Shooting Guns, Ending Lives, and Coming-of-Age in the Heartland

A decade before I was born, my father farmed soybeans in Georgia with my half-sister and her mother. There, he discovered that poisonous snakes were a regular and legitimate threat, in rural parts - cottonmouths and copperheads in the grass. To protect himself and the family, he bought a revolver - a Ruger .357 Magnum - and kept it on his hip in a leather holster, loaded with six shotshells - a particular type of cartridge in which a solid projectile is replaced with pellets, essentially turning a rifled handgun into a shotgun. (This sort of ammunition is known colloquially as "snake shot.") According to the stories I remember, his preparation proved its worth on several occasions, but by the time I was eight or nine, he'd lived long enough on the North-Mid-Missouri flatland on which I grew up to recognize its comparative lack of natural dangers, and so, the then-weathered Ruger had long been sequestered to a cabinet in the old house's sun porch.

As strange as my childhood was in comparison to my peers - as much common culture from which I was exempted - the complex stigma of the gun was not included. Though little recollection of that time is at all definite, I do remember a sparked curiosity the first time I stumbled upon it, there, and it was my first expression of this attention that prompted Dad to retrieve it, late one afternoon, and lay it - sans-ammunition, dusty & distressed, but still well-oiled - in front of me upon the short wooden table in the living room with sanded edges for my safety. It's cliche, but it really is the weight - the density of milled steel - that defines one's first impressions, holding a real handgun. Considering the sentiments my father would express as I shifted its weight to and fro by way of the old handgrip's grain and cycled the action with its serrated hammer, he made no particular ceremony of the occasion. It was from behind an oaken half wall, seated at his computer desk, out of sight, that he told me what it all meant. Whether by design or not, I believe it was essential how calmly he explained its function as a weapon - exactly what it could do, and when - where it and its ammunition were kept, and the ideal attitude with which to regard it: respect without fear.

To be afraid of it, he explained, could be just as dangerous as handling it recklessly, like a toy, and I'd like to think it was due in large part to his delivery of this advisory that led to the instincts still ingrained in the deepest parts of my psyche to this day. Perhaps it was my Germanic obsession with mechanical relationships that lent toward precocious knowledge and appreciation (ripening incubators of respect) for the precision and physics involved in engineering a firearm, which quickly sated any juvenile, maliciously exploratory curiosities, and formed the essence of my particular motivation to handle weapons: to experience - and later master - their operation. It wouldn't be until early adolescence that I'd have to confront the basal human psychology of the power of the gun, as is notably inevitable in the conversation, but I believe it was the nature and volume of my exposure, in childhood, that would leave me ideally prepared.

In reflection, it's obvious that my father didn't care much for weapons. From a devotee's perspective, the Ruger and his well-worn lever-action, .308 Savage 99 - which he kept in his pickup for coyotes and trespassers in the Georgian era - were rather neglected, and virtually irrelevant in day-to-day life. There were a couple of dusty shotguns, somewhere, with which he had allegedly hunted ducks and pheasants from the blind with friends and siblings, but they were far from his first thought upon the sight of either fowl, in the field, and the duck-themed depictions throughout the house - of which there were many - were haplessly reverent paintings and fading quilted patterns instead of stuffed trophies. (There were also at least two painted wooden carvings.)

Dad's inability to muster any believable bloodlust helped us understand one another, in this regard. I began just wanting to shoot the gun, apathetic as to any particular target; he preferred nurturing to destruction, and would've rather spent the time tending to his garden.

