Gunplay

I have had a gun pulled on me twice. Once, it was even fired. It wasn’t loaded, but the triggerman did not even check before he squeezed. Neither incident caused me to panic or try to replay my life in a matter if nanoseconds, but both have remained like a planter’s wart on the bottom of the foot – unobtrusive, invisible to almost all, yet always there, ever so slightly shifting your step. There are thousands of kids who fall in the line of unintended or misguided fire, and I have survived, twice.

Rifle

The first incident occurred at summer camp when I was 12. I was able make myself enough of a nuisance as to have my parents budget in at least 4 weeks each summer for me to be sent away. My older sister had masterfully convinced my grandparents to fund just such a thing for her some years earlier. When I saw the pictures from her first summers there I immediately longed for such new experiences and wild environs. There was a brother camp to the sister camp, and finally at the age of 10, I was allowed to go. In this picturesque, secluded camp I relished my freedom so much that I eventually convinced my parents to up the stay to 8 weeks for my final two summers. It was a tough sell, as my first summer saw me placed on a mild probation for having such a masterful command of profanity that my parents were called to help “correct” my verbal irresponsibility. Such contact was a rather big deal, as children and parents were only supposed to correspond through letters, unless, of course, there was an emergency. And upon my second summer, I apparently created an emergency.

At the age of 11, and very much immersed in all things hard rock – Zeppelin, Guns n’ Roses, Metallica, the mullet, cheap cigarettes (the kind where the tobacco spills out the front), and girls with denim jackets and feathered hair, I had decided that the missing piece to complete rock n’ roll transformation was an earring. By piercing my own ear I was assured to capture the hearts of all the unsuspecting ladies with my fearlessness, style, and accompanying ability to play “Rock You Like A Hurricane” on an over-sized acoustic guitar. Yet every rocker needs a band to enhance his own majesty, and I skillfully convinced a friend of mine to let me pierce his ear, too.

After lunch one day, during our letter writing time, I numbed our ears with ice cubes, sterilized a needle with a match, and forced a simple gold stud into each of our left earlobes. Piercing one’s own ear is rather difficult with small, chubby eleven year-old hands, and my small, golden emblem of the unbreakable spirit sat a bit off center and low from the desired target. As my earlobe pulsed angrily, I calmly took a nice young lady out on the lake in a rowboat to display my roguishness while remaining cool and detached, “Oh this? Yeah, I always had an earring, but it closed up before I came to camp. So, yeah, I just pierced it again earlier today. It didn’t hurt. I pierced Justin’s, too. He’s never had one before.” The truth being that I had begged my parent’s to get my ear pierced for over a year and they had denied me. I waited until I was hundreds of miles away from them to live out my rock n’ roll fantasy.

As with most fantasies, reality swooped down like carrion fowl, and I did not make it more than a couple of hours before I was summoned to the office. This time my parents were coming in and I was facing expulsion for performing “minor surgery” on another camper. I did not crack under the impending doom and gave no names for the councilors who may have aided in my procuring of the necessary supplies for my “surgeries.” When my parents arrived the next day, it was an uncomfortable meeting with a pleasant ending. Perhaps out of guilt for not allowing me to have something as harmless as an earring or out of fear of losing their summers alone together, my parents did a masterful job of reprimanding me while also taking responsibility. They adeptly convinced the jury that I loved this camp and such actions were because of the freedoms of expression I have enjoyed while being there. However my happiness may have been perverted, the weeks spent at camp were what carried me through my miserable months of the school year (I added the miserable part). Earring removed, I was allowed to stay and my new position of Resident Badass remained for the rest of the summer. When I returned home, I was taken to The Piercing Pagoda and allowed to get a proper piercing. This time, it was dead center.

When I returned the following summer, forever on the “Most Wanted” list, I was somewhat of a changed man. I had grown a couple of inches, I had a great crew of friends awaiting me there and I had a school year’s worth of cute girlfriends and terrible bands. This was to be my sister’s final summer as a camper and she had chosen a whack-job of a boyfriend, Fergus.

Fergus was a wiry, sandy haired boy of 14 who had a smile that could stun, but a mouth that spewed forth the most awful, insulting, racist and generally disturbing bile that one could imagine. All who witnessed his sickness gave him two years before he would end up in jail, most likely for pummeling someone to death. What my sister saw in him, I will never understand. He was cute, I guess, with clear, young eyes and a sly, dark charm, but this kid was bat-shit crazy and full-on dangerous. I had steered clear of this menace for my previous two years, desperately trying not to look him in the eyes or engage any of his insulting prompts, lest he have the split second he desired to put down a child much younger and smaller than him. When I learned that my sister had taken up with this future felon, I could not understand her motivations and I deeply feared for her.

