1990, I am 16
On a random afternoon I am home washing dishes. Daddy walks into the kitchen. I don't look up but continue to wash. He stops, faces me, and stands there waiting for me to turn my attention toward him. I turn. He stands relaxed, his eyes meet mine. At his side he holds his 357 revolver.
I look him over. He wants to frolic in my confusion and potential fear. I know this about father so cheat him of it. Calmly turn my attention back to the dishes and matter-factly inquire about his ongoings while focusing on the dishes as if he is a child holding a toy.
He recognizes my dismissal, my lack of concern annoys him. He snaps out of his flat stance and without any conversation Daddy's lesson begins.
He tells me to dry my hands and gives me the weapon. I accept. I accept without fear, question, or confusion. I wrap my full hand around the wooden handle with a conviction of ownership because that's what a man would do.
He tells me "point at the wall and fire". I ask for basic clarity “shoot-the-wall?” He repeats me with a mild mocking inflection rushing through his words “yeah,,,, shoot-the-wall.” He stands back and watches.
Damn, this , “thing” is heavy. I always forget how heavy it is until holding it and every time I think to myself “damn, this, thing 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 at 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 hope he's joking but his pleasent offer is just an ill fitting disguise for a soft demand.
I willingly take it and pretend to be brave, pretend I've been waiting for a chance. I pretend in hopes to please my father, that if I can disguise my fear for just a single trigger pull maybe I can earn some of the same genre of admiration I have for him. I want him to know I will become a man, and this is a man's activity.
Daddy hands me the gun while 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. The butterflies in my gut rage and tickle up a nervous smile that feels propped up uncomfortably on my face.
As the full weight of this weapon rest in my hand for the first time 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 lends itself to be handled with anything but respect and care, I feel I should whisper in its presence.
Daddy tells me to shoot a target at the base of a tree that rests about 12 feet away. My small arm struggles to lift the weapon. I squeeze my eyes closed squinting with my right eye staring down the barrel.
The pending noise on the other side of a trigger pull is terrifying. I want to close both eyes to hide behind the thin skin of lids and just pull the trigger to relinquish myself from my father’s attention and graduate into something he respects.
I aim, I squeeze. The trigger doesn’t move, it feels locked in place. 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, my finger gives way to the stress and the hammer slowly sinks back into the gun.
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!!!” 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 it's so hard yet he speaks to me with a frustration as if it should be easy. He makes me feel weak. I want to just give it back to him but Daddy's disappointment scares me far more than the noise of this weapon.
Daddy rushes his words with demand, "Commit-and-pull-harder!" His soft demands has fully abandoned pleasantries. Now there are traces of threat in his inflection. More rides on this than simply shooting a gun.
I commit and squeeze harder, no longer caring to aim for a perfect shot, I just point in the general direction to get it over with. The hammer pivots out of the gun at a healthy distance. There is a sense of accomplishment that the trigger is mo.....
... the power..........
... the noise
The explosion left my marrow saucened.
When opening my eyes I half expected a squirting stump of twisted flesh and bone where my hand once lived. Something must have gone terribly wrong because the blast was so abrasive, so ugly I just couldn't fathom that someone would willfully involve themselves with such danger, let alone fire it multiple times in one standing. The explosion left my entire arm and chest numb along with a deafening ringing in my head that silenced the world.
.......... its not like anything I could even imagine. A senseless unmitigated rage of hatred with a recoil of power that nearly spun the gun backwards out of my hand.
The blunt edge of that noise jabbed through me, it felt like a kick of some sort, like getting hit hard from the inside yet never being touched.
In that very moment I understand that firing a weapon was literally setting off an explosion. The weight of the gun, the "monstrosity of metal" contained the explosion and pushed all of its frustration out into one direction. The explosion that I sat off, was plenty fine making me a lefty, the gun stopped it.
Any feelings of this weapon being impractical are now infinitely worse.
Through some miracle, maybe even a mild state of shock I am stricken with awe. The better sense of me wants to drop this device of death to the sandy earth and yelp away with my green masculinity tucked between my legs.
My father says something but I am to blown away to care. I'm blown into a silence, a calm confusion trying to wrap my head around what exactly did I just experienced. What it meant to my being, what it meant to the world. In that one trigger pull I learn something about the dangers of men that reflect themselves in their creations, about their full commitment and effort to destroy.
The commotion of it all branded into my being a respect that will ring through my f-ears forever. No part of me ever wants to fire Daddy's gun again. Nothing about it feels safe or gives me a sense of power. In fact, that one gun shot churned up more fragilities that now glimmers in depth of my gut that can't be ignored. I don't feel more manly, I feel even more delicate, more child than man. I feel like the line of masculinity in the sand was kicked clear and redrawn at an impossible reach.
and..... *back to the kitchen*
... here I am, just a few short years later. Gun in hand ready to fire, still chasing Daddy's approval, and again choosing to suppress grounded fears for his acceptance.
