Friday, January 14, 2011

What we have here is a failure to communicate

It's an old joke. Maybe you've heard it, maybe I told it to you. I am getting old and I do repeat myself -- but anyway: this guy goes to the psychiatrist who gives him a Rorschach test. Every ink blot he looks at makes him think of sex. "That's two dogs going at it" he says. "That's three people and a chicken having sex, that's a vulva. . ." and on and on.

"I suspect you may have a problem," says the shrink.

"Hey, wait a minute, you're the pervert showing me the dirty pictures!"

A couple of years ago, a relative of my mother's was here to dinner along with my father. For years I have had my parents' old 20 gauge Remington 870 sitting unused in a closet. Back in the day they had had a large piece of farm property in Northwest Illinois and sometimes, of an afternoon, they would use it to shoot clay pigeons. Trap shooting isn't my thing and it hasn't been fired in 30 years, so "would you like me to sell it?" I asked dad. "It may be worth 5 or 6 hundred."

My aunt's eyes got wide. "Well you can't really sell it can you? Someone will buy it and use it to kill someone." Being more diplomatic and patient in person than I am here, I didn't offer the explanation that it would certainly be bought by someone who wished to use it for what it was designed for - trap shooting and that the odds of her being killed in a car accident on the way home were hugely greater. But it does no good to argue, not knowing is the best defense of one's prejudices and you can't trust anyone who tries to overcome them. They might buy a gun and kill you.

I still smile when thinking of visiting relatives, particularly young ones, cringing and looking for the exits when I mention a chain saw ( I have two) or a machete (I have several - I live in the jungle.) They're WEAPONS! Never mind that I've carried a scout knife or Swiss Army knife since I was 10 and feel helpless without such a basic tool. Of course it's conceivable that I could cut my finger with it and after all it's a weapon and someone could grab it and kill me. I don't usually dare mention that I collect them and own over a hundred - proof of criminal intent rather than an addiction to nostalgia, no doubt, for those whose lives are a flight to safety in which your company is required.

Is it me, showing them murder weapons and making them afraid, or is the problem theirs - the terror of inanimate objects? I doubt there will ever be agreement. There's a gulf, a gap of generation and place and circumstance and culture, and it's getting wider and harder to see across as time goes on. It's responsible for more discord than we credit it with. Neither side of the valley of the shadow will listen to the other without imposing shibboleths.

I once endured a debate between an automotive engineer and some safety activist. It never really turned into a debate because the lady in question kept repeating, "but you agree that the most important thing is how a car does in a crash, right?" Her opponent had a different set of priorities. I mention it because it's no different than any of our political discussions, and of course, all our discussions are political.

The weather in America is political and so any discussion of firearms demands that one side admit that we need more gun control while the other needs to admit we either already have a sufficiency or better yet, even a little is too much.

When I was very young and began to be involved with Scouting and the lure of the woods, it was not only considered normal but essential that a young boy have some training with small caliber firearms. Magazines like Open Road and Boy's life always had ads for BB guns, hunting knives and .22 caliber 'boy's' rifles. Like archery, like learning survival skills, it built confidence, concentration and was a tie with a disappearing past. Maybe good preparation for the military as well. Safety through training and knowledge and preparation was the idea, but that was then.

I grew up reading Stewart Edward White and Dan Beard; Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt -- Earnest Hemingway, James Fenimore Cooper. Men who had skill with and knowledge of firearms. I read books on the outdoor life and woodcraft by the mysterious "Deep River Jim" and countless others. I learned to shoot and handle a rifle safely at age 11 in summer camp in the Michigan woods. I still have 20 acres on an island in Michigan where neighbors are few, far away and Ojibway and you hear coyotes at night and you feel better knowing you can fire a few times without reloading, even though odds are you'll never have to. I still remember.

Old men live in a world of memories. Old men like to remember. Today, if you show me an image of a classic Stevens Favorite rifle I think of campfires and log cabins and fishing reels; cedar and canvas canoes, that old Sears Roebuck bolt action .22 I carried down the Flambeau wrapped in canvas. day-long walks through the wooded hills along the Galena river with my flintlock rifle, thinking of Daniel Boone. I smell autumn smoke, hear trout streams; the simple pleasure of knocking over tin cans at a hundred yards.

Show that 'boy's rifle' to any number of people and their thoughts will turn to murder, fear, danger, suspicion, distrust, demands that scary things be taken away and people locked up. Is that my fault for showing them scary things and am I the one with the problems? Sure, there is a paranoid right that is terrified of the 'Liberal' Anti-Santa Obaminator going up the chimney with the family AK, but it's no less delusional than insisting I'm really likely to spontaneously transmogrify into Charles Manson the second and so can't be trusted with that extra box of ammunition or that .22 Ruger target pistol with that 10 round magazine (murderer's special, no doubt.)

The Chicago Tribune used, every autumn for a hundred years, to reprint a nostalgic page about an old man and his grandson looking at hayricks at sunset and dreaming of teepees and campfires and things no longer there. They stopped a few years ago, since such things don't mean anything to the kind of people who read the paper any more and of course it used the word Indian which is offensive according to people who are not Indians and burning leaves in autumn is dangerous and produces pollution and the grandfather is smoking tobacco -- and so best to turn on the iPod and move on in perfect safety toward out brave, new, safe and odorless world.

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