Originally published in The Canopy Review 01 (2019): 10-26. Excerpts read at the Langston Hughes House, Harlem, September 23, 2019.
World War II rages as my parents rivet B-24 bombers at Consolidated Aircraft. Home from the graveyard shift, Dad’s teaching me to box. Knees knocked, I’m punching back.
Later, he’s equipped me with a toy pistol, its holster drooping to my knee.
Home from her swing-shift, Mom models my friend Nancy and me into permed and lipsticked girls, then poses me on my trike. Nancy and I whirl in newspaper hula skirts. Our bodies soar, down to the San Diego beach. Then, half way to Japan, we’re in Hawaii, where kids in grass skirts hula to ukulele music.
Each night we Americans pull the shades so Japanese bomber pilots can’t see our lights and drop bombs through our windows.
I’m eight. The war is history. Our family has returned home from “Egypt,” California, where people lose their souls. Mom says people are friendlier here in the Southwest. We’re dirt farmers, losing our land to the drought that’s scorching the high plains of eastern New Mexico.
Man-making is now a joint parental project. They pose me in patched blue jeans and deck me out in a black denim jacket and a felt cowboy hat. I drip with sweat. The stampede string cinches so tightly under my chin that the black hat twists right. Later, when I understand color-coding, I switch to white. I’m posing heroic in front of the Kodak Brownie in Mom’s hands, ready to whisper in a low cowboy voice, “Gotchya.” The right pistol drills a hole through your gut. The other one veers left, mortally wounding a buddy or a girlfriend. The kid is still learning to shoot straight.
Below the picture, Mom pens, “Wild Bill Hickok.” In movies, Wild Bill turns his pearl pistol butts forward towards you, the enemy. When he draws, his hands slice a dramatic X across his belt buckle, then “bang-bang.” Two bullets and you bite the dust.
Even without guns, belts and buckles are badges of authority. Mom says Dad’s dad used to beat him with a chain. My dad’s a notch gentler. He whips me with a belt. After a severe beating, I lie bawling across the bed. When I peek up, guilt is spreading like measles across his face. He’s gone too far and knows it.
Decades before The Christmas Story becomes a classic seasonal movie, I ask Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun. Dear Santa, I want a rapid lever action. No single shot. No reaching into your pocket for a single BB. And, Dear Santa, I want loads of BBs in cardboard tubes. I love the clickety-click sound they make as they trickle down the tube.
Santa delivered—not quite a Daisy lever action, but a pump, where BBs line up in a row like grade school kids. If you live in a drought, you learn to weather short pay.
I’m twelve. Dad and I are strolling down Main Street after a buzz cut at Wood’s barbershop. Before he dusts the back of my scalped neck with talc, Mr. Woods presses a dime into my palm. I can put it in the bank across the street, but there’s a cowboy movie down Main. Strolling toward the Lyceum, Dad shows me circular chunks blown out of the wall of the old Citizens Bank, “They used to have gun fights here on Clovis streets.”
“You could carry a gun on the street like Roy Rogers?” I ask.
“Yeah, still can, as long as people can see it.”
The answer surprises me, “Wouldn’t that scare people?”
“Sure, that’s the point.”
“You mean, scare people off so there won’t be a gun fight?”
The rationale makes perfect Christian kid sense: use weapons to keep the peace.
“What if you hide your gun?”
“If you don’t have permit, you’ll be arrested.”
“You need a permit to hide a gun?”
“Why? Isn’t that cowardly? Wouldn’t that make you slow on the draw?”
I pepper my parents with questions.
Little boys long for real guns. Longing for the real is just the beginning. Real guns kill cottontails and sparrows. Asked, why kill, I retort a grown-up answer, “Sport.” Even your gentle mom or sucky little brother, who refuses to shoot sparrows or bunnies, buys into the sporting explanation.
Like water pistols, BB guns are for kids. When I come of age—for a boy in New Mexico that’s twelve or thirteen—I am ravenous for arms: a .22 rifle for sport, a shotgun for quail, a 30-30 for deer. Three guns and you are a proper man, poor maybe, but still a man. If you can show off more firearms of a higher caliber behind the glass doors of an oak cabinet, you are indeed a wealthy white man.
