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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Guns

[I wrote this many days ago, but I’ve been afraid to post it. As the title says, it’s about guns.]


I can't remember the first time I went hunting with my dad. Hunting was just something my dad always did, just like his dad, and his dad before that, and he let me tag along as soon as I was able to keep up.

Hunting wasn’t all we did. On weekends in my family, you went hunting, you went fishing for salmon, steelhead, trout, bass, whatever you could catch, things like that. Sometimes, we'd camp way up in the mountains in the Sierras, you could only get there by four wheel drive, and we'd pan for gold on a claim we had. I think now of the environmental damage we must have done using a ventura to vacuum up the bottom of the stream, run it through rockers, then pan what was left - the stream would get muddy and cloudy as far as you could see downstream - though the trout fishing didn't seem to diminish much. We still have little bottles of gold and a few quartz nuggets from those days. My dad and brother also rode dirt bikes, as my do several cousins and uncles, and my brother was a ranked rider until he hit something in a race in the desert several years ago, punctured a lung, broke some bones, and he decided (was told by his wife) that was enough of that. It wasn’t his first accident. I rode bikes a few times, but never saw the attraction so I left that to others in the family. My brother was a defensive lineman at Oregon State University (about the time Marcus Allen played for USC, they played against each other), and seems to have a much greater tolerance for tearing himself up physically than I do, so that probably explains the difference in tastes. One of my uncles raced hydroplanes, but, like my brother his racing came to an end after he got married and had a family. He didn’t have an accident like my brother did, but my aunt saw one too many accidents with other boats, one deadly, and that was the end of that. So he bought a ski boat instead and that was another thing we did a lot.

But back to hunting. I can't think of a single male relative who doesn't hunt now, or who hasn't hunted in the past. They all had hunting dogs as well. My grandfather had a shepherd of some sort, gray and white, and you didn't dare use the word "chicken" in the dog's presence as he would go nuts thinking you were taking him pheasant hunting. But apparently he couldn't hold a candle to the dog before that, good old "Bo," who could literally herd pheasants your way as you hunted, fetched ducks, loved kids, etc. We had a pointer, a Brittany spaniel, and my dad and I spent many weekends taking her out when she was young, training her how to hunt (e.g. stopping her from bolting after the birds at first scent). People invested a lot in their dogs, and boasts of who had the best hunting dog were heard frequently, it was a point of pride. I’m still amazed at the way pointers work and they way they can hold a bird. I still like watching them work a field.

As we hunted, and at other times, my dad and my grandfather would tell me stories about how many ducks and geese there were in the good old days, before their numbers started to decline (the mascot at my dad's high school in Yuba City was a "honker," still is as far as I know). There’s a certain something in their voices as they talk about it, awe, a sense of loss, I don’t know what really, but they made it seem like something you wish you had seen. Two of my relatives are really into duck hunting. One's family has been in the area I grew up in since it was settled, or nearly so. He's a rice farmer mainly, though he grows lots of other things too, walnuts, Lima beans, wheat, and I don't know what else, whatever he thinks will be profitable, and he has always done quite well. He's a member of an exclusive duck club in the Butte basin adjoining his property; it’s a club where it's hard to get a membership except by heredity. The club only allows hunting twice a week - the rest of the time the ducks are left alone. When I lived there long ago, there were a few movie stars that were members, Robert Stack and George Kennedy come to mind, so it wasn’t impossible to get a membership as an outsider, but it wasn't easy (both had filmed movies there – the town is in California but looks very southern, particularly the courthouse, so the movie studios used the town to shoot movies with southern scenes and that's how both of them found it – they used to show up at the golf course where I worked picking up range balls so I could play for free and that was always kind of fun.).

My uncle and cousin had extensive knowledge of ducks, I was always surprised by how much they knew. They'd see a duck flying pretty far away and could tell you if it was a wood duck, pintail, teal, widgeon, etc. When they hunted, they were pretty picky and would only shoot certain types, letting the others go. If you ever get the chance, crawl up on ducks that are settling for the night, when there are thousands and thousands together and they roll like a wave. The sound is incredible, and if you can get close without them knowing, it's an opportunity you should take. It’s something to see (but please, for those of you who know what I'm talking about, leave the shoestrings in the truck...).

