The box of shells was heavy. Heavier than I thought it would be and when I opened the lid the bullets all sat in perfect little rows, nose down, gold and shiny with a dot of silver in the middle of each, held in place by cardboard forms. My father had let me pick them up off the store counter and we walked out to the truck and I got in the middle between him and my older brother. I was six years old and this this was the weekend after Christmas. My brother had just gotten a brand new Winchester. 22 rifle and we were driving out to our cabin, forty minutes from where we grew up, to fire it for the first time.
The rifle had been the last present my brother received and when he took it in his hands, a pile of wrapping paper all around us, I thought to myself, a real rifle. Real bullets. No more “bang-bang” noises would have to be made. Instead, we could now create the sound when we went to the cabin and pulled the trigger. The rifle’s stock was so smooth and polished. I marveled at how pretty the wood was and how sure it felt it my hands. My father told us it was not a toy. He went over basic safety measures. Never point the rifle—even if unloaded—at someone. Keep the safety on until you are ready to fire. Do not be careless. Never point the rifle at anyone. He kept telling us that one. As I handled the rifle, marveling over it, I turned without paying attention and when I did I saw it was pointed at my father. I had broken his most important rule. He grabbed the rifle’s barrel and swung it to the side then he reached out and slapped the back of my head. This is one of the two times in my life he hit me.
The cabin was actually a two-story house my father and uncles had built on a hundred acres of land in the country near where they had grown up. For my uncles it served as a hunting camp and a place for their friends to come for the weekend and have a few drinks and watch Kentucky basketball games. For my father it was a way for him to stay close to nature. While my uncle Roscoe busied himself with a variety of elaborate deer blinds all over the property, my father concentrated his efforts on planting an orchard on the hillside below the cabin. I remember going with him to the nursery and picking up peach and apple saplings whose trunks were covered in white plastic and then watching (and helping just a little bit) as he planted them.
My father went to the cabin nearly every weekend and my brother and I went with him and while we were there we went through a boy’s education of rural life, I suppose. We rambled all over that large piece of property, climbing mountains, fording creeks, staying up late with our cousins to tell spooky stories in the middle of the forest with our flashlights turned off. An old basketball hoop with a dusty dirt court served as driveway and most Saturdays the trucks were moved into the grass to make room for pickup basketball games. My father was a good player with strong, quick moves and fakes. He made dozens of bank shots that bounced off the makeshift plywood backboard and through the hoop. I loved going to the cabin not because I loved nature so much then but because I loved being near my father and brother. My favorite memories of those times are when we left to come home on Sundays at dusk in the fall or winter and the air was cold outside the truck. In between those two I felt so safe and warm and I would fend off sleep for as long as possible until I couldn’t any longer. When the pace of truck slowed, I knew we had entered our hometown and the truck would take its familiar rights and lefts through town that led to our house. When I was older I would wake up then, but when I was still young, I pretended to be asleep so that my father would have to carry me in the house.
The cabin was a constant in my childhood. The way I grew up and where I grew up now seems quite suburban, though I wouldn’t have known to phrase it as such then. At the cabin, alongside my cousins, I realized how much closer they were with nature. They were real country boys. One morning, after a poor attempt at squirrel hunting with my older cousin, I watched him skin his kills. He narrated the entire event more, showing me where to make my incision with my knife, peeling and tugging back the fur like someone might on a stubborn banana, and I knew at a very young age, I would never attempt that myself. Early on the elements that marked my cousins as country to me—their knowledge and affinity to the land, their ability to hunt and kill, to skin and cook their game, their knowledge of flora and fauna of the mountains of Appalachia—were, in some ways, always going to be mysterious to me. While his brothers had continued to hunt into adulthood and passed on that tradition to their sons, my father stopped. He hunted growing up out of necessity not enjoyment and I think he viewed that time of his life as something he left behind once he went off to college then the army, then a thirty year career as a business executive. But he loved the woods and he trucked us out to the country with him every weekend where we were surrounded by all these men doing, as silly is it might sound, manly things. Roscoe had a contraption that loaded his own shotgun shells with buckshot. My uncle J.B. and his sons came out and went deer hunting and on Saturday mornings everyone except my father, brother and me, would take off just before day break and with camouflage pants and grease paint on their faces and head out for whatever hunting season was in session. I arrived on Friday nights with blue jeans and books from school to read—nobody judge, though, reading was as important as hunting in my family—but it seemed there was something out there in the woods I was missing that would tell me how to be a man in this world. I felt this very early in my life, longed for it really, even though I could never bring myself to be any kind of huntsman. The arrival of that rifle on Christmas morning meant to me that suddenly I might begin to understand the world of men I visited every weekend and by learning to master the rifle, I would feel connected to the land, to my father and all those other men we were around.