In junior high, I add a fourth to my list: a .45 Colt Peacemaker. I have not outgrown the eight-year-old fantasy of owning a cowboy gun. I want to draw faster than Dee Woolem, the national fast-draw champion. If I can beat his time, I’d be a real cowboy, not the kind who sweats and swats flies while driving cattle up the Goodnight Trail, but the bigger-than-life kind in movies. The kind that never draws first but always wins.
Since I can’t afford an ivory-handled six-shooter, I buy a sleek .22 Ruger semi-automatic pistol and learn to fast-draw, hitting tin cans tossed in the air. But fast-drawing with an automatic resembling a German Luger fails to make me into a righteous cowboy with his left hand flying over the hammer. Instead, I’m a German soldier, on the wrong side. Within a year I sell the pistol.
Dad teaches safety. Although he’s on the other side now, his voice whispers in my ear. A day before deer season, I slip my rifle out of the closet, wipe it down, point it toward the curbside mailbox perched like a hawk on a post. I click off the safety and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Instead of a click, there is a deafening roar.
From Hillcrest Park across the street play-noises pierce the air. What if I killed someone?
Murder. Jail. I’m only fifteen.
I can’t stand. I lie on the floor panting and sweating. The screaming of playing kids thickens the air.
Unable to stand and witness the damage, I keep listening. After what seems like an hour, probably five minutes, I go check. There is a 30-30 hole in the screen. I wait a few minutes before opening it. Knees wobbling, I tiptoe to the mailbox. There’s a bullet hole in the back side, one in the front too. Dad will notice. Maybe there’s another in the park, a hole in a body. Blood. I stare across Sycamore Street. No dead bodies. No police cars. No ambulances. Not yet.
I go back inside, lie on the floor again. Dad will soon walk through the door. My belly is tumbling, about to toss its cookies, when he walks through the door, “Dad . . .”
After I tell the story, he looks me hard in the face, man to man. I’m shaking. To my utter surprise, he thanks me for speaking the truth and refrains from telling me what I already know: guns are always loaded.
Despite my lapse in judgment, Dad lets me join him and the uncles. We wagon-train to Corona in pick-ups stacked high with homemade campers. Once ours was red, but the sun has bleached it bloomer pink. These bedroom-rigs tower above the cab, bucking air, transforming gas-guzzlers into gas-hogs.
At night we perch on logs around juniper campfires, gobbling down bologna sandwiches, pork ‘n beans, Fritos, Dr. Peppers, and vieenees (Mom’s name for canned Vienna sausages). The men smoke and urge us kids not to. A couple of uncles sneak into the woods for a beer. Meanwhile, Dad is complaining about idiots who stay up all night drinking, “When deer season opens tomorrow, those morons will crawl out of their tents, shooting at every sound. The problem is, the deer know. They hear the first shot of the season and begin racing. Watch which way their noses are pointing, toward the game reserve—no guns there. The deer know.”
It’s ritual preparation: showing off firearms, eating bad food, boasting about deer killed, sneaking off into the bushes to “deposit wolf bait” (dump a load).
A handsome Marine uncle, newly married into the family, arrives in a convertible. His wife is my favorite aunt, so instantly he’s my favorite uncle. I ask, “Can I hunt with Buddy, huh? He’s just back from Korea.” Dad nods, he knows. I keep nagging, “He has an M1 rifle and knows what he’s doing. Dad?”
Less than sure, Dad agrees to let me hunt with Uncle Buddy. Deep into the woods, he teaches me a song that dads shouldn’t hear, “This is my rifle [he points at the M1 on his shoulder], this is my gun [points at his dick]. This is for fighting; this is for fun.”
He and I have been barging through the bushes for a few hours when shots ring out. Wood chips are flying around us. Buddy grabs me, shoves my head down behind a log. The firing continues for a few seconds, then a faint click in the distance. Empty. The racket stops and Buddy, head still tucked, rolls onto his back and shouts furiously, “Hey, you dumb shits, we’re people down here, not deer. What the hell do you think you’re doing?” All we hear is the retreating sound of crunching twigs.
Up and hunting again, Buddy and I rehearse the story to tell at camp. We have the tale down pat as the sun begins to set. Then Buddy confesses, “I think we’re lost.”
I don’t say aloud what I learned in Scouts, “He couldn’t find his ass with both hands in the dark.”
