As a little boy growing up at the edge of the Bankhead Forest of the Warrior Mountains, I was carried to the woods by my grandpa Arthur Wilburn when I was too small to make a long trek with my short legs. My first memory was setting on a log beside my grandpa watching a gray squirrel cutting a hickory nut high up in a very large tree. I remember him trying to get me to be still and quite so he could kill the squirrel for us to eat. After waiting for what seemed to be an eternity, grandpa finally killed the squirrel with a 22 caliber rifle. I learned at a very young age to love to eat squirrel tongues, cheek muscles, and finally the brains. The head was my favorite piece of squirrel to eat, and as a young boy, I was raised on squirrels and other wild meat. It was in this old time tradition that I learned to love to be in the woods hunting and learning as much as I could about the forest.
When I was about five years old, me and my dad traded "Ole Blue" for my own 22 rifle. Ole Blue was my big blue tick hound that would knock me down when he was excited about getting some petting. The dog was much bigger than I was and sometimes difficult for me to control. I really hated to trade my old hound dog, but dad had told me that a black man in Oakville had a rifle he would trade for a good squirrel or coon dog. I loved my dog, but I really wanted a 22 rifle of my own so I could go squirrel hunting with my grandpa. I agreed to the trade; therefore, my dad and I loaded up Ole Blue and headed to Oakville. The man promised me that he would take care of Ole Blue and that I could come visit him anytime I wanted. Finally, I had my own bolt action single shot 22 squirrel rifle and could not wait to show it to grandpa.
My first hunts with grandpa were not very long, but their memories have lasted a lifetime. He was very patient with me and made me understand the importance of being still and quite while hunting squirrels. Grandpa had a double-barreled 12 gauge shotgun that I could barely pick up, but he always let me have the first shot or two with my rifle. If the squirrel started running away, grandpa seemed to always be a sure shot with the big gun.
My old 22 rifle was difficult for me to hunt with because I did not have the strength to pull the plunger back. The rifle had to be cocked by pulling the plunger back with your thumb and index finger. Initially, it was probably a good idea and benefit to me and others that I could not cock the rifle which made it much safer for me to carry the gun through the woods. When we would get ready to shoot at a squirrel, grandpa would cock the rifle for me. For the first year he carried me squirrel hunting, grandpa was always there to cock my rifle and always give me the opportunity to shoot the squirrels.
The Christmas when I was six years old, my grandpa ordered a brand new Remington single shot bolt action 22 rifle. The new rifle cocked automatically when the bolt was pushed forward, but would not shoot until you flipped the safety button off. The safety on the new 22 rifle was easy for me to push on and off, and grandpa allowed me to practice my shooting accuracy with the new rifle. Shortly after he purchased the new gun, we went squirrel hunting with both of us carrying our 22's. After our squirrel dogs treed, we saw the squirrel hugging a limb high in the tree. Instead of cocking my rifle, grandpa handed me his new 22 rifle and took my old rifle. He whispered, "just push the safety off and kill that squirrel". For the rest of the day, grandpa let me hunt with his new rifle.
When we got back home, grandpa asked me if I liked his new rifle. I told him I loved the gun because I did not have to have his help to shoot it. He then asked me if I would like to trade my old rifle even for his new 22 rifle. Grandpa said since he liked my old rifle and I liked his new one that we might as well trade rifles without any boot. Of course I was tickled to death and was glowing with pride over my new rifle that I could shoot by myself.
At the time I did not understand why he really wanted to trade, but grandpa was my best friend in the world. Now, many years later, I realize the love my grandpa had for me. I believe to this day that my grandpa intended for me to have the new rifle when he ordered it. On March 15, 1964, my grandpa drowned near the Houston area of Smith Lake, and I lost the best friend that I have ever had in my life. Today, I still cherish the 22 rifle he traded me when I was a little boy, not only because of its memories, but because it was truly a gift of love that I will never forget. Before it is too late, you need to make a precious memory for a child that will last a lifetime, but be sure those memories are worth being shared and remembered!