Jim Aldrich, my father-in-law, grins a lot. But today, as we stand on his deck in the desert of Southern California, his smile is especially pronounced, cutting deep creases into his stubbled cheeks. It's not the blue sky brushed with contrails that makes him happy. It's the gun. He just popped six rounds from a .22 pistol into the desert, and he's reloading.
Jim likes guns. He has them stashed throughout his little house along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Some folks seek comfort in Jesus, some take Xanax; Jim shoots guns. Though I grew up in rural Colorado surrounded by pickups adorned with rifle racks, I don't share Jim's affection for firearms. I've never fired a gun, and just the thought of them makes my chest tighten.
When we last visited Jim a year ago, the women woke up early one day and headed to town. That left Jim, his grandson, Jimmy, and me to do manly things. In the old truck, we headed across the desert to a dry lakebed, and sped through opaque dust clouds. That was fun. But back at Jim's house, when Jimmy asked to shoot "the big gun," the testosterone drained from my system. While Jimmy, a scrawny 13-year-old, assuredly popped rounds into the desert, I scurried inside, frantically searching the kitchen for capers, flinching with each shot. I wished I was with the women at the mall, watching them try on clothes.
But since then, midlife uncertainties have diminished my sense of masculinity, and I'm in need of an antidote. So, at the start of my family's most recent visit, I declared that I wanted to shoot Jim's guns. Everyone was quiet for a moment, and my wife looked at me as though I had lost my mind.
During the day, the desert below Jim's house looks mostly empty. But out in the obscurity of haze and dust are military bases and towns, strip malls and highways. From his deck, Jim points out a small structure in the distance, and says he suspects it's a meth lab. Many of his neighbors have been robbed, and it takes the cops hours to get up here. That's why Jim has motion detectors along his driveway and, of course, the guns.
The more civilized realm of freeways, smog, and silicone, better known as L.A., lies just over the mountains, and is no less threatening. The day before my shooting lesson, Wendy and the kids and I drove into the city. Actually, Wendy drove, as she always does in cities - yet another blow to my masculinity. As we pulled onto the freeway, some guy in a Lexus honked at us, pulled up within six inches of our car while going 75 mph, and gave us the finger, his eyes bulging with rage.
"Did you see that?" I asked with astonishment. Wendy just glared at me and scolded: "Never look at them when they do that." I withered in my seat.
Crazies like these - the guy in the Lexus, not my wife - are reason enough to make me want to pack heat, but Jim's got bigger worries. Some atrocity, a dirty bomb attack in the San Fernando Valley or a shortage of Botox in Santa Monica, could cause a hysterical mass exodus eastward, right past Jim's house.
"In that case, I'd probably grab my .22s," Jim says. Out here, as the haze migrates into the broad valley and an unbroken stream of traffic flows by on the highway below, Jim's logic makes a strange sort of sense. A gun or two might be the closest thing to law and order in a post-apocalyptic anarchy.
I ease the butt of the rifle against my shoulder and flip the safety off. I line up the sight on a distant target, take a deep breath and pull the trigger. There's a mind-numbing pop, a light kick, and a puff of smoke as the shell flies from the chamber, arcs and catches a glimmer of Southern California sun. I pause for a moment. A feeling wells up in my chest, one I can only describe as power. I fire again and again. I pop bullets into the dirt, trees, rocks.
"You're a natural," says Jim. "Here, touch the barrel. See how hot it is? I love that. And I love the smell." He takes the gun from me and shows me how to reload. As he slips the cartridges, each the length and girth of my index finger, into the clip, he tells me about a recent midnight, Scotch-soaked, cigar-infused shooting session with a couple of lesbians from down the road. I quietly hope he'll invite me to the next one.
He points me to a more distant target. I lift the gun, stare down the sight, and imagine that the small piece of metal jutting out of the dirt is all my fears and insecurities and weaknesses made manifest. I pull the trigger, absorb the kick, listen to the satisfying ping of metal on metal.
"Good shot," Jim says, his grin showing off gleaming white teeth. "See, it doesn't take much brains at all. It's easy to be a killer."
Indeed. Now, I love guns. And I'm more afraid of them than ever.
The author is HCN's associate editor.