Blackness is creeping in when we hear horns and gunshots in the distance. Dad and the uncles are searching. We fire into the air, then bushwhack toward the sounds. There they are. Dad hugs me off my feet, then steps back, glares at Buddy, sizing him up and down.
Buddy coaxes me to save our other story for the next night.
Another year, another hunting trip. It’s noon. We’re gathered into an arroyo, gobbling mayo-slathered white-bread sandwiches. Sprawled between my cousin and me are two dozing uncles. An octagon-barrel Winchester lies across my lap as I gaze into the woods. A half-hidden doe is studying us. I glance at my drowsy cousin. So as not to alert him or the deer, I slowly raise my rifle and fire.
My cousin jumps, grabs his rifle, and fires too. “I got it, I got it,” he yells.
“Nope,” Dad says, “she was already down.” Buddy agrees.
The other uncles hatch a compromise: “They both got it.”
Furiously, I whirl around to glare at stupid adult faces.
Back home, the aunts hear, “Together, both cousins got their first deer.”
Dad tells Mom what actually happened. Her smile cheers me up, but I remain pissed at my Texas cousin. One Christmas, when we were kids, he got two pistols with white handles. I got only one and had to wait until next Christmas for a second, with dirty brown handles. Poor me, I’m the poor New Mexico cousin.
But I shot the damned deer.
The next hunting season I carry a .35 Remington and am about to ask if I can hunt with Uncle Bill. I admire his expensive rifles topped with scopes. Imagine your big buck under a magnifying glass.
But Dad asks, “Hunt with me today?”
As we hike away from camp, he mutters, “Bill walks like a maniac. He’s noisy, strides fast, twenty miles a day, and returns to camp without a deer.” Then Dad pauses and says, “Let’s try something.”
We find a tree. “Stand by it and be quiet. I’ll head out, then circle back toward you. Maybe I’ll drive a big buck right past you.”
I squat in the bushes that huddle around a thick pine tree. I wait and wait. Half an hour, still nothing. Then a faint sound. Twigs snapping. Dad’s coming back?
I’ve had been taught religiously, “See what you shoot.” I click off the safety but don’t let my finger stray to the trigger. I point the rifle toward the sound.
Don’t shoot your dad.
I wait. More silence.
Again, twigs are breaking.
A buck is weaving through the scrub oak. He ambles, stops, looks, then repeats the pattern. I’m waiting for the next pause when he begins to run. I swing the sight just past his nose and squeeze. He falls. I wait, then fire another round. No chasing after blood trails.
I sneak toward the downed deer, keeping my distance until I’m certain he’s dead. I stare at the crumpled body in the grass, find a long stick to poke him. Dead. I count the points, eight. One brown eye is still open asking why. No dad, no uncles, just this deer and I, alone in the woods, contemplating life and death.
Now what? I pull the Old Timer hunting knife out of its sheath. Dad taught me to cut off the musk bags quickly so the meat wouldn’t taste wild. The bags aren’t really bags, more like fuzzy shaving brushes. I use a leaf to grab the patches on the rear legs and slice around them. Foul-smelling buck scent floods my nostrils, so I bury the stinky stuff under rocks.
I cut the deer’s throat. Blood spills onto the ground. I open the deer’s rear legs, slit him full-length. Guts spill onto the ground.
Then, more twigs. A human gait?
Dad lopes in yelling, “I heard a shot. Wow, you got him! He ran right by you, huh? Don’t cut those guts. That’s shit in there, you know.”
“Dad, I’m seventeen. I know where shit comes from.” He pauses. I say, “I have some rope but no pulley.”
“Me neither,” he says.
We’re gutting on the horizontal when an uncle arrives carrying block and tackle. Up goes the deer, head down so the blood can drain.
Not being Native Americans, we have neither a dance of celebration nor a prayer of apology, so we indulge in poor white Protestant back-slapping.
The next day we tie the buck to the fender of our pickup, stopping at way too many gas stations on the way to Clovis. I’m happy to have Dad brag for me, but I’m eager for Mom to marvel at the antlers and admire our meat-getting prowess.
