Sunday, March 28, 2010

My Guns and My Regrets

I got my first gun when I was nine or ten, a BB gun with a hand pump under the stock. It was a lousy gun. It fired metal BBs sold by the thousand in cardboard boxes, BBs which exited the barrel at such low velocity I could visually trace their arc through the air. My gun was so weak that if I was wearing jeans I could shoot myself in the leg without feeling much of anything. Even so my mother considered the gun dangerous because at close range it could doubtless "put out an eye." Close range in this case being about three inches.

Though my BB gun was weak, I certainly tried my best to kill things with it. I grew up in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, near an exceedingly placid town called Hartland (literally "Stagland," from the old word hart: adult male deer). Though the place I grew up was placid, I was not. One side of our house faced a forest and the other butted up against an 18-hole golf course. In short there were animals of all kinds to shoot at: rabbits, gophers, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels and birds of every sort. Deer could even still be seen sometimes. I shot at all these animals, occasionally even hitting one, but none ever dropped down dead. The BBs coming from my gun were far too weak for that. Once hit, the animals would just stir, then run or fly away.

So my situation as an aspiring hunter was annoying, and it only became more so as time went on. I remember once in frustration I snuck up on our neighbor's dog, a golden retriever, and shot her in the side. She turned her head, looked at me and began to wag her tail. Not even a yelp. That was the last straw.

During the many months I hunted with that BB gun I'd managed to kill only one thing: a frog. It's true I hit quite a few frogs while down at the pond near my house, but only one had actually been slain. Probably I'd hit it at just the place where the spine was weakest. Or maybe it was already dead before I shot it.

In despair I pestered my parents to buy me a proper gun: a .22 rifle for instance.

"There's no way," my father said. "You could kill someone with a .22."

"Then how about a pellet gun?" I asked.

"You don't need a pellet gun," my mother said. "They're too dangerous."

"Mike Schroeder and Doug Omen both have pellet guns," I replied, referring to two other boys in our whitewashed, country-club neighborhood.

"They're both older than you," was my mother's answer.

"Only by one year," I said.

"Well, we'll have to think about it."

That was the answer I wanted. At my next birthday I got my pellet gun: a Sheridan rifle with a silver barrel, a high quality make in fact. It had a pump under the barrel that one could pump up to ten times. The more you pumped before shooting, the more powerful the shot would be. Although my BB gun would only make a "ping" sound when fired at a glass bottle, my pellet gun would smash the bottle outright. The killing could begin in earnest.

My first real kill was from my bedroom window, which was on the second floor looking west over a small stand of trees. Already during the BB gun days I'd made a hole in the screen so I could shoot at animals from my room. The day after I got my pellet gun I saw a woodpecker on one of the trees outside. "Rat tat tat. . . Rat tat tat tat. . . ." I took aim and shot. The bird fell to the ground. Tossing the gun on my bed, I rushed downstairs and outside to see the kill. As it turned out, the woodpecker wasn't dead. I'd only shot its beak off. I found the beakless bird flopping around on the ground at the base of the tree. What was I to do in such a situation?

I picked up the bird and held it. Its warmth and the speed of its heartbeat transmitted themselves instantly to my palm. I was surprised at how light the bird was. I held it that way for a moment. Two little drops of blood fell from its wound onto my wrist. Carefully putting the bird back on the ground, I went to get a rock. I smashed the bird with the rock, putting it out of its misery. But what to do with the corpse? Carrying it to the edge of the yard, I tossed it into the high grass.

In fact during all this there was a lump in my throat. Although elated about actually killing something, I also felt bad the animal hadn't died straightaway. I felt there was something sickening about it, that I'd done something wrong. But soon I forgot this feeling.

Over the course of the following months I shot a handful of chipmunks, two or three rabbits, countless sparrows and robins and red-winged blackbirds, a crow, two squirrels and dozens of the gophers that lived in holes and stuck their heads up along the fields edging the golf course. It was mainly while shooting the gophers that I had the company of Mike Schroeder and Doug Omen, who also lived on the golf course and whose houses were near a large stretch of field the gophers seemed to like particularly. But they couldn't much have liked that field during the first summer I had my Sheridan. I believe the three of us depopulated the whole neighborhood of them. While we were busy at this gruesome work, the fat summer-dressed golfers would yell curses at us and wave their clubs in the air because we'd hunt just off the margin of the fairways and disturb their game. Finally word of our hunting got round to our parents, who were also club members, and I was told I could no longer hunt along the edges of the golf course. So we hit the woods and went after chipmunks and birds instead.

I remember once while out hunting with Mike we cornered a squirrel at the top of a dead tree trunk. The squirrel clung tightly to the trunk, about thirty feet above us, and scurried round from one side of the trunk to the other. But Mike and I took turns shooting and managed to hit it a couple times. Eventually, weakened by its wounds, the squirrel couldn't scurry round the trunk any more. But still it clung tightly to the tree, refusing to fall. I remember how we then sunk another pellet into the squirrel's back, then another, and finally a third. It was only with the third or fourth slug sunk into its body that the squirrel's claws finally gave way and it fell down to the ground with a heavy thud. Mike and I laughed at our triumph and I carried the squirrel back home, where I intended to use a heavy-gauge wire cutter to cut its tail off. I collected them.

