The burled walnut stock of the shotgun feels cool and smooth against my cheek. Flexing my knees slightly, I shout, “Pull!” From behind my right shoulder, Josh releases the spring-loaded trap, and an orange clay disc squirts across the horizon. I track it, swinging the long gray barrel in an arc. At its apex, I squeeze the trigger. The report echoes, but the clay pigeon’s flight continues uninterrupted until it bounces into the dirt.
“You were behind again,” says Josh. “You’re not leading it enough.”
“How can you tell?” I ask as I reload the trap. “Do you have special buckshot vision?”
“Sure do,” he grins, cradling his 20-gauge Ithaca Featherlite in his arms. “Pull!”
Quick as a snake, Josh uncoils, the gun roars, and clay shrapnel drops out of the sky. “It takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says. “Here, try again.” “No thanks,” I reply. “Let Laura or Lexi have a turn.”
Shooting skeet wasn’t our original plan. We had left town that morning intending to meet for a day of rock climbing. But when we arrived, Josh was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip and proposed an alternative expedition. Rock climbing seemed humdrum compared to the novelty of firearms. Now my Subaru, full of unused climbing gear, is parked a few miles up a dirt road at an impromptu firing range in the national forest.
When we pulled up, it was obvious this was a place where people came to shoot guns. The bare ground was littered with spent cartridges, empty shells, broken glass and other shrapnel. Josh gave us a safety briefing and showed us how to load his double-barrel shotgun. Then we popped in earplugs and took turns blazing holes in the sky.
Josh was a crack shot. Even when we filled the trap with two skeet, he brought down both with ease. We three newbies were more hit and miss — with heavy emphasis on the “miss.” After we’d burned through a case of clay pigeons, Josh produced a couple of pistols. While I watched Laura and Lexi merrily plinking away at bottles and cans stacked in a dirt berm, I considered my uneasy relationship with guns.
A couple of years ago, I joined a friend who works in law enforcement at the shooting range. Under his tutelage, I learned how to shoot in various positions — standing, prone, etc. — but I never mastered the essential element of accuracy. For him, firing a gun was a form of yoga: Breathe in … squeeze trigger … BANG! Breathe out. For me, the anticipation of “BANG!” always made me twitch. I reckon the twitch was a result of a childhood experience.
My father owned two firearms — a single-barrel 12-gauge Winchester shotgun that he kept in the back corner of his bedroom closet, and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that he stored in his dresser drawer under his T-shirts.
My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, was pretty tame in the 1970s, so Dad wasn’t worried about nighttime marauders. He didn’t store the guns loaded and he kept the ammunition in his basement workshop. Dad didn’t own guns to dole out vigilante justice; he used the guns at work. Dad wasn’t a police officer or a mercenary. He was a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Waring used his guns for scientific purposes in the field. The shotgun served as a tree-trimming tool, bringing down branches from the tops of the tall evergreens in the Cascades. He subjected those trimmings to a battery of tests, and the results revealed the overall health of the tree and thus the surrounding forest. Early in his research career, he’d determined a shotgun was the best — and perhaps only — tool for the job of harvesting samples high above the forest floor.
Dad didn’t carry the revolver in the mountains; he only wore the big iron on his hip when he worked on Oregon’s dry eastern slope during the hot summer months when the rattlesnakes were active. The pistol hung in a holster on a heavy leather belt studded with shiny two-tone bullets. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated. The six-shooter spoke to all my boyish cowboy fantasies. But before I could draw down on the family cat, my father nipped my Wild West dreams in the bud by taking me out shooting.
I was too young to recall now exactly where we went — somewhere deep in the Oregon woods, I know that much. I remember we hiked together for a long while, and Dad’s voice turned very serious when he took the pistol from the holster. He broke open the chamber to show me it was unloaded. He showed me the safety catch and told me never to point a gun at something unless I was ready to destroy it. With those words ringing in my ears, Dad plucked six bullets from the loops in his belt and loaded the pistol. “See if you can hit that tin can on the stump,” he said.
Shooting the gun was easy. Aiming it was not. I finally knocked the can off the stump with a lucky shot. Watching it skitter across the dirt, I felt my young life had reached an apotheosis. I wanted to ride off on a horse named Silver and enlist in the army as a sharpshooter. I felt an unfamiliar surge of power, of strength, of control.
Looking back, I realize that moment was a rite of passage. Holding a loaded gun was the first major responsibility I’d ever been given — one with far more ramifications than remembering to feed the hamster or mowing the yard on a Saturday morning. Handling a gun required gravitas. For the first time, I held the control of a deadly force over all the creatures around me. In return, I had to exert absolute control over myself. Handling a gun forced me to behave like an adult instead of a child.
Dad holstered the pistol and picked up the shotgun. He broke it open to show me the firing mechanism and explained how the red plastic shells were filled with tiny pellets that created an expanding pattern in the air.
“See if you can bring down the highest branch in that Douglas fir,” he said. I lifted the heavy gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Like a right cross from Mike Tyson, the recoil dropped me to the ground. Slightly concussed, I rubbed my bruised shoulder and decided that guns weren’t so enticing after all. My father, in his wisdom, was probably counting on this outcome.
My relationship with guns has remained distant ever since. I understand their utility, but I want no truck with them in my daily life. Now, whenever I hold a gun, I find myself thinking about Columbine High School, about murder and suicide and war, about the terrible power and life-and-death responsibility a firearm represents. I’m not mentally unstable. I’m absolutely certain that simply holding a gun won’t cause me to lose control and become a homicidal maniac. But I’ve decided my life-and-death decisions should originate from choices made while climbing or skiing instead of from the flash from a grey-blue muzzle. And I’m content with that.
Josh’s voice rouses me from my musings. “Hey, you want to shoot a few rounds with the pistol?” he asks. “No thanks, I’m cool,” I respond. “Everything’s under control.”
Lance Waring is a ski bum with a writing habit. He lives in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.