What were we thinking?

(Edited version of the original 2019 post)

What were we thinking? It’s a question that was relevant a half century ago when we Boomers were kids, and it has been relevant at many times during our lives. It’s a question, when asked aloud, that is loaded with cynicism, with the clear implication that we should have known better. Sometimes we offer it as an oblique mea culpa: “What the hell was I thinking?”

What the hell was I thinking, is the question I have often asked myself regarding a summer day sometime between seventh and eighth grade—the time period having recently been confirmed for me by a good friend—when he and I and another friend took a rifle and a pocketful of .22 caliber bullets to go target shooting on one of our Independence Days.

We went to a place we knew along the Yellow Breeches Creek where there was an embankment that was to serve as a backdrop for our target practice. We were children, but I suspect our being rising eighth graders diminished that reality in our minds. I was twelve, and one of us might have been thirteen, but as has been noted in a previous post as being typical of the independence we enjoyed, there was not an adult in sight.

As we walked along the creek on a level stretch of ground between the creek and an embankment that ran parallel to the creek but several feet removed from it, I spied a corrugated metal culvert, the end of which hung over the creek surface a few hundred feet away. It was probably a storm sewer outlet, but I saw it as a target and asked my friend for the rifle. I took aim at the culvert and pulled the trigger, but there was no sound or visible evidence that my aim was true: the bullet had missed the culvert.

Arriving at where we intended to engage in our target practice, we did just that, and after several minutes of shooting, we saw a man approaching us with purpose. When we turned toward him, he asked if we had been firing at targets “up the creek.” I remember the man as having been very angry but also very restrained. Restrained or not, having dealt on a near daily basis with my father’s anger, I remember being very scared. At that moment and forgetting about my errant shot, one of us replied “no” and assured the man that we had been firing at targets in front of the embankment.

He looked at us doubtfully for a beat and then asked what type of cartridge we were shooting. My friend reached into a pants pocket full of two kinds of cartridges: 22-caliber “long rifle” cartridges and less powerful 22-caliber “short” cartridges that contained a slightly shorter bullet than the long rifle cartridge. My friend pulled a “short” cartridge from his pocket and held it out to the man.

The man took it, examined it as he rolled it between his thumb and forefinger, and then returned it to my friend. With a controlled anger in his eyes that I can still imagine, he pulled a 22-caliber bullet from his own pocket and held it out for us to see. It was a bullet from a long-rifle cartridge.

“This just broke the glass in our kitchen window and landed at my wife’s feet,” he said. “We live about a mile away in that direction (he pointed up the creek), and it’s a good thing this slug was spent by the time it hit the window, because if it wasn’t, it would have hit her.”

My pulse was racing because I remembered the shot I had fired “up the creek” at the culvert. My friend’s selection of the shorter type of cartridge had saved me.

The man gave each of us a probing glance and asked if we had seen or heard anyone else shooting by the creek. My memory fails me here. Did we respond that we hadn’t, or was one of us savvy enough to lie and reply that we had heard other shots? The man may have given us a fatherly lecture on the importance of being careful, or not, before he walked away. I don’t remember. As with all long-term memories, which are often rearranged or otherwise modified from fact because those memories congeal in the part of our brain that creates our dreams, I cannot promise that anything I recall, or any of us recall, is precisely accurate. What is important to me is to do my best to be as accurate as I can about details from the past and hope that the gist of what I write about is on point.

Given that caveat, I remember that my heart was in my throat. There was a deep-seated aversion to guns in my house that had been reinforced by my mother’s recounting, not many weeks before, of a horrific story about a twelve-year-old and a rifle, which apparently made such a significant impression upon me that, decades later, her story inspired me to write The Innocents. It wasn’t the fear of retribution from the errant bullet that had my heart racing; it was the simple fact that I was terrified my  parents would discover I had been shooting a gun.

I do not know when I realized what had happened, whether on the walk home with my friends or later, but I have thought of that moment many times over the years and have recounted this story any time the talk of boys and guns arises over a beer or cocktails.

I have come to accept the probability that when I shot at the culvert on one of our summer days of independence in 1961, there was a “long rifle” cartridge in the chamber of the rifle I fired, and it is probable that my aim was low. It is noted in The Book of the Twenty-two (S. Fadala, 1989) that “a .22 (long rifle) can ricochet off the surface of water at a low angle of aim. Severe injury may result to a person or object in the line of fire on the opposite shore, several hundred yards away.”

If I am correct, the bullet I fired glanced off the surface of the creek, which allowed it to elevate enough to clear a rise beyond where the creek turned a hundred yards or more beyond the culvert. That bullet had to have missed hitting one of the branches on the trees on that rise and then carried hundreds of yards more with sufficient momentum to crash through a window into the angry man’s kitchen. By then, the bullet was spent and could not have done serious harm, but I’m certain its arrival scared the man and his wife half to death.

What the hell was I thinking? Clearly, I wasn’t.

As I have been musing about the past, I find myself beginning to recognize one reason why Boomers may have expanded the practice of parental hovering. Perhaps it wasn’t just our lack of understanding about the importance of providing children meaningful independence, or our worrying about protecting our children from lunatics and other “evil doers.” Maybe it was our memories of the near or actual harm we caused ourselves and others while deep in the midst of our unsupervised Independence Days that convinced us to hover. Or said another way, perhaps many of us had the experience-driven need to protect our children from themselves.

As for twelve-year-old me, that boy has not held a gun in his hands from that day in 1961 to today, a span of more than sixty years.

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