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The Shipwreck Rose: The Gun Club

Thu, 01/27/2022 - 13:24

‘Why,” my daughter exclaimed in a loud voice of disapproval as we were taking down the holiday ornaments a few weeks ago, “do we have a gun on our Christmas tree?!” The offending article was a blown-glass ornament in the shape of a hunting rifle, walnut-colored, about six inches long, and dusted with a frost of tinselly snow — a stocking stuffer I gave to my son to match his big Christmas present in 2018, the year he asked for and received a genuine Daisy Winchester Model 12 Youth Pump Action BB Gun.

Why I gave my 9-year-old son a BB gun for Christmas merits a bit of explanation, I realize, and not just because air rifles are no longer socially acceptable here in these parts, among the liberal coastal elites (I kid! I josh!). Yes, more pertinently, friends scratched their heads and probably exchanged a few sharp comments about my parenting in private because my son is African-American and not as safe from misunderstanding and potential law-enforcement intervention while plinking at cans against the side of the barn in the backyard as his white cousin might be. Perhaps I’m an irresponsible mom, but, cutting to the chase, the real reason I gave my 9-year-old son a BB gun is that I’m sentimental and hold fast to family traditions like a Titanic survivor clinging to a life raft, and until my dad’s generation, gunning was a year-round family pursuit. Society has moved on, gun culture has become radically different — radicalized — but the words “hunting rifle” still seem cozy to me.

(Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Consider some families’ sentimental attachment to the Confederacy, or the way immigrants’ descendants sometimes become the most die-hard and jack-boot-y nationalists on behalf of the country their parents or grandparents fled.)

A few days ago I was rolling around on my stomach looking for a missing photograph in some cardboard boxes under the guest room bed when I came instead upon a letter addressed in the late 1930s to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole, Arctic Circle.” The envelope, yellowed with age and marked “via Air Mail” in pencil, was written by my father when he was 7 or 8.

“Dear Santa Claus,” it began. “I want a bebe gun and a Toy Machine gun and a new pair of ice skates and a bike light and new eletric Train and a book called ‘Farmer Boy’ and a lead soldier mold set and a blank Pistol. with love, your Friend, Everett Rattray.”

Skipping swiftly past the other points of interest here — that small children were permitted to play with molten lead, and had sugarplum visions of books set on farms dancing in their head — I noted the request for fully three guns. A boy needed one for each social occasion.

My dad was schooled by his doting maternal grandfather, E.J. Edwards, to be accomplished in all the outdoor arts requisite of a manly man of old Amagansett: duck hunting, goose hunting (“goosing”), deer hunting, fishing, seining, sailing, keeping boat engines in order, gathering wild grapes at Montauk, mending nets, carving decoys, painting decoys, predicting weather, not being a jackass on the water, not being a jackass with machinery, with knives, or with guns. When he went off to college at Dartmouth, my father became a member of the rifle-marksmanship team, but a decade later, during the Vietnam War — so the family story goes — he gave up gunning completely because the violence of the war and the war mentality disgusted him. Guns were no longer fun. Ain’t gonna study war no more.

Even so, guns were very much present in my own childhood. We had a musket dating to the — I think this is correct? — French and Indian War over the fireplace in our kitchen in Promised Land, and my dad did keep a shotgun hidden away somewhere, though he didn’t use it. There were hunting blinds down past the dunes, on the beach at Gardiner’s Bay, small huts with roofs made of branches or reeds, excavated down into the sand, which we hopped into and pretended were castles or spaceships. My older brothers had BB guns, too, which they used for plinking cans beside the barn . . . and, I believe, plinking passing cars from the attic window of a neighboring boy’s house on the corner of Buell Lane on at least one occasion. (Or maybe those were bottle rockets?)

The BB guns disappeared the day one of my brothers, who shall not be named here, thought it would be hilarious to put the pointer finger of a joke-shop rubber ghoul hand (a realistic rubber hand, bloody and severed at the wrist, meant to be used for pranks at Halloween) into the trigger of a BB gun and aim it toward his sister’s head at close range. Naturally, the rubber hand fell to the ground, the BB gun went off, and a BB lodged at the corner of my orbital socket, an eighth of an inch from blinding me in the right eye. You can believe I screamed bloody murder and kept on wailing vigorously as we drove to the pediatrician for three stitches. Although I — feeling the need to punish the culprit with the horror of it all — have never before made this admission: It actually didn’t hurt that much, to be honest, and to my disappointment the BB fell out en route to the doctor’s office.

Around the same time, I was inordinately proud when, age 8 or 9, I tried my luck at a carnival air-rifle shooting gallery while we were on vacation in New England and showed what I was made of: I shouldered the rifle and obliterated all but one microscopic corner of a six-pointed star on the paper target. My dad said I could be on the Dartmouth rifle team one day, and I didn’t even care much that the carnival man, indicating the small speck on the target, wouldn’t let me take home one of the child-size stuffed bears and poodle dogs that hung above the stars.

My great-grandfather and his crew (literally, his crew, the same motley cast of characters who rowed out with him in the whaleboats on those last Amagansett shore-whaling chases in the teens) posed for hunting-prize portraits in winter, wearing chestnut-brown waxed-canvas jackets, caps, and pants (like the Carhartts favored nowadays by Williamsburg hipsters who want to signal their interest in handicraft). I have a few of these photographs under the guest room bed. The men hold their long guns at their side as they stand before strings of dead sea ducks and dead geese. Despite their passion for blood sport, I think I can say with confidence that they would have thought any man who strapped a semiautomatic to his hip and took it to a school board meeting or a grocery store as a display of machismo was not just certifiably insane but a total tool. A jackass. They would probably have disarmed him.

Winter is milder now in all meanings of the word. It is more boring, and there are fewer dangerous pursuits for daring boys and girls. They used to race pony sleds down Main Street, and drive sleighs out on the ice of Three Mile Harbor, and skate as the sun went down on Town Pond, Hook Pond, Long Pond, and Two Holes of Water. They used to race ice boats on Georgica and Mecox. All those things have been spoiled, as gun culture has been spoiled. It’s rank, and it’s rotten. Maybe my daughter is right and I need to leave the rifle ornament off the Christmas tree next December, but I'm unsure.

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