June 1998, Phoenix, Arizona. I’m having my first cup of coffee. Thoreau’s notion of morning as a time for moral renewal goes down hard when I look at the front page of the Arizona Republic: “Heston Has Gun Foes In Sights As NRA Chief.” The article makes reference to some of Charlton Heston’s film roles (Moses, El Cid, Thomas Jefferson), then describes his acceptance speech as president of the National Rifle Association. Near the end of the story, he tells the interviewing journalist that he keeps a loaded shotgun next to his bed and wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
But wait. Two local gun stories also appear on the front page: “Supervisor Wrestles Gun From Worker” and “Teen Arrested In Double Slaying.” The latter tells us that one Bobby Purcell, age sixteen, was arrested after having bragged to a friend that he’d “wasted” two kids with a sawed-off shotgun. The two victims were honor students at Apollo High School. Purcell and a buddy stopped in front of a popular teen hangout. Purcell then got out of the car and fired into a crowd of ten or fifteen students.
Let’s not be geographically smug: the dateline could be Any City, U.S.A.
Growing up in New London, Connecticut, I regularly went to the Saturday matinee at the Garde Theater, usually a biff-pow double-header in which a black-hatted bad guy finally winced at the bite of hot lead, grabbed his gut, and crumpled thunderously to the floor of the saloon — or fell from a roof, a high cliff, or a galloping horse. But all without blood. Sometimes it was a Tarzan movie, or one about Romans, Christians, gladiators, and chariot races. The matinee was a ritual. Once, in July, after a double feature with Tarzan and Jane, my friends and I hiked home as usual, but took a detour through the woods to the back of the Bottinelli Monument Company. Gary knew where thick hemp ropes (hemp wouldn’t scratch the polished tombstones) were often discarded — just the thing to mimic the vines that carried Tarzan in great, long arcs from tree to tree. Benny, a fearless climber, tied the rope to the top of a tall oak that leaned over Lake Brandagee. There, at the end of long outward arcs, we dove toward imagined crocodiles, just like Johnny Weissmuller.
Another time, after seeing The Three Musketeers, we found curtain rods poking from a trash can on Broad Street and — forgetting the motto “All for one and one for all” slashed away at each other, using stairs and parking meters to gain advantage, the swashbuckling coming to an end only when David’s forearm ran red with rivulets of blood.
Fort Apache and an endless series of cowboys-and-Indians movies had us making bows and arrows. The arrows (dowels pilfered from my father’s shop and fletched with chicken feathers) were tipped with pieces of hacksaw blade (shaped and sharpened on a grinding wheel) so that they would stick into trees and sheds as easily as the Indians’ arrows did into prairie schooners, homesteaders’ shacks, and the backs of cavalrymen.
In our woodsy neighborhood, there seemed to be an inevitable progression from rock-throwing (at floating cans and bottles) to snowball and crab-apple fights, to slingshots loaded with wild cherries (ripe cherries exploded nicely against white T-shirts — a forerunner of Hollywood blood squibs), to BB-gun fights with a rule against head shots. (Today’s paint-ball combat, with pads and visored helmets, seems tame by comparison.) The rules said that, when hit, you had to fall and die, the way they did in the movies. You could say you hadn’t been hit, but the shooter could demand to check under your shirt, and an angry red welt was hard to blame on anything but a sizzling BB.
Where were our parents? Most were at home, skillfully kept in the dark, as many parents are, by clever, deceiving children.
My niece’s husband, John, somehow refused to be molded into a hunter. He told me about growing up in Oregon, about memories of grandfathers and uncles posing with bloody trophies of the hunt. A lover of animals, he could never understand the family obsession with guns and hunting. A few years ago, John’s grandfather, in his eighties, went into the basement with a shotgun because his wife had seen a snake coiled up near the washing machine. She begged her husband to let it alone, or else use a shovel to deal with it. But the grandfather was a stubborn man. John said, “When my grandfather pulled the trigger of his favorite twelve-gauge that morning, he put an end to three things: the snake, the hot-water heater, and what little hearing he had left.”
Cut to a more recent and more lethal Oregon tale: after successfully badgering his father into buying him a hunting rifle, a teenager named Kipland Kinkel killed both his parents and opened fire on his high-school classmates in Springfield, killing two and injuring dozens.
