Lessons from the Land: Columbine High School, Wild Turkey Hunting, and Hidden Scars
400 miles south, on this same day, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrorized and killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Before the day was over, they too would be dead. I spent most of my growing up years in Littleton, a town whose roots spread from the foothills west into the Rocky Mountains, and east into the shortgrass prairies. The ancestors of the Merriam turkeys that now wander the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming were once native to the ponderosa forests of Colorado.
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On our small ranch we received only two television stations. As I watched the news of the tragic shooting in Littleton, I also envisioned my son and his friends hiking the hills, shotguns pointing downward, turkey calls spilling forth from voices deepening with the promise of manhood. I worried for their safety, trusted in their good sense, gave thanks for the stories they would learn from the land, and grieved for the people in my hometown of Littleton.
During the winter, Matt and his friends had hiked miles and miles of hills and woods—scouting for coyotes, marveling at bull-sized elk tracks, treasuring antlers shed by fleet white-tailed deer. They had bugled, howled, and crowed during their jaunts—discovering each other’s skills and weaknesses. They had sparred and parried, much like the turkeys they were hunting. But for Matt, this day was different—this day was a rite of passage.
The male turkey gobbles not only to tempt the illusive hens to come to him, but to challenge the other males as well. If another big male hears the invitation, he may wander toward it hoping to waylay the hens, boldly greet the challenge, or he may acquiesce.
“Mom, once when we were on the hill calling, we ended up on the border between two different bands. They were gobbling back at us, thinking we were the other jakes, but they wouldn’t come any closer.”
I had listened as Matt told me how the male turkeys, from the time they are hatched, begin vying for the dominant position. They leave the brood to wander in a bachelor band, surviving not only howling blizzards and marauding coyotes, but the onslaughts of their own siblings. The young jakes—who have begun to sprout “beards”—wrestle, spur, and peck at one another until finally, by spring, a hierarchy has been established.
“Mom, did you know that it’s only the strongest tom who’s allowed to mate with the hens?” Matt asked as he browsed through a copy of Wyoming Wildlife. This did not surprise him—he knew the way of the bulls and the bucks. And he knew that despite this hierarchy, if the male turkey population grows too large the jakes begin molesting the nesting hens.
The Denver Post started putting news about the Littleton tragedy online almost immediately. “HIGH SCHOOL MASSACRE” read the first Internet headlines. Students described Harris and Klebold as “outcasts and loners.” I was reading these stories when loud gobbling calls penetrated the office walls of our log home. I heard the eager whine of our Border collie, then boots stomping on the wooden deck. I pulled myself away from the computer, dried my tears, and went to the back door.
“Mom, I got a turkey, Bruce got one too. You want to see them, don’t you?” he asked as we headed outside. “Bruce’s turkey was about 40 yards away, Mom, it was a hard shot.” Bruce looked humble, yet proud. Matt continued. “His bird was the dominant male, bigger than mine. Mine’s got an 8-inch beard, Mom!”
By now we had reached the old ‘74 ranch truck. The boys reached in the back of the pickup and lifted out their birds, holding them high in the air. “Let’s go fan ‘em out over by the oak trees. Where’s your camera, Matt?” All three boys were talking at once, each adding to the story.
“As soon as my bird realized the bigger turkey was hurt," Matt said, "he jumped on him and started clawing him. Then he stretched out his neck and stuck out his head to gobble—that’s when I shot him.” Matt was quiet for a moment. “They died fighting, Mom,” he said.
Images of the hillside scene flashed in my mind, intermingled with sound bite images from the morning news—children huddled under desks, the faces of parents frozen in fear, the twisted and desperate struggle of Harris and Klebold to fight an enemy they did not understand and had wrongly identified.
What lesson for Matt hid within the story of these turkeys? I struggled with Columbine’s hidden meaning, too broad in scope for a single human mind and heart. Later, after the boys had field dressed, then plucked and cleaned their birds, Matt told me, “You could read their whole history when you cleaned them, Mom. Mine had a big scar running along his side. He’d been in a lot of fights.”
We ate Matt’s turkey at a table set with my grandmother’s china. Sarah took the candles from the mantle and lit them while Mark took a picture of Matt seated at the table. That was not the first meat our son had brought home—we had eaten deer that he had hunted, and beef and pork that he had raised. Our prayers of thankfulness always honored the animals. That night, they also honored those who had died at Columbine.
To read more stories about this tragey at Columbine High School, please go to Colorado Public Radio KCFR indepth news, BBC coverage, or 20th Century History articles .