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I heard the news today, oh boy. An elementary student in Maryland is suspended from school because he cocked and fired his finger at a classmate during a playground game. He committed a crime against school policy and got the maximum sentence. He will return to his reading, writing and ‘rithmetic as reformed and remorseful, his future hopefully snapped away from the edge of awful by an act of tough love.
This story has left me in a cold sweat. I fear that the sheriff might come to my office and slap on the leg irons, take me to The Rock, throw me into the hole and leave me in the dark to think about how many hundreds of times I committed just such a crime, roaring from the underbrush on my powerful steed, pistol locked and loaded and ready to throw down on the bad guys.
That was my childhood in the days before baseball and girls. I was the cowboy riding the range, my iron strapped to my leg and my 10-gallon hat on my head. Cross my path, and more than once I followed through on a threat to “blow your head off.”
I had no idea I was cultivating a criminal mind by watching Roy Rogers on Saturday mornings or Gunsmoke on Saturday night.
I had no clue that when Joe Cartwright went to his pistol that he was breeding within me the hardened soul of a bad man. John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Audie Murphy….you name it, a hero on celluloid meant a bad kid in second grade.
I built my stockpile of weapons, starting with a cap pistol from Newberry’s, I’m sure. When I was 2 or 3, a family friend gave me a Daisy BB pistol too heavy even for me to lift, much less aim. It was put away until I could handle its firepower. It was in the style of an automatic weapon, and I’m sure I understood it was supposed to be more powerful and deadly than the six-shooter caps I usually used.
I had single holsters, double holsters, shoulder holsters, Fanner 50s, a lever-action Winchester like The Rifleman cocked and fired and even a sawed-off shotgun like Steve McQueen wielded on Wanted Dead or Alive.
I sometimes wore black like Paladin, yet a white hat like Ben Cartwright. My bandana was red and tied around my neck and sometimes pulled over my face to hide my evil countenance. I had a golden palomino at the ready to chase down anyone who needed my attention.
I developed hideouts among blackberry bushes along a rise by a creek where no one could find me. I knew spots along porches and behind maple trees to lie in wait to ambush unsuspecting settlers who might wander from a front door at the wrong time.
I knew a window in the attic that provided a great vantage point to halt someone moseying below with a shout of “stop right there, or I’ll let you have it!”
I had learned and mastered every trick ever used by Katie Elder’s sons or Wyatt Earp’s brothers.
And I became hardened and desperate. I rebelled against silly restrictions on my activities like Marshal Earp’s rules in Tombstone. You remember that, right? He forced any cowhand wanting to visit the town to check his weapons at the city limits. You could carouse the saloon or anything else, but the marshal would control your guns so you wouldn’t get mad at a poker game and open fire at the dirty dealers. You got your guns back when you left town.
No way I would give up my guns. I was a tough hombre, and you didn’t call me into the street at noon unless you meant to leave in a pine box.
Yes, I was ready for anything, and if I ran out of shootin’ shells or BBs there was always that well-oiled, easy-handling and never-missing index finger on either hand. It could reduce a 7-year-old to trembling fear, just the sight of it rising into the air.
Somehow, despite those days of crime, I managed to escape any punishment, other than if a BB in fact strayed toward a window or substandard work in the classroom required penalty of forfeiting my weapons, Earp-style.
And it hardened me, I can tell you. It made me want to grow up and own every weapon the world ever had invented. It made me want to stockpile them and hoard them and build an arsenal that I could use from the top of my barn to keep intruders from bothering my property.
It led me to a life of exactly, well, none of that.
I’ve never owned a real gun, shot one only once – on a skeet range – and never thought there was much good reason to keep deadly force around my children.
I didn’t want to hunt, never spent my life among folks who might want to pull a gun to deal with a problem and stayed away from areas where that might be more the norm.
But now I know that I’m one of the lucky ones, who escaped my youthful exposure to weaponry and avoided a life of crime. I may be the only person on the planet like that, you know, whose parents and teachers actually understood how to translate the violent legends that invaded our psyches and blocked a bad turn by using their love and tolerance.
I can only surmise that’s how I eluded the authorities and real punishment for the finger-gun I wielded as deftly and openly as I might a pencil. I, too, could have spent days in the principal’s office, sitting out recess or having to tell my parents the awful truth.
When I think of that little boy in Maryland, I say a prayer for him and hope he doesn’t turn into a bad apple now that he has the record of a hardened criminal, and I say another for me that I managed to live a life without the need for guns.