Pappy, Mom’s dad, owns a semi-automatic shotgun in the days when the rest of us could afford only single-shots or double-barrels. When he clicks the trigger rapidly, you might think he’s shooting an automatic. But who brings home the quail? Not me, for sure, but not Pappy either. The boom-click-boom excites him, us too, but the bobwhites keep flying through the hail of shot. Some of the uncles, equipped with simpler shotguns, are more effective at toting home a canvas bag full of fowl, feathers, and lead.
Occasionally, we’d encounter a brood on the ground, the chicks clustered around the mother. Once I was about to blast them to kingdom come, but I was stopped. A shotgun, the men said, would hammer blood-soaked meat and feathers into the dirt. The birds would be torn to shreds, and the chicks would be unrecognizable. Nobody thought such shooting was sportsmanlike, so this scene was unanimously censored. Real men don’t kill families.
Even as a teen I thought automatics were a cheat. When I earned my first and only NRA marksmanship medal at Scout camp, we were taught that one bullet does it. Today’s NRA, in servitude to gun companies, wants you to collect assault weapons. A single click and you hose the enemy with a wash of bullets.
I didn’t think of hunting as murder, but twice I murdered animals.
Bow and arrow in hand, I stroll through Hillcrest Park toward the archery range at the back of the lion’s cage at the Clovis zoo. A crow is cawing from the top of a scraggly elm. Knowing I’ll miss, I whip up my bow and let the arrow fly. The crow, pierced through its breast, bounces from branch to branch to the ground. I’m shocked, guilty. You can’t eat crow.
Before deer season, I carry a refurbished .30 caliber Springfield to Running Water Draw. A rabbit waddles across the path. I don’t think. Instead, I aim and fire. The rabbit collapses. As I get closer, I see it’s a jenny, not a jack. I’m shooting hollow-points. When they hit, they spread rather than pierce. Dead baby rabbits are writhing in the dirt. Shamefaced, I resolve never to shoot females, only males. Real men don’t kill girls, much less pregnant ones.
Drained by drought, our family loses the farm and is forced to move to town, where I become fair game for bullies. In the sixth grade, pummeled and crying, I retreat home. I’m telling Mom what just happened when the neighborhood band of bad boys strides down the middle of Sycamore Street.
Sounding too much like Dad, Mom insists, “You have to fight, Ronnie, or this will go on forever.” She pushes me out the door and locks it behind me.
Under the brutal weight of a dual parental commission, I fight. I’m about to lose when Mom, her kindness having caught up with her, storms out the front door crying to stop the fight.
One bully, now shuffling away, mutters, “Ah, Little Suck gets his ass saved by Mommie. How cute.”
I’d never live it down.
Having just returned from church camp, dating a new girl, we stroll hand-in-hand across the Clovis High campus.
A loud male voice shatters our enamored gaze, “Hey, asshole!”
It’s Bart. He’d beaten my nether regions to a pulp when I entered high school last September. “Initiation,” he sneers, as he and half a dozen others line up to see if they can break oak paddles over my buddy and me.
I ignore his taunts.
“Hey, Greasy Grimes, motherfucker, I am talking to you.” I start to turn in Bart’s direction, but Marlene tugs at my elbow and we turn a corner around the library.
That afternoon Dad arms me with a lead-filled rubber hose, then sends me to consult with Ozzie Fulgham, chief of police. He recommends that I carry a shotgun in the car. His only caution, “Let Bart open the door first, then pull the trigger. I’ll come pick up his remains off the street.”
I spend the night in fear and shame, praying, swearing, crying.
By the next morning I have a plan.
Bart is surrounded by shit stompers and football players. His sneers are louder and more aggressive than last time. He reissues his unholy invitation, “Hey, you miserable son of a bitch, why don’t you come over here and let me shove this fist up your ass? Motherfucker!”
I’ve coached Marlene. She lets go of my hand and heads to the dining hall. I turn and stride toward Bart.
David and Goliath. High Noon.
“What did you just say?” I ask with uncharacteristic bravado. The group tightens around us.
This is a huddle. I am a football.
“You heard me, shithead,” he says.
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He outweighs me by sixty pounds. He’s six-two; I’m five-six. He’s a tanned country boy; I’m now a pale townie. He loads hay; I toss newspapers into people’s yards.
