Thursday, May 7, 2009

Dodging a Bullet

Confessing to being a thief, as I did in my previous post, has engendered more romantic thoughts of my rebellious, pirate side and prompts me to now admit that I am also guilty of committing an even worse--though equally innocent, if you will allow it to be so characterized after hearing my story--'crime' in my youth.

I shot my brother David in the navel with a sticker.

Many tragic stories have been told about the misuse of guns by foolish children, and as I contemplate this tale I am thankful yet again that it is a tale of foolishness and not anguish; a lesson learned without more serious consequences. I am the one who 'dodged a bullet' that sunny summer afternoon in the mid-sixties in Abilene.

All I remember of the actual day is that it was hot. The sunshine floods my memory of the moment, seared in my brain as one of those fading kodachrome snapshots, yellow and overexposed. This isn't surprising, as it was nearly always hot in Abilene. Most of my recollections of that place and time are of summertime, when I had a great deal of free time and a virtual absence of supervision.

These were two commodities of which I had an apparent abundance that fateful day, much to my brother's belly button's detriment. Oh, and I likely scarred him mentally for life that day as well, but this post is about my mental scarring, not his. Doubtless in response to this memoir I will hear more of his recollection, but for now, I press on to enter my long overdue mea culpa into the lublic record.

The weapon I had in my hand that day was a BB gun. It was a pistol, manufactured by Daisy, who still make BB guns today, though I very much doubt they have they model I got for my seventh birthday in 1963. The reason for my doubt has to do with the design and consequent killing power--or lack thereof--that this particular gun presented to me and my safety conscious parents.

While many BB guns are powered by compressed air that is 'pumped' into a chamber by repeated cocking of a lever or part of the barrel, my Daisy pistol was actually spring-powered. It resembled an old fashioned Colt 45 six-shooter, but the revolver was in fact, fake. The BB's were loaded into a holding chamber on the side of the gun, six at a time. Cocking the gun was a matter of sliding a bolt on the top of the barrel back until it locked. As the bolt slid back, the spring was compressed and one of the six BBs from the chamber was supposed to drop into the firing chamber at the back of the barrel, just in front of the spring, which had a small metal plate attached to the end to cradle the BB and push it forward when the spring was released via the trigger.

It was all very mechanical and remarkably low powered, which was no accident, and not necessarily ironically. The choice of this model was a compromise between my intense desire to have a gun, and my parents' intense desire to keep weapons of any kind out of my hands. As such it was a good compromise: it satisfied neither of us completely.

At first, however, I was more than satisfied. Thrilled is a good word for this feeling. I can recall my heart soaring as I opened the package at the table that day. I remember that it was my seventh birthday. I recall having the party at the kitchen table then going outside to play with my friends and my new treasure.

I also remember that my best friend at the time, Paul, was not impressed, and with good reason. He lived 'in the country' which, in Abilene, simply meant outside of town. Looking back, even living in town was a remarkably rural experience. Nonetheless, Paul was true country boy in a way I never was nor will be. He knew about guns. Of course, he had fired and even owned 'real' guns, so his opinion mattered a great deal. However, despite knowing the truth of its relative value, to me that Daisy was a 'true' gun. It was my first. In a way this is important because it was also a symbol of my parents' trust.

This story, then, is about how I dealt with that trust and what I've done with the lesson learned that day.

At first I had a hard time believing it it was real. So impossible did it seem that Lynda and Bill had both relented and spared the money for this birthday present that I can still remember placing it by my bedside before going to sleep, then waking up in the morning having convinced myself in my dreams that it was just a dream, only to be astonished anew when my eyes rested on it in the light of a new day. That was the first and last day for such joy.

One of the parts of the compromise that was most unappealing to me was the paucity of the ammunition. Tough I suppose it is a bit of an exaggeration, I recall being given something like a dozen BBs in a little clear plastic pouch. Since a full 'load' comprised just half a dozen of the little copper colored metal balls, I exhausted my arsenal in just two rounds and had to resort to retrieving them from the burnt straw colored grass in our front yard.

This was easier than it sounds for two reasons. First, the gun was so underpowered that I could literally see the BB arcing out of the barrel through the air toward the ground. 'Tests' conducted with the gun muzzle's proximity to pieces of wood and glass that the emerging projectile would neither embed in the former nor break the latter. Second, the bright copper color of the BBs was easy to spot in the withered grass and dark red dirt of West Texas.