Holding the shells we walked out to where the targets were. Thirty yards away Roscoe had tacked up the concentric circles on old bales of hay. A month or two before this I had already learned how to shoot a bow and arrow but a rifle, a firearm, was a much bigger thing. Remembering now, I realize how nervous my father was. He went over those directions again and I remember a certain obsessiveness I had about the safety on the rifle because I believed as long as it was engaged and the rifle was loaded then everything would be okay. Because it was Tim’s rifle he fired first. The loud pop of the gunpowder exploding rang in my ears. Everyone had come out to watch us. Roscoe and J.B. My cousins. This added some sense of gravitas to the occasion, confirming my own ideas and speculation about manhood and crossing into its threshold. When my turn came, my father was extra careful. He admonished me once more and I kept thumbed the safety because I was sure I was going about it and some terrible accident would occur. Dad had been rated “marksman” in the army and he got me all set up, standing close behind me. He shouldered the rifle for me and taught me how to aim and told me to go ahead and put my finger on the cold metal of the trigger. I rested my cheek on the stock of the gun and looked down the barrel to small nib of the sight at its end. I think I asked if I was doing this correctly, following procedure that is, and I think he was amused at the seriousness with which I took on the task. When he told me I had the all clear, I pulled that trigger and felt the jolt of it in my shoulder, the rush of wind from the bullet exiting the rifle toward its target, the acrid smell of burning powder.
It was awesome. I didn’t even look to see what I had hit. I just wanted to load another bullet and fire once more. My father then went into the cabin and brought out a variety of cans and set them up in the distance for us so that our strikes were instantly rewarded with the somersaulting of Mountain Dew cans. I turned out to be a pretty good shot and emboldened by my success, I kept firing away and my father indulged me. He showed me how to balance the rifle on tree limbs to steady it and then he showed me how to shoot from the ground. We spent the entire day firing that rifle, depleting our supply of shells. And while I enjoyed it the fear that I might mess up and discharge the rifle in the direction of him or my brother was always there.
A .22 bullet is small caliber. I was told when we were learning to shoot that our rifle would only be useful in killing squirrels and rabbits, but .22 caliber bullets punctured the lung of President Reagan and took the life of RFK. Fired from a rifle, the bullet takes advantage of the barrel’s length and travels at a speed of 1,125 ft/s and after four hundred yards the bullet can still be traveling at a speed of 500 ft/s. I didn’t know these numbers then when I was six. I didn’t know them until just a few minutes ago when I looked them up but what I learned as a boy both from my family and from my own experience firing the rifle was that a firearm was a weapon and that the bullet left the chamber with enough force to shake me and to create a whirring sound of its own propulsive force. The sound of gun fire echoed in the valleys below us where we fired all day and were so common out in the country that it became easy for me to distinguish between the sound of a .22 versus a .12 gauge shotgun versus someone who was simply letting off a firecracker.
Last week a Washington Post headline popped up on my Facebook Newsfeed to tell me there have been at least 74 school shootings since the one in Newtown, Connecticut. This came on the heels of another school shooting in Oregon, which came on the heels of another shooting in Las Vegas, in which a man and a woman walked into a fast food restaurant and drew on two officers sitting at a table. I don’t even know if angry is the word to describe how I feel anymore about gun violence in this country. Defeated is more apt. But every time one of these tragedies happens, I return to the six year old boy I was the way my father took so much care and seriousness in teaching me. And I remember how afraid I was then. Holding that rifle and firing and knocking those cans down was great fun but it was incredibly scary. I was aware that at any given moment and one false move and I might kill my father.
