The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 1, 2013

The things that we carry

The Mankato Free Press

---- — Unless they’re abused, firearms really never wear out.

They’re around for a very long time, and as a result, as with so many other durable items, so-called Blue Books exist to determine the monetary value of used guns.

Things like condition and rarity all are factored in to arrive at a monetary value.

But unless one is purchasing or selling a used firearm, such values matter very little.

For most of us, the real value of the firearms we own isn’t measured in dollars and cents at all.

In fact, all of those dings, scratches, the worn bluing that usually detract from the value of a gun — they are all part of what elevate the value of ours beyond any monetary measure.

When we head afield with a favorite gun, we are cradling memories.

And if the gun has a previous history, was passed on to us by a relative, a hunting buddy, then that is especially so.

Like the 20 gauge side-by-side I carried the other day as I followed my spaniel down an overgrown fence line in Pope County.

It had been purchased new in the 60s by a longtime friend and hunting buddy, Ron Gower.

At a time when most gun buyers were opting up for the firepower offered by modern, affordable automatic or pump-action shotguns, the English professor at Minnesota State University instead opted for the little double-barrel.

Not so surprising, really, since Ron, with a taste for professorial tweeds, an author of poetry, a fly fishing enthusiast, was a bit of a traditionalist.

I’m not quite sure where our paths crossed — perhaps it was at MSU where I have been an adjunct instructor for the last 30 years or so — but with a shared passion for hunting pheasants and more recently, wild turkeys, we became fast friends and frequent hunting partners.

Over coffee during our frequent visits to the Wagon Wheel, he would crow about his latest fishing foray to southeast Minnesota, of the fussy 10-inch trout he had fooled with the flies he had tied himself.

I would counter, once again reminding him of the massive 19-incher I once upon a time took while fishing the same water, using a night crawler. “Real fish want real meat,” I would tell him.

Ron asked me one day last summer if I would like to have the little 20 gauge he had carried for so many decades.

He explained that it had become apparent that after a prolonged battle with cancer, his hunting days were behind him, that he would like the gun to go to someone who would use it, appreciate it.

I was honored, of course.

More recently, about a month ago, he called to say he was entering hospice care, that the doctor said there was nothing else left to try.

I stopped by a few times after that. We talked, watched the geese settle into Lake Washington where he purchased a home after his wife, Anne, passed away two years earlier. He was tired.

“I’ll stop by again,” I promised. We both knew how the story would end. Yet I figured there were a few more chapters yet to written, maybe a morning or two for coffee at the Wagon Wheel.

But returning from home from a week of deer hunting, I learned that he had passed away a few days earlier.

I had to return to the farm near Lowry to retrieve the hunting boots I had forgotten on the front step after leaving deer camp.

Since we encountered a good number of pheasants while deer hunting, certainly more than can be found nowadays in south-central Minnesota, it seemed like a good opportunity to attempt to bag a ringneck or two.

It also seemed fitting now that I should do it with Ron’s favorite gun.

I had bagged a few doves with it in September. Though fleet on the wing, they frequently are passing targets where one can prepare, swing and fire.

Pheasants, though, are different.

Explosive, unexpected flushes, a flurry of wings. Even veteran pheasant hunters can be unnerved and caught unprepared by the big birds. By any measure they are special game birds.

More important, they were Ron’s favorite game birds.

Samson trailed the first rooster from the edge of a slough into a patch of unharvested soybeans where it exploded into the air.

A young bird, it’s markings at first were indistinct against the bright sky. I hesitated before spotting the white neck collar.

Snapping up the gun, I looked past the unfamiliar sighting plane that two shotgun barrels side-by-side present.

One shot, then a second. The bird sailed untouched to settle into the middle of a thick slough.

A half-hour later, along an overgrown fence line lined with stones and boulders, the result of decades of springtime rock-picking, the spaniel locked up solid.

I squared up behind him, gun ready. Prepared this time, I was confident of success. “Get ‘em,” I said.

He nosed into the grass. Not one, but two roosters, exploded into the air, each taking opposite routes.

Momentarily startled by this unexpected development, I hesitated before swinging on the bird heading to my right, the whippy little gun barrel tracing circles at the quickly receding target.

Two shots, two clean misses.

Now certainly, there are more ringnecks in Pope County than in Blue Earth County, even Blue Earth and Nicollet Counties combined.

But four missed shots? In Minnesota, given the state of pheasantdom, one can’t afford to squander such opportunities.

Annoyed with my poor shooting, I figured I might as well walk the remaining 50 yards of fence line before retracing my steps back to the truck.

Near the end, in the tall grass that grew up around a massive pile of field stone, Samson grew intense, animated.

A moment later, on the other side of the stones, a rooster sprang into the air, headed for a distant slough.

I settled on the target and pulled the trigger, sending the bird spiraling into the bean stubble.

That one was for you, Ron.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 507-344-6376 or by email at