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I was sitting at Roger’s kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee and talking about the school where we worked, how the principal was enamored of “school spirit,” when he got up and said he had something to show me. He led me to a narrow closet off the dining room and opened it. Inside on several racks were ten or so guns of various sizes. We both paused for some seconds, me to gawk and Roger to let me gawk. “What do you think?” he asked. I said something like “That’s a lot of guns.” He laughed. “Yeah. When they come up from Boston, I’ll be ready.” We lived in central Maine. “Boston?” I asked. I’d lived for a time in Boston. Who did Roger mean? Hippies in Harvard Square? Tenured academics? Non-tenured academics? Black Power advocates? “Yeah, Boston,” he repeated, as if that answered everything. Boston was a city and by definition full of undesirables who might make an incursion into a small mill town on the road up to Canada. “I’ll be ready,” said Roger. He shut the closet door and we went back to the kitchen and our coffee and school-chat. There was no lock on the door.
I’ve thought about Roger’s closet for decades. I can still feel my surprise: What was this? As far as I could tell, unless you were a gunslinger you could only shoot one gun at a time. And what about “Boston?” Was he serious? He sounded matter of fact, as if everyone knew that one day hordes from Boston would descend on the town and he would have to defend himself. Roger taught English and was an avid reader who loved to declaim passages from Shakespeare. He didn’t fit any redneck profile. He was a Mainer who’d grown up with guns—“deer hunting and shooting rats at the dump”—and who didn’t think twice about having that small arsenal that clearly consoled him. Roger offered to teach me how to shoot. The notion of someone not knowing how to fire a gun appalled him.
The slaughters in the schools and elsewhere in America would have appalled him. But he would give the standard reply to anyone who questioned his weapons cache: “It’s people who kill people not guns.” Obviously true in one sense but not true in another, though utterly conclusive as far as Roger was concerned. The guns sat there. Boston never showed up. Roger retired in the mid-1980s and moved down South. I assume he took his guns with him. I assume he lived in a rural locale and could name some other city that might invade: Atlanta, Birmingham, Charlotte. Take your pick of the urban contagion.
What gives? As someone who grew up in the city but has lived his adult life in rural America, I know a whole lot of fear and loathing is sitting there in the bottom of the American melting pot, to say nothing of downright paranoia. Did Roger fantasize some shootout with the Boston crazies? My guess is that he did. I’d guess that many people with those arsenals fantasize about such shootouts. I’d guess that something inside them yearns for a shootout, an opportunity to clear the air of the stifling rhetoric of equality and assert a person’s right to gun down anyone stepping on the lawn who hasn’t been invited to step on the lawn. The opportunities don’t come very often since people from Boston are not part of any invasion team. But they are the “other” and the best defense against them is a gun. Sometimes the gun is an offense.
Like many American boys I grew up watching an endless number of Westerns and saw many a bad guy gunned down by a good guy. A few semi-good guys died along the way but the hero fought through and vanquished whatever sneering evil he was faced with. It seemed fair enough to my ten-year-old mind—the triumph of justice and clean-living, which often came with a pretty, adoring woman. Pure myth—but as should be plain from my being shown Roger’s armaments, myth drives many a mind and is very hard to contradict as in, “You don’t really think people from Boston are going to attack you, do you?” Roger might have told me he was just joking. Weapons were merely part of the rural territory. Better to have them than not, although we both knew a couple students who committed suicide with weapons that were lying around the house. Maybe, if those guns hadn’t been there, the dark moment that led them to take their lives would have passed and they would still be going to high school.
Beneath the easy-going, have-a-nice day American exterior is some serious anti-social feeling that does not wish anyone who is somehow different a nice day, that wishes them a bad day, a you-shouldn’t-exist day, an I-would-kill-you-if-I-could day. Instead of making good on those dark feelings an American can attend to nonstop “news” that denounces, vituperates, boasts, denigrates, calumniates, spreads rumors and offers eager sophistries, as in arming teachers and setting up barbwire around schools. Why not? The nation is a battleground of sorts already. In Roger’s head the fight already had been enjoined. He was merely waiting for the propitious moment, those wingtips or high heels or sneakers running down Main Street toward his front porch.
