Here late? Here’s part 1.
I’m not sure how best to present this part as there are chickens and eggs, but let’s start by saying my father was a profoundly gentle man. He didn’t want us doing anything dangerous and certainly nothing violent. He didn’t watch boxing or wrestling and he didn’t want us doing it. He wouldn’t stop us if we were keen but he definitely disapproved. Maybe gentle isn’t quite right: he was a peaceful man. I never heard about him fighting anyone ever. I suspect there was a pathology here — that he was so peaceful, so gentle, that it was almost a neurosis. He seemed, in retrospect, terrified that any harm would come to anyone he loved.
But under his bed was a .22 bolt action rifle and it fascinated me.
And in his clothes drawer was ammunition and that fascinated me as well.
And he had a .22 calibre CO2 air pistol and we sometimes shot targets with that. And that fascinated me too.
The rifle was taboo — we talked about it exactly once and he never shot it in my presence. I doubt he shot it at all after I was born. It was a burden, something that he just didn’t really know how to get rid of properly. So it stayed under the bed. It was not discussed. It just…existed there.
Except when I took it out.
You can’t really do that to a kid — you can’t declare something fascinating is just off limits and we will never talk about it again and certainly never look at it or handle it or use it. This pretty much guarantees that a kid (well, me, anyway) is going to get that rifle out while you’re not in the house. I’m pretty sure that if we regularly used the rifle that’s not what would have happened. It would have been de-mystified.
So I used to take out the rifle and work the action on it. I would try to understand how all the parts worked together to load and fire the bullets. I would point it (in a safe direction — I wasn’t a stupid child; fact is I probably handled it more safely than father ever did) and pull the bolt back. Tip it up and push it forward. Dry fire it. That didn’t stay satisfying though, so eventually I took some of the ammunition out.
This is probably not going where you imagine. First of all, there’s only so much ammunition you can steal from a not quite full box before you can’t really steal any more without being found out. So this was not going to happen a lot. Second, as I said before, I was not a stupid child. I was not going to fire a live .22 cartridge. But I really wanted to see the whole action at work. I wanted to load it and have the bolt allow a cartridge to pop up and slide into the chamber. I wanted the bolt to extract the cartridge and eject it. I want to operate the machine. I would love to have shot it but honestly that wasn’t the compulsion. The compulsion was to operate it.
So I stole a handful of cartridges and took them out to the shed. There I put them in my father’s bench vise and pulled off the bullets with pliers and emptied the gunpowder out (and I kept that because gunpowder wasn’t what I thought it was — it wasn’t powder, for starters) and then tapped the bullet back in to the cartridge. Now I knew there was still a primer there (I had done some research) but I was pretty sure it didn’t have the power to pop the bullet off a cartridge that had no gunpowder in it. So I took my empty cartridges (and my gunpowder) and I loaded the rifle and worked the action. It was unsatisfying — the cartridges never slipped out of the magazine properly, never chambered properly, never ejected properly. Something was wrong with the machine or the operator. I was done with the rifle.
I set the gunpowder on fire in the back yard. That was the most satisfying part of the crime.
As far as I know my father never found out and I don’t know what happened to the rifle. I never sought it out again.
It was a long time before I thought about this rifle in terms of failings of my father because he’s always been heroic in my mind, but he had a rifle he didn’t want and yet he never did the work to get rid of it. It wasn’t illegal — a .22 bolt action rifle was and is an unrestricted firearm in Canada and at most he’d have to register it. I suspect he fell into the same trap I fall into sometimes — a deadline came and went and I didn’t do the thing and it became easier to just lock the evidence away somewhere you can’t see it and forget about it. But this meant that there was a functioning unlocked firearm (stored near accessible ammunition) in a house with kids. And we all knew it was there. It’s a strange thing for my heroic vision of my father to do. In fact it’s far worse than strange. It’s completely inconsistent. But it happened and so that’s when that image first started to tarnish. Not too badly though — I recognize his failing as one of my own. How can I not forgive it?
So that’s the rifle and the ammunition. It never became dramatic, it just quietly went away one day. The air pistol, though, that we shot together. It took CO2 cartridges and big fat lead .22 pellets and did wonderful damage to tin cans and paper targets and 1:72 scale airplanes and tanks. It put neat holes in yucca plants that we would claim never happened. When pressed we would agree that the other did it. I doubt my mother was satisfied but boys will be boys.
I never took this gun out without permission. It was interesting to operate but being a single-shot pistol it was not very complicated. It was interesting but not fascinating. It felt great in the hand though.
Eventually he would buy me my own air rifle, a break-barrel piston job in .177 calibre. Not powerful, no CO2 cartridges, not fascinating. But fun. We shot a lot of stuff we shouldn’t have and laughed a lot.
But there was a rule and one I never questioned: we never shot anything that looked like a person. No silhouettes, no pictures, nothing like that. Ever. And that’s stuck with me; I have a powerful aversion to shooting anything but bulls-eye targets and soda cans. I despise that guns have ever become about “self-defense” because this is a lie. We all know this is not why we like guns. We like them because they are fun. My father had made this peace: it’s fun, now how can we keep it fun (that is, safe) and his solution was to stick with air guns and treat even those with tremendous respect. But still have a great time shooting mom’s yucca plant. I wish we could hate guns as weapons and still have a great time with them because they are fun. But the lie has cast a shadow over the fun, made us think about guns in terms of murder instead of fun. So we both hated them. And loved them.
And so that was our relationship with guns. After a while I would develop a fascination for auto-loading handguns. I would buy accurate models of them, and tinker with them, disassemble them, assemble them, operate them. But he never went there with me. He was not fascinated. I think now that he was instead terrified but I have no idea why. There was a lot of fear in my father and I don’t think it was for himself.