Thomas Pluck on fear, firearms and the struggle for Manhood.
There are no accidental shootings.
The more accurate term is “negligent discharge,” which imparts carelessness to the actor holding the gun. Guns kill people, but a gun does not aim itself, load itself, or fire itself. Very rarely does a modern, well-kept firearm malfunction. I was trained from a tender age not to point a firearm at anything I did not want to destroy.
My earliest memory of a firearm is my father firing his gold-plated .25 Colt Jr. in our basement when I was six years old. Hands over my ears. The tiny gun boomed and my heart went hummingbird in my chest. I cherished the shared forbidden moment. Went searching for the spent brass and lead bullet, but they disappeared in the dust and clutter. My parents were in the middle of a divorce, and my father most likely fired a handgun in the house to infuriate my mother, knowing I would tell. He’d bought the little pistol for her. Had it plated with gold as a gift. But she left it behind when we shed his rages and infidelities, and for him, it must have symbolized her spurning.
To me, it would become a treasured bauble. A compact power totem, a justification for deep feelings of resentment and rage that would culminate in the near-manslaughter of a close friend.
My father was the man you would approach at your wedding if a rowdy guest needed to be escorted outside. His hands were strong and calloused from working construction. They could break bricks, something he’d gladly demonstrate during a lull at a summer barbecue. He was not a man who needed a gun, but he owned five that I know of:
The little gold Colt. An Ithaca 12 gauge pump shotgun. The Saturday night special “belly gun” he kept by the door. A plinking rifle he used to execute squirrels and crows outside his suburban garden apartment window, and the nickel-plated, snub-nosed .38 he kept by his bedside, taught me to shoot on, and stuck in his mouth one evening when he decided to leave this world.
When my mother called to tell me what he’d done, I searched our final phone call for meaning. It had been forced. He was out of work with an injury, and I flipped his favorite adage back at him: Life’s a bitch.
It felt good at the time. I’d learned to mimic his tough-guy armor. Picked it up over a decade of Sundays. The brick-breaker’s shell. Upper lip quirked between grin and sneer. Chest puffed, eyes flashing challenge. And behind them, the fear.
His apartment felt like a tomb. My sister and I poked through his life-litter for mementos. She took the jewelry. I found the guns in all their hiding places. Our uncle, uncomfortably thrust into the position of eldest son, told me to get rid of them. I had grown up fingering their checkered wood and chiseled steel, and the dull, masculine scent of gun oil brought comfort. The gun my father killed himself with was admitted into evidence, and despite a romantic desire to bury it in the desert or throw it into the ocean, I left it for the police incinerator. I flew home with the rest in checked baggage.
I was not a fearful child. I had gotten into three brawls before age six, when my parents split. On my father’s orders, I punched the face of a boy who took my bicycle and rode it in circles around me, teasing. The boy fell and cried. I got my bike back.
I fought another neighborhood boy over our stolen milk-box. He said we could catch rabbits with it, but instead locked it in his basement. I was told to fight to get it back. The boy left bloody tooth marks in my chin, but my fists prevailed.
The last fight I only know from my mother’s telling. Another boy and I were playing with cars in our backyard and fought over a Volkswagen Beetle jalopy. I refused to give it up, so he clocked me in the head with a chunk of asphalt. My mother found me pounding his face into the dirt and pulled us apart. It’s the one time I remember her raising a hand to me, and it was the last time I raised a hand to anybody for over ten years.
After the divorce, we spent Sundays in Dad’s custody as he polished his car, a glass of vodka & orange juice in hand. Watched old movies, ordered pizza, and tiptoed over tripwires of disapproval and contempt. He never laid a hand on us. They broke only bricks, and once, put a hole in the wall next to my mother’s face. He never raised a hand because he didn’t have to. The emotional violence in his eyes did his fighting for him. A bark, a sneer, or a sigh were enough.
I bought my first gun after three coked-up Guidos jumped me over some imagined slight and blacked my eye, bloodied my nose. Before then, I’d avoided fights using humor and by walking away, like fat kids were supposed to. I tried that again, and took a sucker punch that unleashed years of pent-up rage. I fought back more berserker than pugilist. My tormentor was on the high school wrestling team. I wrenched his head by the chin and gripped his throat, but woke up face down with his knee between my shoulder blades. My fury had finally found an outlet, but it had betrayed me.
My father offered to back me up in a rematch. My friends were not fighters. Burnouts, nerds, suburban punks and art farts. And I could not fight. Dad had never taught me. I was supposed to absorb manhood by osmosis. So I joined a gym to put some muscle on my big-boned frame. I carried cheap pocket knives, and later, expensive ones. Ones sold as “tactical,” what the real men use, the operators. SEALs and SWAT teams. The male elite.