My wife, Phyllis, and I are housesitting for a few weeks at the Phoenix home of my brother-in-law, a pediatric surgeon, and I’m using his desk. At the top of a stack of his papers and medical journals are the many stapled articles he has collected on gun-related injuries and deaths. A grim picture sketches itself: in a ten-year period, slightly more than eight thousand deaths in Arizona alone — 5,158 suicides, 2,415 homicides, 249 accidental deaths, 109 fatal injuries inflicted by police. In 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, firearms were the ninth leading cause of death (35,957), just behind AIDS (43,155). The CDC also reports that the U.S. leads the world’s twenty-six richest countries in firearm deaths at 14.24 per hundred thousand people. Northern Ireland is second at 6.63. Japan is last on the list at 0.05. Among European countries, England, with its strict gun laws, is lowest: 0.41.
In this morning’s Arizona Republic is a follow-up about Bobby Purcell, the teenager who killed the two high-school honor students. Asked why he did it, he told police the students had “dissed” him.
Ah, so that was it. But he didn’t even know them. And what constitutes being dissed? Perhaps the students were guilty of the unforgivable: eye contact.
The fuck you lookin’ at? Blam! Blam!
I’m trying to understand why the gun has replaced the fist in settling scores among teenagers: Easy access? The old equalizing factor?
Also in this morning’s newspaper is another piece about Charlton Heston. It’s not about his films, but they’re what I’m thinking about. I’m also thinking about an essay by a scuba diver who claims to have been transformed morally and spiritually by his experiences in the counterworld of water. I’m wondering if Heston has been in any way transformed by immersion in his roles in the counterworld of film. In interviews, he is obviously quite proud of his role in Ben-Hur, a film in which his character drops an agenda of hatred and revenge and becomes a kinder, gentler person after meeting face to face with Christ along the via dolorosa. But this was just one of Heston’s many roles. If the actor has learned anything from his movies, it seems to be western-style revenge with Old Testament overtones, from movies like Will Penny and The Last Hard Men. But why he would now choose to play Moses descending from Mount Sinai with a golden assault rifle is perhaps a mystery that lies deep beneath the Planet of the Apes. Or maybe it’s no mystery at all.
In the early nineties, I taught for a year at a university in Utah, where I was the colleague of a professor I’ll call Paul Brady, a rancher, hunter, and horseman. I had lots of questions about the mountains and deserts, and Paul was a man with answers, as well as a fine storyteller. Soon we were talking about hawks and eagles, bears and elk, and that led to hunting and guns.
I told him that a Daisy air rifle had been my first gun, a lever-action, the kind favored by cowboys like John Wayne’s Hondo. Then I discovered that a pump-action model was more powerful and could put a hole in a beer can, so I traded up. I had also heard that you could kill a squirrel with a pump. A bloodthirsty teenager, I was hot to shoot anything that moved: bumblebees, butterflies, birds, frogs, snakes, squirrels, rabbits, stray cats, and dogs. But getting my first BB gun was not easy.
My mother, raised in the city, hated guns and admirably resisted my endless pleas. She said that a gun was dangerous to have around, good for only one thing — killing — and always begged to be fired. (I smiled years later when reading an essay by Robert Penn Warren, who made a similar point about the crossbow in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”) But it was almost inevitable that I would graduate from a bow and arrow to BB guns, because they were already in the family: my cousins had them. And my grandfather used a .22 on the foxes and hawks that carried off his chickens at the farm. Like Kipland Kinkel, I begged and badgered until I was given an air rifle, a Daisy Defender, for my thirteenth birthday.
Paul Brady was amused by my mother’s strong negative feelings about “a mere hunk of machined steel.” You didn’t even have to ask for a rifle if you were born on a ranch in the Utah outback, as Paul had been. In any case, after my Daisy Defender came two more BB guns — a pump and a Red Ryder model — then a single-shot Crossman pellet pistol, a single-shot bolt-action Remington .22, a three-shot Mossberg sixteen-gauge shotgun, and a Ruger semiautomatic .22 rifle. There were also pistols: a .22 Colt and a .32 Smith & Wesson. This mad acquisitiveness lasted only three years, whereupon I sold everything in order to buy a Corvette engine for my customized ’49 Ford, thereby giving up one dubious obsession in favor of another. The prophetic and painfully ironic line from a John Lennon tune really applied to a teenager like me: “Happiness is a warm gun.”
