Peering into the dark, hoping to find light

January 18, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

SOMETIMES, you just watch a story go by. You can't touch it. You can't even look at it. You can't speak of it. You don't even want to think about it, but you can't stop thinking about it because you're a human being and a parent.

One Monday morning, the whole, awful tragedy spills on the kitchen table as you're reading the newspaper -- "Boy, 10, killed in hunting accident" -- and you find yourself, for the next three months, haunted by the unspeakable suffering of strangers.

You focus on details as they become available. You imagine dusk on a Saturday in October on a farm on the Eastern Shore, and a tree stand, and a boy mortally wounded with an arrow, and a father desperately rushing to a nearby house to call 911 when his cell phone doesn't get reception.

And then, over the next few days, as the police investigate, the story gets worse: "Father charged in crossbow death."

The boy and his dad were hunting for deer in Talbot County. The boy climbed down from the tree stand. The crossbow in his hands fired. The boy hadn't been through a hunting safety course; he hadn't been issued a hunting license. He should never have had the crossbow. Police charge Chris Mattison, the father of 10-year-old Tyler, with reckless endangerment. You find yourself quietly angry and judgmental, hating hunting and hating stupidity, and then utterly empty of anger and judgment -- because you are a human being and a parent.

The holidays come, and the story remains -- a smoldering wreck on the side of your mind. You think about the Mattison family and how dark Thanksgiving and Christmas must have been for them.

At the same time, you feel as though you are violating some unwritten code -- as if the mere thinking of another family's nightmare invades their privacy. If you are a journalist, inquisitive and always on the hunt for a story, you keep coming back to this one, and you ask Mattison's lawyer if his client would give an interview. You remain awed by the tragedy -- a father's negligence leading to a son's death during a time-honored father-son ritual.

But you leave it alone. You try not to look.

Then his court date arrives. You understand the state wanting to make a point about hunter safety by bringing Chris Mattison to court, but you can't imagine the citizens of Maryland exacting any greater punishment from this man than life without Tyler.

The charge is dropped, as you had hoped.

We humans try to spin tragedy into something we can live with. We look for "silver linings" and "life lessons" and "closure." We look into darkness and try to see the lights of a teachable moment. It might be futile. But it's the best we can do.

To this end, Chris Mattison wrote a statement aimed at parents who take their kids hunting. I've been wanting to say or do something useful ever since this breathtaking tragedy spilled out of the autumn dusk, so I offer Chris Mattison's words:

"One of the great joys I looked forward to after becoming a father was to go hunting with my son, Tyler, and to share that special time in the woods with him.

"Three years ago, when Tyler was 7, I began taking him with me to hunt and we had wonderful times together. They were precious and special. Tyler loved hunting. Most of the time, we hunted on the Eastern Shore. It was mostly small game such as rabbit or squirrel. I had used guns and a crossbow, and this year, I decided that Tyler was old enough to hunt with my crossbow.

"I knew that the state had a safety course and hunting license requirements before anyone, including children, could legally hunt but I thought I would be able to give Tyler all the instruction that he really needed. I didn't get him the required license or take him to one of the many courses given by the DNR.

"I cannot express to you in words the horror, shame and guilt that I felt and continue to feel and will always carry with me. Tyler was a beautiful 10-year-old who loved being in the woods and who I loved having with me. I will never have the joy of having him with me when I go hunting in the future. I will never know whether or not Tyler's death could have been avoided had I taken a few hours to take him and myself to the safety courses that are given by the Department of Natural Resources, but I know I will live the rest of my life asking myself, `What if?'

"I am writing this to urge all of you who love to hunt and who, more importantly, love your children, to go to the safety courses before you go hunting. No parent should have to go through what my wife and I have been going through these past several weeks and will go through for the rest of our lives. If you love your children and you love hunting, you will take these few moments to make sure you and your son or daughter take these courses. It is a small price to pay in time and effort for a lifetime of enjoyment. The law requires it and it may help prevent our tragedy and heartache from being repeated in your homes.

"Thank you for your time."

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