Dedicated to the kids of Newton, Connecticut
By Bob Dorn
Growing up white in Arizona put you in touch with all kinds of guns — only your fingers and hands if you were the boss, your more vulnerable parts if you were not. Back then, white boys had the bb gun at the age of 6 or 7, a .22 rifle by the age of 11 or 12 and at 16 a 20-gauge shotgun for doves. Many of them knew something about clips and muzzle velocity and hollow point bullets before they’d even grown up.
I’m saying “white” because that, plus a bit of Mexican culture, is all I remember about Arizona at this point in my life, removed from that state and condition by at least 5 decades. In Phoenix, back then many, but not all, whites were — as Mitt Romney might put it — self-segregated. They chose to be cut off from the rest of the world, which made it possible to be white. You could have some large distortions in your thinking that were rewarded when you expressed them. And if they weren’t why, then, you had guns.
You almost had to know about guns, and their powers. We figured everybody had guns; it was safer to assume that. Guns were known as “equalizers” by the people who had more of them. By the age of 16, many white guys had both a car and a gun. A gun AND a car? Why not a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher and a Humvee? That would have been a real entitlement.
An early small tragedy rescued me from a love of guns. I’d borrowed the BB gun for the afternoon from Tony Marchese, a richer kid down the street. It was just too easy to use. All you had to do was drop a small round metal pellet into the opening at the end of the rifle, which you could hear rolling downward toward the firing end toward a magnet that grabbed the pellet with a pleasing “Click” that let you know you were in business. Pump a lever to compress some air, then pull the trigger and a puff of air would send the pellet on its wobbly, uncertain course toward the target. It was called, not very belligerently, a Daisy rifle.
I took the thing into our backyard. A field of cows was beyond the alley, giving the place a kind of rural seclusion that permitted experiment. I knew enough not to shoot at the cows, but there were plenty of birds. There was such a thing as an Arizona Cardinal, intensely colored and big, something like a scarlet blue jay. One landed on the wooden beam of the neighbor’s fence above me.
Maybe it was curious. It didn’t fly away, and seemed not to regard me as much of a threat. It didn’t fly when I raised the Daisy up. I like to think I didn’t intend to kill it, but of course I might later have forced that thought into the status of a memory. I know I was shocked that the bird dropped instantly, backward into the neighbor’s yard. I went into the alley where there was a slat that could be forced open, entered the yard and found the still bird, now only a beautiful thing. It seemed not to have been deformed by the pellet’s entry, but I knew I had killed it, maybe even willed it dead, and I felt like a shitheel as I brought it out of the neighbor’s yard and dug the hole in our own. Out of shame, I didn’t tell anyone.
Shortly after that my mom began taking me on trips to the library Saturday mornings, where I checked out picture books on astronomy, some elementary works on the naturaI world, and Frank Baum’s Oz books, which unfolded a complicated world, but not a deadly one… all of those preparing in me a taste for, well, higher values. By the time I entered advanced English classes I was somewhat prepared to receive the lessons of poetry, and Plato, and The Catcher in the Rye, which a secretly homosexual Jesuit elegantly helped us parse. I was made pretty well immune from the machismo of my epoch. I didn’t like guns.
That still unfolding enlightenment was challenged on one of those hopeless nights spent riding up and down Central Ave., getting ourselves worked up enough to talk to girls doing the same pointless slow drag from light to light. We’d given it up and were passing Town and Country mall on the way home when the friend I’ll call Tom abruptly jerked his Olds 88 into the parking lot of that early, timbered, low-slung, then-fashionable agglomeration of shops and restaurants that most of our parents could only barely afford to visit once in a while.
Tom was not intimidated by the place; his parents had real money. The Olds he drove was a high-powered new coupe and he carried in it a .45 caliber automatic, which they’d also given him. The other guy and I knew it, so did others who knew Tom, which is what gave all of them their bravado when they rode with him.
Were we actually looking for neckers in parked cars, or did we stumble onto them? I can’t remember. But we found two cars not separated by much, two pairs in one, one couple in the other, and I could feel the raw fury rising in Tom and the other guy, call him Warren. Tom jacked the steering wheel and threw the Olds into a few squealing turns, a howling coming from deep in his throat, Warren erupted in a remarkably similar way, as if they’d practiced this display. Tom headed the Olds toward the two, by now terrified, carloads and slammed the brakes.
Warren turned his head toward me. He was screaming. “Let’s beat ‘em up and take their women.” There was nothing more in it than sheer hatred, maybe the result of too many nights not getting those girls to join us in our cars, or of something worse and not spoken of by 17-year-olds in those days. I heard myself screaming back at both of them, “And then what? The girls are going to fall in love with you?”
One of them called me a pussy, the other roared something I couldn’t distinguish as speech. I told them to let me out of the back seat, so I could walk home.
Who knows why it was enough? They took me home, grumbling at me all the way. I was surprised at school the next day not to have been the butt of mean pranks from the people who were in that crowd I knew back then as friends.