Many years ago, I worked with a man who bragged about owning a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson–the same make and model of firearm made famous by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. When pressed as to why he would own such an impractical hand-cannon, his reply was always this: “I need to be ready in case someone breaks into my house and tries to steal my TV.” The guys always found this amusing and would razz him about his sense of justice. Was a television worth killing someone over? Was it an especially nice TV? Wouldn’t the TV likely break if he shot the person carrying it? He would indignantly reply that “yes, if any motherfucker tried to steal his TV, that motherfucker would get shot.” We generally let the matter rest at that point. It seemed this story was something he carried around, a fantasy that left him feeling empowered. He was not a man you would ever look twice at—portly, thick glasses, dark dandruffed hair combed to a careful part. He lived with his mother and had probably transitioned smoothly from high school nerd to the obscurity of factory work. It was easy, at the time, to belittle our coworker, as he was no doubt compensating for the sad fact that he had likely rarely, if ever, been laid.
Surely readers will remember the memorable chant of the drill sergeant grabbing his privates as he marched with his rifle in the Kubrick masterpiece, Full Metal Jacket:
“This is my rifle, this my gun! This is for fighting, this is for fun!”
Our military has successfully marshalled the will of young men to fuck and fight over the decades in various theaters of war. But what of all the men who never got a chance to do either? Are they a legitimate threat to our society? Won’t a certain, albeit small, percentage of them inevitably lash out like David Chapman in some horrible act of gun violence? Or are they our secret army? Our best defense against the next time a cadre of deranged jihadists tries to take over an airplane with boxcutters.
Our nation stands politically divided on this question like so many others. Much is made about race and religion in our country, but gun violence (hell, violence period!) is almost exclusively a male problem. America is a warrior culture, and like all warrior cultures, it is a phallic culture. Are M16s and MX missiles (not to mention Trump Tower) nothing more than deadly, super-sized dicks? As our “stable genius” himself tweeted, “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!” When we salute the flagpole, we pay tribute to our own nationalistic erections. From a truly outsider perspective, our culture is every bit as infantile and ludicrous as what you find in North Korea. We get to lead the free world because, unlike them, our missiles don’t fall limply into the ocean. So much history has followed simply because, early on, the shape of the organs evolved to penetrate vaginas were so uncannily like the Clovis spears fashioned to pierce the hides of wooly mammoths.
The Dirty Harry movies drew controversy at the time for being racist. Nonetheless, I enjoyed watching them as a child with my father. They seemed to be on all the time along with their cinematic knockoff, the Death Wish series starring Charles Bronson. Having seen too many news stories about black men being gunned down by the police, I don’t think I could enjoy them today. I certainly wouldn’t let my sons watch them.
Last Sunday, I was guiding my two boys across a Perkins parking lot in Redwing, Minnesota. We had just been sledding, making the hour-long drive south because a weekend storm had left the riverine town with eleven inches of snow while the Minneapolis metro received none. An elderly gentleman complimented the bearing of my two children. We struck up a conversation in which I told him I had just been given a warning ticket by a highway patrolman for exceeding the speed limit. 65 in a 55! By the grace of God, child protection service was never called. As it turned out, the man was a retired police chief. He related how he had been a cop in San Francisco on the waterfront back when “the Black Panthers were in their heyday.” He said this a bit too derisively for my taste. Not one to offend strangers with politics, I simply responded, “Well, you must have seen it all.” He inhaled and exhaled through his nostrils before saying, “yeah, pretty much.” He made this comment in such a way as to make me believe that “pretty much” had been far too much for his Christian sensibilities. I suggested in sincerity that he write a book about his experiences. He confided that he knew guys that still worked down there and “it was even worse now.” I had a feeling the Black Lives Matter protesters he was no doubt referring to felt exactly the same way. It is worth noting that at no time during my interaction with the highway patrolman who gave me the warning ticket did I ever fear for the well-being of myself or my children, one of whom was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
I have not owned a gun in over a decade. I live in a city now. If I lived in a rural area, I might purchase a shotgun again. It would be, much like my Swiss Army knife, a handy thing to have around. My father taught me how to handle a gun safely and how to kill with one. We spent many hours hunting pheasants and ducks together. It was a valuable time in which I learned much about being a man. My father was at his best in these moments, for the most part.
