By David Heinzmann
In the little central-Illinois town where I grew up just about everybody I knew kept firearms. Our own home was loaded with them.
We had an old gun cabinet with brittle glass doors in our basement that contained four or five shotguns, a .22-caliber lever-action rifle that looked like it had been drawn directly from the saddle scabbard on John Wayne’s horse, as well as a .22 Ruger revolver that also looked like a cowboy gun.
On the top shelf of the cabinet behind the boxes of shotgun shells, there was a badly tarnished, nickel-plated .32-caliber revolver that no longer fired, though my father kept it around for some unexplained sentimental reason. That one also looked like it came from the movies, but something starring Humphrey Bogart instead of the Duke.
Then there was the loaded Smith & Wesson .38 that my dad kept in his top dresser drawer for protection. I know, to urban and suburban sensibilities it probably sounds absurd, but it was a one-cop town, the middle of a recession, and, well, who knows. All I can say is that my dad was an educated and reasonable man of his time who worried about the well-being of his family. Anyway, it was heavy and black, well-oiled, and definitely serious business.
I learned early the basics of handling a gun, where the safety was, and how to always be conscious of where you’re pointing the thing. My dad would occasionally take me out into a ravine in the woods and set up a few soda can targets. I’d shoot the little .22 revolver, which made a sound like firecrackers and compressed air. And then that big, heavy .38 that always sounded like a bomb going off to my tender ears.
My dad hunted and by the time I was an adolescent, my older brother was an avid hunter, as well. I never took to it, but weekends in the fall I usually accompanied them to a friend’s small farm on the edge of town where we’d shoot trap with shotguns. They were practicing to down pheasants and geese. I was just tagging along.
Five or six of us would stand in a line with this spring-loaded throwing contraption set in the dirt in the middle of us. Pulling a cord would release the arm and send clay pigeons, these little Frisbees made of crude, lightweight ceramic, spinning into the sky. I could probably hit six out of ten on a really good day.
But one afternoon I was waiting my turn, standing next to the guy who owned the farm, a .20-guage shotgun under my arm pointed at the ground. All of the sudden my gun went off, shredding the long grass and sending a cloud of dust into the air about ten feet in front of the man next to me. His name was Dick Herring. Everybody looked around, and Dick gave me an easy-going, “Careful there, David.” I think it was my brother who said, what the hell?, and in the moment, I couldn’t explain why the gun had gone off, though I’m sure my finger was on the trigger when it shouldn’t have been.
Nobody was hurt, but I had a what in God’s name am I doing here? moment. I’m not a hunter; I’m not much of a shot. All I’m really doing is spending time with my old man and my brother. As I look back, that was a pretty good reason. My father would be dead of cancer less than five years later, and I cherish all the time I spent with him. And the camaraderie and amiable bullshitting of those afternoons are part of a why I loved growing up in a small town. But that was the beginning of the end of my time playing with guns.
It was a good lesson. You really don’t want to be careless for even a second with a loaded gun in your hand.
I think of this 25-year-old episode fairly often. I thought of it a few weeks ago when my mother shared the news that Dick Herring—in his 70s—had died. And I thought of it again last week when a cop friend was recounting how he had to tell a writer acquaintance of his that the elaborate and technical gun stuff in her book was all wrong. None of that stuff matters to me.
In my own novel, A Word to the Wise, I put a sawed-off shotgun in a villain’s hands at one point. When a gun-nut friend read it, he questioned whether I had the bad guy using it correctly. I thought I did, but in the end I just took the technical stuff out. It didn’t matter a bit to the drama of the moment.
As far as I’m concerned, guns are either big or little; long or short. And people either know how to use them, or they don’t.