I haven’t owned a gun since high school, but during the time when I was afflicted with that lovesickness for firearms, I’d probably have convinced myself I needed a flamethrower, a bazooka, and a few Stinger missiles, if they’d been available and affordable. A friend from my teen years is still a gun collector and on Sundays goes out to a range in Connecticut and fires his Thompson .45 submachine gun with a fifty, round drum clip. (The weapon is also known as a “tommy gun,” the military version of a “grease gun.”) The ammo is quite expensive, but the rush, I’ve been assured, is “incredible.” Who needs Viagra?
The connection between gun and penis has, of course, been written about before, often nonsensically, I’ve thought, though it doesn’t take long to make a list of connections. Think of Sally Struthers fellating Al Lettieri’s big Magnum in The Getaway, or the size of Clint Eastwood’s piece in Dirty Harry (another Magnum), or Hugh O’Brian’s long-barreled Buntline Special in the old Wyatt Earp TV show. Law and order depends on the lawman’s being able to speak softly and wag a big stick. Or think of the old Marine marching chant: “This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for fighting, one is for fun.” Once, when I congratulated a friend on his wife’s being pregnant for the first time, he said, “What, did you think I was firing blanks?”
I was a graduate student at Kent State University, where four students were killed on May 4, 1970. James Michener, in his book on Kent State, observes that, the politics of the Vietnam War aside, the college-aged guardsmen were obsessed with the sexual freedom, long hair, and sexually explicit language of the student protesters. In that tragic confrontation, institutional penis power prevailed. It quickly became apparent that the young guardsmen — proxies of the old generals and Dick Nixon — weren’t firing blanks.
In his posthumous Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway writes: “‘How long have you been my girl,’ he said to the pistol. ‘Don’t answer. Lie there good and I’ll see you get to kill something better than land crabs when the time comes.’ ” Interpreting such an utterance, of course, is the stuff of conference papers and textbooks. But even in his very first novel, in the persona of impotent Jake Barnes, Hemingway was already worrying about manhood, emotional death, and firing blanks. As we know, he went out firing the real thing.
But back to Paul Brady, my Utah colleague. One day, I asked him where Phyllis and I might do some hiking. A recent convert to house cats, I’d become fascinated by them and wanted to see a big wild one: a cougar. I had heard stories about how deep snow would drive the cougars down from the high mountains into the valley, where they would sometimes show up in back yards, looking for food in the form of a small dog or cat. Paul wanted to introduce me to a friend who hunted mountain lions and might be willing to take me along; could I ride a horse? I said yes, but hedged. I didn’t want to tell him I had been upset by an article in the Salt Lake Tribune reporting that, in Utah alone, 127 big cats had been legally killed the previous year. (How many illegally?) No wonder the mule deer were thick as grasshoppers and often jumped in front of cars.
“Paul, I’m not —”
As if reading my mind, he said, “They just let the dogs run them up a tree. Then they take a picture.”
Still, I begged off, saying that Phyllis didn’t ride.
“OK,” Paul said. “I’ll tell you where to go, but you have to promise me something.”
“You’ve got to take a pistol with you.”
“Paul, I don’t want to kill one of these animals.”
“You won’t have to,” he said. “Just a shot in the air will be enough to discourage one from coming at you.”
“Peter, if you get way back in one of these narrow sand-rock canyons where I’m sending you and meet up with a mama and kittens, you’re going to wish you never saw a cougar.”
“OK,” I said, “but I really don’t want to go through all the trouble and expense of getting a permit or buying a weapon.”
“Number one, you don’t need a permit,” he said. “Number two, I’ve got just the thing for you.”
I nodded, thinking Paul would invite me to his house to show me his sizable gun collection, then pick out something suitable for a loaner. I could put him off until next week, or the week after. He’d forget, and I’d be off the hook. I faded briefly into another moment.
West Virginia, 1976. I was teaching at a small state college in the woods. It was just after Easter break, the weather had broken, and four of us were in Kenny’s Volvo wagon, headed down the road to play some doubles on the clay courts at Oglebay Park. Talk in the car was of a sweep through the dorms by campus security while the students were on spring break. The cops had confiscated something like twenty weapons: handguns, rifles, and shotguns.
Mike was outraged. “You’re kidding, right?”
Dave said, “No, it was in the newspaper this morning.”
“Hell,” Kenny said, “these kids are West Virginians.”
Mike asked what that was supposed to mean.
“Look around,” Kenny said. “This is hunting country.”
