Papa John, my step-father, placed little emphasis on the yuletide season, whether regarding religion and the birth of Christ or on the spirit of giving at Christmas time. I can only remember two gifts he gave me. I posted the story of his promise to my sister and me that he would get us a dog for Christmas, and how he kept his promise. Click here to read about that memorable Christmas. It’s a sad story, sadder even than that of Tiny Tim Cratchet in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol—well, not really that sad, but it was memorable.
We lived on a small farm in Mississippi for a year or so, just long enough to sell off the cotton and a bit of timber, enough to give our stepfather a grubstake to return to a life to which he had become accustomed before marrying into our family. With the money in his pocket, he only needed to create a situation that would infuriate him enough to rid himself of the albatross around his neck, namely my mother, my sister and me. Click here for that merry tale, a story of violence and threats, including me and my sister racing to gain a hiding place and safety in the woods.
The only other Christmas gift my stepfather gave me over the seven years I lived with him, on-and-off for varying periods of time, was a .22 caliber Remington rifle in as-new condition, having been restored by a gunsmith. The wooden stock had been refinished and the metal parts re-blued. He also handed me a box of fifty .22-short rifle bullets. If you should ever have to be shot with a .22 caliber weapon, opt for the short bullet. Its casing is shorter than 22-long bullets and thus has less powder to propel the lead or copper tip.
In my boyhood I devoured the stories told in books by Zane Grey and James Fenimore Cooper. At an age somewhere between eleven and twelve years and with that rifle in my hands I became Natty Bumppo—Hawkeye—the protagonist in The Last of the Mohicans, moving silently but swiftly through the virgin Eastern forests, unseen and unheard, avoiding every twig, bush or loose stone that might reveal my presence to the wily Hurons bent on lifting my scalp, all the while protecting the white women that the author felt that renegade Indians coveted for whatever nefarious purposes.
I was also in pursuit of desperadoes, violent and dangerous men as depicted by Zane Grey including bank robbers, cattle rustlers, horse thieves and those that at one time or another had neglected to tip their hat on meeting genteel ladies on the wooden sidewalks in western frontier towns, nor did they step aside to the muddy street to allow the long-skirted ladies safe passage—the ladies were therefore required to raise their skirts to avoid the mud, thus revealing their ankles to the salacious men by deferring to them and stepping off the boardwalk into the muddy street—bummer.
As President George Herbert Walker Bush—Bush #1—might say, shortly after receiving the rifle I was in deep you know what—I was in a lot of trouble. Unknown to me at the time, our neighbors on our right some mile or so distant raised turkeys for the market. As I prowled through the forest in that direction looking for Indians or rustlers or bank robbers, I came upon a clearing with a dead tree in its center, stripped of its leaves and its branches festooned with turkeys. Since I had found them in the forest I immediately deduced that they were wild turkeys and commenced firing with the intent of putting meat on the table for my family, starving after a meager crop, with no money and a dearth of wild animals for food.
My turkey rifle was a single shot, and my stepfather had told me to never carry a loaded rifle, to load it when I was ready to shoot at something. This involved pulling back the bolt, digging a cartridge out of my pocket, inserting the cartridge into the barrel, closing and locking the bolt, then pulling back the firing pin and locking it into position to fire. Only then should the weapon be aimed and the trigger be pulled to release the firing pin that strikes the shell and ignites the powder, providing the force to propel the missile to, or at least in the direction of the target. My rifle was definitely not a rapid-fire weapon, and that feature probably saved me from disaster.
I laboriously reloaded after the first shot—the turkey I had aimed at did not seem to be adversely affected, so I took my second shot at a different bird. That turkey also seemed impervious to the bullet, but I was denied a third shot, whether at him or one of the others. I was in the process of reloading for a third shot when the owner of the turkeys entered the scene, running and shouting for me to stop shooting his turkeys.
I didn’t know that our neighbors had changed from a white family with a passel of kids, one of them a beautiful red-haired cross-eyed girl about my age, but a young girl that had all the attributes of a mature woman, or at least all the visible attributes of a mature woman. A black family was now living on the farm—yes, that’s what we called African-Americans back in the olden days—and the turkey-farmer was big and moving swiftly in my direction, shouting at me to stop shooting, so I wisely matched his speed in the opposite direction and headed for home as fast as my bare feet could carry me.
I never knew whether my bullets struck either of my turkey targets. I would hope that I missed completely, but I was afraid to ask my stepfather. I told him about my error in thinking the turkeys were wild, and he just laughed, then went into a long discourse on the use of firearms and safety after telling me that there were no wild turkeys in that part of the state.
I don’t know whether the neighbor ever came to our house to talk to my stepfather, or whether my stepfather went to his house. I have my doubts that either happened. As for my hunting efforts with my rifle, I never again went toward the turkey farm, with or without my rifle—I had lost most of my attraction for shooting at anything, whether animal, vegetable, mineral or otherwise.
The rifle is in my possession now. In the early days of our marriage, I used it for collateral to get enough money to buy gasoline for our 250 mile trip home from visiting my wife’s relatives. Many years later my brother-in-law returned the rifle to me for the exact amount of the collateral—five dollars. I realize that doesn’t sound like much, but gas was only 22 cents a gallon in 1954.
I treasure that rifle. I treasure it so much that it’s stripped down into three pieces, stock, barrel and bolt, and stored in three different places in my home. Finding all three pieces would be a daunting task for a burglar—in fact, I’m not sure that I can find them—and should an intruder enter while the house is occupied the task would be even more laborious and completely unneccessary because I have a veritable arsenal of weapons readily available for such an occasion, as do most patriotic and conscientious citizens in my neck of the woods.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.