My cousin’s eyes are blazing as he turns to me and Bill. “Those two guys are going to kill us in our tents tonight,” he says.
My first camping experience. We’re in Vermont over a Columbus Day weekend on the land of our absent friend Vinny. I’m keeping my husband company as the camera on its tripod records the imperceptible nighttime movement of the stars. Peace. Love. Tranquility. Until the mood is shattered by Ron’s passionate certainty that the two young strangers—unexpected intruders we’d encountered on this private land—are our murderers-in-waiting.
I picture a hunting knife slashing top to bottom through our canvas in a single, practiced motion, steel glinting like those stars, life’s dazzle suddenly extinguished. No. Can’t happen.
Discovering the men’s presence soon after our arrival was a bad omen. Anticipating a family adventure—even an idyll—on our friend’s 150 unspoiled acres, we were jolted by the incongruous blaring of acid rock. Leaving our clearing to investigate, we came upon the source: a tape deck blasting full volume from an open-doored, dented Chevy and two scruffy men in jeans unrolling their sleeping bags. Ron must have been more upset than he let on when their German Shepherd tried to attack his sweet-natured dog Jedgar. Canine violence was avoided just in time when the teeth-baring aggressor, sharply rebuked, backed off.
Still, hadn’t we just shared our campfire for cooking when those guys entreated us after their fire died, leaving unbaked potatoes? At that moment, they seemed like next-door neighbors asking to borrow a cup of sugar. Hadn’t we passed them plastic cups filled with our Burgundy and later, shared a joint and mellow conversation? It turned out that Mack and Chester were Vietnam vets, reputed friends of Vinny who, they said, had invited them to camp on his land any time. When they said goodnight and disappeared over a nearby hill, I felt only serenity and goodwill.
But Ron doesn’t stop pacing back and forth before our dying fire, repeating his awful prediction, demanding that we wake up my brother Bob and his wife while he wakes up his family. “Let’s pack up right now and drive home,” he says. “You have to understand–our lives are at stake!”
I couldn’t ignore those darting eyes, which projected a sense of doom and nervous energy that penetrated the core of his being. Bill tried reasoning. I couldn’t absorb the words because at that point I was beginning to doubt my own rationality. Although a defender of logical approaches, I’d never dismissed the importance of hunches or intuition.
“O.K.,” I hear Ron finally respond. “We won’t wake them up. But that means I’ll have to keep watch all night.” And then I heard him say:
Let’s get Bobby’s guns.
My brother, blissfully asleep throughout this unfolding drama, had packed several rifles from his collection for target practice.
Now instead of envisioning our bloody massacre by knife, I envision Ron as some kind of Stone Age protector armed with a rifle instead of a rock by his side, quick to pull the trigger if one of those guys happened, in all innocence, to show his face.
Thankfully, the guns, which Bob had kept locked in his car, stayed out of reach. And so instead Ron fed the fire, a dedicated sentry for the next hour or so until he retreated to his tent without a word. I managed to survive—despite the sub-freezing temperature, animals howling, ominous sounds of crunching just outside our tent, a body wracked with cold and a mind vacillating between calmness and a single, terrifying thought: what if Ronnie is right?
The stars survived, too, a wispy trail of light that arced above us unseen until weeks later when they slowly appeared on paper in our closet-darkroom.
That experience is behind me. Decades later, the words “Let’s get Bobby’s guns” explode in my mind, releasing a toxic cloud of what could have happened that night.
My brother, then the owner of more than 100 guns and a few thousand rounds of ammunition, is a myopic CPA and professor of accounting and business now retired from a military college in Vermont. A Latin and classical Greek scholar with a Jesuit education and two graduate degrees, Bob shatters the stereotype of a good ole boy in love with his firearms. How many CPAs are equally at ease holding extra-fine-tipped pens and Smith & Wesson Magnum revolvers? And who can recite the latest tax codes and also identify the make and model of every gun he sees on TV westerns, mysteries, and police series?
Born with the soul of General Patton, he was fascinated with guns and warfare even as a young child.
One of my earliest memories is kneeling at the age of four beside my seven-year-old brother, praying that he’d find a tank under his bed the next morning. This was his most fervent wish—not just at Christmastime—and although every morning he remained tankless, we kept petitioning heaven, which makes me complicit in his earliest request for a potentially lethal instrument of warfare.