Shortly after my first education with the revolver, he bought me a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun - as decrepit and cliche of an American rite of passage as the Pledge of Allegiance, vacation bible school, and the ancient, exhausting film A Christmas Story (and its local and curricular stage adaptations,) from which you likely know its brand and cheeky, painfully-suburban accompanying catchphrase: you'll shoot your eye out. They can be had 'for $30 apiece from your nearest Cracker Barrel (undoubtedly the most surreal and horrific American dining experience imaginable for any visiting foreigner unfortunate enough to wander in,) and virtually every single male relative had at least one of the miserable things lying around. Once, while I was visiting family in central Illinois, my same-age second cousin demonstrated for me his intermittent hobby of shooting BBs into the sides of grazing cattle behind his farmhouse, which I found - even minus any tangible ability to empathize with any living thing - to be a pointless and unamusing infliction of suffering. (He insisted that the spherical metallic projectiles couldn't possibly penetrate their hides at the Daisy's rudimentary pneumatic-launched velocities, but they didn't seem to find it very cute.)

I, myself possessed a particular disdain for approximations of adult things as a child, and never accomplished much with my Red Ryder save for the inadvertent maiming of an ancient, humongous toad, for which I shall surely suffer some excruciating and grotesque ailment, by karma, at some future date. It did at least fulfill its intended role as training wheels for the traditional mindfulness my father required I demonstrate before he'd let me wander around the bordering forests and half-dozen ponds of the 800-acre farm with a real firearm, and the wait was not long.

If memory serves, I was a month from turning eleven years old when Dad acquired for me - through some obscure dealer - a gorgeous, limited-edition black-on-cherry bolt-action Marlin .22 rifle for Christmas - an object which quickly stirred within me an affection unlike any I should hope to experience ever again. I've been unable to forget the smell of its powder discharge mixed with gun oil before passing through my runny nose on that first frigid Winter outing as I cycled my perceptibly unlimited supply of little rimfire cartridges through its seven-round magazine. Though I have yet to live through a quarter-century, my experiences with my .22 happened in a different era, entirely, when 1000-round boxes of Remington brand full metal jacket or hollowpoint ammunition could be found in the sporting goods section of any ole big-box store for fifteen dollars. According to my sparse contact with enthusiasts in the decade since I last held my rifle, a stockpiling frenzy coinciding with the inauguration of Barack Obama has left retailers more or less powerless to keep up with demand, suddenly eliminating a stigma of reassuring excess that had pervaded, unshaken for a hundred years of American recreational shooting.

My prepubescent supply, though, was a challenge to diminish, if anything, which quickly metamorphosed nearly every object in my isolated ecosystem into a fair-game target. When my father retired to his midday naps, I'd fill the pockets of my Vietnam-era Army jacket with a few handfuls of loose, clinking ammo and my extra magazine before venturing out - regardless of the season - to walk my work boots over tasseling fescue grass, around barbed wire fences, through steel & aluminum gates, under pin oaks, maples, cedars, and foul, parasitic locust trees - over rows of soybeans and between itchy, towering corn stalks with that magnificent, richly-aromatic thing rested on my shoulder, looking for the right squirrel's nest, splintered fence post, or fossilized implement remnant to pump a few rounds in. At first, I was alone, but we'd soon bring home a zealous three-month-old yellow Labrador named Dolly that summer, who's unlimited energy and zest for life propelled her from puppyhood to ninety-pound cruise-missile-of-the-brush status in a single school year, and instilled in her the wholehearted adoration of freedom necessary to become the perfect boyhood companion. For a young man in those early stages of independence-seeking, responsibility-worshiping development, it was a novel paradise - the stuff of fiction.

North by any substantial distance from the geological consequences of dearest Big Muddy's path, the meat of Missouri is flat. Fucking flat. In daylight, one's field of vision - one's entire world - is constricted by the limitations of Earth's curvature, which dooms his/her/their horizon to fall away after just three miles, at eye level, confining the maximum possible diameter of my home planet to approximately six miles, in ideal conditions. I believe the effects of this phenomena on my developing mind to be plentiful, profound, and diverse. It could just be pretentiousness, but what if it's science? What if spending so much of one's lifetime in such a small world - unable to see any landmarks or scenery more than a handful of miles away - has a psychological and cultural on their ability to see much more abstract representations through time - that is, aspiration.