I am 16 years old, washing dishes. Daddy walks into the kitchen. He stands there, waits for me to turn my attention toward him. He holds his 357 revolver relaxed at his side.
He wants to frolic in my confusion and potential fear. At 16 I know this about father so cheat him of it. Turn my attention back to the dishes and matter-factly inquire about his ongoings as if he is a child holding a toy gun.
Me not being moved softly annoys him and without any conversation, he tells me to dry my hands and gives me the weapon. I accept. I accept it without question because that’s what a man does.
He tells me "point at the wall and fire". I ask for basic clarity “shoot-the-wall?” And he partly quotes me with a mild mocking and annoyed inflection “yeah, shoot-the-wall.” He stands back and watches.
This, “thing” I hold is heavy. I always forget how heavy it is until holding it and every time I think to myself “damn this is heavy”. It is a cannon of a weapon, a “man’s” gun. I fired it once years ago...
I am 12 years old.
My family is visiting extended family in Hartsville South Carolina. In the south, Daddy has more freedom to carry and use guns. He has his big gun with him.
I’ve watched him shoot it a few times, random target practice. I admire how brave he is for being able to harness that noise. It secretly scares me and I never want to hear it fire again. I’m sitting under him because I want him to think I’m interested and I want to be interested but I’m not. I just want his interest.
I don’t let on about my fear or my admiration, just present. He assumes I want to fire the gun because he wants me to fire his gun. When offered I pretend to be brave, I pretend in hopes to please my father, that if I can disguise my fear for a single trigger pull maybe I can earn some of the same admiration I have for him. I want him to know I will become a man, and this is a man's activity, I want to make him proud.
Daddy hands me the gun for the first time rattling off instructions about aiming, having a tight grip, and pulling the trigger. I half listen, far too nervous about being tossed into the deep end of this scenario.
As the full weight of this weapon rests in my hand it feels insanely heavy, as in so heavy that I don't understand how it can be a practical weapon. On TV people run with, drop, and throw these things around yet in real life nothing about this monstrosity of metal remotely suggests that it could be handled with anything but respect and care.
Daddy tells me to shoot at a target at the base of a tree that rests about 8 feet away. My small arm struggles to lift the weapon. I squeeze my eyes closed, squinting with my right eye staring down the barrel to line up my sights.
The pending noise on the other side of a trigger pull is terrifying. I want to close both eyes in a desire to safely hide behind the thin skin of lids and just pull the trigger back so I can relinquish myself from my father’s attention and graduate into something he respects.
I squeeze and the trigger doesn’t move, I assume something is wrong and look at my father with confusion. He immediately dismisses my look and tells me to try again.
I squeeze harder and the hammer shivers out of its seated place floats for a second and sinks back into the place it came from.
The trigger feels as if it’s asking me “are you sure this is what you want to do???” My silent emotional answer screams “NO I don’t want to do this!!!” Nothing about this feels as if it's designed with me in mind. I recognize that I lack something in the way of needed masculinity because its so hard yet he speaks to me with a frustration as if it should be easy. I want to just give it back to him but his disappointment scares me far more than this weapon.
Daddy repeats the call for me to try again, he says commit and pull harder. I commit and squeeze harder, no longer caring to aim I just point in the general direction. The hammer pivots out of the gun at a healthy distance. There is a sense of accomplishment that the trigger is moving the hammer..... in a blink the hammer vanishes and….
... the power
This raging aggression saucened my marrow. It was a noise of violence and hatred and death. I had never in my life experience something so violent. The sound was one thing, the jarring recoil added an unexplainable dimension to the violence. So abrasive I felt death barely spared me. When opening my eyes I half expected a squirting stump where my hand once lived.
The noise I experienced when watching my father was now accompanied by knowing the sheer madness that is released with a single trigger pull. Anything on the business end of that commitment would die.
It takes everything in me not to drop this device of death to the ground. It branded a fear into the skin of my well-being, a violence that will ring in my f-ears forever. I learned from that one experience no part of me ever wants to fire it again, nothing about it felt safe or provided any form of security where I didn't jeopardize my own safety.
Here I am a few short years later, gun in hand ready to fire, still chasing the approval of my father, and again choosing to suppress grounded fears for his acceptance.
I lift the black heavy metal to point at a wall and with assured confidence yank the trigger back fully committing to my intention. I yank with a loaded over-compensation to make up for a yesteryear shivering hammer when I felt weak. I snatch back to show my father I am a man.
The hammer blurs out of its seat immediately slamming back with….
Uneventful, a whisper of nothing. I expected more, well expected something but not in the way of an explosion. Nothing in me thought or even prepared for an explosion. Although Daddy is a smidge crazy he ain’t no gadamn fool.