Muscle and jack knives were not enough to quell the fear. Neither was a loud, fast car. So when I came of age, I purchased a Ruger GP-101 .357 magnum revolver with a 4 inch barrel. It sat locked in a case on a high shelf, with the Little Gold Colt. I’d spin the Ruger’s cylinder to hear its wheel-of-fortune click. Thumb back the Colt’s hammer to sound its rattlesnake warning. When strange sounds creaked through my open window, its presence brought comfort. An amulet against fear.
Movies had taught me that a gun was a magic wand that created loud noises, and would get me my way by shattering inanimate objects around anyone who confronted me. That its mere presence would end arguments. And it would protect me from everything I was afraid of, which was everything. The violation of that evening replayed itself each time I crossed paths with another man. We would meet eyes, puff up like two male lizards. The weaker would acquiesce, look away. I strutted with false bravado, knowing the Ruger in my closet was there to fall back on. I told myself that knowing it was there kept me from acting upon my fear and anger.
Until it didn’t.
It was a bitter winter evening when I nearly shot my sister’s old boyfriend. Our neighborhood sat on a main suburban artery to the city of Newark. We woke to revving motorcycles outside a strip club at two in the morning. Drunks pissing on our building, or smoking beneath our windows. My mother took these insults in stride. She finally moved after a stolen car plowed through the wall into her bedroom.
My animal brain took these acts as personal affronts. Incursions onto my territory. They chipped at the veneer of my fabricated sense of manhood, creating a well of memory my anger could drink from to constantly fuel itself. Resentments swirled and fed on this aimless rage. I had finished college with honors, but couldn’t find a job doing what I wanted. I was the nice guy with good manners, but hadn’t had a girlfriend since high school. I played by the rules, but my dreams had not materialized.
Then one night I woke to a vehicle repeatedly pulling in and out of our apartment’s icy driveway. Then there were footsteps on our walk, and a tapping on our windows. We shared the driveway with other tenants. It could be a friend of theirs. But to me, this was someone out late on a weekday, invading our peace. They had no manners. They had broken the rules. Pissed on my sidewalk. Trespassed on our driveway. Gone where they did not belong.
I slipped the Ruger into my robe pocket and pushed outside. A bearded young man stumbled around the corner, his wild blue eyes evoking no less a boogeyman than Charles Manson, arms swinging drunkenly, words a mumble. My hand clutched tight on the rubber grip, drumbeats in my ears. Vision blindered to this flannel-shirted grunge junkie, fear flushing through my veins. I stepped back and eased the magnum from my pocket.
Then the trespasser said my name.
I hadn’t seen my sister’s sometime boyfriend with a beard before. I stepped back, deflated. The gun fell into my pocket. He’d knocked on her window. He shouldered past me with an intoxicated smile and tiptoed inside. Adrenaline dumped into my belly like I’d swallowed an ice cube.
What I learned that night was that the gun in my pocket could not protect me from my own fears. If I had shot him, in some states, it would be considered self-defense. In my state, it would not. And I am glad it would not. Because no matter how afraid I was, he did not threaten me. He came bearing only a smile.
The only threat was me.
If he’d been a big biker drunk from the strip club, would I have shot him? Or a young black man looking for a different house, with something in his hands? A man asking me for directions in Spanish?
I am glad I will never know. The thought keeps me vigilant. Aware of my surroundings and my own reactions to it.
We like to think that we are entitled to be free from fear. Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared Freedom From Fear a basic human right. But there is a corollary to that right, which states that we are not entitled to be free from fears of our own making. My fear felt like an external entity back then. Despite my projecting it onto strangers who might dare disrespect me or besmirch my manhood, this fear sprung entirely from within, and soured inside me to a blind hatred justified by its own presence.
We can never be truly free from fear. But we can overcome it. For me, it came back to fighting. Those childhood scuffles. I joined a martial arts class. We in the arts often disdain violence, and sometimes physical sports. I am terribly uncoordinated. It took years before I could claim basic proficiency. But it built confidence, defeating men in single combat. They stand in for the man I never got to fight, the one who introduced me to the thrilling power of controlled, handheld explosions, in that basement nearly forty years ago.
The Little Gold Colt was a strange and gaudy relic from my parents’ past. Lost in a burglary, recovered by police. I left it with them to be incinerated. A menagerie of caged fears have taken its place. Exotic creatures which once terrified, that I now examine and study for causes and motives.
One by one, I send them into the incinerator.
photo: intellax / flickr