Sunday, January 16, 2011

Traditional American Gun Cultures and Today's Gun Culture: Worlds Apart

I grew up in the gun culture.  I reckon.

Mitchell Bard points out, rightly, that guns mean different things to different sets of Americans, depending on the historical circumstances that have shaped our regional cultures.  And as I think about it, I realize that I grew up with guns somewhere in my family's house, but when I try to think of precisely where those guns were stored, or of any active role they played in our family life, I draw a total blank.

Except for one particular gun, which hung in a wooden gun rack on a wall in the house, and was proudly displayed, because it was an heirloom--and this display explains why guns were taken for granted in the culture in which I grew up.  This was, in fact, my gun, a small .22 rifle that I inherited from my grandfather by way of his son, both named William--and so the gun came to me because I was named William for my grandfather Simpson (who had been named for his grandfather William H. Braselton, who was named for his uncle William Braselton, named in turn for another uncle William Brazelton the Quaker, who is called the Great Hunter in family stories, because of his skill at hunting game in the woods of east Tennessee, where he spent the latter part of his life operating an inn called Friends Station, for Friends heading west to begin new lives in the states opposed to slavery).  And because my name is William and all this blood runs to me along with the name, I therefore inherited my grandfather Billy Simpson's little hunting rifle and his gold watch.

I never shot this gun.  I'm not sure one could shoot it.  It was an antique.  It was there not to be used, but as a reminder--a reminder not of guns and what guns could do, but of a beloved grandfather whom I never met, and whom my mother herself hardly remembered, since he died when she was seven years old.  The gun had stories attached, dating from my grandfather's childhood in the 1870s, when he used it to hunt squirrels in the woods near his family's houses in Alabama and Mississippi, squirrels he then brought home for his mother to fry for him for breakfast.

This is the sole gun I remember well from my childhood, except for a newer, bigger rifle that my father gave me in my final year or so of high school, and which then hung in the same gun rack in which the antique rifle was displayed.  That rifle I used perhaps twice, to demonstrate that I could do so, when my expertise at shooting birds with it even at a long distance astounded my father, who had given it to me, it was clear, to try to bolster my dubious manhood, to provide me some way, any way, to demonstrate to the world that I was a bona fide man.

It would be ludicrous, however, for me to write here: a bona fide man like my father himself.  Since he never hunted, that I can remember.  Except on the rare occasion when he and other professional men went into the woods together with rifles, to sit at hunting stands and muse about nature and sip whiskey as they waited for deer that never came along, and then to retire to a hunting shack for the night.  Where a black man brought along with them cooked them fabulous meals and they reminisced about the war years and their many loves and the lost world of their childhoods.

I went on one of these expeditions--only one--and it was one of the most boring outings of my life.  Because I loved the woods, due to my father's own tutelage, which had taught me to recognize large numbers of plants and know their use, to look for signs of previous habitation at now long-abandoned homesteads, and watch for streams that would help me mark my surroundings and, if I got myself lost, would surely lead me to some inhabited place.  And sitting on a hunting stand weighed down by a rifle waiting for the deer that never arrived did not count as being in the woods.

And all of this explains the gun culture in which I grew up: it was a casually taken-for-granted vestige of an old huntin', shootin', fishin' life of my forebears that no longer had any real or viable meaning in my life or the life of my family as I came of age (well, except for the fishing), but was still there in our memory, as a cherished part of our heritage.  Because it was a way in which families had supplemented their supply of meat in months when homegrown meat was scarce.  And a way for men to get away from women and go into the woods for what amounted to all-male, all-night parties.  And a connection, even further back, to the lives of our rural British ancestors who relished the hunt for all the same reasons.

As I say, we wore this gun-culture exceptionally lightly as I grew up in the American South of the latter half of the 20th century.  As I think about Mitchell Bard's observation that there are different gun cultures in the U.S. with different historical antecedents, I realize that my family also had a pistol--at some point in my growing-up years--though where that pistol was kept or why we had it, I have no recollection at all.  Which tells you a great deal about the role that guns did not play in my family in my formative years, though they were there and taken for granted.

I suspect the pistol was well-hidden and hardly ever brought out because my father--and with good reason--feared that, if we three sons knew where to find and how to load it, one of us would have shot the other in due time.  We were wild, and in our wild brawls, any weapon that easily came to hand was fair play, and a handy pistol would have been jolly good fun for any one of us, until, too late, we saw the consequences of it in a brother's supine body, after our rage of the moment had spent itself.  My parents knew us very well, and they evidently kept that pistol wisely locked and hidden away, I suspect.

I know it existed, because I have a clear, sharp memory of a fall day in my teen years when my father took us for a walk in the woods near our house, to hunt for pecans, which fell from an ancient tree near an abandoned homeplace in the fall, and had an incomparable flavor.  They were little wild pecans with hard shells and exceedingly sweet nutmeat.

And on that particular outing, my father spotted a small chinquapin tree in a sedge-covered field near the pecan tree, and pointed it out to us.  He showed us how to pick the very prickly little nuts and then crack them, and such an experience it was, finding the tasty little hazelnut inside that tiny, thorn-covered shell.  

And all of this remains fixed in my mind both because I had never seen a chinquapin before, and because of what happened as we walked back through the sedge grass to the sandy path heading to the pecan tree: hidden in the high grass was a huge rattlesnake that none of us had seen, and my brother Philip walked right into it.  As it rattled a warning and prepared to strike, my father took his pistol and shot it in the head.  We retrieved the snake, which was at least six feet long and as thick as a baseball bat, and brought it home to show our mother, who promptly and predictably went into hysterics at the sight of it, and at the thought that her baby son had walked into it.

And so guns were there, in my childhood and adolescence.  They were taken for granted.  And they were used on occasional outings into the woods, with the memory that grandfathers and their grandfathers had hunted in this same way, and that in using the guns and roaming in the woods, we were carrying on a heritage that had long been a part of our family tradition.

But guns were hardly glorified.  They were locked away or displayed as antiques on the walls of the house.  They weren't spoken of or fondled or fought over.  They had dangerous potential and children did not need to know about them or know where they were.

And this attitude towards guns is worlds removed from the attitude of any American culture today that revels in guns and the right to bear arms.  Revelry that is not at all about holding onto a proud heritage and defending an embattled right, but is about buying masculinity at a very cheap price, by flaunting the phallic symbol of an easily obtained weapon of destruction.  And about threatening others and not caring about the consequences, about the way in which easy access to guns and cheaply bought, unearned masculinity is tearing the social fabric of our already precarious society.

And this needs to stop, no matter what part of the nation we live in and what historical heritage we happen to have, in any section of our country. 

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