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When I attended the 65th annual Labor Day Pigeon Shoot in Hegins, Pennsylvania, I thought I knew what to expect. I grew up in a small town north of Hegins and have grown accustomed to animal and human spectacles of brawn, skill, and chance. I thought I'd seen it all--Cow Plops, Donkey Basketball, and Greasy Pig Competitions, all held as grand finales of town fundraisers and church picnics. But in Hegins ("Where the Flags and Feathers Fly," according to one t-shirt), I began to question the traditions of small-town America.
It's not that I'm a stranger to guns or hunting. In my parents' house, what couldn't be shot, hooked, gutted, or parmesaned didn't make it to the supper table. Our truck had a gun rack. Our basement doubled as a trophy showroom, complete with mounted deer heads, a bear rug, and my father's gun cabinet. As a child, I had arguments with my father about the ethics of hunting. As part of his sportsman's code, we ate what he shot. I became a vegetarian and agreed to disagree.
But in Hegins, I didn't even see the sportsmanship in the event. The shoot, touted as a marksman competition, reminded me of a hyped-up carnival rifle game. Pigeons crammed into modified milk crates are tractored in on flatbed trailers, then children known as "trapper boys" squeeze birds nose-first into a wooden carrying case that looks like a carpenter's toolbox. The boys run this six-pack of pigeons out to the field and set traps about 30 yards from the shooting line.
As marksmen call for the traps to be released, birds spring out, the air not yet familiar to their wings, and are clipped before they can fully break into flight. At 30 yards with a double-barreled shotgun, these birds are hard to miss. After a round, the trapper boys rush out to the field with potato sacks, collecting and sometimes tackling dead and wounded birds. They dump their sacks into oil drums behind a three-sided screen made of particle-board panels, then load their carrying cases with live birds for the next round.
I watched this ritual so many times, I became emotionally detached. At first, I was queasy just looking at the traps, then went numb to the sound and, after hundreds of releases, actually found myself desensitized to what was taking place on the field. I looked around and noticed that people in the crowd had the same blank look; for all I knew we could have been watching a hometown ball game on a Sunday afternoon. The man sitting next to me was reading the sports page of the local paper; families wheeled strollers in front of the stands; and just behind the bleachers where the playground was, children jockeyed for a better view from the deck of a wooden replica of Noah's Ark.
I snapped back to my senses when a wounded bird flew off the field and kamikazed to the ground nearby. One of the spectators walked up, wrung its neck, and tossed it as casually as a soda bottle into a trash can.
I understand the need for events that can bring revenue into a small town. In my hometown, the main industry was coal mining; when the mines closed in the late 1950s, the town simply fell off the map. For Hegins, the Pigeon Shoot benefits community-service organizations, buying new trucks for the volunteer fire company, ambulances, upgrades for the park, and books for the library. But as an event that has become a family outing, I can't help wondering about the impression it leaves on the children who attend.
About noon, a thunderstorm broke over the park. Everyone scrambled for cover, crowding toe to toe in the few concession and picnic areas. I couldn't make it to the car and headed for Noah's Ark, where I spent a half-hour weathering the storm with a family crouched in the belly of the boat. Their 4-year-old son carried a toy rifle and wore an ammo belt around his waist. I asked his father, one of the marksmen, how old you had to be to enter the shoot. "If you're big enough to hold a gun," he told me, "you're in." I was more than ready to leave Hegins, hoping for a sign the storm would lift. But unlike Noah's story, no birds were left to carry a branch.
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