People I grew up with were just as crazy about hunting as people in my family. In high school, we'd party until early into the morning, then a lot of my classmates would get up before dawn, go to the blind, set out the decoys if they weren't out already, then sit there in the cold, rain, and fog waiting for ducks and geese to fly by so they could call them in with their duck calls (even I know some of the different calls you use to try to lure them in). I went to the parties, no doubt about that, but left the early morning duck hunting for others. They seemed to think it was great fun, but I could never ever see why. I went a few times with my dad or relatives when I was young, but declined invitations as soon as I was old enough to realize I could say no. People where I grew up were pretty crazy about ducks and talk of duck hunting dominated a lot of conversation, both within my family, and among my friends. Not all of them were into it, but enough, and everyone had some sort of acquaintance with it. A lot of them refilled shotgun shells as well, you don’t buy shells if you hunt as much as they do, you buy the powder, wadding, casings if needed, firing pins, etc. and assemble them yourself with the aid of a machine. Some people in my family had these setups, and though we didn’t have one. But I still know how to refill shells just from helping friends and I could always use their machines. One thing for sure, we were never short of gunpowder (and that wasn’t always a good thing, but that’s another story).

I followed the usual progression: Lots of exposure to guns, my own BB gun at age seven or eight, gun lessons and a shotgun by age 12. One thing, though, that I want to emphasize is how much respect for guns and gun safety was drilled into my head from day one. There were things you did, things you didn’t do, and it started from the very first time you tagged along just to watch. I won’t even try to detail all the rules, but anyone who knows them also knows that Vice-President Cheney did not have this kind of training (don’t know why I would expect someone with his background to have had it, he plays like he’s one of the hunting types, but wearing the costume doesn’t give the knowledge you get growing up in this environment). If he had the proper training and respect for guns, the accident would not have happened. When you are hunting, you don’t swing past the line. Never, ever, ever, ever. You don’t do it, and it’s not okay to do it just this once even if it’s the best opportunity you ever had in all your days hunting. You walk in a line, you stay in the line – it’s dangerous to fall behind or get out in front so you keep everyone in sight and make sure you are in formation – and you only shoot in front of the line. When a bird takes flight and crosses the line, you let it go. Period. There are rules, and you depend upon everyone following them to the letter.

One time I took my BB gun to my grandfather’s. I wasn’t allowed to shoot it in town where we lived, and never did, not even once, but my grandfather lived out in the country, there wasn’t another house for miles, so we were allowed to shoot there (but only BB guns, not 22s). During the visit, I was shooting cans or something with my older cousin, and we broke one of the rules. Somehow, my grandfather found out about it and my cousin and I were told we could not shoot our BB guns there anymore. I was probably 9 or 10 at the time and I was crushed to have disappointed my grandfather, absolutely crushed. I can still remember how bad I felt. I was eventually allowed to shoot there again, but not for quite awhile, and it made a huge impression on me. I don’t think I ever consciously broke a gun rule after that. In my family, and it was no different among the people I knew, if you broke the rules, even once, they never asked you to go hunting again. They might let someone like Cheney tag along, but he wouldn’t be allowed to bring a gun, not with his history. The rules covered all sorts of things. As an example, if anyone in my family ever saw me intentionally shoot something that I didn’t intend to take home, take the time to clean, and eat, they would never hunt with me again (I absolutely hated the cleaning part, that alone was enough to stop me from wanting to hunt as I got older, setting aside the entrails -please - ever try to pluck a snow goose?). If you shot a dove out of a tree instead of in flight, that was considered to be unfair and you’d be ostracized. As I said, there were rules, and you followed them.

I think I saw a handgun once or twice growing up, but rarely. On those few occasions, the person handling the gun didn’t seem very careful to me, and it made me nervous (you check to see if a gun is loaded every time you pick it up, no exceptions, even if you set it down fairly recently, and it started with failure to do that simple safety check). I just wanted it put away. Shotguns, 22s, rifles for deer or elk hunting, those were mostly what you saw (and rifles were rare too, it was mostly shotguns). We didn’t much worry about protecting ourselves, that’s not what the guns were for. We probably locked our doors, but we didn’t have to, it was pretty safe, everyone knew when there was a stranger in the neighborhood. And though the guns weren’t kept for that purpose, anyone contemplating breaking into a house knew, or should have known, that most people had a shotgun and their house and people who knew how to use it. And use it well. There was just no need for handguns.