I think I got that first pellet gun when I was eleven. I later got another pellet gun, a pistol that used CO2 cartridges, and I also occasionally went pheasant or duck hunting with my father, when I'd get to use an actual 12-gauge shotgun.

Between the ages of eleven and thirteen, I must have killed several hundred animals and birds with these guns. Then suddenly, at age fourteen, the lump in my throat returned and I couldn't kill them any more. I even stopped fishing, which was another one of my favorite sports. I no longer wanted to kill even the fish.

By the time I reached the age of sixteen, I felt a horror of all the animals I'd killed. I remember once coming upon some boys trying to electrocute a gopher they'd caught in a wire cage. I thrashed one of them and chased the others away, finally setting the gopher free. I also mangled the cage they'd made so it couldn't be used again.

At age seventeen, just before my last year in high school, I decided to spend the summer away from home. I set up a summer job in northern Wisconsin in a resort town called Minocqua. I'd be bussing and waiting tables at one of the resort restaurants.

There was an Indian who worked in the same resort. He was in charge of the boats they rented out and he also did work around the resort grounds. He'd drink a few beers in the bar every night and talk quietly to the bartender. Once I overheard him explaining to another man that white men's hunting was a terrible thing, that it was in fact a terrible sin. When the other man left and I'd punched out I decided to talk to him a bit.

He explained to me how white men just kill animals for sport, that they have no use for the animals they kill and no respect for the animals' souls. The Indians, on the other hand, only killed what they needed and would balance the deed of killing with the proper rituals of respect. The Indians had maintained harmony with all the souls of the world's living things, whereas the white men were corrupted to their core and understood nothing about the souls. He also explained that such disrespect for the souls of nature meant that the souls of these men would end up in hell after their deaths.

I told him I had respect for these ideas, that for years I'd felt there was something sickening in killing animals just for sport. I also told him my story, how I'd killed hundreds of animals with my pellet gun when I was a kid. I told him how I'd felt sickened that first time killing the woodpecker at age eleven, but that somehow it hadn't stopped me from going out hunting again the next day. I explained about all the gophers and robins I'd shot, about how I'd cruelly sunk pellet after pellet into the squirrel's back until it fell from the tree, about how my friend and I had laughed after the kill and how I'd later cut the animal's tail off with a wire cutter. I told him about the pheasant's head that got shot off, about the rabbit I literally blasted into two pieces at close range with my father's 12-gauge. I asked him if there was something I could do to atone for all the animals and birds I'd slaughtered, if there was some Indian ritual that could set things right with nature.

The Indian took a sip from his beer and shrugged sadly. "There's nothing you can do," he said quietly, gazing at the bar. "You're going to hell."

My regrets about killing animals continued into university. I became a vegetarian my freshman year and began to study political science. And then I learned about cultural criticism and Marxism. I began to understand why the country-club neighborhood I'd grown up in had always so annoyed me: why I'd never wanted to golf or play tennis with the other rich kids but was always interested as a child in guns and hunting and later, as a high school student, in Jim Morrison and marijuana. It was the hypocrisy and inauthenticity of that ridiculous bourgeois place: the church-going hypocrites who claimed to worship Jesus but thought only about their countryside estates and their ever more expensive, ever flashier cars. All through my childhood I'd watched them out on that golf course with their beer bellies and fat asses wrapped in plaid. On Sunday I'd see them at church listening to sermons and singing hymns to an ancient Palestinian spiritual leader they claimed as their "Savior" but whose teachings they didn't make the slightest effort to follow. Even a kid like me, even a kid with the weak, milquetoast American education I'd had, could see how ridiculously out of tune it all was.

The neighborhood I'd grown up in was neither urban nor truly rural. It was that indefinable nowhere land called "the suburbs." And being a richer suburb than most, it proved to be all the more alienated from real life. It was a neighborhood where each home stood apart like a miniature aristocratic estate. This meant there were no sidewalks, no real place where the community of kids could gather. One rarely saw one's neighbors, who entered and left their houses in their expensive cars. Or if one saw them it was out on the golf course, where they pretended to enjoy themselves playing a sport that they liked mainly because of its prestige factor.

So as I continued in university I started to analyze more and more my experience growing up, the kind of culture I'd grown up in, how it had shaped me and distorted my sense of the world--or rather how it had tried to distort my sense of the world, for with my intellectual awakening I'd in some measure escaped from it. And eventually my regrets at shooting all those animals started to pale next to a different regret, one based not on things I'd done but rather on things I'd neglected to do. It was a sin of omission that began to bother me, one that could be formulated as follows: During all those years living in that neighborhood I'd had a perfectly good pellet gun at my disposal, so how was it--I asked myself--how was it I'd never thought to use that gun to sink a few pellets into the fat asses of those overstuffed pseudo-Christian slobs who showed off their ridiculous plaids every weekend on that golf course? All those fat asses bending over to take their shots and never a single shot taken by me. How was it I hadn't been smart enough then to leave the poor gophers alone and shoot the culpable golfers instead? This eventually became my central regret, and it still burns in me today.

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