I said that if a survey were taken, we would probably find out that more than half the faculty was armed.
“Come off it,” said Mike.
“I’ve got a thirty-aught-six,” said Kenny, “and a Beretta nine-mil, a beauty — fifteen in the mag, one in the pipe.”
“What!” said Mike, disbelief in his voice. “Why?”
“I used to hunt,” said Kenny.
“With a Beretta?” I asked, still laughing.
“What’s a Beretta?” asked Mike.
“A pistol. For protection,” said Kenny.
“From what?” asked Mike. “Farmers? Aggressive co-eds ?”
Dave laughed, then said sheepishly, “I’ve got a .45 Colt automatic, army issue.”
I was cackling. I couldn’t help myself. Mike shook his head gloomily and said, “Not funny.”
“Maybe not,” I said, “but I was right. Half the faculty — in this car, at least — is armed.”
Mike asked Dave why he had a gun. Dave said, “I forgot to turn it in when I was discharged from the army.”
Dave capped it all with a line I’ve heard many times since: “Better to have a gun and not need it than to need one and not have it.” He delivered the slogan with all the wooden gravity of Charlton Heston.
Paul Brady, from behind his desk, brought me back to the present. “Here you go,” he said, removing a pistol from its holster and handing it to me.
“A .38 Smith & Wesson,” I said, trying to appear casual, as if it were perfectly normal for a university professor to pull a holstered .38 out of his desk drawer. “Snubby.”
“Feel the balance.”
“Feels good,” I said. “Nice little Smitty.”
“That’s the .32 frame I mounted it on. Lighter.”
“Terrific grips,” I said.
“Packmier,” he said with a big grin. He was proud of his gunsmithing and amused at my reaction, which was increasingly self-conscious. There were students passing in the open doorway.
He tossed me the holster. “Keep it as long as you want.”
I saw two things simultaneously: Paul’s face, friendly and grinning, and Phyllis’s face, dark and frowning. Paul had made a gesture of friendship, and, given all I had told him about my own past with guns, refusal would have been tantamount to rejection. But how was I going to explain the Smitty to Phyllis? I thanked Paul, slipped the gun into the inside pocket of my sport jacket, and tried to make a casual exit.
Once in the hall, I felt that everyone knew I was packing. My jacket hung lopsided. Trying to get to my office as quickly as possible to hide the weapon, I ran into the chair of the department, who, friendly as ever, stopped me to ask how I was enjoying my year in Utah so far. My face felt scarlet. I was sure he could tell something was wrong. Our exchange of pleasantries seemed long enough for the Guinness Book of World Records.
Phyllis grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, a mob city with a history of guns, bloody sidewalks, and dead bodies. But she had no experience with guns. Like my mother, she hated them. There were no firearms in her home. Some of her uncles hunted rabbits and squirrels, and she’ll admit to having eaten rabbit, but she was removed from the bloody process of killing and preparing it. Also like my mother, she said that guns were made for only one thing.
Phyllis knew that, as a teenager, I had been a card-carrying member of the NRA. She also knew about the fur-bearing animals I’d trapped for money. She was amused by my adolescent adventures. She had heard stories about how my mother hated to go into the basement to do laundry during trapping or hunting season: there were always muskrats, foxes, and raccoons (the Davy Crockett TV series had created a great demand for coonskin caps) hanging from hooks, waiting for me to get home from school to skin them and stretch their pelts on frames.
Phyllis forgave me for my unenlightened adolescence. It was before animal rights, before the Vietnam War, and before criticism of our gun-crazy culture came to the fore. She also found it easy to forgive my teenage love affair with guns because it was in the distant past. But news that we now had a handgun in our apartment would be as welcome as news that I had taken a mistress and was hoping she could move in with us. An acquaintance once told me that what he did was his own business, and what his wife didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. He was “discreet,” he said. I’d never bought that line of thinking, but I was in a tight spot. I’d hide the gun. Phyllis wouldn’t know. I’d be discreet.
My mother’s strenuous aversion to guns parallels my own to carnivals, but when my son was in the sixth grade, I found myself on a hot August midway that seethed with dust and a seedy vigor. My son, his friends, and I moved through the smell of elephant dung, past the Fun-O-Rama, past the knock-down dolls and a sideshow tent that advertised “Wolf Boy” and “Pig with Two Heads.” When the boys headed for the Tilt-O-Whirl, I said that I would meet them by the bingo tent. Then I heard, half hidden by the notes of a calliope, another kind of music: the unmistakable crack and metallic clank of a shooting gallery.