Nonetheless, twenty four BBs do not last forever, and it may not even have been an hour before I was back in the house, asking Lynda when she would go buy me some more. Well, of course, when was a bit presumptuous. If was more like it. I was sent back out to play with my new weapon sans ammunition but not without imagination.

I soon discovered that other things besides BBs would fit into the loading chamber, hence into the firing chamber and barrel of my little pistol. Things like little rocks could be worked in, but I soon discovered that finding pebbles of exactly the right size and shape was hard to do, even in our gravel-filled driveway. Not so hard to find, and, as it turns out, easily manipulated into the 'right' shape without much effort were stickers.

If you live in Texas or have, you know what I am talking about. We called them stickers, but they are actually seeds. These are those big, old nasty, spiky, hard white, spine-covered balls of foot-pain inducing hell that hide in the grass, attach themselves to your socks and pant legs, then stab you and inject their horrible poison into your bloodstream.

Ok, I am really exaggerating about the last bit, but there's no doubt that after no more than simply being poked by one of these stickers, your skin will itch for far longer than the simple act of touching it deserves. Just plucking one out of your sock can mean several nasty pokes to your fingertips, so try and imagine, if you will, what it would be like to have one shoved, nay, rammed into your belley button with such forch that it literally disappears into that fleshy knot. Though it may not be an absolute center of your nervous system, it is certainly close enough to the solar plexus that the zing is not something you're likely to forget.

I doubt he's forgotten it. I certainly haven't.

I can only hope it is something one can forgive. I took one of those very nasty if not actually deadly stickers, loaded it into the firing chamber of my trusty little Daisy pistol and fired it, point blank, into my very trusting little brother David's navel.

Despite what I considered to be a demonstrable lack of firepower, the Daisy nonetheless managed to deliver the substitute ammo with enough force to drive the sticker into his tender, four-year-old flesh. In an instant, he was howling and all I saw in the moment before he went hurtling into the house was the spot of blood that appeared on his belly button. I was certain I'd killed him, but his screams and my mother's recriminating chords at soon convinced me that he would live, even as I feared that I would not.

Despite her desire to do so, it is to Lynda's credit that she did not shoot me with or even hit me over the head with my stupid little BB gun, much though I deserved it. Instead I had to endure several of the most horrible lectures about my lack of responsibility and the dangers of guns from both her and Bill. Bill solemnly placed the gun on the very highest shelf in the pantry as I watched, sorrowful less for my actions and more for my loss.

The physical damage to David's navel was, I am glad to say, minimal. I cannot speak to the emotional consequences of my act, if he even remembers the incident with the intensity that I do. Though deserving of a prominent place in my memory, it may not be the same for him.

Life went on, of course. Eventually, I was allowed to have the Daisy pistol again. I even went on to to get another gun--a powerful rifle--by convincing Bill and Lynda that I had learned a lesson. I had, indeed, but what I never told them was exactly why. You'd think the trauma of the actual event would be enough, but it was actually the dream that I had that night and for many months and even years afterward that affected me most.

In this dream, while caring for my brother, I picked up him around the waist to carry him from one room to another. As I picked him up, I squeezed him too hard, and his eyes popped right out of his head. The futility of trying to replace his dangling, useless eyes was overwhelming, flooding my heart with an irrepressible fear and anguish. Fortunately, the metaphor was just that.

1 comment:

d2 said...

Funny enough, I don't remember this at all except through the lens of family lore, told down through the generations... I can picture the incident, but I stand outside myself, looking on the "shooting" which suggests a planted imagery from others' descriptions, not my own memory.

Oh, but how the physical and mental scars still ache! I'd venture to say that's why I'm such a bitter, angry person today... :)

Most of my memories of Abliene are of the heat, the yard (which you so vividly bring back to life in your description - except for that dry, dusty smell), the house and of the cool refuge of the library.

Other lightning flashes of memory are revealed in still pictures - the cut I got on the fence to the empty lot next door that went all the way up my leg; the refinishing of the wood paneling with its accompanying ear-splitting noise; the "Yellow Submarine" party; Thomas and the kitten.

I guess because I was so young when we left there, or perhaps because I knew nothing else, it resonates with little force, a distant, barely heard low rumble of thunder long after the flash. Same goes for San Antonio. Memories begin to crowd for space for me only when we got to Austin.

I don't think you've ever told me of the dream, though, before. At least not that I can remember. It made me laugh out loud - so hard that one of my eyes popped out!