Thursday, September 12, 2013

Visceral Memory

At Hunter Safety class tonight, we got to try out different guns. It was weird. I really didn't like handling some of them. Just closing the action of the semi-automatic could take the end of your finger off if it got in the way when you pressed that button. Plus, I think I was the only person there who really acted as though the guns were loaded and might go off. They had special cartridges that allowed us to dry fire the weapons. Everybody else was popping away, but I kept feeling as though they might go off. I kept pulling down the muzzle in anticipation of recoil. I kept listening for the shot.

I wonder if there isn't a certain amount of confidence required to make using a gun safe. It's something to think about. It's certainly an issue with me to handle a gun for the first time and many of these were fairly new to me. Some were easy because I remembered. One was difficult because I remembered.

The .22 bolt action rifle was fairly simple because that's what Mike bought for Nick. I've used that gun. I'm fairly proficient with it, though I still have the problem of being right handed and left eyed. I also felt comfortable with the semi-automatic. Someone I shot with years ago had a handgun that was similar, right down to the button you pushed to close the action, the one that would take a chunk out of your finger if it got in the way.

Memories are slippery, but I have to tell you that, as a six year old girl, I remember having a lever action rifle placed in my hands. Tonight, it was familiar. The difference was that my dad's gun had a safety and the one I tried tonight didn't.

"Red is dead," I can almost hear my dad saying as I pushed the button. I was busy trying to figure out what made the button turn from black to red and back. I still don't know. I was too small to be able to cock the lever. It felt as though I'd have the same trouble tonight, but I didn't.

I was six years old. The reason my dad walked all three of us kids down into the woods to shoot is that there had been an accident. First, we received the lecture.

"Do not, under any circumstances, touch any gun you find in the house," he said. These words would have been capitalized, in bold face and large font, and underlined. Twice. I knew that what he meant was that if I touched his gun, he'd kill me. I was pretty well afraid of my dad when I was a kid. I know he didn't use the words 'I'm going to kill you,' but he implied it pretty clearly sometimes. So, I listened and barely breathed when he put the rifle into my hands.

That's how I felt tonight when the trainer put the lever action rifle into my hands tonight, barely breathing. That's how I knew it was the type that my dad had owned.

 I was six years old. My dad finished the lecture about the gun in the house, then he proceeded to instruct us about the features of the gun, the stock, the action, the barrel, the safety. Red is dead. Then he told us not to trust the safety.

"Never aim at something unless you want to shoot it."

By that point, I wasn't sure I wanted to shoot anything, let alone the empty Coke can my dad had placed on a stump earlier.

I was six. He handed me the gun and told me to close the action. I didn't have the strength to pull the lever all the way back. With arms on either side of me, he helped me do it. He told me to turn off the safety.

"But Daddy, red is dead."

I'm pretty sure he rolled his eyes, but I had to try to convey to him that I didn't want to take the safety off. This gun was pretty scary with the safety on. By then, I'd already had a BB lodged into my shin, shot from fifteen feet away by Mark Harper, the bully on my street. This gun, I could tell, was much more serious than a BB gun.

I held the gun up to my shoulder, putting my hands where my dad had instructed, and squeezed my eyes closed for a minute.

"Now look past the notch at the can on the stump and line it all up," he said tapping the notch and the blade one by one. I opened my eyes and lined them all up, but the rifle wavered. It was too heavy for me.

I was six. With my daddy's arms around me, steadying the gun, I pulled the trigger and shot, feeling the recoil into my shoulder, not much, but the sound made me flinch and fall backward. The sound was a shock. I would have dropped the gun had my dad not had hold of it. The can still stood where my dad had placed it, on the stump.

Lesson learned.

I can't tell you that I became proficient with the gun that day. I didn't. One shot, the warning shot, was all I got. I think my dad wanted to shock us, at least with the sound of that gun. Then, he told us that the neighbor boys had been playing with their father's gun and it had gone off. Mark Harper was dead. He died of a gun shot to his stomach. He was killed by his brother.

Mark Harper, the bully who'd shot me in the leg with a BB gun, the kid who'd ground my face into the gravel, the kid whose house I was afraid to walk past, was dead. I felt relief and dread at the same time. Guns and bullies were not simple subjects, and I was only six years old, a first-grader when I first saw a dead body at Mark's funeral. I couldn't quite read. I couldn't pour my own milk out of the gallon jug when it was too full. My parents still cut up the meat they put on my plate. And yet, there I was, shooting a rifle and then standing by a casket and staring at a dead body, the dead body of the boy who had shot at me, who had been shot through the stomach.

So, it doesn't surprise me that I had a flash of memory at using the lever action rifle, that I could feel the fear, the weakness, and the dread all over again in the time it took to cock the lever and dry-fire into the woods. I didn't hold that gun with confidence. I doubt I ever will.

Thank you for listening, jb


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