I was on my stomach with elbows propped on the ground. I could maintain the right height, or I guess “elevation” is the correct word, but I could not hold the sights steady. They moved slowly and laterally over the target. I decided that the best I could do was judge the rapidity of the movement and fire right before the bull’s-eye was in the sights. I was on the firing range at a Boy Scout camp, although I think I was only a Cub Scout, and it was the first time I had shot a real gun—it was a rifle and I assume a .22. We had received some sort of instruction, but I had learned long before from countless western and war movies and TV shows—don’t pull the trigger; squeeze it. The targets were collected, and I was eager to see how I had done.  I had scored well—very well. (Unlike in archery, where I sucked.) This was fun.

In my first and only week at a sleepaway camp, I went back to the rifle range whenever I could. I was quite pleased with my marksmanship as were the instructors. Toward the end of the week I went again to the range. This time I went wearing shoes but no socks. In those days, apparently, no respectable human being went sockless. The instructor was shocked at my cavalier dismissal of the conventional attire and said, “No one is allowed here unless they are wearing socks.” I disregarded the grammatical lapse, but I did feel anger. What did socks have to do with firing a rifle safely? I could not see the connection, and although only twelve, my emerging anti-authoritarian streak was fueled. Further, although we had been given many rules at our time at camp, this was not one of them. This guy was just making it up on spot. (Of course, maybe, there had never before been a need for such a rule since everyone else wore socks to the range.) I don’t remember whether I put socks on, but I did not go back to the range. This experience added to my doubts about my suitability for scouting and soon I left the organization. You might also say that I was ahead of my time in being offended by senseless regulations.

We did not have guns in our house growing up. Guns in those days meant hunting, and my father did not hunt. He did fish and took the family to local lakes. We used casting rods, and I still remember the thrill of a strike and the landing of what I was assured was a very large smallmouth bass. But no hunting, although this was Wisconsin, and, of course, many people went hunting for geese and ducks and deer. In autumn, I would often see a buck tied to the hood of a car as it was driven to the butcher. Deer were killed not just for the thrill of the hunt, but also to be eaten. I found the sight of the dead deer simultaneously disgusting and exhilarating, and I sometimes benefited from the deer-killing. A destination for hunters was the butcher shop attached to the grocery store where my mother clerked. The butchers turned the scraps of the deer meat into summer sausage. The butchers could not legally sell any of the hunters’ kill, but they would often give some of the venison sausage to my mother, and I would happily eat it.

I am certain that many of my friends had guns in their houses, but this was not a topic of conversation. No one bragged about their arsenal or insisted they were safer because of the firearms stashed in the basement or closet. No one owned guns as status symbols. It was just accepted that if someone in the family was a hunter, there were rifles or shotguns in the house.

One of these friends was Greg, and during a high school summer, he suggested that he, Steve, and I go out shooting. Although I had not held a rifle since my scouting days, I agreed. We went to a farm outside of town that must have been owned by a relative of Greg’s and, like cowboys in a movie, we set up bottles and cans on fence posts. Being a timid, adolescent boy, I was worried about embarrassing myself and let the others shoot first. The first targets were easy, and we moved further and further away. Finally, I felt like I could hardly see the bottle on the post. Greg and Steve missed. I took aim with the one gun we had and as the “Schlitz” I could not read but knew was there wandered in and out of the sights, I again timed my waverings as well as I could, squeezed the trigger, and saw the bottle explode.

I did not gloat. (Never have in my entire life. I swear.) But certainly my face and body showed a certain satisfaction. Greg got angry. It was his gun. He was the shooter. He had to be better at this than Steve or I. Greg fumed and pointed up at a reasonably distant tree. “If you are so good, hit that bird up there.” This was a rifle, not a shotgun, and I thought, “No way.” But I aimed and fired. The bird fell in pieces to the ground, and I felt sick to my stomach. I had senselessly killed something because of a dare, and I never wanted to shoot a gun again.

(To be continued.)

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