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News of the Vice President's Misfire Hits A Fellow Bird Hunter Where It Hurts
News of the Vice President's Misfire Hits A Fellow Bird Hunter Where It Hurts

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How many vice presidents does it take to shoot a 78-year-old Texas lawyer?

The answer is only one, and the talk show monologuists will have a merry old time at Vice President Cheney's expense for his hunter's blunder, as will the editorial cartoonists and virtually every human being with an opinion.

So there'll be some partisan coup-counting, some journo-sniggering, and probably a news conference with both the vice president and his friend and very lucky victim Harry Whittington in the near future. One thing I've always liked about Cheney is his samurai blankness and refusal to be cuddly for the cameras; but it's likely that he and Harry will have to get together -- although probably not cling and weep and thank God as they should -- to the tune of the motor-driven Nikons.

But here's the important question: What can be learned from the incident? Like all gun accidents, the events of Saturday morning teach a lesson and in this case a serious one -- that even longtime, seasoned hunters can make a mistake if they forget the fundamentals.

The fundamental etiquette and safety device of bird hunting is: Obey the line.

The line is between you and the game ahead of you, and by you I mean everybody in your party. The line is invisible but should exist in the imagination as powerfully as the Great Wall of China. It is the simple geography of safety that determines that we are here and we only shoot there -- that is, ahead of us. It has certain mandates. One is that at any given moment, one should know where everybody in the hunting party is. You have to keep those images in mind as you move over the ground. It has to be second nature.

It can be tough. The pleasure of bird hunting is that unlike still hunting (the duck blind, the deer stand) you are in motion against the texture of the land and it can always trick you with unseen folds, with grass that's higher than it should be, with trees that aren't as thick or are twice as thick as they seem. Then irregularities of incline and decline, of vegetation and stoniness all play havoc against the line, as well as heat, thirst, hunger, comfort and emotional state.

But you risk much if you lose contact with the line.

It appears the vice president lost contact with the line. News reports indicate that, as the man farthest to the right in his party, he assumed that the third member, his friend Whittington, was well off the field. He did not know and Whittington did not inform him that Whittington was rejoining the party from the right rear. When the vice president "busted a covey" -- that is, startled a group of birds into flight to his far right -- he tracked one, stayed on it even as he curled around farther to the rear and pulled the trigger.

At that moment a great many things were in play.

For one thing, the vice president has selected his bird and his mind is busy solving the geometric problem of lead and flight time. Second, he is boring in on the target itself, which is accelerating. Wing shooting alone demands that a gunner concentrate on the target, not the sights. The art of the shot is in mastering the mount so that as the gun comes up and is placed to the shoulder, head, eye, arm and hand are in perfect synchronism and the shot pattern goes where the eyes are looking. If you take your eye from the target to divert to the sights, the whole elegant choreography falls apart and you miss. That's apparently what Cheney was looking at -- he saw only the bird, its wings whirring as it drilled through the air, everything else was blur. Whittington, orange vest or not, was invisible to him.

Some may say of Cheney: He was really unlucky.

I say: He was really lucky.

He was lucky to be so superb a wing shot that he carried a shotgun in 28-gauge rather than 12-gauge. That probably saved Harry Whittington's life. The 28 is for advanced bird hunters who've killed their thousands with a 12 -- the common hunting shell of America's shotgunners -- and want something more refined, lighter, more beautiful. With the 28 you have to get closer, shoot faster and more accurately. The little pieces of shot break their cluster sooner, spray more widely, lose velocity faster.

Nevertheless, it shouldn't have happened; the bottom line is that the vice president should not have whirled, tracked a flying bird and fired.

I speak of these matters as a man who has violated that principle himself and almost paid for it in grief and shame. Instead, and oh so luckily, I have only bad memories. It looks as though that'll be Cheney's fate as well.

My almost kill wasn't a lawyer, it was a dog. (No jokes, please!) It happened on a bright day in upper Baltimore County where, with two friends and a guide, I was walking the grounds of a game reserve. We were hunting not quail but pheasant over a dog. "Over a dog": The quaint Britishism conveys the interplay between man, bird and dog as it unfolds in real space, a rolling crest of meadow and low brush and glades of trees.

On this day, I happened to be shooting very well. It's a pleasure that is difficult to express, and I won't bother trying, because if you don't get it, you'll never get it (here, Hunters@washpost.com -- go ahead, tell me what a monster I am, you'll feel so much better). I seemed to be seeing better than usual (new glasses) and the birds were breaking my way.

The elegance of it is so satisfying: The gun comes up, unwilled; you track the bird, as by some alchemy you become the gun and sense when your barrel -- that smudge of dark at the bottom of the melange of imagery your eye has conjured -- is past your target the right amount and then the gun seems to fire itself. All this happens, to steal a phrase from le Carre, at a speed which has no place in time: If you're thinking KEEP THE GUN MOVING, it's already too late.

On this shot, the bird broke low and straight, a right-to-left passer, about 25 yards out, and I was on it. Even as I felt all the right things happening I was aware that something was blinking ABORT MISSION in the bottom left of the sight picture, even if my conscious mind had not yet intercepted it. Too late: I fired, busted the bird in that satisfying cloud of feathers and wreckage, as it instantly loses its aerodynamicism and becomes just weight in air.

The next thing I saw as my barrel sped by was the dog.

He had been out there all the time, beyond the line. My subconscious knew he was there; my conscious, the really dumb part of me, never got the message.

The dog was fine. The dog didn't know that if I had fired a tenth of a second later, he would've had a nasty encounter with 200 or so No. 8 pellets.

But my friends and the guide knew exactly what had happened: hubris, arrogance, self-love, narcissism, all the truly destructive male pathologies. The point of hunting is to control them: I had not. The silence was louder than any expressions of anger, though the guide had a good reason to call me a stupid SOB. He didn't, but still I was.

You can't get those moments back. You can only learn from them. If you don't, then you're even stupider .

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