Thursday at Oakdale Gun Gun Club, scores of hunters were punching holes in targets, some with rifles, others with shotguns, a few with muzzleloaders. This was two days ahead of the firearms deer season opener, and the idea was to draw a bead on a bull’s-eye and hit it.
Shooting my .270, I was more or less where I wanted to be. Pulling a trigger always generates excitement, and a hunter by this time of year, in his mind’s eye, or hers, compounds the exhilaration by imagining a deer strolling nearby, preferably something with antlers.
Next to me on the range was Faico Xiong, 56, of St. Paul. Faico, who is Hmong, hunts in southern Minnesota, where shotguns only are allowed for whitetails, and so he was jacking slugs into, first, a 12-gauge, and then a 20-gauge, the latter belonging to his son, Vong.
“He’s working today, so I’m sighting in his gun for him,” Faico said.
Comfortable with guns, Faico can recall readily the first one he handled, a carbine given to him in Laos by the U.S. Army. He was 12 years old, young by most standards but old enough to fight the Viet Cong on behalf of the U.S.
“I was the oldest boy in our family, so I fought along with my father and my uncle,” Faico said. “Every guy had to fight.”
Before the war, Faico and his family lived in a Laotian village called Sama. Faico’s father hunted deer and other wildlife to feed his family, and also fished. “But with cast nets,” Faico said. “Not hook and line.”
Faico fought alongside other Hmong soldiers, not Americans. But U.S. helicopters shuttled him and the other fighters from place to place. And when Faico caught a Viet Cong bullet in his arm, it was an Army medic who patched him up.
That was in 1973. Faico was 13.
“The bullet went right through my right arm,” Faico said, rolling up a sleeve and displaying a large indentation in a bicep.
When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam a couple of years later, Faico and his mother and father and four brothers and three sisters fled into the jungle, chased by the Viet Cong. A month passed before they made their way to the Mekong River, which they crossed at night on a homemade raft. Two trips were required to get everyone from side to side.
“It was dangerous,” Faico said. “The Viet Cong watched that river.”
In Thailand, awaiting Faico and his family, was the Ban Vinai refugee camp, and Faico lived there 10 years. He met his wife, Pang Her, in the camp. They would have left for America earlier, but his father refused to go. His sisters made the trip, also his brothers. But his father wouldn’t go, not for 10 years. So Faico, his wife and mother stayed, too.
“Finally I said to my father, ‘If you don’t go with me, I will go alone,’ ” Faico said. “So my father said, ‘OK, I will go.’ ”
Faico and his wife (who by then had four children: two boys and two girls), along with his father and mother, joined their family in the Twin Cities in 1990.
“In 1992, a friend invited me to go hunting, and that’s when I started,” he said. “Before that, the only gun I had handled was the carbine I was given to fight the Viet Cong.”
Up and down the range at Oakdale Gun Club on Thursday, everyone had a story, each different. Common was their interest in deer hunting and everything that entailed. Not just the firearms part, or the hitting of a target, but the freedom, come Saturday morning, of rolling the dice to see what happens.
“Hunting is fun, that’s why I go,” Faico said. “I like to camp in the bush. I like the fresh air, and the quiet.”
Last year, Faico tumbled an 8-point buck, a memorable feat. The year before, he was blanked.
“My family likes wild food,” he will tell you, noting that in recent winters he and some friends have driven to Texas to hunt wild boar. “They taste better than domestic swine,” he said.
One thing Faico won’t do, ever, is return to Laos.
“I escaped from the tiger’s mouth once,” he said. “You go back to see that tiger again and you have to carry a gun. I have no interest.”
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org