First Person

Illustration by Eric Hanson. Click to enlarge.

Indianapolis, 1964. My younger self owned a bandolier full of bullets; three revolvers, two with bone handles to fit a holster; a rifle; knives; a sword; a full Civil War uniform; a genuine U.S. Army helmet. From age eight to ten, I fought and died a thousand times for fun. My friends and I knew all the best ways to fall down dead, exhaling sighs of pleasure. Awaiting nuclear annihilation, we acted out gun ballets like period folk art. Here, in America’s “Gun Belt,” boys used to get their first squirrel rifle at eight, nine, ten years old; now they get pint-size assault rifles. Get them early, so they can learn to handle the violent kick of firing, learn not to hold the part of the weapon that gets so hot it smokes. And it’s not just boys. Parents can purchase special pink assault rifles for their junior misses.

In my own backyard, I was always alert for enemies. I moved with a stooped, serpentine grace, darting, pausing, looking around for people to shoot before they shot me. There was something adorable about it. We had very convincing submachine guns then. They were made by Marx out of hard molded plastic and came in black—the conventional color, suitable for playing Chicago gangsters or warriors in the European theater—or brown-and-green camouflage, for war in the tropics. There was a knob along the side to unleash a machine gun rat-tat-tat whenever we encountered the enemy. I was unaware of the irony in the brand name: we were training for our turn to halt the march of Marxism, but we were unfamiliar with Marx the mastermind. Every Friday I looked forward to the latest photos of the Vietnam War, counting the dead in LIFE magazine.  

It’s a lovely picture, looking back at it—the soft American backyard under the trees. Suburban mothers enjoying iced tea and sociability on patios while children shoot each other stone dead nearby. Gunfire and laughter. There’s a bucolic hush to the memory, as if the fun is always about to erupt. The sun coming down through the leaves, dappling the circle of married women in lawn chairs. They are young and attractive, and their children are young enough not to worry about the Vietnam War, although we would love to be in it, just for the uniforms. We watch the War in Europe every week on television and ask the question: How did we ever defeat an enemy with such wonderful art direction, such disciplined brand management? Each episode introduced a young recruit carrying with him a letter to his girlfriend or his mother in the Midwest. He always died before the episode was over. While the laughing women are drinking their iced tea–or maybe it’s bourbon and water, depending on what part of the afternoon it is–and lighting each other’s cigarettes, five careless combatants are ambushed by three heavily armed enemies hiding behind the lilacs. It serves them right for not taking cover. The women are blasé, recognizing everything as an exercise in moral hazard. It’s how we learn. But dead children in 1964 are all quickly resurrected. In a half hour or twenty minutes the late afternoon kid shows start on TV. The tea is cold, the ice has melted. The women laugh. The housework is done and soon their husbands will be home in one piece. 

The house on the other side of the Powells’ belongs to the Carys, an older couple. They’re territorial about their lawn and their flower beds, but we’re all armed so they’re powerless to stop us. They aren’t really that old, but they seem old to us. I never did the math, but they probably got married shortly after the War in the Pacific. Their younger boy is just the right age to visit Vietnam. It’s in their driveway that I hear the news that the Vietnam War is over. I remember this very clearly. It is announced in plain, declarative sentences. Mr. Cary is washing his car in the driveway, listening to the radio, and he says out loud that the Vietnam War is over. This is in 1964. I am fully armed when I hear the news, machine gun cradled in my arms like a kitten, bandolier around my seminaked shoulders. I can remember feeling patriotic and disappointed. 

The driveway is hot, the water streaming from the hose is cold, the hose is green like a snake, Mr. Cary’s garage is neat as a pin. Men spend their Saturdays keeping their garages neat while children run through the neighborhood shooting each other with submachine guns. And hundreds of thousands of American husbands go to work every day in the factories that the Good War used to pull us out of the Great Depression. It’s hard to be depressed when you have a good job making aircrafts for incinerating foreign cities. A lot of the postwar boom was created by the tanks-and-missile business. Our home thermostat is made by the company who puts the triggers in thermonuclear missiles. We laugh at Dr. Strangelove, but we love the bomb. Weaponry is buttering our bread. Factories in Southern California and Alabama and Memphis and New Jersey and Oklahoma and Minneapolis and Michigan and Indiana and Missouri and Florida and Seattle and Connecticut and Pennsylvania and Ohio and North Carolina and outside Houston and leafy Atlanta, Georgia and God knows where else. Everywhere else. Everybody is making guns, and making a living making guns, making a killing making guns. Whatever General Eisenhower warned us about the military industrial complex, it fed us. Across the South especially, young men go to school so they can go into the military. Their fathers did the same. It’s a job, and the uniform makes a man important. Some men work all their lives in the manufacture of weapons. Fathers teaching the skills to sons. How to operate the lathe, how to screw the nose cone on, how to hold the weapon, where the bullets go in the weapon and where they go when they leave the weapon, thinking of ways to improve the weapon, to make it more efficient at killing people. There are rules on how to be safe with a lethal weapon.

The gun is a tool, they say, no better and no worse than the man (it’s usually a man) who is using it. Its only real use is to kill things, people, or animals. Targets are lifeless. Shooting targets is never anything more or less than practice for killing a live thing. After the American flag, our best-loved symbol may be that silhouette of a man half crouched to shoot a bullet into each one of us. He looks dangerous. He looks fierce, just like the people aiming at him. The target illustrates our justifiable motive. Inside the outline, there are concentric lines to keep score. The kill points are marked. The more times you kill him, the better you are. The man’s face and bulk printed on the target remind me a little bit of the middle-aged neighbor who told me the war was over when it wasn’t.

I was so enamored of weapons when I was nine you would think I’d be a gun owner today, but I’m not. I learned to fire a rifle, finally, when I was ten. I was at summer camp. The riflery instruction was done under the knowledgeable direction of the National Rifle Association. Somewhere I must have a badge or a piece of paper certifying my achievement. But I never fired another shot. I’m not sure if it was because we moved north or because I grew up. I still own one of my six-guns with the imitation bone handle, but I don’t have any caps for it. The skill I once possessed is long forgotten, and the pistol is probably too small for my adult hand; even if it were real, in a gunfight I’d be dead within seconds.

Eric Hanson has been published in The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, The Week, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine, The Mockingbird, McSweeney’sNew York Tyrant Magazine, Torpedo, and other publications. A Book of Ages was published in 2008 by Random House.