I was surprised to see pump-action Remingtons firing .22 shorts — but then, this was rural North Carolina. Ducks and lighted candles moved from left to right. There were also clay pipes and fixed paper targets. I hadn’t fired a rifle in almost twenty years and wondered if my eye was still good. Guessing the sights were deliberately off, I shot first at the paper bull’s-eye for a test. The sights were low and to the left, so I made the mental correction. Ducks fell and candles went out. I was enjoying myself. I quit after three or four reloads, but not before my son and his pals arrived and watched with great interest.
They wanted to try. No, I said, this was not for kids. They whined and wheedled, but fortunately I had the rules on my side: the sign read, SHOOTERS MUST BE AT LEAST 16 YEARS OLD. I had a prize coming and let my son choose.
“That,” he said, pointing.
It was a red Super Soaker, the squirt-gun equivalent of a .357 Magnum.
That night my wife told me Keith had admired my shooting. Because I owned no guns and had never shot one in front of him, he’d had no idea I knew how to use a rifle, and was doubly surprised that I’d been able to win a prize. Before going to bed, he asked me some questions. I told him I used to hunt, and that in high school I had been on the rifle team. (I didn’t tell him about the yearbook photo that shows me and two other shooters, all collar-up James Dean clones, furtively flipping off the photographer, the teachers, the town, the galaxy.) I could see he was impressed. Secretly, I was glad. It was probably the only thing I had done up to that point that impressed him. I was a college professor, but that meant nothing. My books, nothing. Then I thought: Lord, this might be my legacy. I imagined myself long gone and Keith fondly shaking his head and telling a buddy: “Yeah, my ol’ daddy was a helluva shot.”
I left campus and drove to our apartment in Orem, noticing little along the way, even though it had snowed the night before and the last rays of sun were making the peaks of Mount Timpanogos dazzle. I had the Smitty in my briefcase. When I entered the apartment, I yelled, “Hey, it’s me,” and then headed upstairs to the room where I had made some cinder-block bookshelves and a desk out of an old door. Fortunately, Phyllis was on the phone in the kitchen. I quickly took out the gun and put it where I had planned at the back of the top shelf in our closet. In Utah for only a year, we had little furniture, and there was no place else to hide anything. I’m much taller than my wife and knew she’d have no cause to look on a shelf that appeared empty from her level.
That done, I pulled off my tie, changed into jeans, and went downstairs. It was Friday night, and our usual ritual was dinner and a movie, which meant a trip to Salt Lake City, where there were more film offerings and nicer restaurants, and where it was possible to get a drink. (In Mormon country, it is easier to buy a handgun than a glass of wine.)
“What’s so funny?” Phyllis asked me.
My secret must have had me smirking. “Nothing,” I said. “Just glad it’s Friday.” Then I told her about my classes and a few amusing things that had happened during the day.
Later, in the restaurant, waiting for the entrees, I sipped my wine and listened to Phyllis talk about her parents, both of whom were not doing well physically, and about her plans to fly down for a week’s visit. All the while, I could see Smitty on the top shelf of the closet in his leather holster. There came upon me then an urge to confess. I was close to telling my story. A former teacher of technical writing, Phyllis might be interested to learn what Paul Brady, who also taught technical writing, was doing with a handgun in his desk.
What’s he doing with that? I imagined her asking.
I rehearsed my reply: He uses it to desensitize students, a number of them women who have irrational fears about a hunk of machined steel. He makes them describe the revolver in detail, if it were any piece of machinery. He has them open the cylinder, spin it, close it, engage the safety, cock the hammer, and so on. See the way each piece works. Take it apart. He finds that this exercise helps students overcome their fears and feel confident describing the functions of something that is initially alien, or even frightening.
Somehow, I knew this wouldn’t work. I could see her eyeballs rolling to the ceiling as she groaned, Give me a break!
