We had guns
when I was growing up. Hunting
was something boys did; it was as much a part of our lives as the river, the fields, the sky.
Our part of the world attracted hunters from "the City"--New Yorkers, my father called them derisively. He made a point of hunting where the New Yorkers were not, because, generally, these two-weeks-a-year trophy hunters were dangerous. One farmer I knew painted the word COW on his livestock, come deer hunting season. On occasion even that didn’t help.
The New Yorkers killed themselves frequently. I remember thinking at the time that a good Mafia "hit" would be an "upstate hunting accident."
It was just basic common-sense Gun Safety that the city boys lacked. The kind of stuff my dad and granddad drilled into us constantly.
The absolute iron-clad Rule Number One, so simple that it’s frequently forgotten, was Never Point a Gun at Anything You Don’t Want to Kill.
This is the rule that saved my father’s life.
I was your typical thirteen-year-old asshole. My brother, eleven, and I wanted to go target practicing at the old quarry. It was one of our favorite things. Cans and bottles were more fun than killing animals in the first place, and if we were lucky we’d each get a box of fifty .22 caliber shorts to burn through our little slide-action .22’s.
The problem was, Dad didn’t want to take us and the quarry was too far to walk. In my ass-holiness, I’m sure I whined and cajoled and bitched and moaned. I probably couldn’t imagine what was more important than going shooting, though I’m sure that earning a living with two jobs and getting some sleep on the weekend might have been.
I remember Dad digging deep for the coins to pay for the shells after I’d finally broken him down. He was quiet in the car on the way to the quarry, the way I am today when my own son talks me into taking him to the skatepark and I've been working hard.
We had a good day of target shooting. I was the best shot in the family and really enjoyed kicking my brother’s little butt. I also liked to marshal my ammo, so I’d always be the last to fire.
I had four bullets left. We’d killed all the targets and I started to go down-range to set up some new ones.
"Clear your weapon," my father said brusquely.
"Dad! Geez, I did!" I whined.
"Check the breech!" he demanded.
And he had me there. The rifle had clicked "empty," I’d worked the slide once and fired empty, twice and fired empty, three times and fired empty, but I hadn’t visually checked the breech to make sure there wasn’t a round hung up there.
Basic gun safety.
I looked; the breech was empty. I glared an "I told you so" to the old man, set the weapon down, and trudged down to the target area. He really pissed me off sometimes, and this was one of those times.
I walked back to my rifle, picked it up, loaded it, targeted, and squeezed off the four rounds as fast as I could. Four good hits. Feeling smug, I did the complete "empty" drill again, this time checking the breech, and walked down-range to look for lead, which would lodge itself in interesting patterns in the quarry wall. We collected the stuff.
My dad and brother were in the car, engine running, by the time I collected my rifle and crossed the road. I opened the back door and started to climb in. My father leaned across the seat:
"Clear your weapon!"
"DAD! Geezus! I did!"
"I said CLEAR your weapon!"
This may be iron-clad Gun Safety Rule Number Two: Always Clear Your Weapon Before Entering a Vehicle.
I knew the rule and I had cleared the weapon back before I walked down-range. I insisted angrily:
"I said I DID!" and I cocked my rifle, swung it away from the car, pointed it over my shoulder one-handed, and pulled the trigger.
The round discharged, echoing horribly across the field. The silence afterwards was suffocating. My brother was stunned.
My father, fully trusting me to never point a gun at something I didn’t want to kill (namely him), had RELOADED my rifle while I was down-range.
Just to teach me a lesson.