My gang counted four and our main concerns were cracking penis jokes, making out with girls, and causing minor amounts of trouble, i.e. bribing councilors to buy us various forms of “contraband.” Fergus recognized this small seed of insubordination within our crew and attempted to take us under his wing, at one point offering me pot for the first time (which one of the gang would not allow me to take under penalty of friendship termination. Incidentally, the two of us would smoke pot together for the first time a couple of summers later.) No one was comfortable with Fergus’ advances, and as the summer wore on and his malice slowly revealed itself, the gang decided to finally stand up to him. One of the members suggested that if provoked, or even through merely defending oneself, Fergus would not actually fight – he was all mouth and no teeth. This theory was soon put to the test when one of our crew of similar build to Fergus responded to an insult with a very direct, “Fuck you.” Fergus faced him and gave him one final chance to back down, but our man stood his ground and was subsequently pushed very hard onto that very ground. That was the extent of the incident, and although it did turn slightly physical, it was deemed manageable.

The gang were now persona non grata for having rejected Fergus’ protection and a hatred began to boil in me as he was still dating my sister and growing ever more cocky and unpredictable. I was too small to take him physically and he never traveled without his lackey, who was a short, squat fellow with amazing strength and a temper that exceeded that of his captain. When I did come to confront Fergus, I was blind with anger and fearless. This emotional combination is mostly likely why I failed to hesitate on that humid August morning when Fergus came over the hill carrying a 22-caliber rifle on his way to the range. He greeted me with some putrid barb and I let forth a torrent of obscenities not heard at that camp since the summer of my 10th year. Stunned, infuriated and unable to attack, for I was his girlfriend’s little brother, he raised the rifle to his eye and held me in its sight. I cannot remember being afraid. It was not within the sheltered reality of this serene summer camp to ever imagine that death would or could enter, let alone by another camper’s hand. The action was pathetic to me and I felt strangely proud for defending my sister and friends. I later alerted someone on the staff of the incident and Fergus narrowly escaped being expelled, but was kicked off of the riflery team and basically put on parole for the rest of the term. He did not return the following summer.

I rarely think back to that incident and wonder, “What if the gun was loaded? What if he did not know it was loaded, but it was? What if his finger slipped? What if a bee landed on him and startled him and the gun went off?” I never feared for being killed intentionally, which is perhaps why I was not afraid to stare down the gun, but intentions aside, a bullet does not care how it gets to its destination. Perhaps it would have been deemed a noble death, sticking up to a bully, or perhaps it would have brought further fodder to the gun safety campaign (which falls on deaf ears, anyways), but either way, my life would have been over. The incident would be declared an accident or a bad decision and his life would be over in a way, too. I don’t think that dumb SOB ever thinks back for one second about how he almost figuratively shot himself. Action, accident, consequence are too much to process when you have a problem with rage – it is going to make you look like a killer whether you intended to shoot or not. If you have the inclination to lift up a gun and point it at someone, you are telling me that you have the ability to pull the trigger.

Revolver

My second encounter with a gun was three years later. The immediate similarities to this story and so many on the news or in print are something that I only let myself examine in small, regulated bursts. There is not much one can do except move on after narrowly escaping a potentially fatal incident, but the “what ifs” always tend to remain, flitting about one’s brain like tiny moths, slowly nibbling away at the fabric. My recollections nowadays make me angry. I am particularly angry with my “friend,” but also angry with myself for not somehow confronting him about the seriousness of his actions. I cannot remember much of the remainder of that evening, but our friendship soon turned tepid. That event caused a current that sent us both drifting apart and neither one of us wanted to try and steer back towards the other.

His story, Rich’s, is sad, but not necessarily worthy of sympathy. We were friends since birth, really, as our mothers were old friends. Rich was the only child to ever have bitten me, and although we were not more than three at the time, the primal rage that he unleashed into my arm has never left my memory. Even at that age I knew that what he did was wrong, strange and scary. We continued to be casual friends until around age 11 when we discovered that we shared the same interests in baseball, girls and cigarettes. By 12 we added rap music to the mix, at 13 we added liquor, and by the summer I turned 14 we added weed and hip clothes. Rich fancied himself a full-fledged gangster.

