I live in La Jolla, once a scrub-covered area of sandstone hills and arroyos, now covered with homes that, come a half inch of rain or so, slide down said hills into said arroyos. No matter how unstable these hills are, we pay plenty for them, which explains why I have a vanishingly small back yard.
So when I got my first bow, a reasonably priced compound, I realized that there was no way that I could safely practice in my so-called back yard. Furthermore, I live on a corner lot, midway up one of the busiest hills in La Jolla, surrounded by neighbors that I never talk to and rarely see. Which sounds sad, but it’s not. I can’t stand neighbors.
Then again, I had to consider what the neighbors would think of me shooting a high-velocity compound bow mere feet from where they might be enjoying an evening with friends, delicately sipping Napa Chardonnay, the wild salmon roasting expertly on a $20,000 built-in stainless grill. I doubted that the homeowners’ association covenants, conditions, and restrictions covered archery on the premises, but I was quite sure it would be frowned upon.
I set up a target (as large as I could find, for safety reasons, of course) against a small stone wall. When the coast was clear, and the cat and kids were out of the way, I crept out the sliding-glass door and onto “the range,” having blocked off all other ingresses and egresses to the yard with dining-room chairs. I shouted to the wife, over the blow-dryer upstairs, that “the range is hot,” then tiptoed out with the bow hanging down to my ankles, using all the cover the jasmine vines afforded, and knocked an arrow. I was somehow able to make a range of 15 yards by standing in my wife’s flower garden and putting the target just beyond the potted tomatoes, resting on the herb garden around the corner of the house. I peered downrange through the palm fronds and noted the narrowness of the shooting lane. Perfect. A little dicey for someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing, but perfect. More realistic, I reasoned.
That summer, most every evening after work, I would hit the range. I took out several green tomatoes (unintentionally) and two garden hoses, carelessly left on the grounds of my range, and punched a few holes in the stucco of the corner of my house. Thanks to my overreaching safety precautions, no one was seriously injured.
After a few months, I got to thinking that maybe I could hunt with this contraption. Just as I was admiring my tightening groups, I would suddenly send an arrow flying into the stucco.
“What the hell was that?” the wife screamed from her morning bubble bath, one story up from the range.
“Nothing, dear,” I said, retrieving the shattered arrow. “Probably just another bird committing suicide on the window.”
“Oh, like the birds that keep pecking holes in the stucco and the garden hose?”
She was clearly more observant than I had given her credit for.
When I was shooting my rifle, I would call it a flinch, but in archery they call this premature release “target panic,” a name that, in and of itself, inspires fear and suggests some type of psychological disorder requiring a medical professional, or at the very least, self-medication. The term works its way into your midbrain and takes over at the worst times — like when you’re really, really trying to shoot something.
I needed to purge the term from my mind. Being a Californian, with an open, yet unquiet mind, I did this through various Eastern techniques of meditation and yoga. (Just kidding. Pure nonsense.) Instead, I held steady and released the arrow without flinching. Midbrain be damned.
Then it happened. I got up early on a weekend, certain that no one would see or hear me firing arrows downrange, when my Croatian neighbor emerged onto his deck, still in his jammies.
“What you doing there?” he shouted.
I quickly lowered the bow and put on my harmless, non-hunter, haven’t-I-been-a-good-neighbor face and said, “Just lobbing a few arrows in a safe direction, nothing to be concerned about.”
“Good. I take you to Croatia. You hunt wild boar there. We go soon, eh?”
Shocked, I said, “Sure.”
“Another thing, we have too many $#@! rabbits in yard, you shoot some, eh?”
“Sure thing,” I stuttered, thrilled that I was being commanded to kill in a foreign accent. I felt like Jason Bourne or the Manchurian candidate. Clearly the Croat was impressed by my shooting ability.
Next thing I knew, I was watching the Padres on TV on a summer evening when I noticed my neighbor’s yard filling with the little cotton-tailed varmints. I made sure my twin teenaged girls were safely engrossed upstairs in some slut-filled, gory TV movie, and, fairly certain that the Croats weren’t home, I stalked out the sliding-glass door, kneeled at the fence, and, trembling in the fading light, shot my first game animal with a bow at 12 yards. Unfortunately, I used a nonlethal field point, so it wasn’t exactly a humane kill. I knew this because I heard the aluminum arrow clackity-clacking along the fence as the hapless creature looked for an escape route.
Having passed (sort of) this test, I knew that it was time. I booked a wild-pig hunt in central California, fully guided, on private land. Which, if you’re from SoCal, goes without saying, since there is no public-land hunting down here, most of it being desert or heavily used bits of national forest. The guide was young, energetic, and an experienced bow-hunter. It was 100 degrees in the valley, and the pigs were having none of it. Being fairly intelligent creatures — them and me — we found a cool spot to pass the heat of the day. I sat in an air-conditioned hotel room reading crappy novels, hunting only a half hour in the morning and a half hour before dark. They crawled under some cool scrubby vegetation, dreaming the pig dreams of lust and hunger.