George Orwell wrote an essay, set during his days as a policeman in colonial Burma, about having to shoot an elephant, a beast that, by the time Orwell arrived with his gun, was doing no one any harm. Orwell, as the armed white man representing the Crown, knew he must do something. He fired, repeatedly, into the elephant’s heart and down his throat, but the creature was unable to move or to die. It’s a great piece of writing, and I’d recommend you read it. I’d love to have written it. But I didn’t.
Instead, I’m writing this.
When I was a boy, guns were around the house. My dad had a couple rifles for hunting deer and a shotgun for birds. They weren’t locked up, but they were kept on the top shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet, which might just as well have been a safe when I was 11. In my memory, I never went into that space. When I was 11. (Once I discovered copies of “Oui,” “Cavalier” and “Penthouse” were also secreted there, my hands-off policy vanished, although I’m certain I never fooled around with his weapons. (It strikes me that it’s a Freudian’s field day that I wouldn’t touch my father’s guns while gathering images of disrobed women. I’ll leave that alone.))
I had my own gun, nowhere near as powerful as my father’s, but impressive in my young hands. An air-powered pellet gun I needed to repeatedly pump by hand, it fired metal pellets the size of a pencil eraser. Honestly, it was capable of doing more serious damage than my parents must have imagined when they gave it to me. Its barrel wasn’t rifled, so its range was limited and its ammo came out without a spin, lacking the ability of rifle ammo to go in one part of a body and come out somewhere completely different. If I’d shot a man in the stomach at, say, 30 yards, he’d have a hole in his gut you could stick a finger in, and likely a fair amount of bleeding, but not the peripheral damage a rifle shot would cause. Still, I was a kid, and probably shouldn’t have been given a weapon capable of putting holes in a body where no holes should be.
Whether I should or shouldn’t have had it, I did, and I practiced in our backyard, shooting at hand-drawn targets, empty cans, my sister’s dolls and, once, a discarded radio. I’d drawn a firing line and set up the targets under the hanging birdfeeder it was my job to fill with seeds every three or four days. It was fun to look over the damage I’d inflicted on the moment’s target, empty sunflower seed shells under my feet, and I’d morph from Daniel Boone to GI Joe to John Wayne while plunking away. By and by, I became a pretty good shot, and took pride in that. Even the chickadees, having gotten used to the phhhhssssst sound of the air rifle and the tiiiiiinnnngggg of the bullet hitting the target, looked down from the feeder. With their black-masked heads, chickadees are hard to read, but I think they were impressed with my aim. I know their bright white chests seemed to swell up with pride that the boy who fed them was such a good shot.
For whatever reason, playing with my gun was a solitary pursuit, and I’d happily put it away for a game of catch or kick-the-can or pepper.
I know my parents didn’t buy me the gun. Not because I was somehow deprived as a child, but even at 11 I could tell the gun was old – not antique-it-might-be-worth-a-fortune old, but old enough that it wasn’t new. Things just appeared sometimes, the result of someone moving away or getting tired of a possession. The gun was an item the tide of good fortune had left behind.
In the same way objects drifted in and out of our life, so with people. My parents had friends who were always around, friends who were there for a season or three and friends who might not come around often but whose stories I knew because they’d been part of my mom or dad’s childhood – that ancient time when the earth was just beginning to cool. The Hansen family was one of the latter. Mrs. Hansen had been one of my mom’s childhood friends, although my memory tells me her name may have been Kickline as a girl. Or maybe she’d been a dancer as a teen and part of a kick line? Regardless, the Hansen’s had three kids older than me. Whenever we got together with the Hansens, who had a lake house, one of the older Hansens was always trying to teach me something – how to dive, how to snorkel, how to water ski. I’m sure their intentions were kind, but needing to learn things was evidence of how little I knew.
The year I was 11, the Hansen clan came for Thanksgiving. I don’t know why. As a kid, things sometimes just happened. When they got to our house, the older Hansen kids adopted the boredom masks teenagers carry in a back pocket for just such events. Not wanting a group of Big Kids to be bored on my watch, I asked them if they wanted to shoot my gun. At first, they were unimpressed – or hadn’t had a chance to put away their masks, but with a bit of wheedling, they all agreed to come into the backyard.
I encouraged the two Big Girls and the Big Boy to hold the gun and sight down it. Then I set up empty cranberry sauce and evaporated milk cans for each of them to shoot at. Because of my hours of practice, I was much better than they, a first for me. Imagine – being better than Big Kids at shooting! This Thanksgiving was turning out to be a red-letter day in the life of Keith.
Not content with demonstrating my marksmanship skills on pieces of trash, I searched for something else to shoot. While the windows in the house were tempting, they wouldn’t demonstrate my pinpoint accuracy, even if they would have shown I was one tough hombre. (Here, the phrase “one tough hombre” is sometimes translated “lunatic.”) I looked up into the trees, but shooting a branch or pine cone wouldn’t have the oomph I wanted. Then, I saw it. The perfect way to cap off a perfect morning.
I raised the rifle’s stock to my right shoulder, sighted down the black barrel at my target five feet above the ground, breathed in, breathed out and squeezed off a shot. At the speed of moral outrage, the big kids turned on me.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“What kind of monster shoots a little bird?”
“It’s a chickadee,” I said, wanting to salvage some pride in my ornithological knowledge.
“It WAS a chickadee!” said the big boy. “Now it’s a nothing.”
He was right. The tiny bird’s head had been destroyed by the shot, and its formerly white body looked like a bloody cotton ball removed from a messy surgery. Barely recognizable as a bird, the dead chickadee didn’t move at all on the frozen ground. The shot, after killing the chickadee, had shattered the glass front of the bird feeder, so sunflower seeds flowed slowly to the ground around the fresh bird corpse.
The Big Kids stared in horror at me, and I wanted to join them. I wanted to be part of the mob judging me, finding me barely human, and driving me off into the forest. Unfortunately, no matter how much self-loathing we monsters feel, we cannot join the band of humanity, at least until the tribe has a chance to forget.
That Thanksgiving, I had much for which to be ashamed and even more for which to be thankful, most of all that my mother called us all in right then and, for reasons I never understood, the Big Kids didn’t say a word about my killing a chickadee. Perhaps they remembered horrible things they’d done as little kids. Perhaps they wanted me to suffer silently for the rest of the day, wondering when they’d reveal my evil. Most likely, they’d never imagined a sweet kid like me could really have done what I’d really done. For whatever reasons, they kept quiet.
After the Hansens left, I went to the back yard, picked up the dead chickadee and threw it into the bushes. I took down the bird feeder, so my father could buy new sheets of glass for it. I put the pellet gun away in my closet, until I was older. Then I said a prayer for the bird, and vowed I’d never shoot another animal again.
And I haven’t.
But I’ve also never lost that shame. I don’t know that I ever will.
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About the author: Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.