I was ten. A gun was still a toy, a plastic mould or a pointed finger, the feigned death of a friend. We played Cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys. Then my father gave me a rifle.
He made me carry it unloaded for months. If I laid it down on wet grass, let the brilliant sheen of the barrel dim, or God forbid swung the muzzle at anything other than the dirt before my feet, then he'd stop and crouch. I can hear him now, talking, quietly lecturing on the engineering of a bullet. How soft our flesh has evolved in world of sharp edges.
I listened to every word, a scolding or not. I only saw him when he flew from Washington to stalk deer with me, his only son. We camped and grilled burgers under glittering constellations. I was allowed one sip from his silver flask before getting into my sleeping bag and hearing his Navy stories.
He also told me how some men hated the President, that a man on a rooftop with a steady arm and straight barrel could put a hole in Reagan as big as a fist. “Clench it, boy,” he'd say, pressing it to my chest.
The first time I saw him at work was on TV. He was opening the limousine door for Nancy. I remember how she neither looked at him nor thanked him. He was invisible. I was probably the only person in the world who could see him. While Nancy pranced and smiled like a show poodle my father readied to catch a bullet for her.
“A man is his actions,” he told me more than once. “Not his words.”
If this is so, did I become who I am the day he handed me a bullet?
Or the day he caught one?
I loaded the round, felt a tremble in my chest. A young doe was drinking from a rock pool. Father crouched and pointed. My heart beat in my mouth, and I crawled onto the bluff and aimed. When my elbow wobbled he reached out and held it between his finger and thumb. Then I fired. The shot peeled flesh from her hind leg and zipped into the trees. She vanished in puff of cordite. I scrabbled down the ledge and followed a trail of blood-flecked leaves.
I felt chased, my father at my heels. I found the doe standing on the shore, her blood diluting in the shallows. I watched her lungs expand and saw the effort for breath. Her back legs buckled and she slumped into the water. She tilted her head to the sky and made such a terrible sound of grief that I still wake now with the echo in my dream.
When he crashed through the trees she jerked to her feet. Then fell again. My father came upon the scene like a man disturbing two lovers.
I pulled the trigger. The report ricocheted from bank to bank, father to son. The bullet burst her like a football, and life went slack. She flopped into the river. My father pulled her ashore and smeared blood across my cheek.
I was terrified. I'd killed, for the first, and last time.
A week later I saw him on TV. It was the only news item, the footage played over and over. Reagan grinning, walking out of the Hilton and waving, a woman shouting, “Mr President,” and then my father turning to the camera. You see his whole face, right there. A face that is now my face.
Then you hear the firecracker snap of John Hinckley's pistol. Six shots. The third hits my father in the gut and lifts him off his feet. NBC paused the moment, the panic of falling bodies. A man and a bullet in mid-air.
I already knew what a gun did from that distance. How he'd come to ground like a burst ball, a shot deer.
Nicholas Hogg's FATHER AND GUN was part of the Photo Stories exhibition at Saatchi & Saatchi
Photograph by Kevin Horan