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My Armory

July 27, 2012

 

When I was very, very young, like maybe first or second grade, my younger sister and I had these really neat toys that we would fly all over the place and shoot at each other. They were very simple but a bunch of fun. This thing consisted of two plastic tubes, one inside the other, like two big plastic straws, but just a big bigger in diameter than a wooden pencil. The end of the outside tube was plugged and some short wings were glued to it. The interior tube was just a bit longer than the winged tube. When you blew into the longer tube the winged tube would shoot across the room and if you used it outside, it could really go quite a long ways. Mainly we used these to shoot at each other, we’d spend hours giggling and hiding from each other and then get bopped in the back with the sponge covered nose of the little missile.

I remember one dark night when my sister and I were darting around our tiny little farm house and shooting our speedy little darts at one another. We dashed to take cover behind an overstuffed chair or a low coffee table covered with the evening’s newspaper. At one point my sister took a spill and fell to the floor. As she rolled up, she let out a deafening, frightening screech. She had fallen with the tube still in her mouth and as she hit the floor the tube was jammed into the back of her throat. Her screech like opened up your spine and split your ears. My parents scooped her up and wrapped her in their arms trying to determine the extent of the damage while trying to comfort her, all at once. She just beat her arms endlessly and wailed like a banshee.

You have to understand that back in these days, right around 1950, people actually had family doctors, guys that you could really call their answering service in the middle of the night with emergencies and they would call you back. My mom called Doctor Pierce and within ten minutes he called us back. My parent’s had calmed my sister down somewhat, but she was still wailing and there was blood everywhere. I can’t remember all the details but somehow with the weak lighting in that old house, the blood and my screaming sister, they were able to determine that the tube had struck her uvula (the little thing that hangs down in the back of your throat) and nearly tore it off. Doctor Pierce told my mom that there was nothing to do about it. It would just have to heal itself or fall off. It wasn’t like it did much of anything, but my sister would be uncomfortable for a few days.

If I remember correctly, the Doc told my mom to give some brandy to the toddler to get her to sleep. We didn’t have any and Pa had to walk to a couple of different neighbor’s houses to finally score a bottle. Remember, too, our neighbors were hundreds of yards away. We measured things in miles and acres, not in steps and lots, like tract people.

 

At about the age of seven or eight, I finally got my own BB gun. It was a lever pump kind, like you could vary the amount of pressure that pushed out the BB by how many pumps you could force into the lever handle that doubled as a trigger guard. I was always looking around for some sizable piece of paper that I would fashion into a funnel for when I needed to pour a handful of BBs down the tube that held them, running the length of the barrel, underneath.

I was always a pretty damn good shot. After a couple of summers of shooting blackbirds up in the walnut trees that lined the creek in our “back property” or shooting them from the back of our tractors as we tilled the fields, I got where I could actually concentrate my view and watch the BB follow an arched trajectory to the right and adjust my aim to incorporate that element of the flight path to become even more accurate. Real bullets would spin as they left the muzzle of a rifle which made them fly straight. BBs didn’t have spin so as they hit the air, they’d be pushed to one side or the other.

Half the time you could actually see the BBs hit a black bird and it would bounce off of the feathers. Sometimes it would scare the bird enough to make it fly away, sometimes it wouldn’t. If it did scare the bird enough to make it fly, usually all the birds in that tree would fly away with it. Then you’d have to hike down to another full tree, maybe one or two hundred feet down the creekside. The thing was, universally, all the parents in Almaden Valley, be they your’s or anyone else’s, if any adult saw you just barely swing the muzzle of your gun in the direction of another person, they would jump down your throat to no end. We weren’t even allowed to point toy guns at each other when adults were around. We were constantly being taught increasing levels of firearm courtesy. If you were walking in line, one after the other, on a hillside, carry your gun this way. If you were walking side by side in a field, carry your gun that way. You were taught when to use the safety and when to pull the bolt out. Guns were always very serious business. Being from Chicago, my dad had never been around guns, so he learned along with me. For the youngsters reading this, keep in mind that World War II had ended just a few years before and the Korean War was still being fought, nearly all male adults of that day had been trained by the military, as well as any earlier training they grew up with. My dad had a bad ear and the military wouldn’t take him, he even tried to get into the Canadian military but they wouldn’t take him either.

It was always funny to me that all the neighbor dads had been in the military but when you asked them about the wars, all they’d talk about is being seasick. If we wanted to hear about blood and guts, we had to go to the movies. None of these guys would talk of it.