Or maybe I could expand on Dave’s line: Better to have one and not need it . . . But Phyllis was quick; she would see right through that specious appeal. There is a difference between “wanting” and “needing,” she would point out. And availability makes things too easy. Only months after my mother died, my father was mugged and beaten badly. The assailant’s wealthy, well-connected uncle got him off with probation, even though his list of prior convictions was long and impressive. My father died only months later, I believe as a result of both the mental trauma of my mother’s death and the physical trauma of having been beaten up at age seventy-two. (Until the assault, he had been healthy.) The words depressed and angry don’t begin to describe how I felt. It was perhaps the only time in my life I’ve ever really imagined killing somebody, actually planning how I’d do it. “Remember that old man you beat up?” I’d say when the guy was on the ground and bleeding. Then I’d draw the gun and make him beg before wasting him. I had the motive and the cue for passion, but not the weapon, and I’m glad I didn’t.
Phoenix. It’s late, hot, airless. I take a break from writing and gas up the car at a nearby Circle K. Tomorrow we plan to head up toward Flagstaff to beat the heat and hike in Oak Creek Canyon. I want to get out of Phoenix early. At the cash register, a guy in a cowboy hat is smoking and talking to the clerk, a gaudy woman with orange hair, who is also smoking. I give her my credit card and check out the guy’s costume: well-worn Wranglers, tall white hat, silver belt buckle the size of a saucer, dusty boots. I wonder which rawhide hero he’s modeled himself after. I’m thinking Steve McQueen in Tom Horn. The hat is right, but the guy is not good-looking, his narrow face and mean rodent mouth closer to Bruce Dern in Hang ’Em High. Something else is wrong with this picture, but what? Then I realize he should be packing a western-style Colt instead of the anachronistic Glock nine-millimeter riding high in a tooled leather holster on his hip.
My credit card is taking ages to go through. I’d like to get out of here. In Phoenix, anyone with an Arizona driver’s license can tote a handgun as long as it’s visible. The cowboy cranks up his Zippo and lights another cigarette.
In comes a dark-skinned teenager, a Mexican with sculpted hair — floppy on top with designs razored into the close-cropped sides. His own costume is baggy hip-hop. He’s big and a bit sullen. He goes to the back of the store and takes his time in the party snacks.
The woman sighs and says to me, “This machine’s been slow all day.”
Leather creaks, and I can see the cowboy has his hand resting on the Glock. He says, sotto voce, “Make my day.” The woman snorts. He smirks, and yellowish teeth peek from between his dry bluish lips.
The kid catches my eye and jerks his head, beckoning. I take a few steps down the aisle. He holds up two cans of cheese dip and asks me in a soft, apologetic whisper which of them has the chilies. His buddies want the spicy, not the mild. He tries to laugh. For a second, I think he’s putting me on. Then I realize he can’t read. I tell him what he wants to know; and while I’m wondering if Bobby Purcell — the teen who killed the honor students — can read, the Mexican does one of those bouncy gang walks toward the clerk and the make-believe cowboy, whose face is as blank as a screen where some horrific footage could suddenly blaze to life.
While Phyllis was visiting her parents for a week, I was left alone in the apartment with the gun. I tried to put it out of my mind. Reading, writing, and grading papers held my attention for long periods of time. So did dreaming out the window at Mount Timpanogos, where I thought about taking a hike. But could I go without the gun? Maybe I should fire it a few times to make sure it worked. A small voice said no, that I had better things to do. But I got it down from the shelf anyway. I aimed it at various things in the apartment, then stuck it in my belt and got belligerent with the bedroom mirror, like Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. My improvised tough-guy monologue had me cracking up. Downstairs, I put the revolver on the kitchen counter, loaded the Mr. Coffee, and switched it on. While I was waiting, I spun ol’ Smitty on the counter top. If the barrel points at me, I told myself, I’ll go fire it. In five or six spins, the barrel never once pointed toward me. Finally, after a cup of coffee, I decided, as Oscar Wilde would have, that the best way to get rid of temptation was to yield to it.
I drove to a sporting-goods store near the mall on State Street. Which brand of shells should I buy? Winchester? Yes, the name had a ring to it and recalled a 1950s flick starring Jimmy Stewart as a man in maniacal pursuit of his heart’s stolen beauty, a Winchester ’73. It was a film of intense dramatic moments and lots of gunplay, but was essentially bloodless — milk and cookies when measured against the high-octane violence of today’s films.
But the shells — should I buy one box or two? Best be safe and get four.