I understand the problems handguns cause in big cities. Well, as much as I can understand from having lived in one for three and a half years. Other than that I’ve lived in mid-size cities or small towns in rural surroundings. I read somewhere recently that rural voters are one of the key elements in the race between Clinton and Obama. If so, and this isn’t news to anyone, they need to tread lightly on the gun issue. To people who grew up like I did, guns aren’t just something that are used for hunting, they’re a symbol of a way of life. Sadly, an uncle of mine passed away recently and not long after I was presented by my father, rather ceremoniously in its own way, with a gun that had belonged to my grandfather and had passed through my uncle’s hands. I took it – I still have the 20 gauge one I got when I was twelve years old, and another old 12 gauge Winchester (another of my grandfather’s guns I was given when he passed away). I had to take the guns, even if I wanted to get rid of them I couldn’t do it while my dad was still alive, and even then I’d give them to my brother or someone else in the family – there’s no shortage of options. I don’t even have 12-gauge shells any more I don’t think, but the guns themselves have a long family history and I will likely pass them along to my kids someday, or to their kids, who knows. I have another gun that belonged to my grandfather’s dad’s, a really old pump, my dad called it a riot gun, and for all I know it’s worth something. But I’ve never checked and don’t plan to. It too will stay within the family.

Maybe if I’d spent more time in a big city and observed first-hand the troubles that handguns can cause I’d feel different about the whole gun issue, but anything that might force me to have to register the guns I have, give them up, anything approximating that I would resist. I can remember seeing my grandfather wearing his vest and hat, carrying that Winchester hunting pheasants in sugar beet fields, the wheat and rice stubble, riding with him in his pickup as a kid on the way there with the dog hanging out the window itching to get started. Those are wonderful memories, and having the guns is somehow connected back to all of that, to my family history, to time as a kid with my dad, grandfather, uncles, and cousins. It recalls a way of life I no longer live, but it will always be with me. I can’t exactly explain how guns fit into all that, but I know that they do.

I don’t know if this helps any of you understand the gun issue better or not, I hope it does. It’s not just a bunch of bozos in funny hats drinking beer and shooting stuff just to kill it (beer is not allowed). I have let the tradition die, I didn’t teach my sons or daughter how to hunt, or even how to shoot guns. I can take a shotgun apart, every single piece, clean it, and put it back together, and could from a very young age, but my kids don’t know how to do that and probably never will. I feel kind of bad about that, about not passing certain traditions and knowledge along, and I wonder what the guns will mean to them when they get them. They probably won’t mean much, not in the way they have meaning to me, they don’t connect to memories of time with family and friends, or to a way of life. They’ll be something they remember from my house, if they even remember at all since they are hidden away out of sight. Maybe somebody will make a few bucks someday selling them once there’s little meaning left. I guess it’s okay that I didn’t pass the gun thing along, maybe losing cultural connections to a way of life that involves guns isn’t so bad, though I have to admit part of me wonders if I shouldn’t have done more. I guess I want them to have the same memories I have, the same connections to me that I have to my dad, and the outdoor-type image has some attractiveness I suppose. I don’t know. There’s something about getting up early, trudging in the cold through wet fields until you and the dogs are dead tired, often coming up empty-handed but somehow that didn’t matter, generations of family together sharing stories from the past, and creating new ones to be told in the future. Because of all this, I think, I resist restrictions on guns. I guess it’s my history but I can’t logically explain why I resist more control over guns other than what I’ve said above. I don’t have any problem with some restrictions, e.g. waiting periods, bans on certain types of guns, and I don’t have much use for handguns, so restrictions on those don’t bother me too much, but I would have trouble with an outright ban on all handguns. And, sorry, but I’m not giving up my shotguns. I’m not about to register them with anyone or tell the government that I have them, and the government is not welcome to come into my house and see if they are there (I guess they could read this). I know there are no plans to do this, that’s not a real worry, but there are surely limits on what I would be in favor of.

I have no emotional connection to the problems guns create in major cities. I see it on the news, read about it, but it’s not real. Where I live now, there’s not a single area of town I wouldn’t walk in, unarmed, alone, any time of the night or day, and this is an urban area of around 200,000 people. The small town I grew up in is even safer. The fear that I suppose exists for a lot of people about guns doesn’t affect me or the people around me. The gun issue is far from the most important thing for us to worry about, and there is very little for a politician to gain by taking on the gun issue if rural votes are important for winning. I don’t have any particular message to deliver, and I don’t mean to preach, I don’t even think I’m very logical on policy issues where guns are concerned so I won’t offer any. I just wanted to write down a few of my experiences, explain how guns are connected to my past, hoping it might help people see this issue through other eyes.

    Posted by on Wednesday, April 23, 2008 at 02:34 PM in Miscellaneous, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (98)

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