America, as a conglomeration of individuals, is thus not about getting along with others. It’s about asserting your right to not get along with others and to protect yourself from others. The diversity of the nation’s inhabitants cramps many minds and reduces them to cowering in a mental corner: “I will not know these other people whoever they may be but I will be ready to shoot them. Part of who I am resides in my right to defend myself violently against others. I am not afraid, of course. ‘Fear and loathing’ is just a phrase some writer would use. I stand tall and am vigilant.” This is a speech that will not be given by any Republican senator in the near future but seems a fair approximation of many of their constituents’ feelings. The reason for the Second Amendment—arming militias—is a mythic hand laid upon every gun owner’s proud shoulders. Somehow drug dealers shooting one another and gang members spraying bullets, along with more-than-occasional acts of mass murder are part of this proud scenario.
Sane modifications such as background checks and banning assault rifles offer themselves. A gun, after all, is a lethal weapon, but challenging a mythos feels something like impossible. Myths don’t just disappear in a poof of self-awareness. They erode over time and they abet deep structures about what life means. Keeping others at bay in one’s mind via guns makes no real sense. Most murders are perpetrated by people who know the victim not by strangers. Roger claimed he didn’t actually know anyone in Boston. When on another day I suggested to him that he might be a bit paranoid, he told me I didn’t get it. I reminded him I had lived in Boston for a time and was still alive and well. He laughed at my naivete.
The American tendency, personified by a man like Donald Trump, to strut, brag and assume all manner of superiority (humility and gratitude being for “losers”) exists in direct proportion to very basic fears. Those fears began with the Pilgrims staring at the “wilderness” that confronted them and about which they knew nothing. They lived in a separate reality—that was why they were coming to the “New World”–and were proud of it. They had the Lord behind them and in that sense they didn’t have to know anything. Providence would provide. What became the United States of America offered the opportunity for many to prosper (while many were enslaved or simply chewed up and spat out), a prosperity that showed the hand of Providence at work. Meanwhile, the fear brought on by an open society full of “strangers,” as the Pilgrims denominated those who weren’t of their church, remained. The American dynamic, a very strange energy indeed, speaks to a ceaseless assertion of virtue that masks frequent uncertainty about the whole democratic endeavor. That fierce split is at the core of the American ethos. The automatic assumption of virtue can almost be defined as the prime American trait, yet that virtue has nothing to do with empathizing with others. American virtue is a form of armor.
It’s not hard to see the United States as a perpetual gold rush, a taking while the taking is good—even when the taking has often not been very good at all. The mythos of the gun offers a permanent rebuttal to any contravening points of view, as in other religions or political and economic notions or notions about gender, race and bodies. Those righteous, “law abiding” citizens who are merely prepared for whatever incursion is lurking out there have a steadfast guide. It’s not beauty or spirit or inner light or kindness or harmony with the earth, all of which could be dismissed as so much hooey. The endless badmouthing that fills up the airwaves and Internet feels like a perpetual dodge for some very uneasy feelings about the United States being one nation.
The hostile, anti-social nature of the nation was registered in the mid-nineteenth century by the imaginative likes of Melville, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Poe and, in her fashion, Dickinson as she wrote her way through the mounting death toll of the Civil War. The question those writers posed very much remains: Could Americans become true individuals or were they doomed to be archetypes of mania, at once dulled by the pursuit of money and possessions yet rabid about those who somehow did not belong here? To encourage that individuality would take an educational bravery the nation has rarely evinced. More often the attitude has been that of people in a mass society who take shelter in that mass of numbers and public opinions and make that stance into a brand of virtue. One can easily visualize the union of gun owners, an endless file of men and women gladly brandishing weapons. They are perfectly amiable with one another, as anyone who has been to a gun show well knows. But there is a hell in the back of that amiability. And it comes out every violent day in this God-blessed land.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include Songs of a Voice, a genre-bending novel that explores creativity through poetry, prose, American music history, and the unique voice of protagonist Abe Runyan.