My favorite toy growing up was an air rifle. That’s probably not politically correct today, when the issue of guns, pro or con, is hotly debated, but it’s true. When I was nine, and my brother Jim was 10, we started asking my parents to buy us BB guns. Like the kid in “A Christmas Story,” the universal response was that we’d “shoot an eye out,” or worse. We promised to be extra careful, arguing that we could have fun, and perform a public service at the same time by picking off squirrels in the back yard. No dice. Air rifles were as far as they would go. Because air rifles didn’t shoot real ammunition, my parents assumed they were safe.
So when my brother and I tore into the long, gun-shaped gifts on Christmas morning, we knew they weren’t “real” weapons. But to us they were still beautiful. Each featured a brown plastic stock with simulated wood grain, and a matching forestock under the barrel. The barrel itself was metal, about a half-inch in diameter, with a sighting nib sticking up at the end. You “loaded” the gun with a charge of air by pumping the long oval lever under the trigger. It opened and closed with a satisfying snick, and you could feel the tension in the trigger as the air was chambered.
The rifle exploded with a violent, satisfying POCK! sound when you pulled the trigger. You could even feel a mild recoil in the stock against your cheek and shoulder. Click, click – POCK! Click, click – POCK! Jim and I ran around the living room in our pajamas “shooting” each other, our sisters, the Christmas tree, the cat. It was glorious.
“Okay, enough already!” Dad bellowed from the dining room table where he sat musing over a giant mug of coffee, the floor around his feet littered with tattered wrapping paper and toys. He was badly hung over, which was something of a Christmas tradition for him. Mom seized the opportunity to shut us down – from that moment, we were forbidden to ever shoot air rifles in the house.
Fast forward to spring: the first warmish day with the sun shining and tender blooms starting to peek out on the trees. Jim and I put on our jackets, slung the air rifles over our shoulders, and headed out to do some play-hunting. We snuck up on some sparrows in a bush, and POCK! sent them flying. We stalked the wily squirrel, but couldn’t get close enough for a decent shot.
But then the game changed. I’m not sure, but I think Jim was the first to lean on his gun with the barrel pointed toward the ground. The dirt was soft and moist from the recent snow melt, and a plug of mud snugly filled the opening. Because he had already cocked the lever, it was already loaded with a charge of air, so when he pointed it at me, I instinctively raised my arm in defense. He fired, and the dirt plug exploded out with a menacing CHUNK! sound, spraying a hard splat of mud across my shirt and upraised arm. It hit with surprising force, particularly at close range. And the mud was pebbly – homemade buckshot.
Like splitting the atom changed modern warfare, our air rifle play-fights instantly went from tame to terrifying. We didn’t have BBs, and the dirt bullets wouldn’t kill any squirrels, but we’d still figured out a way to take an eye out with that thing.