I listen, follow directions, did what was expected without question, I was brave, I was fully committed, my hammer didn’t shiver, I was strong, I gave him unyielding trust, I am a man, a son that he could be proud of. I feel a sense of power in being able to holster my fears to please this gatekeeper of masculinity who I knew was testing me. I did it, I passed his test.
As he taught me, I direct the barrel to the floor and cautiously turn the butt of the gun to return it. I stand with a chest full of bloated pride. I return this hunk of conquered fear to him with indifference coupled with a half-cocked smile to say “that was easy.”
Even before a complete hand-off, Daddy begins with this prepared judgmental talk, that is still laced with his earlier frustration with me. Essentially, it was “do this” followed up with “why did you do that?!?!?” to “don’t do what I told you!!!!” Going on with a list of what-ifs and how I should never trust anyone.
For clarity, this is not a gun-safety lesson. The gun and this whole performance of "lesson" was nothing more than a prop to attack trust, to attack people, it was a human-safety lesson.
The lesson was “Never trust anyone, ever, not even me.”
Teaching me basic gun safety would be a great lesson and we could have skipped this dumb-ass exercise and just talked. BUT Daddy’s lessons need to have texture and an abstract depth. He dresses up the mundane and skips the needed remedials because the big colorful lesson is the only lesson that matters to him. He needs this more for himself as validation that his genre of clever has purpose and place.
I hear his lesson, stand silent waiting for the talk to end, waiting for a dismissal of my attention. Waiting to be abandoned in silence. Soon I’ll have to make space for disappointment in myself that is born out of his disappointment in me. Yet another reminder that I’m not good enough, never good enough. A perpetual failure even when I succeed. I know this cycle, been here far too many times not to recognize its loitering shadow resting its touch on my shoulder.
He means well but it rarely feels that way. He teaches too many lessons by way of pain, the lessons stick but never in a good way. I harbor rows of calloused scars of his lessons.
On and on he talks at me, he's not here to communicate. Talks as if I'm foolish for not considering his long list of what ifs, as if I'm foolish for trusting him. He abruptly turns and walks away. He's annoyed with me for not knowing things I don't know, as if it's useless to teach me anything as if we've had this lesson 15 times.
I feel stranded in place. As he walks away I watch his back far longer than I need to. Some new contemplation is sprouting and taking root in my consciousness, I don't understand why I am watching him but it's what I need to do.
I pull myself back to reality and in a half-stunned state make my way back to the sink of dishes. I probe the confusion and interrogate why every positive prideful feeling that bloated my chest still,,,,,,,,, remains.
My pride didn’t pop and deflate, in fact, I unknowingly still held a dismissive smile. I have no regrets, not a single one. The seedling of thought was basic. Before his lesson-prop was tucked back in whatever nook it normally lives I organically said to myself with complete assurance. “I will be a far more loving, compassionate, balanced, and understanding human/father/teacher to my children than you can ever be for/to me.
At 16 years old this is the first promise I have ever made to myself. The statement seemed to create itself from nothing yet my spirit was fully committed to never breaking this promise. It was a blood promise with myself.
The thought feels good, I find some form of sanctuary in the thought of me out parenting him. There is a sense of revenge that comes with the knowing that my children will respect and love me in ways he has never earned.
I had no structure for my future and something about KNOWING that one segment of my life pointed me in the the direction of finish line. This thought removes Daddy from his high perch and gives way to an entire harvest of organic conclusions. For the first time, I begin to realize I am satisfied with his disappointment. I discovered a type of freedom in brushing away his intended silliness to pull away my own lessons.
That half-cocked smile that nested on my face remains. A smile that is an asylum seeker, looking for refuge from his judgment.
He was wrong, not wrong for emotionally making me feel in any way, not wrong in the gun lesson but wrong in his approach to life. Never trust anyone?
At 16 years old, it is the first time I feel sorry for my father. At 16, I understand his ways are not ideal. At 16 I realize that I would no longer chase his shadow for approval. At 16 I stand in one place and happily release him to his victory strut with me no longer chasing the breadcrumbs of approval that he drops along his way.
He was wrong. That lack of trust in anyone has to be really lonely. To live in a world where you don’t allow yourself to trust no matter the circumstances or the person? He is an island on guard, fine-tuned for war.
I knew then I didn't want to live in that world. I wasn't interested in being that guarded with my loved ones. I want people in my life that I can trust with my everything, just as I want some people to put their trust in me. Relationships that earn that trust by way of love and respect. Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I’d rather live with mistakes than see the world as he does.
He was wrong. Maybe this gatekeeper of manhood was not the light at the end of my tunnel, but more of the dark space that creates the tunnel for me to travel through. The point of light at the center of this darkness is me gaining access to my ideal self sometimes despite him.
That explosion of madness was of death. This uneventful “click” triggered a beautiful silent mushroom cloud of life. A blast that detached me from being the barnacle of his undercarriage and set me on a new journey of freedom