My Year of Guns

When I was eight, however, all I really knew for sure was that I didn’t like any of [the Rice family.]  That and I was completely terrified of Mr. Rice, even before the afternoon when he pulled his gun on me, and pressed its barrel to my temple.

 

[Note: This essay was originally published in The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.]

 

The first time I shot a gun, I got a black eye for my troubles.

My father, who was the consummate outdoorsman, had taken me to a shooting range so that he could properly sight a new rifle. He brought along his .22 K-Hornet so that I might get my first taste shooting a gun. I don’t remember having ever asked to go shooting with him, or even really having had the desire. But my father took me anyway.

Once we arrived I quickly decided that shooting was unbearably dull. I was eight years old, and had all the patience one might expect of a boy that age. If you have never sat and watched someone sight a rifle, there is surprisingly little to see. Most of the craft is subtle, and done with a slow steady hand that looks not entirely unlike someone sitting absolutely still.

After my father had perfected the new rifle’s sights to his aim, he checked his groupings and then pulled out the K Hornet. Like many old school gun enthusiasts, he was a stickler on both gun safety and etiquette. He spent no small amount of time explaining to me exactly how to hold the rifle, how, unlike with a shotgun, you let a rifle lean into your shoulder rather than the other way around. Bored and uninterested, I pretended to listen. I then picked the rifle up and – holding the butt of it right in front of my face – pulled the trigger. The recoil that hit me square in the cheek was as hard as I had ever been hit by anything and I ended up on the ground, dropping the K Hornet. For weeks, half of my face was an ever-changing sea of browns, greens and deep plum as the bruise shifted through its various stages.

I had never really had an urge to shoot a firearm prior to going out with my dad that day. Or perhaps to be more accurate, I had never had the urge to shoot a real gun. I had several toy guns, all of which I would imagine were phasers from Star Trek despite their lacking that cool grip that came down from the center of the barrel the way Kirk and Spock’s weapons did. I liked playing with those toys, but I knew that firing a real gun would mean doing it with my father. When I was eight I was still vaguely afraid of him. He was both a workaholic and the family disciplinarian; being a child that liked to press boundaries meant that most of the times when he was home I was being disciplined. (Not really, in retrospect. But that was the way it seemed to me at the time.) Because he valued gun safety so highly, there was a firm rule in our house that you could not point toy guns at anyone, which for an eight-year-old boy made them fairly useless. Because of this I never took them out when he was home, or if I did I would make sure that my friends and I played Star Trek, cops and robbers or army men far away from the house where he could not see. So the idea of playing with real guns, in a grown up way with my father, held zero appeal.

After shooting the K Hornet, though, I decided that I wanted more.  But I wanted more without any supervision.

 

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I knew that all of my father’s rifles and shotguns were locked away in the garage, and were therefore quite literally untouchable. But I was also pretty sure he owned pistols, and I knew they were not locked up in the garage. I spent time, here and there, slipping into my parent’s bedroom and closet when I was sure I wouldn’t be caught trying to see if I could find them. I might have spent a total of twenty minutes, broken up over a two-week period of time — I was really afraid of being caught, so I limited my searches to just a minute or so — before I found the Colt revolver. It was in his sock and underwear drawer, along with two Playboy magazines. Being eight the Playboys held no interest for me, though I can still recall the sheer joy of remembering they were there a couple of years later. Finding the revolver, on the other hand, was like finding a pirate’s buried treasure.

I waited to take it out until the next week when my parents were out to dinner and my sister was set to babysit me. At some point that evening when she was caught up in a TV show I went into my parent’s bedroom, grabbed the revolver, and went into the back yard.

I was pretty sure it was not loaded, but in truth it never occurred to me to check. Instead, I decided that to ensure no one would get hurt I would simply shoot at the wall of our next-door neighbors house. I had seen a lot of shootouts on Lone Ranger and Bonanza, and those shows had taught me that the house walls were impregnable to bullets. So I pointed the barrel at our neighbors living room wall, and slowly squeezed the trigger.

I remember being surprised by the force of the hammer coming down, and by how loud the sound of an empty gun being fired was. I squeezed two more times, and again felt the impossibly loud snap of metal striking metal. Then I slipped the revolver under my shirt just in case my sister was wandering about, and holding it there, went back inside and put it back in my father’s drawer.

Guns are known for their ability to make those that wield them feel powerful, or safe, or dangerous. But what I remember feeling that day was grown up. In my mind I had just done this very adult thing, and what’s more had done it entirely by myself. Firing a gun by one’s self had just gone from something that only grownups did to something that only grownups and I did.

