David Olimpio wanted to be a spy when he grew up. Now he’s glad he left violent games in boyhood, and worries about the men who did not.
When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Cloak & Dagger. I identiﬁed with the main character, Davey Osborne, played by Henry Thomas, the young star of the then-recent blockbuster ET. Not only did Davey Osborne and I share a ﬁrst name, but we were about the same age and we both lived in Texas. Neither of us spent as much time as we would have liked with our dads and we both had imaginary friends to compensate for it. (His imaginary friend was one of the central characters of the movie: Jack Flack, a cool-under-ﬁre spy who wears a leather ﬂak jacket and “always escapes.”) We both transformed our boring and lonely summer afternoons with a parent at work into elaborate plots of espionage and we were never far from the tools our spying demanded of us: walkie-talkies, baseball hand-grenades, plastic water-pistols.
Davey Osborne was me. I was Davey Osborne.
Aside from the movie Cloak & Dagger, my spy training came from two other sources:
1) A role-playing game called Top Secret, which was published by TSR, the same company that published Dungeons and Dragons, and which I would play any chance I got with my friend Jason.
2) James Bond movies, which I collected on VHS tape.
From my training, here’s what I knew about being a spy:
1) No matter what situation the good guy (me, my character) was in, he always escaped.
2) He had brawn: he was physically strong, athletic, and coordinated, but:
3) He also had brains: he was smart, charismatic, and he could fall back on his ingenuity and cleverness when his physical ability fell short (which wasn’t often.)
4) He could expertly operate any moving vehicle: sports cars, motorcycles, 18-wheeler trucks, airplanes, racing boats. He never crashed.
5) He carried a weapon and, even though he didn’t always use it, he was accurate and deadly with it when he needed to be.
I remember running around the perimeter of my dad’s house in his quiet neighborhood in Richardson, Texas, hiding in the bushes from the cars that drove by, my plastic semiautomatic Uzi water-pistol in my hand. The cars were the enemy. I had to avoid being seen by them at all costs or risk detection and capture (and probable death.) This was one basic premise, but everything was part of the game: Trips to the convenience store. Skateboarding on the sidewalk. Playing in the pool. They all were part of the game of Cloak & Dagger I had running in my head, the one where I was a spy and the people around me were bad guys. I was certain that I had what it took to be a real-life spy. I just wanted to have that opportunity, the same way Davey Osborne had it, the lucky bastard.
I wanted to play Cloak & Dagger, but I wanted to play it for real.
I grew up to be a writer, bartender, and web developer, but not a spy. My younger self would be ashamed. Not only because of my pansy-ass professions, but because I grew up to be somebody who is ﬁrmly anti-gun. I don’t have much beef with hunting riﬂes, though I think if guys really want to hunt and be manly, a knife or an arrow might be a fairer ﬁght. But I truly dislike and disapprove of handguns. I don’t think we should have them and I deﬁnitely don’t think we should be able to carry them, concealed, in public. I don’t even think most cops should carry them. Guns have an undeniable sex-factor on TV and in the movies, even for me, I have to admit. But in real life, I ﬁnd them absurd. They can only amount to bad. If there is a handgun, it wants to be used. It has a purpose, and it’s not to shoot vermin or cans. Its purpose is to kill people.
Being anti-handgun is an uncommon stance for somebody who grew up in Texas, where people really like their guns and really like to point to our constitution as justiﬁcation. But the right to bear arms never pertained to our current culture. The Founding Fathers, who were, no doubt, intelligent and reasonable folks, would recognize that. Even Thomas Jefferson, who was a strict Constitutional constructionist in his time wrote in a letter to Samuel Kercheval on July 12, 1816:
I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and ﬁnd practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which ﬁtted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The spirit of the right to keep and bear arms is that citizens have a right to protect themselves from an abusive government by forming militias. Like it or not, this is an obsolete idea. It did not anticipate a government with atomic weapons and tanks and ﬁghter jets. Here’s the reality: even semi-automatic ﬁrearms and machine guns will not help us against them. We will not be forming militias with much success today.
We have, however, proven to be quite successful in killing ourselves and our fellow Americans with guns. According to the CDC, 31,347 people died from ﬁrearms in 2009. Suicide accounted for 59.8% and homicide for 36.7% of those deaths. Over 200 of those deaths were children under 14 years old.
But we don’t need to read any statistics to acknowledge the troubled relationship our country currently has with ﬁrearms. We only need to think about the associations we make when people bring up certain subjects: Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, University of Texas Bell Tower, John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Ronald Reagan and the Washington Hilton, Trayvon Martin, The Dark Knight movie premiere in Aurora, The Empire State Building.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But let’s face it: we are a nation of crazy motherfuckers.