I drove north on Interstate 15, past Spanish Forks to Lehi. Under the looming ramparts of Mount Timpanogos, I turned west on Utah 73 and drove for a half-hour or so, stopping here and there to collect drink cans from the side of the road. At Fairfield, where you can pick up the old Pony Express Trail, I passed the Stagecoach Inn historical site, left the paved road, and rattled over a cattle guard. I thought of John Ford’s Stagecoach, with a classic early performance by John Wayne. A few minutes later, easing past white-faced cattle, I was doing Heston at the beginning of Will Penny, singing “Get Along, Little Dogie.”
As I drove farther west, the land expanded in all directions, everything sharply defined in the clear light. I spotted four bald eagles sitting on a watering tank. East of the Dugway Proving Grounds (where some of the military’s deadliest nerve agents have been tested), I could see for miles across the valley floor toward the Great Salt Desert, segments of the trail reappearing now and then as it snaked into the distance. Not a soul in sight, no cloud of moving dust that might indicate another car. I told myself: You need a gun to protect you from all this nothingness. It was some seventy miles to Fish Springs, a bird refuge, but I wasn’t going that far. Not today. Save it for a trip with Phyllis.
Smitty was lying on the seat beside me, getting antsy to exit his holster and have some fun. I told him to be patient. I didn’t want some rancher investigating gunshots. The dirt trail was badly rutted and washed out in a few places. It led me down into a dry creek bed at one point, and if not for four-wheel drive, I’d probably still be there. The windows were down, and I could smell the clean scent of sage.
I got out and rested Smitty on the fender while I divided the first box of ammo into several pockets. I set a line of cans atop a dirt embankment. A friend once told me a .38 snubnose was good only for shootouts between two guys in a phone booth — funny, but not accurate. If you knew what you were doing, you could hit something from, say, thirty feet, or farther.
I wasn’t about to spend the money for shooting-range earmuffs, so I had brought along instead the plugs I used for swimming laps in the university pool. At first, I fired fast and didn’t hit a thing. Same the second time around. For a minute, I thought I was firing blanks. While reloading, I heard Slim Pickens as Lon, the sadistic deputy in One-Eyed Jacks, trying to bluff Marlon Brando, who was aiming a derringer at him: “You ain’t about to take my neck off with that little ol’ popper. You lucky you hit the wall.”
I took aim a third time and said, “Is that so, Lon?” This time, I hit two cans. On the next reload, I hit three. After a while, the cans were pretty well ventilated, and I looked around for other targets. I remembered the famous teach-me-how-to-shoot scene in Shane, where little Bobby points to a small white rock and Shane makes it jump about. Fortunately, there happened to be a white rock handy, so I started blasting away, trying to do the same. Poor Smitty made unconvincing pops compared to the potent roar of Alan Ladd’s big six-gun. In between reloads, while the silence regathered and my ears stopped ringing, I entertained myself by doing Ladd, as I sometimes would at a party. Like my mother, Bobby’s mother hated guns, and Shane had to set her straight: “Marion, a gun is just a tool, no better or worse than any other tool. . . . A gun’s as good or as bad as the man using it.” I could almost see him as an NRA spokesman delivering the old bumper-sticker slogan: “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”
I was laughing and having a good time, feeling like a kid again, but I kept looking around guiltily to see if somebody might be watching. There was nothing but unfillable silence, knee-high sage, and low clumps of dark green juniper that dotted the reddish land as it rose and fell into the distance. I spilled the warm shells into my hand. The smell of cordite and black powder took me back.
One October day, my friend Nelson Cone and I decided to skip school to hunt for ring-necked pheasants. When I stepped in Nelson’s back door out of the cold, his mother was making breakfast for his two younger brothers. The smell of frying bacon was wonderful. I spoke briefly to Mrs. Cone, then took the stairway just off the kitchen that led upstairs to Nelson’s room. Bobby, another friend, was already there. Nelson was pulling on boots, and his sixteen-gauge Savage lay across the bed. Bobby, whom we were always trying to get rid of, picked up the gun and aimed it at me: “Make one false move and . . .”
Nelson grabbed the gun from him and said to me, “Let’s go.”
Bobby said, “Man, I wish I could go with you guys, but I’ve got too many cuts. Mr. Flannagan makes one more phone call and I’m dead.”
I went downstairs first, said goodbye to Mrs. Cone, and stepped outside. I was standing in the sharp autumn air, waiting, wondering what the holdup was, when I heard a great muffled boom. Reflexively, I turned away from the sound. Pellets, glass, and bits of wood rained against my hunting jacket. When I turned back, I saw a hole in the window the size of a garbage-can lid. The mullions were gone, and the long reddish curtains hung from the blown-out frame like viscera. There was an unforgettable scream, the kind that strips varnish from the soul, followed by a long silence. Then: “Oh, God! Oh, sweet Jesus!”