My lifelong love for my only sibling has always been mixed with a lifelong failure to understand his obsession. In the past decade, my unease has only grown. One in three Americans owns a gun, an armed citizenry unlike any in the world. In states like Arizona, anyone over the age of 18 can buy an assault rifle, which gun sellers instead call “military-style rifles,” thinking that the change of language removes the stigma. As we know from recurring headlines, mass shooting with those rifles, whatever they are called, are tragically commonplace. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there is now one mass murder every day in the U.S.—not committed by foreign terrorists but Americans.
What is the source of this fascination that’s never waned for my brother? I keep asking myself this question, knowing there’s no logical explanation. We grew up in New York City in a state with some of the strictest gun restriction laws in the country. Our father, like most males of his generation, served in World War II but wouldn’t reveal much about his experience in Europe despite Bob’s questions.
No one in our family hunted or owned firearms unless you count the BB guns that our cousins Ron and Richard shot in their backyard with Bob by their side. I used to joke that, like Bernard Marx in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Bob must have had “too much alcohol in his blood surrogate” during the embryo stage.
But society’s influence can’t be dismissed. Growing up in the post-war fifties, Bob read war-themed comic books like “G.I. Combat” and watched movies featuring John Wayne and most-decorated combat-soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy. Those propaganda films glamorized the heroes of war and avoided real-life depictions of gushing blood and mangled limbs. He was also a loyal fan of all the 1950s westerns glorifying guns: The Rifleman, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Tales of Wells Fargo, Have Gun, Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and on and on. In the sixties, one of his favorite TV shows was Combat, a more realistic portrayal of a World War II platoon in Europe. And yet, millions of male baby boomers watched the same movies and TV shows but left their gun attraction behind—so the power of pop culture can’t be the only explanation.
By the time he was nine, Bob had discovered Kaufman’s Army & Navy store near Times Square, a boy’s paradise of army surplus. He began on a small scale by saving his allowance to buy military badges. When Bob’s eighth-grade graduation approached, Ron convinced my parents that Bob, an honors student bound for a Jesuit prep school, was mature enough to own a gun.
“Ron told me to close my eyes and when I opened them, I saw a J.C. Higgins bolt action one-shot rifle,” my brother recalls. “It was one of the happiest days of my life.” I’m certain he’s not exaggerating.
What does a 13-year-old do with a rifle in New York City? He shoots. Inconceivable today is the fact that Bob and a friend from Maine, also 13, carried their rifles, in cases, onto the subway, heading for a shooting range in the basement of an industrial building in downtown Manhattan.
By the time he was 16, he had stockpiled inert hand grenades, mortar rounds, practice bombs, helmets, canteens, bayonets, dummy machine guns, bullets, and half a dozen rifles. Among them was an M-1 semi-automatic 8-shot that he bought for $80, having saved up from his $1.25-an-hour summer and weekend jobs.
When I reached that age, the counter-culture hippies were planting daisies in gun barrels, and my bedroom adjoining Bob’s sleep-in arsenal was decorated with psychedelic posters. I didn’t then and don’t now understand Bob’s obsession.
As a homeowner in Queens, Bob turned his finished basement into a hands-on Museum of Warfare. In one corner stood a 1907 World War I machine gun pointed towards the sofa and easy chair. In the back room, an inoperative washing machine became the target for shooting practice with an AR-15 rifle. To avoid nearby neighbors’ detection and inevitable complaints, he covered up the blasts by simultaneously cranking up the booming finale of “Victory at Sea” on his stereo. Displayed on his basement walls were guns ranging from antique to modern. Deep-grained, ivory-embellished firearms handcrafted hundreds of years ago rested beside the ugly black plastic, purely functional weapons of modern warfare. Bob says that he enjoys knowing the historical aspects of older guns, but he clearly cherishes them all, reciting distinguishing characteristics and capability the way a father might boast about his child.
Soon he joined the Queens Pistoleers Club and then met the stringent requirements for a New York City pistol permit. Next came membership in the NYPD Auxiliary Police. After training, he accompanied cops on weekend, two-man foot patrols out of his local precinct.
