Guns -- and none

A woman who grew up with guns goes on to a life without them

  • ISTOCK
 

I got the gun after the boy next door told me I could not be a real cowboy without it. The trigger clicked softly, so I followed it up with "Bang, bang. You're dead." No mistaking my violent intent.

At 4, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a cowgirl, a cowboy. I wore a flannel shirt and jeans, and I carried a gray plastic pistol with a red trigger.

***

My ears ring for several minutes and my body shakes and shivers. On my first trip to the Imperial Valley with the man I would later marry, I shoot a real gun, a Smith and Wesson .38. "Bang, bang" is superfluous.

The kick astounds. I hold the pistol in my right hand, steady the butt in my left, breathe, and aim for tin cans we've brought to shoot the heck out of. My trigger squeeze isn't half bad, but the recoil's backward knock stuns me, and my arm flies up -- above my shoulder, above my head.

A city girl, I felt no horror at holding a gun, shooting, sitting next to guns and boxes of bullets. This surprises me now.

***

My cast-iron frying pan is out of service. Or out of my service. The shotgun needs re-bluing before dove season opens Sept. 1. Boiling chemicals erode this old pan, handed down by my mother-in-law.

The gun, however, takes on a mottled gray-blue-green renewed beauty. As I ohhh and ahhh at each accumulated layer of sheen, I fear for my frying pan.

***

"It's heavy," says the postmistress. "Feels like a cannon."

I pick up the first of many weapons my husband would purchase for his arsenal. I thought his fascination with loud toys interesting, entertaining even, an obsession I'd known little about before marriage. I also didn't know, that day at the P.O., that he was only getting started.

He owned, prior to the cannon, two pistols he rarely shot and the re-blued shotgun. Twenty years later he would own about 30 guns -- rifles, shotguns, numerous pistols of varying calibers and barrel lengths, the cannon, a black-powder Walker, a semi-automatic machine gun. When his father died, he would inherit another 30.

The cast-iron cannon, about a foot long, weighed 12 pounds. Cannon balls, made from wheel weights melted in the frying pan and poured into molds, were ramrodded down the barrel. Into the top went black powder and then a fuse. Ignited powder expelled the cannonball so slowly we could see it lob its way toward a target which it may or may not reach.

But that's a small point. Smoking fuses, ignited gun powder, a gigantic ka-boom followed by only marginally quieter echoes make a symphony of bang.

***

Sunday mornings we pack pistols, shotguns, a .22 rifle, and sometimes the cannon and black-powder pistol into the orange truck. We stop first at the office, where these weapons are stored in a locked gun safe.

We follow a dirt road to the hilltop and place our own cans for targets. Careful of jagged, bullet-etched edges, we later collect them for recycling. We teach our children gun safety, and we treat our guns with respect and care. Each of us loads our own gun. Only one person shoots at a time, and everyone else watches. At home afterwards, the heady smell of Hoppe's #9 solvent emanates from the garage where we clean.

Along with our two children, I become a good shot; in fact, I rarely miss. I shoot revolvers and a small rifle. We enjoy these outings until two college students are murdered near where we shoot. We never go back up that road, and we never shoot again as a family.

***

My shooter husband moves out. As he leaves, he offers me a gun: Would I like the .38 snub nose like the one the police chief carries in his holster? No, I tell him, I would not. I could not shoot someone -- no matter what. Take all the weapons. Please.

But the pearl-gripped Colt .45, the revolver that won the West, remains registered in my name. I picked it up at the dealer, a reprise of the cannon at the P.O. years before. He has forgotten. This pristine gun, touted as an investment, remains -- legally and against my wishes -- mine.

***

I study guns in museums, inspecting as closely as glass permits flintlock mechanisms, bluing, the burl of wood. I favor blunderbusses with barrels like clarinets. I appreciate guns as art. I wonder that I ever held one, enjoyed shooting, accustomed myself to the bang and kick and awful noise that reverberates in the entire body long after trigger squeeze. Wanting to please, I did what otherwise I would not: I jumped onto a well-armed wagon.

***

Single again, I date a man who brings a pistol without my knowledge when we go to Carrizo Plain seeking wildflowers. He loads and hands me a .22. I urge him to shoot first; he refuses. I take aim and hit the target. His mouth drops open and he shakes his head. I empty the cylinder, never missing, and hand him the gun. He puts it away without shooting.

That was my last shot. Now, my wagon is unarmed, and I drive it alone.

Diane Halsted lives, writes, and teaches in San Luis Obispo, California.

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