 

When I was about ten or eleven, my dad bought a .22 caliber rifle from one of the guys at his work. It was an old World War I target rifle that the Army used to train new recruits. Al, the farmer we rented our house from, told my dad not to let me shoot the 22 until I had rebuilt it. Pop was a tinkerer and he just loved this idea. Guns aren’t really all that complicated, we took all the parts and put them in little jars and we wrapped the barrel in an old bath towel. We cleaned up everything and I took to sanding the stock. I decided to refinish the metal parts and learned that guns had a special process for their finish called “bluing.” It turns out to do a really good bluing you had to do something like let the metal soak in a boiling bath of bluing solution. All the adults told me it was too complicated and too dangerous to do this sort of “bluing.” I ended up using a much simpler method which I’d have to redo every few years.

This was a simple, single shot, bolt action rifle. I came to learn it had an extra long barrel for some reason. While it was real simple, it was one thing more, very, very accurate. I was a good shot in the first place and with this entirely new realm of possibilities, I got even better and it all got a lot more serious. We only shot the rifles up in the hills and always from the ridge down, for every shot we took, there had to be a back drop to catch the bullet. About the only time we broke that rule was when we shot at buzzards sailing in small orbits overhead. It was a stupid thing to do, but, we were kids, more accurately, we were boys and we all know, boys will be boys. After awhile I gave up shooting at the lazy vultures hanging in the updrafts above the hills, they were just too conceited. Even when you did hit them and see a few feathers flutter off their wings, if anything, the most they would do was maybe give the wing one stroke of air and then settle back into their lazy circles. No one liked these guys, we just considered them necessary evils as they did clean up carrion messes, big and little.

It seems like we spent every weekend in the Santa Teresea hills, traipsing up and down and all around, shooting frogs in the quarry pond, rabbits in the brush and squirrels in the sparse, scrub oak forest. Actually, as we got older, there was less traipsing and less “hunting” of the small animals. I can remember sitting for hours at a time on a hard, lichen coated rock in one of the canyons, pointing out oak balls near the top of the trees below. We would challenge one another to knock a certain ball off the branch. Then it became even more hairy. By the time we were in high school, the challenge wasn’t to shoot the oak ball itself, but to shoot the branch holding it, about as big around as the 22 slug itself. As the tract guys came on the scene, they would have 22s with clips that might hold as many as nine bullets that could be shot as fast you could pull the trigger. And the richer guys even had scopes. The problem was, these guys had no patience, but they did have lots of bullets. Eventually they would hit something.

 

 

Just after my 21st birthday, I got married. I thought we were too young but her Catholic parent’s wouldn’t put up with her living with me “out of wedlock (think about it: wed + lock!)” So I acquiesced. Being a husband, I wanted to be a responsible husband. I set up a meeting with an insurance broker to discuss our insurance needs. We went down my list of insurance questions, the broker broke into laughter when I mentioned life insurance. He apologized when he saw I was serious. I guess too serious. He told us that our age, it would be wiser to invest than buy life insurance. I didn’t comprehend all this too well, but we bypassed the life insurance.

 

We had a really nice cottage near San Jose State college and we set up housekeeping in a fairly upscale neighborhood near the college. However, just a few blocks away was the beginning of a fairly rough section of the valley. Sometimes at night, you could hear gun shots echoing off the taller buildings. And sometimes sirens and gunshots. Neither one of us had any experience with city living. Sometimes we’d both get nervous. Being the world’s first generation to be raised with television, our imaginations had lots of ugly images to put behind those unpleasant noises. Once again, thinking of my responsibilities, I began considering getting a hand gun for our protection. I thought a lot about it. I started saving up money for it. I had my very accurate but very inadequate 22 bundled up under the bed with a couple of boxes of bullets. An older friend who grew up with hand guns offered to help me shop for the weapon and get me started. I had never even held a pistol before this.

The night before this purposeful shopping trip, I couldn’t get to sleep. I was nervous and excited all at once. I knew that guns were serious business, I’d known this for a long time, however I had never shot at anything bigger than jack rabbit. I tossed and turned and fretted about if I was doing the right thing. My young wife knew nothing of these plans. I was pretty sure this whole idea would scare the hell out of her. I was realizing this really was a big step and I had really not thought it all out yet. On the one hand, it was very romantic and macho to have such a thing, on the other, hand guns are only built to do one thing. Before I graduated from high school, I had sworn off even shooting squirrels and frogs. It wasn’t doing anyone any good, and, frankly, squirrels just mind their own business and don’t bother anyone. H’mmmm, what to do?

All at once, in the dark, there was a big, burly, faceless thug at the foot of the bed. I had no idea who he was or what his intention was. As he made for the blankets the gun in my hand turned into a glowing ember from hell. I wanted to throw it away but my grip only tightened. The blankets were thrown aside and I didn’t know what to do . . . the hesitation was the killer.

I woke up in a drenching sweat, with my new wife asking what’s wrong a million times. I just told her it was a bad dream which it was. But now I had clarity and understanding.

 

The next morning, just after breakfast, I took the 22 back to my dad’s place and stuck it behind the water heater in the laundry room, where it had always been kept. It remained there until he died.

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