In the late seventies, Bob was hired by Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college. It had a tank or two on campus for Bob’s pleasure—a better-late-than-never gift—and on the job, he wore a military uniform, had the rank of captain, and was saluted by cadets. Through Norwich, he went on occasional overnight “field training exercises” where he fired military weapons, flew in helicopters, and drove Humvees and even tanks, which I think of as a kind of Disneyland war simulation.
In Vermont—a state where even Bernie Sanders defends gun possession—Bob acquired a Federal Firearms Dealer license. This allowed him to buy guns for himself at wholesale prices while selling to friends, neighbors, the military, and police. At one point, he owned 175 modern firearms, including Glocks and fully automatic weapons, along with 10,000 rounds of ammunition. His gun collecting “hobby” had reached its apex.
At the age of 50, still a professor and CPA with tax clients, Bob decided he wanted to also work as a part-time police officer—not a volunteer or auxiliary but a real member of the force. I was aghast. My mother, not surprisingly, was apoplectic. “Why would he want to put himself in danger? What’s wrong with him? What’s the point?” Why, why, why? But Bob was determined. He attended the Vermont Police Academy—150 hours of courses and 100 hours of on-the-job supervision with a training officer of the Berlin, Vermont Police Department, all without pay. After serving for years as the official armorer of the Berlin force, he had finally joined their ranks. I’m glad I never saw Bob on duty, ready for action, carrying his .45-caliber Glock, pepper spray, baton, two sets of handcuffs, and two-way radio.
I’m not sure I’d have been more nervous if I’d seen him posed on a tank in army fatigues and a helmet.
For ten years, he kept this up. When he wasn’t in the classroom lecturing on gross domestic product and risk and return, he was dealing with domestic violence calls, store break-ins, druggies and violent, raving drunks. Although he acquired the nickname of “Bob the Schmoozer” for his ability to find the right words to calm agitated people, he sometimes arrived on the scene with his gun drawn.
What was the return for him on so much risk? I don’t understand.
Grackles swoop down, then spread
like a black cape around my brother’s house.
My brother is kind to animals,
shoots at nothing but one man—
a perp line-drawn on paper, plucked
from his basement arsenal. I see that face
in fields of feverfew, pock-marked
by bullet holes.
When we meet, we never flout the rules,
avoid politics, the NRA, or why
a teacher would become a cop
in middle age. Instead, we hike his woods,
past ancient cars pushed down a ravine
by agents unknown. Their shapes shift
and sink, a growing mystery
in the forest bed. As we stroll the abandoned
road, I’ll note its widening rift,
the new guns. This one’s a 22,
my brother says and cocks his head,
making room for mine.
The scope snags a woodchuck
and bees that cling to raspberry fuzz.
One by one, the residents of his kingdom
pass through the cross hairs unharmed,
and yet I recoil when Bob takes aim.
He squeezes the trigger:
The cape explodes into shadow
that covers us both, then shreds to tatters
headed for my heart’s chamber.
The National Rifle Association is renowned for its powerful lobbying against any regulations that would limit a person’s ability to buy guns, whether it’s a hunting rifle or an assault weapon. Parkland, Florida. Las Vegas. Pulse Orlando nightclub. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook Elementary School. Columbine High School. San Bernadino. Fort Hood, Texas. No matter—the NRA ignores the horror of these slaughters and ruined lives and remains resolute in its mission to advocate for gun rights and against gun control.
The NRA’s power over lawmakers is legendary. Although the organization was founded “to improve marksmanship and teach firearms competency and safety”—who can argue with that?—its intransigence toward any kind of gun ownership restrictions makes it Public Enemy No. 1 in my mind. I don’t express my opinion to Bob, a longtime member of the NRA, which has certified him as a Pistol, Rifle, Shotgun and Home Safety Instructor. The shooting range that he set up on his land has been the site of NRA course instruction that he’s given to Norwich’s cadets and civilians.
“I became a hunting instructor so people would shoot safely,” says Bob, who doesn’t hunt but whose land is sometimes trespassed during hunting season. “And it’s fun to target shoot. Anything can be a weapon. I resent that a gun is automatically called that.”
And yet guns are the third leading cause of death among children according to the CDC. The majority of gun deaths in children were homicides—gun as weapon. Between 2007 and 2014, suicide by gun increased 60 percent—gun as weapon turned against the self.
