back there anymore. They’ve got an RV now.

The landscape of my parent’s backyard has changed quite a bit since I was little. There’s a lot more flowering, pretty stuff growing now that my sister and I and our friends (and a dog) aren’t terrorizing the small parcel. Now they’ve got more flowerbeds and gardens full of Latin-named horticulture than NASCAR’s got sponsors.

Since I first learned how to shoot a bow, backyard target practice has changed a quite a bit as well. For the better part of ten years, dad and I shot at an 80-pound haybale with a paper plate stuck under the baling wire. Then a fancy new 3D buck with big antlers and replaceable mid-section took its place, lurking beneath the lilac bushes, surprising our yellow lab every time she ran into the yard to pee. Now we punch holes in one of those dense-packed shooting blocks.

But the biggest difference is not necessarily landscaping or targets. It’s a matter of scale. Ten yards is still ten yards. So is 15. But where those distances felt like I was a mile away when I was 14, they now feel close enough that I should be jumping on the target like Rambo with a knife in my teeth. Of course, the one thing that never changed was the fact that we lived in the city. Neighbors on every side. Needless to say, dad went out of his way to make sure we stayed friendly with the folks who lived behind us, since their garden, yard, garage and pop-up camper were the backdrop to our target.

I can only imagine my dad watching my first bow-shot with pride and terror. Pulling back the bowstring with every ounce of ass I had, squinting to aim, swaying like a Friday-night townie, and finally unleashing an arrow on that haybale from an impressive seven paces.

That’s a good shot, son. Says dad walking toward the bale.

Shouldn’t it stick in the hay? I ask, blinking the blurriness out of my eye. Well, that’s what’s supposed to happen. If that were a deer, you’d have bruised him good though.

My arrow had stayed this side of our property line. And that was enough. As the days went on I got stronger and more confident though, managing to get all my arrows in the paper plate. Sticking too. But dad held me to my seven yard range. I had to get good there before I could move back. By my second bow season, I was granted ten yards and eventually allowed to shoot on my own, without dad’s supervision. I was on my honor to stick to the routine.

I knew I was wrong when I took the extra five steps back to the corner of the deck. 15 yards. I knew I was wrong at full-draw when I couldn’t decide between the florescent green ten-yard pin in my sights and the florescent orange pin below it that I would later learn is for 20 yards. I knew I was wrong when I stood, swaying and aiming and thinking holy crap that’s a long way away. And it didn’t take but a fraction of a second to know I was wrong when the arrow skipped off the top of the haybale, sailed through the lilac bushes and buried itself with a dull thud in the side of our neighbor’s not popped-up, pop-up camper. When I say buried, I mean I couldn’t get two fingers on the arrow to even try to pull it out.

You know the scene in Caddyshack where the priest gets struck by lightning after cursing God for missing the put, and Bill Murray looks around to make sure no one sees him ditch the priest and his golf clubs? That about sums up my reaction.

I remember when our neighbor, Mr. B, knocked on the backdoor, probably four days later. He had finally discovered the arrow after having one hell of a time trying to get his camper to actually pop up. He and dad talked for a minute before I was called to the door.

I think this belongs to you, said Mr. B. handing me a broken aluminum arrow. I’m sorry Mr. B was all I could get out and I backed my way out of the scene in search of a suitable rock to hide under.

I don’t remember if dad actually made me pay to repair the camper with my paper route profits. In the end, don’t know if I had to pay anything, other than losing the privilege of shooting without his supervision…which, when I think about it, was a tougher consequence to own. Interestingly, I’d still rather shoot with my dad in the backyard, than fly solo at the range…even if the risk behind the target is now an RV.

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