I never went back for the revolver after that day. I didn’t tell anyone what I had done, not even my friends. Bragging about it seems to me a childish response. Keeping this secret to myself was, I was sure, what a man would do.

 

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My father was one of two gun enthusiasts on our block. The other was Mr. Rice.

The Rices lived several houses down. Robbie was my age, and his sister Annie was two years younger. His parents were each unusually attractive. Mr. Rice was tan, mustachioed and worked out with weights before doing so was a common thing for adults. Mrs. Rice was blond, slender, and on the weekends walked around the neighborhood in a bikini top and hot pants, a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Cold Duck in the other, striking up conversations with the neighborhood dads as they tended to their lawns. My mother hated her.

“Hey, she’s not so bad. She’s really quite friendly,” my father would say when my mother would make an icy comment about Mrs. Rice. “You just need to get to know her.” Being a kid I wasn’t really sure why my mother didn’t like Mrs. Rice, but even I knew my father was only digging whatever hole he was in that much deeper.

I, for my part, could not stand Robbie. My dislike of him was visceral and immediate upon meeting him, and he clearly felt the same way about me. He was smaller than I was and so he gave me wide berth, but he enjoyed bullying the kids on the block who were smaller. Sometimes he’d just walk up to a younger kid and punch them for no reason. Sometimes he’d punch them in the face, which was considered entirely against the rules where I grew up, unless someone had either stolen your money or your bicycle. The only time we ever played together was if there was an activity that all the kids were doing, like playing baseball or elephant tag. But even then, if we could avoid it we wouldn’t talk to one another.

Mr. Rice was a gun enthusiast, but one of a different feather than my father. For one thing, Mr. Rice did not hunt and he wasn’t an outdoorsman. He collected military weapons and on Veteran’s Day dressed up in a Marines uniform that he had bought at a military supply store, as he himself had not served. He liked to work on his guns in his garage with the door open. If you walked by their driveway on a Saturday or Sunday, you’d see him cleaning them while listening to a large Ham radio that picked up the fire and police channels. If there was a big fire, or if the police were called to a crime in progress, he’d collect the family in the Rice station wagon and drive to the address where the authorities were being called and watch events unfold.

I remember when I was about seven, we were playing pickle in the street when Mr. Rice drove up in what would be his pride and joy for the rest of the years we were his neighbors. It was a green army surplus jeep with a small flat bed trailer in tow. On the trailer was a mounted .50 caliber machine gun. Actually, as it turned out, it was more of a representation of a .50 caliber machine gun. It had no firing pin, the turret was welded stationary, and if you looked down the barrel you could see that after a few inches it was filled with cement. Still, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen in real life. I was disappointed to learn that, excepting for celebrating the 4th of July, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Christmas, the machine gun would be kept hidden under a chained heavy canvas tarp.

In a neighborhood filled with a lot of oddballs, the Rices might have been the oddest. Aside from all of their quirky eccentricities there was always something off about them, but being eight I never bothered to wonder what it was exactly that was off. It wouldn’t be till I was a bit older that I would finally start noticing the bruises that would often appear on the faces and arms of Mrs. Rice or the kids; it would be a lot of years past that before I would really understand the story those bruises told.

When I was eight, however, all I really knew for sure was that I didn’t like any of them.  That and I was completely terrified of Mr. Rice, even before the afternoon when he pulled his gun on me, and pressed its barrel to my temple.

 

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It was maybe six months after I had briefly engaged in my tete a tete with my father’s revolver in my back yard.  All of us kids had been playing baseball in the street, but it was a scorching hot day in our Southern California desert town and we were looking for an excuse to quit when Robbie Rice invited us all to play assassin with his new toy guns.

These guns were pretty common back then. They were plastic pistols with a spring-loaded projector built in. It’s “bullets” were small, grooved, red plastic darts with rubber suction cups on the end. They came with a paper target that you were supposed to tape to you wall and use for target practice. Part of the idea was that the suction cups would stick to the target, similar to darts on a dartboard, and you could compete to see who got the highest score. Of course, they never stuck to the target –- or anything else for that matter. They just lightly bounced off what ever they hit. Robbie had gotten a set of twelve of these toy guns for his birthday. We divided them up, each taking five “bullets,” and then scattered as Robbie counted to ten. Once the countdown was up, it was to be an every-man-for-himself killing spree.

We’d been playing for a while as the heat took its toll, until it devolved into twelve kids arguing about who really hit or missed who. We were all gathered in the Rice’s garage trying to hammer out some kind of rules that didn’t rely on the honor system that was so clearly failing us, when Robbie’s little sister Annie walked in and stared us all down.

“No one,” she announced seriously, “had better shoot me. I’m not playing!”