We had been tromping through the high weeds all day and hadn’t flushed a thing. My father was despondent at our lack of luck. I lagged behind, unable to keep my boots tied as the mud pulled down at my blistered heels. My arms ached from lugging a shotgun around all afternoon. I must have been pretty young, junior high age I suppose. I pulled open a milkweed plant and let the seeds blow free in the air. My father chastised me for “lollygagging.” I wanted to go home. It seemed hopeless and I resented my father making us keep at it. Suddenly, our springer spaniel became exited, her muzzle to the ground and her tail wagging. She took off like she was on a bird. My father started sprinting after her to get a shot when the pheasant flushed. I hurried after them as best as I could. We crested the hill and stopped, the both of us out of breath. A barbwire fence marked the perimeter of the public hunting area. On the other side was a thick patch of slough in a muddy field. The dog bolted under the fence. Pheasants started erupting out of the cover and taking off in all directions. We left our guns on our shoulders. The birds were well out of range and it was private land over there anyway. He called out to the dog to come back, but she disappeared behind another hill in pursuit of a low-flying hen. Almost immediately, she returned into view with a farmer’s pickup truck close at her heels. She turned to look back, tongue hanging out of her mouth, faltering a bit like she might collapse and get run over. She made it back into the cover and soon she was back with us. She panted, drool hanging everywhere, looking up at my father for protection. The farmer and my father exchanged a few words. I couldn’t pick up exactly what they were saying in the wind, but the tone seemed angry. I knew he thought my father had sent the dog in there on purpose. We got out of sight over the hill. My father paused and cracked open his double-barrel then shut it again, verifying, I supposed, that it was loaded.
He said to me, “I would’ve killed him if he’d run her over.”
I could tell he was mad, but still I was incredulous. “You really would have shot him?”
He gave one of his crazy, mean looks before saying, “I would have shot him dead.”
I kept quiet.
Then he said, “That dog is family. A man protects his family.”
We headed back toward the car that was small in the distance. My father’s words bothered me because I knew he meant them. I loved the dog as much as him, but was it worth murdering someone over a dog? I felt vulnerable, I suppose, because it was a moment of realization—one of many I would have—that our family was at the mercy of my father’s rage. He loved the dog, but did he love me if he would put himself in jail over her? Was that protecting his family? I contemplated the crime as if it had happened, carrying the secret of a murder the rest of my life. We were very much alone out there. So long as a game warden hadn’t of happened along and taken down our plate number, we probably would have gotten away with it. We. I was always somehow complicit in my father’s acts of violence, whether they were real or simply fantasies.
Trailing a few yards behind my father, I considered the simple fact that I could shoot him in the head and kill him very easily. There was no real malice in this idea, merely the consideration of a possibility. I imagined taking the car keys from his pocket along with his wallet and driving in the direction of Canada where I would check into a motel room to start some new life. But then I quickly realized I was too young and that my father likely wasn’t carrying a lot of money. I daydreamed myself telling the investigators it was an accident in my interrogation.
I decided not to shoot him because I loved him even though I would be happier if he did not exist. Years later as a young adult, I sat through a discussion of an Ernest Hemingway short-story where his character confesses to similar thoughts of patricide. They made fun of Papa in that class–the smart, young snide ones—and I wanted to say something. But I kept silent. I thought of that day on the hillside, the farmer’s pickup, my father, and our dog. I didn’t say anything. I just held it in. They made a great deal of the famous picture of him in the dress his mother made him wear, as if that explained his whole life.
Hemingway wanted to be a war hero. He rushed off to Italy at a premature age, getting his ass blown off in an ambulance almost as soon as he arrived. The shame of this defined him and his writing for the rest of his life. So many dead kudus on the wall. All those marlins ripped from the sea.
I must be soft because I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t own a dog and I don’t even watch TV. I keep with the fishing though. My boys and I stand over the water with our poles in hand waiting for the big one. And I’m hopeful they never entertain thoughts of killing me on the way back to the car.