I had the chance to spend many Saturdays with my paternal grandfather while I was growing up. Born in the mountains of Tennessee at the tail end of the 1800’s, a hero of the U.S. Marines in World War One, this man looked at marksmanship not as a hobby but as a life skill, absolutely vital knowledge for a young man. There are very few men alive today who received the kind of shooting instruction I did with such a sense of seriousness. That’s not to say there wasn’t fun involved. I mean, I got to shoot guns as a kid, of course it was fun!
By the time I was in my early teens, I had reached a level of proficiency and displayed such consistent regard for safety that I was trusted to go out on my own. On Saturday afternoon we’d head out Indian Hollow road (which seemed desperately remote to civilization at the time, and pulled up the long country drive of an old friend’s farm home. As we stepped out of the car and I pulled the rifle case from the trunk, Gramps would produce a small green box of .22 cartridges from his pocket and hand them to me. “Don’t bring any of ‘em back!” he’d joke, as if that were a possibility!
Into the woods and down the ravine I went to the junk pile. There’s another icon of the past that would disturb today’s mothers maybe more than a twelve year old boy being alone with a rifle; the junk pile. There was a time when we didn’t pull the hinges off an old refrigerator, pay somebody to trap the Freon and buy a disposal tag from the city to pick it up. Instead, we just threw it down the hill with the rest of the toasters, tin cans, gas ranges, a 48 De Soto and lots and lots of little green beer bottles that shatter beautifully when hit by a .22 bullet.
Was it good fun? No, it was the best kind of fun. Somebody taught me carefully (actually several somebodies) and then they put their trust in me, and I took it seriously, I honored that trust. To tell the truth, the thing that kept me in line the most wasn’t because it was the safe thing to do, or because it was “the rules”. What kept me in line was my fear of letting down the two biggest influences, the guys who taught me to shoot, Dad and Gramps. Some trust comes out of fear of getting in trouble, but the only trust you can really rely on comes from the fear of hurting somebody you love.
So there I am, a boy with a .22 rifle and a huge pile of tin cans and beer bottles. After shooting a few bottles, you start trying to shoot just the necks off the bottles, and you back up a little farther, a little farther than last weekend, farther still…Before long I was a pretty good shot, defeating the hoards of Nazi beer bottles as they advanced on Ohio, with me as freedom’s lone defender! Then that got old, and I started looking around at that old De Soto, rusty but windshield intact, and then I looked at my rifle. And then I looked at the windshield and the rumor I had heard that bullets would actually bounce off a windshield. Then I thought, “How else am I going to learn?” So began my education in ballistics.
You may have heard about the woman who called the authorities because a father posted a photo on Facebook of his proud son and the .22 rifle he had received for getting good grades, and I think about it in contrast to the way I was raised, being taught properly and trusted. Maybe I was just a kid potting away at cans and bottles, but the lessons learned by Opie Taylor and myself transcend the sport of plinking. The other day I took my daughter out with an air rifle and a coffee can and we started the tradition anew. Although the junk pile may be a thing of the past, making responsible young adults out of excited young kids is not a thing of the past.