Home Sweet Cocoa
In 1983, Ralphie Parker would beg and plead for “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle” in A Christmas Story. But in 1975, all this little boy wanted was a Browning .22 caliber, 20-inch barrel, automatic. No need for leg lamps or oversized bunny suits or even begging and pleading, for on Christmas morning, there it was—wrapped in the shape of a rifle and sitting beneath our tree.
From that moment on, it was me and my rifle. I’d run through the wash line and out past the pond, my gun poised like Matt Dillon of Dodge City, Kansas, fighting lawlessness in the American West...or at least my little patch of Western Pennsylvania. And next Christmas? I’d be sure to ask for a badge and a camel-colored Stetson to really look the part. But for now, I only had one thing on my mind: hunting down a groundhog or two for that night’s dinner.
Browning Rifle 1975 Magazine Ad
A straw of hay between my teeth and my cheek against the stock, my eyes were focused on the tall grass straight ahead. I vowed to hold my shot until I looked the beast dead in the face. Lord knew I could never live with myself if I shot a bunny or worse, a stray cat cutting through the field.
“Come on, you varmint,” I beckoned through clenched teeth. I stepped slowly, steadily through the brush, when—
I turned quickly with my hand on the trigger.
A large exhale escaped my chest and hung gently in the air, as my young heart pounded from my breast. Why were my hands shaking? Matt Dillon’s hands never shook on Gunsmoke. “Get it together, man!” I scolded myself.
I had packed a small bag of Swedish Fish for the expedition and rested for a moment to regain my composure. I pulled at the red candy, stretched it thin between my fingertips until it broke in two. And I thought about fishing with Penny on the lake last summer. I had caught a small minnow at the end of my line and reeled it in with high hopes of a fish fry and bragging rights. But when it got to the dock, we all just laughed.
“That has to be the smallest fish I’ve ever seen!” Penny bellowed. I struggled to release it from the hook, which was three times the size of its gaping mouth, and throw it back into the water to tease another boy someday.
If I were to ever redeem myself for that lousy catch, now was the time. I scarfed down a few more fish, tipped my imaginary Stetson, and galloped into the unknown, when—
Another stick split in the distance. I jumped a little, but this time, stayed the course, with the barrel of my gun leading the way. “I’m comin’ for you,” I breathed with a snarl only ever seen in the deadliest of mountain lions. “If a groundhog crosses my path...” I thought, when—
Finger on the trigger.
Focus on the sight at the tip of my rifle, I slinked through the curtain of grass.
And there he was.
A big, fat groundhog with the yellow of a dandelion in its claws. He was a sitting target, dumb and hungry. This was my moment. The rifle rested with ease on my shoulder, as I cocked it without hesitation. No time to think, I pulled the trigger, and—
Darkness. It was then I realized my eyes had closed in the milliseconds between “aim” and “fire”. I peeled them open one by one, afraid I had missed my chance. I inched toward the target, closer and closer, and there it was! A groundhog the length of my arm and then some...or as I called it— “dinner”.
I strapped the rifle over my shoulder and lifted the beast by its tail. It had to weigh at least 100 pounds, but I managed with two strong hands. Never was there such a triumphant grin on a little boy’s face nor a finer hunter at that.
Rose nearly fainted when I arrived back at the farmhouse. “Off the porch!” she hollered, and everyone gathered on the front lawn to gawk at the spoils of my expedition.
“Alright, well what are we waiting for?” Penny declared and walked off for his sharpest knife. We skinned the groundhog together, and Rose begrudgingly allowed its temporary home inside her kitchen. She cooked it up real nice and placed it on the table. Penny was delighted. He grabbed the bottle of ketchup and went right to town.
“Delicious!” he exclaimed and scarfed it down without a single pause. To be fair, if a mound of dirt were doused in ketchup, he’d probably scarfed that down too. I, on the other hand, could barely swallow the smallest piece without gagging and finally had to throw in my fork and knife and call it a loss. Of course, no one else in the family entertained even a morsel.
Dinner at the Farm
Penny scraped his plate and made his way into the family room. The rabbit ears were all askew and he would spend the next five minutes struggling for a signal before the inevitable, “Rose! Where are my slippers?”
“I almost forgot,” I said, leaning into Rose at the dining table. “I picked theses for you.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out three now slightly wilted dandelions and handed them to her.
“How lovely!” she exclaimed and rushed to the tall cupboard to find a vase worthy of such beauty. I smiled with the taste of groundhog still on my tongue and quickly washed it away with that evening’s first mug of hot chocolate.
When I entered the living room, Penny was already nestled in his chair, and my cousins were all cross-legged in pj’s on the floor. The final episode of Gunsmoke had just begun. I sat on the floor right beside Penny’s chair as he finished his mug of cocoa, and then slowly, steadily fell into a deep sleep. His arm dangled off the arm of the chair, and I traced the well-worked veins of his hands. The dry cracks on his thumbs laid deep and shared stories of decades at Copperweld Steel.
Gunsmoke (series 1955-1975)
Soon, Penny’s snores filled the room, and I swear his empty mug rattled gently on the table beside him. To my left, Julie sat combing Rose’s hair as she knitted, and on the floor in front of me, the sea of pj’s showed signs of nodding off themselves.
“...and then there’s Maude!” erupted from the speakers, but I could barely make out the flashing image of Bea Arthur. Gunsmoke was now long over and gone forever, and it was too late to toil with the signal. Besides, the clearest picture was never found on that old television screen anyway, rabbit ears or not...and to this day, all it takes is one sip of hot cocoa for me to see it clear as day—those groundhog hunting fields, the front porch, Rose in the kitchen, Penny’s chair, and that sea of pj’s on the living room floor...and all it takes is one sip of hot cocoa for me to see it clear as day.