I reach into my back pocket and pull out a Gideon New Testament. “See this?” I say. Someone gasps. “This is a Bible. You ought to read it.” I shove it toward the horns on his belt buckle.
He leaps back. The Word of God is radioactive.
“You goddamned son of a bitch,” he screams, his voice rising to girlish heights. “I ought to kill you!”
“Love your neighbor,” I retort, my confidence soaring. “Read the Good Book; it’ll save your soul.”
I have his balls in a vice.
Bart’s eyes are wide, streaked red. As I turn to walk away, an astonished hubbub arises among the guys. Bart’s venomous stream pelts my back.
Later, when I retell the story, I’ll spice it with a verse from St. Paul, “For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.”
A year passes. Bart avoids me.
Late one afternoon I return from quail hunting with Pappy’s semi-automatic shotgun. It’s propped up—where else—against the shotgun seat, its barrel aimed at the floor. I decide to drag Main. After a loop, Bart pulls his pickup beside me, gunning its eight cylinders so the dual-chrome-stacks howl. I’m driving Dad’s turquoise station wagon, a suburban embarrassment with a quiet muffler. We stop at a red light. Bart opens his door, starts to get out. I push the shotgun barrel out the window toward his face. He gets back in, slams the door, shouting fucker as he drives away.
The borrowed shotgun was happenstance, not a plan. But suppose I’d followed Chief Fulgham’s advice. I’d have gotten off with a self-defense plea, but who would I be now? A righteous killer.
After this encounter I felt like a coward, so as a graduate student, I start martial arts training. For years, when I returned to Clovis, I hoped Bart would find me, alone, without Pappy’s shotgun.
I inherited Dad’s deer rifle, a .300 Savage, but I leave it in the care of a Texas-dwelling brother. Thirty years later I’ve not reclaimed it.
Before moving to Canada in 1974, I sell my treasured .22 Browning. Its receiver is etched; every curve is right. I touch this object of beauty gently, as if it were a new car worthy of hand-waxing. I can dismantle it into two pieces and stash them in my suitcase, but it would feel like a breach of decorum to carry a gun-infested suitcase into my new country.
The .22 is an icon, with a history, so getting rid of it is a sacrifice. I was a senior in high school when I saw an ad for a coyote call. When it arrived in the mail, I ripped open the package, stuck the thing in my mouth and blew. The sound surprised me—didn’t sound like a coyote, so I read the instructions. This thing makes the sound of a rabbit in distress, not a coyote. Dumbass.
One morning I grab the .22 and head for the sandhills beyond Portales. By the time I wiggle through barbed wire, it’s almost noon. I’m hungry, so I settle into the shady, soft side of a dune. Unbeliever, I half-heartedly blow the coyote call, then stuff my mouth with a big bite of fried bologna sandwich. I’m almost asleep when I hear a sound at the top of the hill behind me. I’m twisting toward it as a coyote leaps over me, landing just below my feet, too close to shoot. He’s as scared as I am, so he turns on me. I smash the wooden stock of the Browning across his back. He limps off into the sagebrush while I check to see if I’ve pissed myself.
Years later, I repair the Browning .22 as you would a child’s beloved rag doll, then sell it before crossing the northern border.
As a kid, I associated guns with courage because brave cowboys deployed them against Indians who threatened to rape your wife or burn your kids. I was in my twenties before it dawned on me that cowboys armed with rifles, peeking through the spokes of wagon wheels, seemed cowardly. Those Indians on the screen, they’re going to count coup on you or die. Almost naked, they’re coming at you bareback. Closer by the second, they’re letting arrows fly off charging horses.
After the movie, as you stumble, from the cinematic cavern, into the bright light of a New Mexico day, ask yourself: In this scene, who is brave? who is skilled? who is riddled with fear?
We white boys are.
At thirty-five, I did what Dad did, taught my son, no taller than my belt, to shoot. At twelve he died of a rare bone-marrow disease. Well-armed, he journeyed to the Great Beyond.
Guns rarely protect you from the forces that will actually take your life.
Today most of my Texas Panhandle relatives are licensed for concealed-carry. Stats don’t matter. It’s the American way; gun-toting is an article of faith. Dad armed my sister soon after she graduated from New Mexico State. She was a traveling court reporter. He bought her a pistol for the glove compartment. When I asked him why, he said, “She’s my only daughter, and she’s traveling up there.”