Or maybe we are a nation of boys who’ve never outgrown our desire to play Cloak & Dagger, for real.
In the recent past, I found myself under the grip of a depression that I had trouble shaking. One of the many symptoms of it was that I had continual thoughts of killing myself. They were just that: thoughts. Therapists use the term “suicidal ideation.” I tend to think this sounds better. Ideas are good, after all. I like having ideas.
I didn’t like having these ideas, though, and I decided they needed to stop. It was getting boring and non-productive. So even though I was ashamed to talk about it, I told my doctor. I told her I didn’t know why I was having these thoughts. I told her I was afraid of dying, so why would I think about killing myself all the time? Her answer: The mind is a funny thing.
My doctor asked, “Have you thought about how you would do it?”
I said, “Yes. A gun.”
She said, “Do you own a gun?”
I said, “No.”
This was a common line of questioning—protocol, I suppose—because two other doctors I spoke to about this asked me the same thing. They were trying to get at whether or not I had the means to carry out the thing.
None of the doctors asked if I had a next-door neighbor who owned two guns. None of the doctors asked if I had a key to this neighbor’s house so I could let their dog out to pee if they were going to be home late.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And nobody can protect a person from himself, right?
I don’t have suicidal ideation or depression anymore. I got help and I got better. And now it’s as foreign to me to have those thoughts as it was before the depression. But then it was an every-single-day thing. It was even an every-single-hour thing. And I think it came out in other ways, too, this interest in hurting myself. I found I would deliberately put myself into dangerous situations. One of these situations involved a run-in with a man in my neighborhood who turned out to be carrying a gun in his warm-ups.
I was walking my dog. It was a winter evening, cold and quiet and cricket-less. I had on boots that made loud shufﬂings against the street and a coat that made swishings when my arms moved. My dog’s collar clanged. I came up behind this man, who was also walking his dog at a much slower pace. I came up behind him in this overtly non-silent manner. Turns out, however, that the spying skills I learned when I was younger can’t be controlled, because the man jumped when I came up next to him. He hadn’t seen or heard me, after all. I gave a lighthearted laugh. I told him I was sorry. I said, “I really thought you knew I was here.”
He said: “You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that. I might have pulled my gun on you.”
I kept on walking ahead of him, but the gun comment nagged at me. Why was this guy carrying a gun in our safe neighborhood? I turned around and I said, “You’re carrying a gun?”
He said he was, then he lifted up his coat and pulled out a large dark handgun from the waistband of his warm-ups. Let me be clear: He didn’t point it at me. He just lifted it up, then slipped it back in, keeping it directed downward. Some people would argue this
Something snapped. I said, “Why are you carrying a gun … here?”
He just said, all matter-of-fact: “Because I like to.”
My head exploded, and I did the only reasonable, rational-minded thing I could think of: I called him a “fucking idiot.”
After I said the words, and I turned away from him and started walking, I had that sensation of hair standing up on the back of my neck. Probably because I had just turned my back on a man I’d never met before with a large handgun in his warm-ups and who I had just called a “fucking idiot.” It was entirely possible that this man was one of our locally-grown Down Home American Crazy Motherfuckers.
He said, “Do you want to come back here and call me a fucking idiot again.”
This was a trick question and I knew it. I knew I certainly did not want to go back and tell him that. And I’m pretty sure he knew it, too. I kept walking, dragging my dog as she tried to stop and smell spots on the curb. I turned on my street and began walking up the steep hill to my house. I was a good 50 yards from him when he shouted , “Did you ever think I was carrying a gun for a reason, like maybe I’m a cop and I’m about to go to work?”
I stopped, ﬁguring I was at a relatively safe distance. Okay, so the man was a cop. My head exploded again. I said, “If you’re a cop, that makes it worse. You just pulled your gun on a civilian. I should report you. I stand by my previous assertion. Good day to you, sir.”
Okay, I don’t think I said it quite like that, but that was the gist of it.
After my purely levelheaded display, I walked home … shaking. I’ve been told by others in my neighborhood that the man who I encountered isn’t quite a cop. He is a court ofﬁcer. And he did something similar to the PSE&G employee who reads the meters in our
neighborhood. He’s probably never had an occasion to actually use his gun. But he certainly seems to be looking for one.
