How I Taught Myself to Shoot Left-Handed

Illustration by Jack Unruh
by Winston Groom - October/November 2012

After a lifetime in the field, a bad eye forced the author to make a difficult decision: give up the sport he loves or learn to shoot lefty

I knew something was wrong on the opening day of  dove season. It was a splendid Alabama autumn afternoon about five years ago; cool, and with a few wispy clouds pasted against an azure sky. Suddenly, I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The Point Clear Dove Club, during its twenty-odd years of existence, traditionally put on a sumptuous opening-day feast of grilled Conecuh County sausages, fried fish, baked corn bread, and the perennial pièce de résistance: a huge steaming pot of seafood gumbo. It was a jolly occasion for old friends to come together for a Southern tradition harking back to time immemorial. The hunt master promised good shooting (as he always did, right or wrong; e.g., “There were twelve hundred fifty doves in that field yesterday afternoon—I counted them myself!”).

On this opening day it turned out that he was right. Plunging in from a distant stand of pine trees, the birds inspired what soon began to sound like the Second Battle of Bull Run, twisting through a pecan grove and barreling in all directions across a field of fresh-cut soybeans. A bird came high over my left shoulder, heading right. I caught a glimpse of the gold-tinged white breast, and dropped him. It was my first—and last—bird of the day.

I shot up two boxes of shells and blued the air with profanity as dove after dove sailed merrily on after I’d pulled the trigger. I hadn’t hunted or shot in more than a year, but this was astonishing, infuriating, and embarrassing. Even before the sun began to sink, I folded my stand and slunk back to the car.

A few days earlier, I’d noticed a problem with my vision driving down from the North Carolina mountains to my home in Point Clear, Alabama. A couple of years prior, my eye doctor had diagnosed
cataracts and said if they began to interfere with my sight, they could be removed in a simple procedure. I determined this must be the problem and made an appointment.

The ophthalmologist first decided to check my retina to make sure it was strong enough for the cataract operation. He drew back from the chair with a somber expression. The good news was that my retina was fine, but the bad news was that I had advanced glaucoma in my right eye.

Glaucoma is one of the worst things that can happen to your eyesight. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but pressure builds up slowly but surely, killing the optic nerve. This occurs without pain—a “silent” killer—and once damaged, the nerve cells can’t be restored. There is no cure for glaucoma, but it can be treated and often arrested if caught in time. In my case my vision was “fractured,” meaning that in my right eye there were some angles where vision was normal, but from most angles sight was absent. In other words, when I locked on to that dove, just as I was about to pull the trigger he flew into a black hole in my vision.

There would be treatment for the glaucoma. Daily eye drops to be used “in perpetuity,” and surgeries, laser and otherwise, in the future. 

But it was a life-changing development.