Rich had it all when he was younger and he subsequently had to watch it all slowly unravel as he entered his teens. His father was a thriving lawyer and the family had two ski houses, drove a BMW with gold hubcaps, and vacationed seemingly every other month, yet everything seemed to fall apart just as it reached its apex – his father lost his money, his job, and finally, his wife. I was around Rich during all of this and we mainly just fished at the little pond down the street, set off fireworks, hit golf balls into the woods and smoked cigarettes. He seemed to have as little of an idea about what was really going on as me, or if he knew something, he did a good job of hiding. Yet the shock to Rich’s pride concerning his family’s rather public fall from grace seemed to push him further and further into an outsider mentality. He was still cocky and very handsome, with a cocoa complexion and large, dark eyes, but now his rebelliousness frequently turned misogynistic or violent. As he felt increasingly alienated from the upper middle class surroundings, Rich transitioned further into the gangster life that he felt he now understood. There are things that I know about Rich that I have held secret and I will continue to do so, but suffice to say that he played up every real and fictionalized trait thrown at us in movies, music and magazines, short of (to my knowledge) murder.

Rich’s parents divorced and moved into small apartments on the edge of town and we spent our lazy summer days either in the city or playing basketball, smoking weed, looking for parties or chasing after girls. I can safely say that all such activities for me where not a means of escape, but rather entertainment, where Rich seemed bent on a path of going as deep as he could into the darkness while still being trapped in the light of the suburbs. We generally spent time at his father’s place as he was the most permissive and usually never around.

Rich had spent the summer that we turned 15 in Atlanta and picked up some pretty bad habits and a whole host of experiences that would take another 5-10 years before I would come across. The beginning of that school year, our sophomore year of high school, saw Rich running through unsuspecting girls like tissues and entering the world of small time drug dealing. It was an early fall Friday night at his father’s empty place when Rich asked if I wanted to see his dad’s gun.

I have never been fascinated with guns. I enjoyed riflery and achieved a moderate level of recognized success in the sport, but handguns have held no allure for me other than during child’s play in the woods with cap guns. The fact that Rich had a gun in his possession made him feel as though his initiation into the world of the OG was complete. Reaching under a stack of sweaters on the top shelf of his father’s closet, Rich pulled out a shiny, snub-nosed revolver. With no time to ogle at its craftsmanship or sleeping evil, Rich aimed at my stomach and pulled the trigger. Click. I instinctively flinched and jumped to the side, but all would have proved fruitless had the gun been loaded – or had it jammed? Out of perhaps another self-defense mechanism, after screaming at him over his delighted laughs, I convinced myself that he would not have done such a thing unless he was assured that the gun was not loaded. I tried to ignore the searing reality of the situation and asked to feel the gun. It was heavier than I had imagined it would be, but other than that, it felt cold and lifeless.

But what if his father had loaded it? What if there was one in the chamber? What if… What if Rich had intended to shoot me? Was he jealous that my family remained stable and together? Angry that we were spectators to his family’s spectacular fall from opulence? I was reminded of the bite. He had intended to kill me with that bite, or at least leave me with a scar that will forever remind me of his anger and fury and ability to enact vengeance. The pulling of the trigger on an unsuspecting target was exactly the same motivation – fear, anger and retribution.

The description of Rich’s life up until that moment provides a greater depth to the category for which my death would have undoubtly been selected, the all too classic, two boys alone in the house, one says, “Hey, you wanna see my father’s gun?,” gun goes off, child dies, horrible tragedy, lesson learned, and then it happens a few minutes later somewhere else in the country.

The two conclusions I draw from both of these encounters is that if you pull the gun, you are capable of killing. If you are not capable of killing, then you still possess an anger and rage large enough to block your judgment in the most final of conflicts. I have dodged a bullet twice now, and neither one I truly saw coming, yet had I, too, slowed myself in the moment, I would have been able to see the potential harm I was putting myself in the way of. The simple lessons that I failed to heed are: Don’t argue with someone with a gun in their hand, and when someone says, “Hey, you wanna see my father’s gun?,” say no. I consider myself both very lucky and very stupid that I am able to sit here and write this.

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2 Responses to “Gunplay”

  1. chris nelson Says:

    marc,

    Your posts are lively and vivid. This is the 2nd or 3rd I’ve read and I’ve enjoyed them all thoroughly.

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