News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, December 10, 2010

The great, white hunter saves the country. And Haiti, too?

Some folks are making a lot of fun of Sarah Palin's television episode in which she bags a caribou.  Caribou are what we call reindeer in North America, you know, the beasts of burden that brings Santa and the toys.

Aaron Sorkin at Huffington Post calls the episode a "snuff film."   Maureen Dowd of The New York Times thinks the show should carry the claimer that “almost every living creature involved in this show was harmed.”  Britain's The Guardian has a headline which reads:  "Sarah Palin shoots caribou...after missing five times."  PETA, of course, sounded off.

I do not watch any TV reality shows, so I did not watch Palin's version of Alaska.  I did see a clip posted on a web site.  The clip showed Palin and her father trudging on the tundra until someone in the  crew spots a caribou loping along a ridge.  Palin's father tracks the critter with binoculars as it comes in range.  Then it stops, turns toward the party of hunters, and poses its chest right before them.  Then there is a camera shot that shows the scene through a scope sight with the cross hairs on the vital area.  Then the camera shows Sarah sighting and squeezing one off, and the caribou drops.

Except that is a highly edited clip.  The Guardian shows the full episode.  Sarah is there with a a rifle with a wood stock.  As the caribou strolls into view, the show goes on in the tradition of the worst television that humans can contrive, the tradition of the outdoor hunting show.  Such shows always have the hunters murmuring or whispering excitedly, oblivious that the microphones don't pick up whisperings and murmurings so that the audience can hear clearly what is said, but what snatches come through indicate that it wouldn't be worth hearing if you could. 

Anyway, as the caribou comes into range, it obligingly poses for Sarah to sight in on it.  She fires a  round.  The caribou looks in the direction of the hunter with that WTF-was-that? look, as Sarah's dad reaches over her shoulder and operates the bolt to chamber another round.  She fires again.  She fires five times, with daddy performing the part of a semi-automatic bolt operator.  

Finally, daddy  takes the wooden-stocked rifle from her and hands her a black composition-stocked rifle, and she sights on the caribou, who is still standing there looking at the hunters with that WTF-are-these-clowns-doing? look.  Sarah fires again, and the caribou dutifully crumples to the ground.  The hunting party carefully approaches the caribou to make sure it's dead, and then proceeds to field-butcher the critter.

As the show goes on, it makes the point that Sarah's problem with that wood-stocked rifle was that the scope had  not been sighted in.  Daddy's rifle, which he refers to as a varmint gun, was sighted in.  In some quarters, making sure one's weapon is ready to perform, is a matter of safety and hunter integrity. 

When I make the point on blogs that I do not think that idiots should have free access to firearms, the comments that I am anti-gun and anti-hunter start pouring in.  I have a rack of guns.  Rifles, shotguns, and a couple of those Japanese-made black powder Springfield replicas in which the rifling wears out so fast.  The black powder rifles were for Civil War reenactments and the shooting contests held in conjunction with them.  I won some trophies, when the rifling was still intact. And I have bought my son guns and, with participation in gun safety courses and 4-H programs, taught him to shoot. 

My attitude towards who should possess firearms and when and how they should be used derives from my family experience with hunting, with  my military service, and work as a seasonal naturalist for Game, Fish, and Parks.  The experience all makes the same point:  idiots should not bear arms.  And a lot of those armor-bearers are idiots.  I have spent too much time ducking for cover from straying projectiles and repairing the damage done by some stalwart sportsman as they relieved their compulsion to shoot at something--anything.  Idiots should not bear arms.

I was raised in a family which hunted on the family's farms.  Much of that hunting was done for food.  The hunting helped stretch the family budget.  I was raised with guns.  My grandmother lived with two bachelor uncles, where the guns were racked in the bath house.  The bath house was in a shed a short walk from the kitchen door.  The shed contained three separate rooms, each with its own door.  The room on one end contained the cream separator.  The middle room is where the wood and coal stoves that heated the rooms in the house were stored during the summer.  And the other end room was the wash house.  It had it's own stove for heating water and it contained the washing machine and the big galvanized tub that served as the bath tub.  The guns were racked high over a shelf in the wash house.  I can remember sitting in the tub and smelling a mixture of lye soap and gun powder, as I eyed the rifle and shotgun and contemplated when I would qualify to shoot them.  As a boy, I graduated from a wood replica of a Springfield bolt action army rifle to a Red Ryder BB gun to a 410 single shot.  In the Army I was the bearer and constant maintainer of a series of Garand M1s and an M2 carbine.  If firearms are to function reliably and safely, they have to be  kept under constant care.  And that includes sighting them in.  In the Army, the periodic qualification firings always begin with a 3-round test shot at the target for the purpose of adjusting the sights.  A weapon without calibrated sights (or with worn-out rifling) is dangerous and useless--unless the whole objective is to see how many projectiles you can launch into the air. 

Those guns in the wash house were placed where they were out of the way but easy to  grab in the night when racoons raided the chicken house or foxes showed up for some baby pork ribs.  Occasionally, the guns were used to put down livestock, and I remember a frightening day when my uncle had to track down a rabid dog before it bit humans or livestock.  The rules about handling firearms, whether play or real, were strictly enforced.  First of all, kids did not mess with guns, and handled them only with supervision, even if they owned them.  Secondly, safety rules were never relaxed.  And thirdly, if a kid pointed  a gun at another person, gun privileges were permanently revoked. These were the same rules that applied in the Army, except when under engagement orders.

The hunting ethic of the time was that you ate what you killed.  Unless it was predators, sick livestock or rabid dogs.  If you didn't eat it, you didn't kill it.  Our diets included  rabbits, quail, and waterfowl.  In the Illinois of my boyhood, deer were rare.   Living in the river country, duck hunting was a dominant hunting enterprise, and some of our fanciest meals centered on duck.  At the time, people who hunted just to kill something were regarded as perverse and wasteful.  Killing for the sake of killing was not considered either necessary or a sport.  In the age of video games, that cultural rule has died. 

Sarah Palin at least eats what she kills.  Maureen Dowd is dubious about her motives:

“My dad has taught me that if you want to have wild, organic, healthy food,” she pontificated, “you’re gonna go out there and hunt yourself and fish yourself and you’re gonna fill up your freezer.”

Does Palin really think the average housewife in Ohio who can’t pay her bills is going to load up on ammo, board two different planes, camp out for two nights with a film crew and shoot a caribou so she can feed her family organic food?
It is nice to load up your entourage onto a plane and hunt for food, particularly with daddy along as a gun bearer, bolt operator, and provider of a back-up weapon when one is rendered useless because it is not sighted in.  I wouldn't know.

Now Sarah plans to go to Haiti, the land of earthquakes, cholera, and violent elections.  I wonder if daddy will be there with his back-up varmint rifle. 



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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States