Why you should care
Because guns don't shoot people, dumbasses do.
Divorce does weird/cool things to a family sometimes. My mother divorced my father, who then moved, first from Queens to Manhattan and then back “down south,” where he originally hailed from.
I know most people don’t consider Maryland the “down south,” but technically it is, especially to a kid who cut his teeth in Brooklyn. Seeing trees more than every 10 feet with something other than asphalt between them felt like the South to me. Magnolia trees, lawns, a creek that ran down the center of the street where my father’s two-story house stood? It wasn’t just the South, it was “the country.”
It was 1972. I was 10 and the Vietnam War still raged. It wasn’t anything other than a news story to me and the gaggle of neighborhood kids who’d leave home in the morning and disappear into the woods by Plyers Mill to build tree houses or head off to play baseball somewhere else. But delivering newspapers like I sometimes did, I knew enough to toss the paper and get away quick when delivering to a house where someone who had just returned from Vietnam lived.
One of the paperboys had been shot at on his route. That was Vietnam to us.
I opened the box of .22-caliber cartridges my father had hidden in his garage woodshed. They shone back at me.
Andy and I had a curious friendship. The first few weeks after I appeared in the neighborhood, things went all Lord of the Flies and a group of cheering kids surrounded Andy and me while we duked it out. A rumor had spread that I was from Brooklyn, which was shorthand for tough, and so the fight.
Even back then I appreciated fighting for its performative aspects. There was an audience, we were onstage and performance was paramount. Besides, in my experience, most people really don’t want to fight.
So we fitfully and spasmodically swung at each other. I crouched low. Andy was tall and thin — picture an 11-year-old Gregg Allman — so crouching made sense to me. We hit each other until we were winded, then we stopped and went somewhere else and did something else. Our friendship sanctified, and given that we lived a few doors down from each other, we hung out more often than not during summer.
Something you should remember from your own childhood if you ever intend to have kids: Kids are spies. Worse than spies, who are usually state actors, kids snoop through your stuff with no real objective. It may be out of boredom or it may be to try to learn something about the mystery of parents.
Snooping is how I discovered the box of .22-caliber cartridges my father had hidden in his garage woodshop. I opened the box and the cartridges shone back at me. They were tiny and shiny. I took one. My father wouldn’t miss just one.
“Look what I got.” I pulled the cartridge out of my pocket. It rolled into the center of my palm.
“Oh, snap!” Andy snatched it. “You find the gun?”
It hadn’t even dawned on me to look for a gun. I resolved to do so and left the cartridge with Andy. “Don’t lose it!” I warned him. “I might have to put it back if my dad notices one is missing.”
Andy agreed, and I went back to the garage. I checked the typical hiding places: behind books on the top shelves, in drawers, in toolboxes behind heavier boxes. Nothing.
Screw it. I took a handful of cartridges.
“You find the gun?” Andy asked.
“Nah. But I got more cartridges. Let’s go.” We headed into the woods.
“How are we going to fire them?” I asked Andy. He was the “country boy.” Maybe his father had a gun. “You’re from Brooklyn!” he said, leaning heavy on the word, doing his imitation of what I sounded like when I said it. “Make a zip gun.”
Zip guns are handmade guns that were allegedly used in gang fights before people figured out it was easier to just drive north with guns purchased down south. I didn’t know how to make one, but Andy’s suggestion got me thinking.
Andy screamed and fell to the ground.
“You know, they’re just like caps!” I said. We figured if we hit the cartridges with something we could trigger them. We found a big rock, placed one of the cartridges in a groove in the rock and then found another rock.
“Go ahead,” Andy said. “Hit it.”
“You hit it,” I said.
“Chicken.” I sat down in the dirt and took the smaller rock and held it over my head. The cartridge was about 6 inches from my face. I needed to see what I was doing.
I brought the rock down hard and the cartridge exploded. It made a nice pop. I felt something hit me in the face. I figured it was from the rock hitting the other rock. The whole procedure was satisfying enough that Andy and I decided to throw caution to the wind and do the whole handful. If my dad figured out I had taken them, I’d own up to it, but I thought that unlikely. He was working on his Ph.D., and as long as I was on time for dinner, he didn’t care much what I did.
Two or three more cartridges later, Andy asked if he could do one. Sure, I said, “but lemme do one more.” I’d make it the best one. I brought the rock down hard, and no sooner had I then Andy screamed and fell to the ground.
“You shot me!”
Sure enough, blood beaded up on his knee, staining his jeans. It was the size of a dime, then the size of a half dollar.
“We should go.” Kids and accidents are weird. We walked home silently, Andy limping.
“What are you going to tell your parents?” I finally asked.
“I fell.” That old childhood standby.
We said goodbye at my house. Andy waved from his front door and I waved from mine.
“Get washed up for dinner,” my father told me.
Andy and I met up the next day. His mother had pulled out the shrapnel with tweezers.
“Hey, let’s go crack open that hornets’ nest by Donny’s house.”
And we did.