Lifelines

The truth about life and love.

Children and Guns

A true story of a boy and his rifle.

I was raised in upstate New York. My father was fond of guns. He gave me my first rifle when I was seven years old, a bolt-action, .22 caliber Mossberg. I spent many hours alone in the woods with that weapon. At first I fired only at tin cans on fence posts. Later I moved on to small animals, squirrels and woodchucks mostly. I became used to the sight of blood and, like many of my friends, I aspired to be a cowboy or a soldier, a hunter of men. My father, whom I sought to please, was proud of my marksmanship. Guns were symbols of power, control, masculinity--all the things a young boy longs for and lacks.

Once, when I was eleven, my father and I were planting pine trees on a hillside of our farm. I had brought my rifle with me in case a bobcat appeared, as one had while my mother was working in one of our apple orchards a few weeks earlier. It was a hot day. We had been putting the seedlings in the earth for hours, and I was exhausted from the rhythm of turning the sod and planting the small trees on the rocky, uneven slope--row after row at six-foot intervals. My father, who never seemed to tire, was shirtless and I watched the sweat run down his muscular back.

We spoke hardly at all as we worked, and I felt that there was no escaping the mindless labor until all the seedlings were in the ground. My father would have let me go back to the house and its coolness, but to be outworked by a man forty years older was a humiliation that I was unprepared to accept. Taking a break, I walked to where my rifle lay in the hot grass and sat down beside it. With no conscious thought I picked up the weapon and casually sighted on a tree at the edge of the field.

Slowly, as in a dream, I felt the rifle swinging until it was pointed at my father’s back, thirty feet away, bent to plant yet another pine. My finger was on the trigger and I snapped off the safety. How long were we like that, a tableau of the love and hate and rivalry that passes between fathers and sons? I can remember feeling only a sense of power that, in later years, I came to regard as a kind of insanity. Perhaps there was no chance that I could have pulled that trigger. But in my trance, in the breezeless heat of the late-morning sun, amid the sound of grasshoppers, I felt only the emptiness of a summer with no end, no pleasure, and no meaning.

If, in that moment, my father had turned around, I thought that an awful secret would have been revealed and both our lives might have ended on that hill in a kind of primitive sacrifice beyond morality or explanation.

Gradually, seemingly of its own accord, the muzzle lowered. I snapped the safety on and replaced the rifle in the grass. My father turned and dropped his spade to the ground.

“What do you say, pal? How about some lunch?”

“Sounds good, Dad.”

 

Gordon Livingston, M.D., writes and practices psychiatry in Columbia, MD.

more...

Subscribe to Lifelines

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?