I lift the black heavy metal to the wall and with assured confidence I fully commit to my intention and yank the trigger back. I snatch through the recalled difficulty, I snatch to own it with prejudice. I SNATCH with a subtle hatred of a yesterme. I am loaded with over-compensation to make up for a shivering hammer. My hammer will never shiver again. I snatch back to take the respect my father owes me, he will recognize I am a man!!!!
The hammer blurs out of its seat immediately slamming back with….
.....a whisper of nothing.
I expected more, well, expected something but not in the way of an explosion. In the emotional fine print of my brave trigger snatch I was certain the gun was empty. Nothing in me even prepared for an explosion or recoil. Although Daddy is a smidge crazy he ain’t no gadamn fool.
I listen, follow directions, trusted and did what was expected without question, I am brave, I fully committed, my hammer didn’t shiver, I am strong, I am a man, a son that he can be proud of.
There is an unearned false bottom sense of pride power in the impeitance of this challenge. But I am happy for any victory lap I can achieve in to please this gatekeeper of masculinity.
As he taught me, I direct the barrel to the floor and cautiously turn the gun's butt toward him. I stand with a chest bloated with pride. I return this hunk of conquered fear 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. His tone is aggressive because in tote he carries his earlier annoyance for feeling belittled.
Essentially, he says “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. He never explains what I should have done. 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 “Never trust anyone, ever, not even me.”
Teaching me basic gun safety would be a great lesson and we could've skipped this dumb-ass exercise and just talked BUT Daddy’s lessons need to have texture and an abstract depth. His paths of his lessons are littered with landmines and empty voids. He dresses up the mundane and skips the needed remedials because the big colorful lesson is the only lesson that matters to him. Muted lesson that don't saucen his marrow or ring his ears don't register with him.
I recognize that he needs this talk more for himself, a validation that his genre of teachable moments and life-approach has purpose and place. He takes pride that he is able to stain his lessons on to a life.
Standing silent waiting for the talk to end, the lesson was heard in the first sentence. I'm now waiting for a dismissal of my attention, wait to be abandoned in silence. Soon and yet again 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 listen, not shocked in the least. I know this story, been here far too many times not to recognize the huff and puff of my personal wolf at my door. He's here to blow my house down again and again and....
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. His lesson leave lesions and the worse ones hide beneath my skin, to many lesions of lessons that never heal and rub raw beneath the shifting fabric of life.
On and on he talks at me as if I'm foolish for not considering his long list of what-ifs, as if I'm foolish for trusting him, as if I'm foolish for not knowing things I don't know.
With not even a resemblance of a recap or wind down he kinda turns and walks away. I stand in place. I watch his back far longer than I need to. I stand and watch him walk until he turns and vanishes into his bedroom.
Something is, weird,,,, on my insides. I can't explain what I feel because it's a new feeling. There is some kind of organic contemplation that is sprouting and taking root in my consciousness. I don't understand why I watched him but it's what I needed to do, like I really NEEDED to watch him.
I pull myself back to reality and in a half-stunned state make my way back to the sink of dishes with this contemplation lacing the air above my head. I probe the confusion and interrogate why every positive prideful feeling that bloated my chest still,,,,,,,,, remains. It's weird, I almost feel crazy because I'm so unbothered.
My pride didn’t pop and deflate as it normally does. I unknowingly still held a dismissive smile. For the first time, I don't feel bad, 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 promised myself with a complete booming conviction “I will be a far more loving, compassionate, balanced, and understanding human/father/teacher/friend/leader to my children than you can ever be for/to me."
This organic thought is by far the most electric empowering thing that has ever moved through my young reality, my first blood oath to myself.
I find some form of sanctuary in the thought of me out-parenting him. Satisfaction in KNOWING that my eventual children will respect and love and appreciate me in ways I will never love or respect or appreciate him. From my murky reality appeared an oasis of needed retribution. There was some safe space that came to life in knowing that the genre love that didn't get from him on the front end I would cultivate and raise in my own.
I knew he was wrong, even with his lesson having merit his approach made him wrong. In understanding he was wrong I gain some budding faculty over my individuality. For the first time, I consider that this man no longer holds the limitations on what I would and wouldn't become. Daddy no longer represents what I felt trapped in becoming. Moreover, this discovered chink in his armor made me question other places he may be wrong or wrong in ways that does not fit the me I want to be.
At 16 years old for the first time I feel sorry for my father. I feel sorry that he lives a life as a guarded war-ready island. At 16, I understand his ways are not ideal. At 16 I stand in one place and happily release him to his victory strut with me no longer swept into his undertow.
I watched him walk away making peace with the understanding I have to now travel my own path absent of him as a leader. In that moment he no longer represented the light at the end of manhood's tunnel but was demoted to the surrounding dark space I have to travel through to get to the end, to reach myself.
In South Carolina, that explosion of madness was of death, destruction, and confusion. The uneventful kitchen-“click” triggered a beautiful silent mushroom cloud of life, self acceptance, and clarity.
Daddy's lesson lessoned but not in the ways he hoped.