“Up where?” I asked.
“Taos, Raton, Mora County, places with lots of . . . you know, violence.”
Dad is speaking in code. He means places with a high proportion of Hispanics. Around Clovis, when whites killed whites, the news died out quickly. When Hispanics or blacks killed whites or each other, laws and assumptions were endlessly debated. The key assumption: their killings are worse than ours.
After the massacres at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopan Church, then at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I ask my brothers about their experience with guns. One brother, four years younger, says he’d been deer hunting twice. One year he missed a standing deer three times. Later Dad and he discovered that the front sight had slid almost out of its groove. The next year he got a deer. Today he punches holes in paper human silhouettes at a firing range and carries a gun in the glove compartment, but his favorite story is about refusing to use his pistol by talking down two gun-toters instead.
My other brother, eight years younger than I, says his experience with guns was short. “I shot a rabbit. Our cousins said it wasn’t dead, so I had to shoot it again, close up. That was the end of my hunting career—no desire to shoot bunnies or Bambi.” He too fires at paper, for sport.
Since the election of Trump, my sister and I can only make peace by walking circles around religion, politics, race and guns.
I ask my youngest brother if he was jealous of my hunting trips.
“Are you kidding,” he says, “I was relieved.”
Both brothers talk about “hunting” trips with Dad and his friend Gibb after they retired. The brothers wouldn’t buy a license or carry a rifle. The old guys would ritualistically buy licenses and carry rifles, but Dad said he didn’t care whether he got a deer. By then he was middle-class and didn’t need the meat, so the pressure to hunt and shoot eased up through the birth-order and slackened with Dad’s increased age.
“What’s the point?” I ask.
One brother says, “Nature hike.”
The other says, “Fellowship.”
I tease him about giving a Baptist answer.
“No, I actually heard him use that word.”
“Male bonding,” my other brother says.
“So,” I ask, “guns don’t really matter for male bonding?”
“No,” we all agree.
As a kid I didn’t think of guns as weapons. They were farmers’ tools for killing rattlesnakes and rabid dogs, a hunter’s way of feeding the family. If you are poor and your family in need of food, killing deer isn’t sport; it’s survival. Growing up though, I learned that guns can become weapons. Weapons imply enemies. In old cowboy movies the enemy is scruffy and ugly, wears a black hat. In old war movies, the enemy speaks another language, doesn’t look like you, lives overseas. Today, movies, TV and computer games wrap their tentacles around our imaginations, teaching us that the enemy is across a border, desperate to breech our walls. You need an arsenal for self-defense. Worse still, the enemy is an internal scapegoat to whom we assign the tasks of stealing our white male identities, raping our women, abusing our kids. Ours, it’s all ours. You need spies.
Some families hope to make homes, churches, schools and cars safe by stashing pistols in nightstands, purses and glove compartments. If Americans decide to take the further step of arming teachers and wearing pistols to churches, surely, we should tell parents and kids the truth: This is a war in which we shoot ourselves.
For me, disarming has been a long process, beginning with a bullet hole in a mailbox and a shotgun aimed through a car window at a bully’s face. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and moving to Canada prompted me to put down arms. Now the election of Trump, NRA money-bullying, the murders of native and black people, white domestic terrorism, gang-shootings on streets, the killings of worshippers, concert-goers, feminists, gays, and kids—all reinforce my commitment to end a love affair with guns.
Gun violence bedevils our friends and relatives to the south. Now, homing north of the world’s longest border, my Canadian family feels safer; comparative statistics comfort us. But, like every plague, this one leaps national boundaries. In 2018 the rate of gun violence in Toronto jumped 200%. Shootouts are happening in safe neighborhoods where our kids live, on streets we stroll as a family.
Our adult-kids grew up disarmed and multicultural. When I tell them coming-of-age-with-guns stories, my son Bryn teases me with a question, “And replace that bad gun habit with what good habit?” He whips out a harmonica, “How about a 10-holer (or should I say, 10-gauge)?”
He gives me a quick lesson at the end of Canadian winter. We muse and laugh at our grand revelation: Men can bond while playing out their manhood on 10-holers and bicycles.
Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if the young teach us to play. And we can learn to play only by disarming.