Knowing that I’m writing about his gun fascination—a subject I’ve long avoided and am still loathe to probe deeply—Bob sends me emails filled with details, chronology, and web links for more information. He is, after all, an accountant and teacher. A recent email begins, “I love this quote,” and it’s followed in 20-point, blue type: “ ‘March 5, 1836: God Created Men and Sam Colt Made Them Equal!’ (Old West Adage).”
He goes on to explain the appeal: When Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state under George W. Bush, lectured at Norwich University, she described the sense of safety that guns gave her and her parents—protection against hate groups like the KKK who might terrorize them in the Alabama backwoods where they lived. “The police, who were white and probably wouldn’t care, were miles away and there were no telephones,” said Bob. “She was firmly a Second Amendment supporter and was taught to safely handle guns at an early age.”
Protecting oneself and one’s family are the operative words for gun owners, who believe that if more people had firearms, society would be safer. It’s rugged individualism writ large, easily fulfilled at the local Walmart, one of America’s largest gun retailers.
In the war game of chess,
kings and pawns know their place
on the board and space
themselves neatly apart. Mess
is not the military way
of course, which is why the field
around my brother’s house, filled
with vintage army trucks, stayed
regimentally calm. Still,
there was something disquieting
to see all that armor fight
for attention, vying with frilly
ferns among the lilies, the kind
that bloom and die in a single
day. Visiting, I’d raise two fingers
in salute—half in jest to rile
Bob, but half in deference
to war’s mysterious, lifelong grip
on him, a child conscript.
Our worried parents held conferences
on what might be the cause,
then gave up, bought him Jane’s
Fighting Ships as a birthday gift. Insane—
a boy of eight who knew the force
of every Gatling gun and quoted
General Patton by heart. The radio van,
Vietnam jeep and cargo truck, crammed
once with men, have long been sold.
Only armored beetles live there
now. I imagine them in a march
to his shed where even parched,
dusty air can’t dull the glare
of cherished brass: mortar shells
from our father’s war lined
up by size in gleaming rows. Find
out the reason he clings to this. Tell
me why! Our voices rise, echo
present and past in this valley—
like ricochets that sully
the air, or words ending in blows.
I’m in Vermont at Bob’s place, peering through the crosshairs of a Remington semi-automatic .22 rifle. In the meadow, an angry-looking man dares me to shoot at his face, printed in black ink on thin target practice paper that Bob stockpiles in his basement. I squeeze the trigger, aiming. The blast echoes, filling the valley as birds take flight.
I’m struggling with a bad case of cognitive dissonance in firing a gun. Holding it feels surreal. How could this object of such personal fear and loathing be in my hands? I feel the smooth wood, peer awkwardly into the scope. In the spirit of sibling love after a long absence, I agree to give it a try.
After my first miss, that face on the target seems to be sneering at me. I steady my arm against the deck railing, squint, and pull the trigger again, just as a vivid memory returns. I’m drawing a plastic gun from a holster slung around my red corduroy, white-fringed cowgirl skirt. Bob and I are playing shootout games in our parents’ tiny apartment in Queens.
This time my bullet grazes the target near the man’s temple. Better, but not good enough. I can feel tension rising in my chest, spreading down my arms and into my fingertips. The next time I shoot, I’m way off the mark. The shell falls to the ground, useless and spent, exactly as I’m beginning to feel.
But I’m feeling angry too, like a woman wronged by that leering SOB, like Thelma and Louise before they drove off the cliff, and I suddenly recall what it was like to ride the crowded subway as a young woman, pressed into, grinded against, too embarrassed to utter a word, every morning and after-work commute begun with trepidation, and I’m thinking I will get him this time!
I surprise myself by recognizing the heady power of holding that rifle in my hands, a feeling at that moment undiminished by any internal political monologues. I aim ever so carefully, stilling my emotions to a dead calm while knowing deep down that this is just a game.
My bullet rips through one eye. “You got him!” exclaims Bob, as if reading my mind. But now it looks as if the salacious creep is winking at me—like the drunk on the sidewalk who once grabbed my crotch, leaving me frozen on the spot, shaking with silent rage. I take up the rifle and carefully, methodically, fire.