The first concussion comes a little after nine a.m. Will there be more? A fusillade? Or just the one gunshot, at a snake most likely.
On the Fourth of July weekend you expect a variety of explosive punctuation. The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air:
It’s the way we have chosen to remember our nation’s stubborn survival under fire. British fire in 1814. Two hundred and two years ago.
In the meantime, we have built a nation of unparalleled opportunity for a greater proportion of citizens than any other. And still we celebrate ourselves with words describing combat.
We like to think about war, don’t we—those of us who haven’t experienced it first hand? We like to feel the adrenaline rush of safely witnessed mayhem. We like to imagine ourselves as the underdog, surviving clear and direct danger against all odds.
Our taste in films and video games certainly suggests that. Our love of fireworks, too. We like to feel the power in each explosion on screen or overhead, although we’re just watching.
Except, of course, some of us here in the malls and towns of America aren’t just watching. We’re buying guns and using them.
We have those guns for a variety of reasons. Hunting, which includes putting meat in the larder. Defense of property. Criminal activities. Suicide. Hardly anyone buys weapons with the intention of mass murder.
In our neighborhood, fun is the largest reason. Round Top has its historical Shutzenverein, or “marksmen’s club.” During deer and dove season the hills around us reverberate, morning and evening. Distance reduces the concussion to a series of pops, like popcorn cooking on the stove. Closer to hand, a friend nearby has his own target range in the back pasture.
I learned to shoot targets as a girl. My daddy told me that his father, at one time a Texas Ranger, could draw his pistol and hit a silver dollar flipped in the air. It may have been true.
I never tried to do that, but I became quite good with a rifle. So good that I surprised a new boyfriend the first time we shot skeet over his parents’ stock tank. I’d never used a shotgun before, but it felt natural.
A few weeks later, we graduated to doves. In the sky, a dove didn’t look so different from a clay pigeon.
When my friend went over to scoop up the harvest, he ripped the head off the first bird and I had a revelation. I had shot a living creature. I had killed an innocent. Just to show off how good a shot I was. Pure ego, in other words.
It made me sick.
I thought about this recently when I saw a video on Facebook of a young girl striding through what had once been a grove of trees, pulverizing targets on every side, relentlessly, with her semi-automatic weapon.
Oh, the power! So young! Gee.
I wonder when she will realize that those targets she’s praised for blowing up represent human beings. And why has she been trained to do that, presumably by her father? No need for that kind of weapon to hunt deer. Kill elephants, maybe…wade into a herd and mow ’em down. Not likely she’ll find a herd of elephants in Texas, though.
Has it been for fun? Can there still be fun in simulating what has become a terrible reality?
Fun is a poor enough excuse for shooting innocents; and madness an infinitely worse one. Allowing the first to enable the second feels obscene.
That’s why this year the Fourth of July lost its innocence for me. The explosions of fireworks all around us that weekend no longer recalled childhood amazement. Instead, I could see a nightclub, an elementary school, a movie theater—places of tragedy that have become known by names we should not forget: Orlando, Sandy Hook, Columbine.
I suspect I was not alone. Those horrible events have a way of worming themselves deep into us. The fact they happened has changed us.
And so, when our neighbor set off the barrage of annual fireworks in his pasture that Monday night, I wondered how we would know the difference, ever again, if we couldn’t see the colorful phosphorous blossoms overhead.
(This essay appeared in July, in the Fayette County Record.)