An Essay by Mike Wilson
I was seven years old, JFK was president, and we were at Mamaw’s house when Dad said, “We’re going to go shoot down at the creek.”
I loved when he took me to the creek – it was a universe unto itself, scaled to my size, where water fell from flat rocks jutting out above crawdad holes. Water striders patrolled calm water interrupted by whirlpools disappearing beneath fallen branches and eddies that trapped leaves and sticks until the water pushed them clear, back into the journey of the stream. Sometimes Dad warned me not to slip on moss-covered rocks or pointed out places to cross the creek, but mostly he just let me play.
Shooting, though, was something new. I intuited that I was now of an age where Dad was teaching me things that were for older kids, so I should feel proud. I’d seen Dad and my uncles handle a gun in the house, and when I snooped through drawers I sometimes found boxes of bullets or shotgun shells. Growing up poor, Dad told me, they’d hunted for food, but now everyone bought food at the grocery store. When no one was around, I’d touched my dad’s rifle a time or two, the way you might tentatively pet an animal that was unpredictable. I liked the smooth feel of the wooden stock, but the cold metal barrel made my stomach tense.
Dad put on his coat and opened a drawer in a table next to my grandfather’s day bed. He took out a box of bullets. Then he grabbed his single-shot 22 rifle leaning against the wall by the umbrella stand and turned to me.
I put on my red zip-up jacket and we walked through the house, past the wood stove in the kitchen, and out the back door. I followed him under the canopy of the two big apple trees where I often played, past the smokehouse at the edge of the shade, and into the open area where the sun beat down on us. I walked beside him along a grassy path between two fields, past the self-contained realities I knew.
An outhouse, a weather-worn gray wooden plank building that, depending upon the weather and who’d last visited it, had an aroma that was disagreeable but tolerable when I sat in the semi-dark over one of the two holes, but with eaves, corners, and crevices that sometimes became real estate for nesting wasps or mud daubers.
A coal pile, a mountain of shiny black rock to climb up and back down again, but doing so dirtied my shoes with black dust and I couldn’t resist handling the individual pieces, wiping my fingers on my pants or shirt without thinking of the reprimand I would receive from my mother. Beside the coal pile, a wood pile, not as good for climbing because it didn’t pile well because sticks of wood don’t fit into each other the way chunks of coal do. I could play with the wood without dirtying myself, but I had to watch out for splinters. We walked past trellises supporting leathery-leaved grapevines that were visited, in season, by gangs of pollinating bumblebees or birds stealing from heavy bunches of purple grapes.
The outhouse, the coal pile, the wood pile, the grapevines – it was like strolling past tents at a carnival I knew on the way to the big top, the barn. The barn, though, was a big, dark, unknown. I was told to stay out of it because it wasn’t a safe to play there. I was well into my teens before I learned that it was because Papaw’s workshop was in there, not because something in the dark would reach out and grab me.
The barn was a giant troll guarding access to the world beyond, where fields stopped and ground sloped down to the woods. There was no path around the barn, but Dad made one, crushing weeds with his feet, and I followed behind on top of the flattened vegetation. From the edge of the field, it was a short walk on indistinct trails through sticker bushes and rabbit tobacco to where the trees started and trails became defined, leading to the spring that, over the course of many shady miles, widened and deepened and eventually merged into the Cumberland river.
Dad said the trails were made by animals coming to the creek to drink and that the Indians had used them. He and my uncles used to find arrowheads in the fields after Papaw plowed and it made them as excited as little boys. When Dad said the Cherokee and Shawnee used to fight there, I imagined Indians nocking the arrow, drawing the bowstring, and letting it fly like on TV, where Cowboys and Indians was a game in black-and-white, where people got shot, but nobody bled, and only the bad guys died.
We stopped walking at the edge of where the trees began. Dad got down on one knee and showed me the safety, a little lever you pushed forward or back.
“Always keep the safety on until you’re ready to shoot,” he said.
He pulled back the bolt, inserted a bullet in the chamber, pushed the bolt back, and nudged the safety forward. Then he squeezed the trigger.
“See? It won’t shoot.”
He pushed the safety back. Then, resting the butt against his shoulder, aimed at a tree about fifteen feet away. The bang was pleasingly loud, an adult loud, but not so loud that it hurt my ears.
