The problem with a .38 special is that it has no stopping power. One highway patrolman shot his assailant three times and his assailant still managed to kill him. That’s when, law or no law, some of the cops started taking the lead out of their shells and repacking the shells with more gunpowder. The increased velocity will drive a hole through a tire rim, knock down someone with a knife or gun. No one in fear of his life should have to get off four accurate shots to stop an attack.
Short barreled shotguns are better. Especially when the cop driving the patrol car says, “Just check to see that you can get that shotgun out from under the seat if you need to.”
I think he’s joking. Then I see him ease his pistol back a bit. We’re cruising through the dark, on the edge of a small town in Missouri. He flicks off his lights, slows to let our eyes adjust to the moonlight. The main street is a block long. There’s a general store, a garage, a church, a straggle of houses.
“The salt of the earth,” I say, kidding him a little.
“The salt stood in a circle last week and kicked the sheriff to death,” he replies, checking the spaces between the buildings as we ease by. I brush my fingers along the shotgun, wonder what it would be like if I had to use it.
The weekend before, we’ve been at a cocktail party organized by our wives. That haven’t had a chance to put on fancy clothes for the last couple of months and they’ve reached that point where they’re going to get made up no matter what. We’d rolled our eyes and put on suits and ties, but in the heat refused to put on ties. There are colored drinks in long stemmed glasses, desserts with pecans in them. The local people say peh-cahns. They’re the local cash crop. People go to nut conferences to learn how to take care of their trees. Wood rustlers wait until the local farmers go to nut conferences with their families, then pull up with a tow truck, cut down a tree, cinch it, lift it and drive off with a couple of thousand dollars of high grade veneer.
We endure the drinks and the shiny suits until around eleven o’clock then, without telling our wives, we slip out of the house, change into torn jeans, checked shirts, caps advertising the local bank. We put our rifles into the truck, then give it a push so it rolls silently down the driveway. Fifteen minutes later we’re in a version of hell. Flames rise in a dozen places. Thick, foul smelling smoke drifts by in clouds. After we turn off the truck lights, the rats start to squeal. They make so much noise that they seem to be everywhere. There are high mounds of trash that have already burned out. We each take a flashlight in our left hand, our rifles in the right, step outside and wait, isolating the sound of one rat. Micky’s light flicks on, picks out a rat as large as a small dog. Simultaneously, he fires and the rat jerks sideways, rolls over and is still. I turn on my light, pick out a rat and miss. The long barreled rifle is awkward, off balance when held in one hand. Slowly, we move away from the truck, into the mounds of burning garbage, flicking on our lights, firing, flicking off our lights.
Boys and guns. Guns and boys. They seem inseparable. My father first took me hunting when I wasn’t yet two. He packed me into a sleigh with a high back, wrapped a rope around his waist and towed me behind as he hunted rabbits for the pot. When I was four, he taught me how a rifle worked, held it while I aimed and pulled the trigger. Lying on the back steps at ten, I practiced by shooting bottles off fence posts with a BB gun. At fourteen, I got my first rifle, a single shot Cooye and a box of shells. I hunted the brush piles, kicking them until rabbits burst out in wild, jagged runs that meant learning to snap shoot. Eventually, I learned to whistle sharply, jerking them rabbits to a stop. After that we had rabbit for deep dish pies covered with flaky crusts, awash in gravy.
Later, I bought a pump shotgun. I used it for duck hunting in the short September evenings after school. I’d walk to the edge of town, wade into the marsh, find myself a muskrat hut and sit, waiting for mallards, but happy to try to bring down the teal that raced past just at bulrush height. It was nearly impossible to see them in the fading light. They appeared and disappeared with a suddenness that usually meant not firing at all or the shot falling far behind them. I never hunted geese in the stubble west of town. Perhaps it was because I had no car. Perhaps it was because, for me, hunting was a solitary activity and hunting geese always seemed to mean teaming up with others
Hunting was something between me and the land. In winter, I hiked up frozen streams, ate egg sandwiches filled with ice crystals, drank coffee from a thermos. I learned to sleep under the ground hugging branches of spruce. Even in a Manitoba winter, the space closest to the trunks, thick with needles is free of snow and sheltered from wind. In really cold weather, ice would form after a couple of shots and I learned to scrape it away so the bolt would set properly.
At some time, although I’m not sure when, I stopped hunting. I still went out. I still carried a rifle or shotgun but I never used them. Then I stopped carrying them. When I moved I left them behind in my parent’s basement. I’d started to take pictures instead, started to value what can be seen when you move silently, when you wait patiently.
Then I moved to Missouri. Had as a neighbor, a highway patrolman who took me with him to ease the boredom on sixteen hour shifts. Everywhere there were pickup trucks with gun racks
One night we took our families to a converted barn for fried chicken and saw angry, narrow faced men get up and start toward our table. Mickey dropped his hand to rest beside his ankle. They stopped, pulled their lips tight, looked at each other and returned to their tables. When I asked him what was going on, he pulled up the cuff of his pants. A .38 snub nose was holstered there.
“I’ve put some of their relatives in prison,” he said, then helped himself to more fries and chicken.
In the month before I moved back to Canada, there were three shoot-outs in Kansas City. They all occurred because someone stopped at a stop sign and someone else was driving too close and bumped into them. Fender benders. Not crippling, mash-my-family-to-a-pulp-and-I’ll-kill-you-in-the-seconds-before-I-die accidents. The drivers who were hit came out shooting. Two of the men were practiced. They killed the driver who had bumped them. The third driver was either slow or a poor shot and the other driver got him. That started me looking at .38’s, .45’s, shotguns, machine guns, hand grenades. The hand grenades seemed like the most realistic. If I bumped someone at a stop sign, there was a much better chance of my getting him before he got me. All you have to do is pull the pin and throw it. Besides, with hand grenades. close counts.
When I was on the verge of picking out some artillery, I was offered two jobs, one in Texas, one in Victoria, B.C. In Texas, I realized, I’d need a howitzer, maybe a pickup with twin .50 caliber’s bolted to the bed. I opted for Victoria. The pay was lower but two weeks after I arrived on the island, I stopped worrying about fender benders, about people shooting families eating fried chicken, about practicing getting a short barreled shotgun from under the seat.
Now, I’ve got raccoons that raid my garden and upend my garbage cans, gray squirrels who scamper across my lawn, deer who eat my tulips, neighbours who, when I do something dumb, worry about how to tell me without hurting my feelings. I haven’t thought about buying a machine gun and a bullet proof vest in years.