I have my dad’s 1911 Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol, the very one he wore in a leather shoulder harness as a B-17 bombardier in the Pacific doing low level bombing of Emperial Japanese warships. I’ll bypass the whole “low level bombing in a B-17” thing for another time. The last and only time I ever saw my dad fire his pistol was with me in 1966. He decided to use up his remaining ammunition from the 1940’s and give his son a chance to fire a real .45. We trudged into a wooded area in Alabama, outside of Birmingham where we were living at the time, until we found a nice spot with a high embankment and a stump just begging to be shot multiple times. I still remember the combination of excitement, adrenaline and being inside “the man club.” My dad was about to hand me a man tool, used in a man war, with real man bullets. I could hardly breathe.
Dad fired the first few shots, explaining how to hold and sight the gun. I recall him warning me about how a .45 kicks and not to let that bother me. “Don’t anticipate the kick, just slowly squeeze the trigger.” In deference to my dad, remember the year, 1966. No seat belts, no rubberized deck for playscapes, no “playscapes” for that matter, no bicycle helmets, nothing. And so without eye or ear protection. (trust me, only bad guys, law enforcement officers in the field, characters in novels and stupid people shoot a .45 without eye and ear protection these days) I stood on a hot, humid day in some Alabama woods, a nine year old holding what felt like 20 pounds of steel. My hands quickly fatigued with the gun’s weight, but I gamely did my best to aim at the condemned tree stump, squeezing the trigger as coached. BAM!!!! The chunk of iron bucked back, beyond my control, the noise louder than any clap of thunder I had ever heard. I’m fighting to keep from peeing myself, watching, in terrified wonder, a tracer bullet etch a phosphoric trail right into my enemy tree stump. I don’t recall what passed through my mind as a child, but the adult translation is something close to HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, JESUS CHRIST AND ALL THE ANGELS!!!!!!!!!! I stood there, my dad having the prescience to take the loaded weapon from my trembling hand. He chuckled. “Pretty loud, eh? Told you about the kick. Wanna go again?”
Yes. No. Yes, but I don’t know. Here’s the thing. My dad let me sneak into the “Man Club.” The idea of gently closing my finger around something capable of such earth shattering mayhem, noise and violence left me hesitant. But when you’re in the “Man Club” turning away from man stuff, well, even at the age of nine I knew it just wasn’t done. If I turned my back on that pistol because it scared me, I would live with my shame the rest of my life. Dad handed me his gun, I took my stance, took aim, my heart pounding in my throat. I squeezed the trigger, only this time anticipating an explosive kick. BLAM!!! Missed. I shot out the magazine, missing every single time, all the while my dad encouraging me not to jerk my hand or shut my eyes in anticipation.
When our last bullet went down range, my eyes burning and ears ringing, we walked back to our car. Dad put his large hand on my shoulder as we walked. I may have only hit our stump once, but I stood in the woods with my dad shooting the biggest gun I had ever seen. The gun he had in The War. And so, for a few brief hours, we shared an unspoken truth about the strange twisted joy of destruction, the horrifying violence of war and the love between a father and his boy.