As she stood there glaring at us, everyone stopped talking, not knowing wha to say. And then, without even thinking, I raised my pistol and shot her from across the garage. I can’t even begin to say what I was thinking, except perhaps that I thought it might be funny to shoot her right after she’d said we couldn’t. The rubber dart arced across the garage at a laughingly slow speed. It hit her, lightly, right in the center of her forehead — and stuck there. I couldn’t decide which was more surprising: that I had actually shot her right after she told me not to, that I’d hit her right where I’d wanted to from across the entire garage, or that the damn suction cup had actually stuck to something. The silence continued for another few seconds; then, as the rubber dart finally fell to the ground, Annie threw back her head and started wailing.  I knew I was in trouble, and all I could think of was that I had to make sure that my dad never found out that I had shot a girl – a girl! – with a toy gun. But before I could reach Annie to grovel for her silence and forgiveness she was gone, running into the house.

I’m sure one of us said something at that point, but I can’t remember who spoke or what was said. What I do remember was that a few minutes after Annie disappeared indoors Mr. Rice burst into the garage, Annie in tow.

“Which one!” It was more of a shout than a question. Annie pointed to me, her eyes still wet with fury. Mr. Rice walked over, grabbed me by the hair, and marched me over to his work bench. “Come here!” he barked at Annie.

As Annie stood next to me ,Mr. Rice let go of my hair and grabbed my wrists, holding both behind my back with just one of his hands. He used his other hand to open the wooden drawer on his work bench and fished out a pistol. I had no idea what kind of pistol it was, but unlike my father’s revolver it was all black; in his hand it looked sleek and light.

“Are you watching?” His voice dripped with both anger and contempt, and his breath smelled like old beer bottles. I was about to answer when I realized that he was still talking to Annie. For just a moment I thought that it was Annie who was getting in trouble for something, not me. But before clearer thinking could dislodge that thought by itself, the gun swung up and the muzzle was pressed hard against my temple.

“Is this where he shot you?”

Annie nodded.

“Then this is where you shoot him.” He was till barking out his words. He handed the gun to Annie, who pointed it at my forehead. My head was still spinning, numb to what was happening, when I heard the unbelievably loud hard click of metal striking metal. Annie had actually pulled the trigger. The gun was empty, of course. My panicked brain was just starting to get up to speed on everything that was happening, when Mr. Rice said, “Again.”

Another click sounded, and then another, and another, and another, and then my numbness just washed away in a torrent of despair. “I’m sorry,” I choked out between sobs, “I’m so sorry.” And I really was. I was just a kid, and the gravity of what Mr. Rice was doing -– the immensity of the lines being crossed –- were lost on me. All I felt was a deep and burning shame for having betrayed my father when I pulled the trigger on Annie.

Mr. Rice turned me around and looked at me for the first time –- ever, I think.

“Are you ever going to shoot a girl again?” he asked. I shook my head as I looked at the floor, too ashamed to meet his gaze. “I’d like to think that I don’t have to tell your parents what happened today. Do you want me to tell your parents?”

I shook my head again, this time much harder and with much more conviction. “God no, please don’t tell my father” was what I would have said if I could have gotten the words out.

“OK. Lesson learned. Now stop crying and start acting like a man.”

And then he was gone.

I was an adult out of college before I ever told my parents what happened. For a long time I was just afraid to tell them. For a long time after that it seemed like no big deal – just one more crazy stories about our crazy neighbors from our crazy old neighborhood we moved away from when I was fifteen.

When I did finally tell my parents my mom said, “You should have come and told us, Tod.”

My dad just looked hard at the wall for a while, and finally with a voice that sounded like he was weighing just how hard it would be to track down Mr. Rice after all those years said, “Maybe it’s best that you didn’t.”

That year, the year I was eight, was the only time in my life that I’ve ever felt an emotional reactions to guns. I’ve handled them since, of course. As a young man I used to go out and shoot both trap and skeet with my dad. I got really good at it, actually. (When my kids ask what trap is like, I tell them it’s exactly like playing a video game, only a lot louder and you get to go outdoors.) But even when I shot regularly my shotgun was just a tool, to be treated with respect out of concerns for safety –- much like my cleaver in my kitchen. But that summer when I was eight, guns grabbed my emotions by the throat and shook hard. They quickly and easily seduced me into thinking I was finally an adult, and they just as quickly and easily brought me crashing down to childish vulnerability.

Today I’m as old as my dad was back then -– older, actually -– and I have two boys of my own. Sometimes they express an interest in learning how to shoot; someday, I’m going to teach them.

But I choose not to keep guns in my house until they are grown men themselves.

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