Mrs. Cone’s terrified prayer was answered because nobody was injured — well, almost nobody. Nelson’s youngest brother later broke a filling finishing his scrambled eggs, where a pellet had landed and hidden itself.
Nelson had foolishly loaded the shotgun in his room, even though we had been instructed never to do so in the safety course we’d been required to take in order to get hunting licenses. When the gun discharged on the stairs, Bobby was only three feet in front of Nelson. Had the barrel moved seven or eight inches in that narrow stairwell, Bobby would have been cut in half. In the hallway, the acrid smell of cordite was overwhelming.
The only time I ever carried Smitty was when Phyllis and I went out to some remote place for a hike. My usual procedure was to transfer it from the closet shelf to the floor under the driver’s seat while Phyllis was busy with something else. When we arrived at the trail head for our hike, I’d let Phyllis get out of the car first, then I’d sneak the revolver out from under the seat and clip the holster at the small of my back, between my waistband and undershirt. Emerging from the Jeep, I’d let my shirt or jacket cover it, the way Don Johnson always did on Miami Vice.
I’d gone through this routine many times: near Vernal, up in the Uintas, at Canyonlands, Moab, and other places. Often I’d forget I was packing until I sat down for lunch or leaned against a rock and felt Smitty hard against my back. Phyllis and I had good times in these places, watching hawks, eagles, and other birds. Once, we saw a bear in the distance, but never a cougar, though we did see paw prints in an arroyo after a storm, the prints still filled with water.
Our year in Utah was almost over. One last trip took us down to Price, past the rusty remains of an old mining operation, and into the rugged terrain of Nine Mile Canyon (really closer to forty miles), where one of my students had told me we would find the extraordinary rock art of the Fremonts, an early native people who, according to archaeologists, abruptly and mysteriously left the canyon around a thousand years ago.
We were among some shady cottonwoods next to the cliffs, looking at a sandstone petroglyph, a perfect panel depicting hunters with bows and arrows sneaking up on a herd of mule deer. (I’ve since been told that this priceless and unprotectable art has been shotgunned away, irretrievably lost.) We were glad we had made the trip and taken the trouble to find such a remote place. Deeply silent. No sounds. It was mating season, and many deer were about. Six or eight foraged on the trail less than a hundred yards from us. The same deer hunted by the Fremonts. A sense of timelessness. It was the kind of magic place that prompts the imagination. You see things.
Four scruffy dogs trotted through a clearing to our left. The deer bolted, their hooves clacking on sandstone. The dogs, seeing easier prey, slowed and changed direction. They were shaggy, more like wolves. A huge black male seemed to be the leader. Yellowish eyes. Two of the other dogs were brown with thick tails, another black and white. They were ranch dogs gone feral. They came toward us at a lope and spread out, going for position, the way they did with deer. As they started to bark, I pulled Phyllis into a shallow stone alcove to protect our backs. The barking quickly gave way to snarling. The black dog’s ears went back. He growled and showed his teeth, which stood out impressively against his black face and red tongue.
Out came Smitty. Pop, pop, pop. An incredible rush. When the dirt jumped up only a few feet from his face, Blackie vanished — like the fantasy he was.
The deer had never bolted. The dogs were never there. But that never-never-land footage had stuttered to life behind my eyes because I’d wanted it, wanted a situation where I could deepen my voice in an actorish way and say to an outraged Phyllis, “Would you rather they had us for lunch?” Or, after some back and forth, I’d deliver the rhetorical kill shot: “Better to have one and not need it than to need one and not have it.”
Fortunately, Smitty never made an appearance during any of our hikes that year, but when I carried the gun, I felt myself altered. I didn’t walk or talk like John Wayne, but I imagined and projected — even vaguely longed for — something that would justify all the guilty subterfuge, a situation that would bring back and make real those antihistorical celluloid counterworlds where I had spent so many hours. I wanted problems to disappear with the ease of squeezing a trigger. When I’d first hefted the revolver in Paul’s office, the old wires had twitched. These wires stretch back through adolescence to the paleolithic caves. These wires now mean money, big money, and they are kept well insulated by Hollywood. They run as deep as resistance to change.
This essay originally appeared in the Hudson Review.