I don’t want to say that I grew up around firearms because that doesn’t feel entirely true, but it wouldn’t feel entirely false to say it, either. At the cabin, I watched my uncles and cousins leave to hunt and watched them come back early in the afternoon with rifles over their shoulders. At homes I visited as a boy it wasn’t uncommon to see a locked gun cabinet with exquisite shotguns and .303os and .22 rifles with scopes. Filled gun racks in pickups were a sight in town as we drove to Little League or the grocery store. But there was a power in those sights and a power in those weapons I was taught to honor and in honoring that I was taught to be fearful of their power. Thirty years after I learned how to fire a rifle and with a slew of school shootings and mass killings in between all that, often from the hands of disturbed white males of all ages, I’m wondering if my own upbringing is unique this way.
A few years ago a friend of mine was married in Sea Island, Georgia. As part of the wedding party, I traveled there a day early and like a lot of those old Southern resorts your options for recreation are limited to golf, horse back riding, and skeet shooting. The groom wasn’t a golfer or a horseman, but like me he had grown up in southeastern Kentucky, so he had handled a rifle at some point in his childhood. Shooting was a natural choice. There were nine of us shooting that afternoon. We stepped into these outdoor shooting pavilions that overlooked some marshland. The ocean was whooshing into the coast. The instructors showed us where the secret service had set up in the water for the G-8 Summit in 2004 and told us how extensive their scouting trips had been. They handed each of us .12 gauge “over-under” shotguns. This is the gun you’ve seen in the movies or television that collapses at its breech so that you can fill its double barrels with shells. Load them in, pop it back up, and you’re good to go. As we each stepped into our own shooting stall, my father’s old words of safety entered my head and, because I’ve always had an over-active imagination, I thought about tragedy in much the same way I did as a boy. A ruined wedding weekend, a ruined life with just one careless step.
I told the instructor to pull and I fired away. None of us had any ear protection in so each crack of the gun was loud and the punch of a shotgun, if held improperly against the shoulder—as I did—will leave bruises on the skin. There was denying the explosive power of that rifle. I was an athlete growing up and I’m sure in my time on the football field I suffered a half-dozen concussions, moments when the world went black for a second or two and I woozily walked toward the wrong huddle, but nothing compares to the ferocity of those shells leaving the barrels of the shotgun and the way that ferocity clambers through your entire body, shaking your bones, juicing your veins, heightening your senses and quickening your pulse. None of us were very accurate. In six rounds of shooting I only hit seven clays of the ten you got to shoot at in each round. But if I had been given six more turns in the bay I would have taken them because the gun’s force becomes a drug but we are always warned about the dangers of drugs—alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, meth—to honor and respect the power and influence they can have over us.
My father taught us to respect the rifle’s power to understand it wasn’t a tool, as some like to call it, but a weapon designed to kill. The guns I grew up around were for killing deer and squirrels and birds, but they could kill people. I had a great time shooting and comparing my scores with my friends on the afternoon before my friend’s wedding, but what I also understood then and what I had intuited as a child was that I have never felt less safe than when I holding a rifle. NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre can say that the only thing that can take down a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun but this kind of statement comes not just from someone who is drunk on the mythos of Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry, it comes from the mind of someone drunk on the physical sensation of firing a weapon that has given way to mental dependency.
We keep hearing that we must get guns away from the mentally ill, but anyone who decides to use a firearm to take down a defenseless person without cause or reason must be mentally ill in some form. I’m more worried about the sane, the people we work and go to school with, attend church and play softball with, who fire that first round for fun, who don’t have a father or a culture that tells them this is dangerous and to honor its danger. Today the NRA keeps telling us gun ownership is our right under the 2nd Amendment somehow overlooking the full definition of the word amendment. The only aim of the NRA is to put a gun in every home because that will enrich the coffers of gun manufacturers who will then enrich the NRA, who, in turn, enrich spineless politicians.
The firing of that rifle at six never led me to the secrets of manhood that I hoped it might. I went to school on Monday, bragged about my shooting exploits, and never picked up a rifle again for twenty-six years. But I know how to handle one and what to do with one and I know that each time I see one or come across one I have a kinship to its charged energy and I am fearful of it. I don’t have any real answers for how to stop gun violence in this country but I know that there are a lot of confused men walking around our country with easy access to rifles who think like my six-year old self: The power of manhood lies on the other side of pulling a trigger. But all that lies there is physics, action and reaction, a wake of blood and confusion, the whitewashing and faux handwringing of a country too scared to take responsibility for what it has created and the awful misguided attempts to create meaning from chaos. Randall Jarrell writes at the end of his poem, “90 North”: “Pain comes from the/darkness/And we call it wisdom. It is pain.” We cannot grow numb to it.