My earliest memories of guns are sharp steely ones. The weight of rifle in your hands. The stinging smell of gun powder and the jolt of butt exploding into your shoulder. They're visceral memories and mixed with a flurry of feelings. I wasn't around guns all that often, but I remember every time well.
Like a lot of American kids, I learned to shoot from my grandpa. He was a hunter and retired Army captain. In World War II, he fought in Africa and Europe. He won every decoration there is short of the Medal of Honor, and he never talked about any of it. Suffice it to say, he maintained a certain level of respect for firearms.
My grandparents lived in upstate New York, a solid 12-hour road trip from the house in Tennessee where I grew up. Nevertheless, we made it up there about once a year, and I always looked forward to it.
The shooting part was a real treat. My grandpa would venture into his gun cabinet and pull out an assortment. He didn't have a huge gun collection, but the cabinet was full. Typically, he'd grab a rifle and a revolver, and we'd pile into his old Ford pickup with the dog, Goldie. The seats were coated in Goldie's hair, and the truck smelled like her fur. We only had to go a couple of miles to get to the quarry, where we'd have our little shooting lessons.
I learned the very basics first. Safety here, barrel there. Keep it pointed away from people at all times. You load the bullet like this, aim the rifle like that. Safety stays on until you're absolutely ready to shoot.
I remember his silver revolver. I don't remember what kind it was — probably a Colt — but I think it was the first gun I ever shot. It was heavy enough to make my six-year-old arm shake when I held it. The first time I pulled the trigger, the kick nearly knocked me off my feet, and the rush was like nothing else. Albeit I was only six but still. This was a highlight of my year.
Shooting, ironically enough, was only a New York-only activity. My parents wouldn't let me have a gun at home in Tennessee, not even an air rifle. This bugged me, and I'm not really sure why. It wasn't like my dad and I used to go hunting. (To this day, I've never seen my dad touch a gun.) Along those lines, it wasn't up to me to protect the family from intruders.
I think more than anything it was as much about fitting in with the other Boy Scouts in my troop who had BB guns or the kids at school who would go up into the mountains and shoot stuff. I only got to do that once. In a weird way, I wanted a rifle for some of the same reasons that I wanted a snowboard or a Sega Genesis. All the cool kids had them.
One day, my mom told me somewhat wistfully about how I was my grandpa's only grandson so he had written me into his will after I learned to shoot. When he died, I'd receive his entire gun collection. At that point, I stopped asking for BB guns for Christmas. I figured I could wait. Not that I was waiting on my grandpa to die, but you know what I mean. I'd have all the guns I'd ever need eventually. I didn't know what I needed them for. Despite his enthusiasm for it, my grandpa never took me hunting. It was always to quarry with cans or paper targets.
One day when I was around 11, we went up to the quarry with a couple of guns I'd never seen before. One was a big rifle, a serious gun. The other was the opposite, a tiny pistol he used for shooting rats. I could wait to shoot the rifle. I'd never been big enough to handle a firearm like that, and I must've been distracted because when I was shooting the rat gun, my hand slipped and the gun fell to the ground. As soon as I heard the clack of the steel against the gravel, I felt a hard slap on the backside of my head.
"Don't ever drop a gun!" my grandpa said, red with rage. "What do you think you're doing? Are you trying to get someone killed?" He packed up the truck and yelled all the way home. It sounds sort of strange to say it, but when someone who spent the better part of his 20s dodging bullets from Nazis and watching his friends die suggests that you could kill someone, you listen.
The nightmarish scenario the gun going off and a bullet hitting my grandpa flashed through my head in the truck on the way home. I was young, and I don't know what made me drop the gun. In retrospect, though, I don't think I fully comprehended guns to be the death machines in the way I do now. And I'd been trained to respect the things almost since birth.
That was the last time I remember going shooting with my grandpa. The next time we went to visit, I was working on my rifle shooting merit badge, which is probably the only reason he agreed to take me shooting. We had to buy a specific kind of target and the store that sold them was about ten miles away. So the morning before going to the quarry, we took the Buick there, chatted with a couple people and when we were driving home, my grandpa had a heart attack and crashed the Buick into a tree. I ended up with a black eye. He ended up in the intensive care unit. About a year later, before we'd had the chance to use those targets, he died at home in his sleep.
I never got the gun collection. After that day at the quarry when I dropped the little pistol, he changed his will and gave them to my cousin instead. It never bothered me. The slap upside the head stuck with me. Mishandled guns give way to violence, I thought, even though my grandpa was only teaching me safety in his own way. That's the only time I ever remember him hitting me, and I think I probably cried.