Michael Pearce

Kansas outdoors a perfect place for rites of passage

The Wichita Eagle

Sunday morning I saw a change in my 12-year-old friend, Jake after he passed me the 12 gauge he was holding, ran to the goose he’d just shot, then slowly returned with the big honker over his shoulder. With each step my young buddy was a bit closer to becoming a well-adjusted adult.

It reminded me of a day more than a dozen years ago, when the snow was blowing side-ways as I stood on one shore and watched my son, Jerrod, splash his way towards the other, across a wide part of the Arkansas River near Valley Center. A goose he'd just shot had made it across the river on wobbly wings before crashing.

Dozens of times in his young life it had been my job to get such birds, either by sending Hank, our Lab, across with hand signals or making the wade with the dog.

Shortly after the bird fell Jerrod, early in his teens, slung his gun on his shoulder, called Hank to his side and started the long wade across the river.

A few minutes later Jerrod and Hank were coming back across the river, with a 747 of a Canada carried over the boy's shoulder.

"You know that's not just about a goose," our host for the morning and friend Doug Duncan had said. "He wanted to prove himself to ol' dad."

Doug was right, of course. All maturing children need to prove to adults, and to themselves and their peers, that they're becoming adults. It's especially true, it seems, with boys.

With Jerrod it happened mostly in the outdoors. Such pride was written all over his face when I picked him up from his first solo bow hunt and he had doe already field-dressed and at the road. There were times he beamed when he laid-out the longest fly cast, or carried the heaviest bag of decoys.

Other friends had their sons do similar things, at similar stages in their lives. It's all good. It's all natural. It's been going as such for thousands of generations, in a variety of ways.

My friend Wayne Simien, Jr., who had an All-American basketball career at KU and played in the NBA, said one of his proudest moments was the first time he beat his dad in a one-on-one game.

There are much worse passages to manhood out there. For generations the Maasai, of Africa, required their young men to slay a lion, usually with a spear. Other tribes required their males to kill someone, hopefully of an enemy tribe, though gender or age held no requirements.

Today, it seems too many boys are turning to ill-advised acts to prove themselves as men to themselves and their peers. Such things include joining violent gangs, abusing alcohol and drugs, driving too fast and fathering illegitimate children. Sadly too many girls are doing much of the same to prove themselves, too.

And such things are why I think it's so important that adults encourage and lead maturing children to chances to prove themselves in better ways, like on the basketball court, in the classroom, or in the outdoors. Children who are confident in themselves, with a solid sense of self-esteem, usually develop into better adults than those who don’t. Jake, I think, is well on his way.

We met about 14 months ago. Raised by a protective, and prone to worry, single-mother since his father died eight years ago, only-child-Jake has been pretty soft about some things. He was nervous about recoil the first time he shot a mild-kicking .22 our first day together, slunk back a bit when I gave him a slight shove as we joked around and didn’t have much confidence in his skills.

But there have been changes in our 60 or so trips outdoors together. He's slowly, as they say, "manning-up" and showing more confidence. I've seen it as he kicks in to help as we work on habitat projects, when he's carrying a spring longbeard from the turkey woods, landing a nice fish on a fly rod or when Jake makes a great find on a birding trip. More is surely to come.

Sunday his 20 gauge wouldn't fire when the first flock of big Canadas came in. We tinkered with the 20 gauge a bit, eventually gave up, and I handed Jake my big 12 gauge and said, "Well, kid, looks like you'll have to step up and shoot my gun."

But there was no hesitation or questions about recoil. Jake listened intently when I explained the shotgun's safety and loaded it with 2 3/4-inch ammo. Minutes later a lone honker sailed in. Jake shoved the shotgun forward so he could mount it with the longer stock, aimed in front of the bird and shot it down.

Ten minutes later another opportunity arose and Jake again carefully hit the safety, got a clean gun mount and dropped the large Canada. When he returned to the blind I fessed-up that for that bird I'd loaded the shotgun with the same three-inch ammo I shoot on geese.

"Cool," was Jake's one-word response to knowing he’d shot a he-man load, followed by his trademark grin. A few minutes later he missed a shot on a goose, then soon after shot another.

We called it a day on a great note. Jake admitted the bigger shell may have had a bit more recoil, but it hadn't been too bad. As always, Jake did a little more when picking up the decoys than any time before.

As we worked about I gave the kid a few playful bumps. Out of the blue he planted a shoulder into my side with enough force to stagger me a bit. We both laughed and grabbed big bags of decoys and headed for the truck.

I swear, the kid looked a little taller than when I picked up that morning.