“You try,” he said, sliding the bolt open and inserting another bullet. He slid the bolt forward, clicked on the safety, and handed the gun to me. My arms were short and the rifle was heavy, but I could reach the trigger. I aimed at the tree.
“Switch the safety off,” he reminded me.
I lowered the gun, found the safety, and pushed it. Then I raised the gun back up and fired. Bark flew. I was proud of myself.
It was his turn. He took aim at other targets more distant, telling me what he was aiming at. I lost interest and looked up in the sky. I saw a speck of black circling up high.
“Is that a bird?” I asked, pointing.
He looked and said it was.
“Can I shoot at it?” I asked. I got it. This was a game of skill, like tossing a ball in a basket.
“You can’t hit a bird on the fly with a 22,” he said. But I wanted to try, so he put a bullet in the chamber and handed the rifle to me. I aimed at the speck in the sky and pulled the trigger.
“You forgot to switch the safety off,” he said.
I found the safety and pushed it off. I raised the gun again, pointed it in the direction of the bird, and squeezed the trigger. The noise of the shot echoed and the bird stopped circling and fell some, then flapped harder to keep from falling more. I instantly understood that I’d hurt something alive, that felt pain and lived as much as me. It was like shooting myself.
I never tried to shoot anything alive after that experience, just trees and cans we set up as targets. When I was twelve, I was given my own single-shot 22 rifle and we went to the creek so I could try it out. I shot at targets and then noticed something wedged in a fork near the top of a tall locust tree.
“An old squirrel’s nest,” Dad said. “But nobody would be in it this time of year.”
I decided to see if I could hit it. I switched the safety off, aimed, and fired. There was a frantic rustle in the nest and a squirrel raced down the left side of the tree. I realized that I’d shot into someone’s home, just because I could. I felt dirty. I was a bully.
That was the last time I ever fired a gun. During my teenage years, I went to the creek whenever we visited Mamaw’s, but I went alone. Outhouses and coal piles weren’t magic anymore, but the creek and the woods remained real, self-referent, and calm. There, I felt something empty and big and free, beyond the pull of other people’s desires and fears. Even when the weather was cold, wet, and gray, the creek summoned up a place inside me as warm as the radiant heat from a coal stove, a no-gun zone where everyone was safe.
Around the time the Viet Nam War was beginning to deescalate, I received a notice in the mail instructing me to register for the draft. I held the opinion that the war somehow was about money rather than freedom for Vietnamese. But I went to the Selective Service Office with no plan to do anything except what was normal and expected.
But when they handed me the registration form and I read it, I saw an option called “Conscientious Objector.” I studied the explanation and wondered if I qualified. I wasn’t a Quaker or anything, and I didn’t have a worked-out philosophy with explicit tenets, just a weakness – I didn’t want to kill anyone. But here was a category I fit into, where I wouldn’t have to be ashamed or hide my weakness from bullies. I registered CO.
I left the Selective Service Office and visited my girlfriend. She was impressed at what I’d done. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d done something impressive, but I was a sucker for anything that made me big in the eyes of a girl. So when I got home and ran into my dad, and he asked if I’d registered, I told him with some pride that I’d registered Conscientious Objector.
“You shouldn’t do that!” he said, explaining I might not even be drafted. “It’s bad to have on your record. Go back and change it. You could be a Senator someday.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me that he might disapprove, much less that he would feel so strongly about it. And that I might be a Senator someday? I hadn’t known that he held such ambitions for me. My ambition was only to figure out what was real and true in life.
Dad loved me, but I knew I’d done the right thing, registering CO. However, Viet Nam was far away and Dad was only feet away. I was hurting him, and that was wrong, so I returned to Selective Service and said I wanted to change my registration. The lady behind the desk raised an eyebrow.
“You understand,” she said, “that even if you change, it will still be on your record?”
I hadn’t, and evidently Dad hadn’t either. I’d ruined my record. Nonetheless, the best I could do at this point was change to 1-A. Available for military service. If I were drafted, I would have to figure out what to do. Some people went to Canada. More likely, I would find a place inside the Army where I could hide and pretend I wasn’t part of it and always keep the safety on.