For his tenth birthday, the boy said, he wanted to go hunting. Not just to go along, as he had often done, but to hunt.

In another time or place it would not have been a large request, even for so small a person. By that age, his grandfathers were already hunting alone on family farms in Missouri and West Texas. In the country, hunting comes naturally: When a boy grows big enough to handle a gun, and shows he knows how, he becomes a hunter.

But this boy is a second-generation suburbanite who can't even shoot his BB gun in his own yard -- and there's fierce argument within his family over the morality of hunting.

And so it was only a couple of days before the fact that the boy found out he was going to go. He wound up before dawn on a freezing Saturday in a goose blind in the Chincoteague marshes, holding a 20-gauge single-shot shotgun that he had never fired, waiting for the guide to call in birds the boy wasn't sure how to shoot. Nor was he entirely certain that he wanted to shoot them.

With his earplugs in place, the gun didn't sound too loud when his father shot it into the water a few times to show how the pattern grew progressively larger with distance. But when the boy tried, it kicked hard, and hurt, and wouldn't stay at his shoulder.

"You don't notice it when you're shooting at birds," his father said, but the boy was not reassured. "Well, don't worry about it, you don't have to shoot if you don't want to, and you don't have to make up your mind until the birds come."

They enjoyed the sunrise, some hot chocolate and donuts and the great flocks of geese wavering in the distance. Some came near enough to cause worry about the fascinating/dreadful process of rendering the birds from something good to watch into something good to eat. And finally, a pair of snow geese came into range -- into the blind, almost.

"How about it, my man?" the father whispered. "Want to try them?"

"You shoot," the boy said, his voice soft as the sound of the wings of the hovering birds.

His father, concentrating on making this the birthday boy's day, couldn't refocus on the geese quickly enough, and the pair wheeled away untouched.

The boy felt that he hadn't measured up; the father knew he had let his son down by not easing him into the thing properly. A goose blind is no place to learn shotgunning.

The mood lightened quickly, gentled along by the sights and sounds of a winter morning in the wild, and before boredom could set in, a federal game warden came slogging half a mile across the marsh. He was the right kind of game warden, and inspected the boy's license with due attention.

"Haven't got your birds yet?" he said. "Well, I always seem to bring bad luck. Maybe if I go away things will get better."

But still no birds came, and in early afternoon man and boy moved to a blind set up for brant and sea ducks.

Twice, flocks of brant cruised past, close and at eye level, and twice the boy elected to pass the shots. The second time, he mounted the gun but said his shoulder was sore. His father wadded a wool cap under the boy's coat. "Try that. It should soften the recoil, and the bulge will keep the butt from sliding off on you."

The boy essayed a shot into the water. "All right!" he smiled.

The next flight came by at 40 yards, maximum fair range for the boy's small bore and light load, but he chose to try and he shot well. Ready to back him up, the father saw a brant hard hit, and swung on a different one. But the boy's bird didn't fall; the first shot and the first bird come together only in boys' books -- or to boys whose fathers give them the right kind of instruction and practice beforehand. Both of them thought about the wounded bird, but they didn't talk about it.

His try at the next, and last, flock of the day was a clean miss. "No reason to be sad about not killing a living creature," the father offered, but the boy, like any seasoned gunner, was ready with his own excuses.