Where I grew up, maybe the phrase going off
half-cocked made so much sense to us
because all of us owned guns, even those
who were legally barred from possessing them.
For those of you who don’t understand
what it’s like to live in a gun community
like mine in the coastal northwest tip of Oregon,
I can tell you more than you need to know.
I have been shot and shot at, have known
others who were shot, who shot at, who went
to prison for shooting, who were threatened
by guns, who had their homes and vehicles shot,
and I’ve owned guns, shot guns, thought of
shooting guns, fantasized about shooting guns,
once was even begging a friend to give me his gun
so I could shoot someone who was trying to stab
someone. I have heard thousands of gunshots
in the distance in my lifetime. Once, when I was sixteen,
I even spent a good part of an evening cutting
shotgun pellets out of the back of a friend’s father
who was a felon and afraid he’d go back to prison
for being shot if he went to a hospital to remove them.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve back home by shooting
pistols and shotguns and rifles and automatic weapons
at the pale moon without regard for where those rounds
would land. Boys in high school would show up
after Christmas with their new rifles and shotguns
in the backs of their cabs, and we’d gather around
at lunchtime to admire them as we sipped
our Mountain Dews from the vending machines.
It was an excused absence in my grade school
to miss a week each autumn so we could
join our families in the hunt to shoot animals.
I’ve seen birds shot, elk and deer, beaver,
moles (by a 12-gauge shotgun at point blank),
possum, nutria, bullfrogs, raccoon, rats, squirrels,
cats, dogs, cows, calves, puppies, bear. In fact,
I’m unsure I can think of an animal back home
I haven’t seen shot. I knew a thirteen-year-old boy
who stole his grandfather’s pistol so he could quick-draw
at the gravel pit. The last round went through his leg.
When I was twelve, I found a loaded revolver
in a friend’s front yard in the middle of a nearby town.
No one was home. I held its weight in my hand and thought
about bringing it home and hiding it under my bed.
At this point, I bet you’re unsure whether or not
I’m going to tell you about shooting myself.
You’re beginning to see my point.
That same year I was given my first rifle.
Two years earlier, I was given a BB gun and shot
five thousand BBs the first month because I was bored.
If you think this is just an Oregon thing, you’d be wrong.
I’ve shot thousands of rounds of ammunition.
I’ve known men who’ve shot that many every year
since before I was born. I’m forty-eight years old.
I have one memory – the circumstances of which
I will not describe – where I nearly had a rifle
round go through my skull, and it’s the most disturbing
memory of my life. And I’ve seen some terrible shit.
My earliest memory of guns was when I was seven
and my father propped me up at the picnic table,
where all us kids ate our barbecue burgers each summer,
and had me hold a 30.06 to my shoulder.
I still remember how it felt like a log in my hands.
He pressed his palms against my ears, because
he knew I was sensitive to loud noises, and told me,
Just press your finger against the trigger.
I did. The explosion and pain in my shoulder
made me think I’d been shot. My dad lifted me
from where I’d fallen, and he laughed.
This was the same caliber of rifle he’d used
as a Marine on the front lines of Korea, except
in the war his was fully automatic. He was seventeen
when he signed up and had been shooting that caliber
every year until the year he died at age seventy-six.
With all this said, I’m one of the least experienced
with guns in my hometown, in part because I’ve spent
the last two decades trying to avoid them. But they’re there.
Believe me. And I shouldn’t be astonished when people say,
I’ve really been thinking of moving out of the city,
out to somewhere quiet like this. Just too many gangs
and shootings where I live. You see it all the time
in the news. And I nod, unsure how to tell them
that in their part of the city the news reports are distant,
but out here, you’ll hear a gunshot so close to you,
with all the other houses so far away, that
it will seem impossible that that round was meant
for anyone but you.
John Struloeff is the author of The Man I Was Supposed to Be (Loom Press) and has published poems in The Atlantic, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, ZYZZYVA, PN Review, and elsewhere. He is a former Stegner and NEA Fellow and now directs the Creative Writing program at Pepperdine University. His author website is www.johnstruloeff.com.