This incident happened to me a good two years or so before 17-year old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a “neighborhood watch” man, while Martin was walking through a neighborhood in Florida. That episode really struck a chord with me
and I was frustrated by the tendency I saw among journalists to make the Trayvon Martin case so much about racial proﬁling. I’m not saying that what happened to Trayvon Martin wasn’t partially the result of racial proﬁling, possibly even downright racism. There’s little doubt in my mind, in fact, that it played a factor in the whole thing.
I’m willing to bet that if it had been me, a white guy, walking through in that neighborhood in Florida, coming home from a convenience store, I probably wouldn’t have been shot or even pursued by George Zimmerman. I’m also willing to concede that
if I had been black the night I met the court ofﬁcer a stone’s-throw away from my house in my otherwise entirely safe neighborhood, it would be more likely that I would’ve been shot. But let’s be clear: the Trayvon Martin case is mostly about crazy assholes carrying
guns. And it turns out that sometimes those assholes are grown men who think they’re playing a game of real-world Cloak & Dagger. And sometimes the people they kill end up being innocent kids or dog-walking pedestrians.
I mean, why did george Zimmerman have a gun in the first place? Who determined it was okay for this guy to be patrolling a neighborhood with a gun? He wasn’t a cop. And he was even explicitly told (by cops) to stand down.
Guns don’t kill people, people carrying guns out of unreasonable fear and suspicion kill people. It’s simple: if you’re carrying a gun, you’re looking to use it.
There’s a scene early in Cloak & Dagger where Davey is being chased by a few of the bad guys. He’s in a park somewhere in San Antonio, and ﬁnds himself face-to-face with one of them. He pulls his plastic water-pistol on the guy and says, “Freeze, turkey!”
The bad guy, whose name is “Rice,” is surprised by the gun and is momentarily unsure what to do, but then ﬁgures the gun isn’t real. “You little punk!” he says, and lunges at Davey. Davey squeezes the trigger, squirting red ink in Rice’s face, temporarily blinding him and affording himself some time to make an escape. By the time Rice gets the ink out of his eyes, Davey is gone.
This scene mirrors another towards the end of the movie where Davey is confronted again by Rice at night in a dark underpass along the River Walk. This time Davey has a real gun, which he had picked up from one of the other bad guys. Davey runs into a dead end and is cornered by Rice. Davey lifts the gun and says, “Don’t come any closer or I’ll shoot.” Rice says, “Yeah sure you will, red ink.” He holds up his own gun and taps it lightly. It is a sub-machine gun with silencer. He says, “This one shoots real bullets.”
Davey says, “I’m warning you, this is not a water pistol!” Rice says, “Neither is this. I could turn you into shredded meat in about … three seconds with this baby if I wanted to.”
While this conversation is happening, Jack Flack the cool-under-ﬁre spy Davey roleplays in his games, materializes next to Davey, and tells him he needs to shoot Rice. But Davey is scared and does not really want to.
Jack says, “Ok, I’ll show you what a real hero would do.” He walks out and takes off his hat and starts yelling at Rice to shoot him. Of course, Rice doesn’t hear this, but Davey looks at Jack and says, “Jack! Don’t!” Rice thinks there is somebody else there and he turns and ﬁres several rounds at the invisible Jack Flack. Davey says, “No!” And lifts his gun and ﬁres it at Rice, killing him.
Davey runs over to help Jack, who stands up and brushes himself off. He says to Davey, “Congrats, Davey. You won!” Davey says, “I thought he shot you.” Jack says, “Nah, never touched me … He probably didn’t have much imagination anyway.” Davey looks angry. Jack says, “Look Davey, you killed the bad guys, you won the game! Well, how do you feel?” Davey yells at Jack: “It wasn’t fair! You made me shoot, you made me kill him!” Then he throws his Jack Flack ﬁgurine on the ground and steps on it, breaking the base off, and screaming, “I don’t want to play anymore!”
We are not playing a game, you guys. Guns kill people. Handguns kill people. That’s what they’re designed to do.
Most of us boys who play shoot-em-up games when we are kids eventually come to understand the reality of it and it stops being fun. We lose our sense of imagination and romance when it comes to guns and killing. It goes hand-in-hand with loss of a whole bunch of other things people feel sad about losing: Loss of Innocence, Loss of Eating Sugar with No Consequences.
Some boys don’t ever become spies, but they go on wishing they were. Only they’re older now, and so they can do some of the things they couldn’t do as a small boy. They can buy a real gun, for instance, and in some states they can conceal it and carry it around with them.
The thing that stays the same—for young boys who walk through schools or movie theaters, or for grown men who walk around neighborhoods—is that the people carrying guns are the people looking to use them. They’re looking to play.
And the rest of us, we don’t want to play anymore.
Image of little boy with toy gun courtesy of Shutterstock