Thursday, April 14, 2011

Up the Lake: B B Guns

Amazing Air-Rifle Antics
Boys, B-B's, and, um, Something Else That Starts With "B"

Even as alleged adults, my sister and I often resurrected one of our most common, fun filled (translation: exceedingly dangerous) childhood activities.  It usually started innocently enough (by Up the Lake standards) when, for example, we were trying to figure out the most entertaining way of suspending a doll into the fireplace. (See, perfectly innocent.)  This inevitably led me to the dollar store to get some more test subjects.  While there, I purchased some army men, which I figured we could also creatively immolate.  We've all learned that it is very hard to stop burning toys once you start.  A mentality of, "That burned well, we should burn it more often," grows very rapidly, until what started as getting rid of one old broken toy becomes an experiment filled house cleaning of epic proportions.  However, before placing the little injection molded soldiers into their funeral pyre, we decided to try to shoot them, because it is far less fun the other way around.  We stood them up in a little group on a dirt hill, and took pot shots at the doomed diorama with my old Daisy .177 caliber BB and pellet gun. 

A difference between men and women surfaced almost immediately.  Kim was content to practice her aim from far away, meticulously knocking the targets down one by one, for what felt like days at a time to the (still very much in control) eight-year-old part of my brain.  I, on the other hand, preferred a more rapid route.  After a few shots, I would pump the gun up to maximum. (The mandated ten pumps…even as kids we were leery of going over this, until we tried twenty and absolutely nothing happened - darn safety valves.) Thus armed:  I would walk up to the hill, and shoot the soon to be broken little toys at point blank range in order to see the maximum amount of damage possible.  Although Kim's method may improve one's skill, little Joe agreed my way was much more inspired. If I may quote him, "WHOA!! You blew that guy's arm clean off [chuckle] . . . cool." (I have been a good influence.)   Kim tried a couple of times, and even wedged one unlucky warrior’s head into the barrel, and blew him across the road. (See… good influence)  Mostly, however, she kept working on practicing her aim at the growing number of army men, and Warner Brother’s Happy Meal toys on the hill. (Yes, destruction is addictive, deal with it.)  During this time, she kept insisting that the scope was off.  Not being able to hit the Empire State building with a laser sight, I was in no position to argue.  Being an older brother, I did anyway. (It’s in the contract.)  I finally had to concede when she accidentally (so she claims) removed the scope.  This was followed by her yelling, "Pick a target!" Before I could finish the words, "Daffy Duck," the little black waterfowl was flying over the hill, like his bill did in many a Chuck Jones classic. After several, "Pick anther one"s, I volunteered, "Maybe the scope was off."  After all, I had been shot often enough in the past.

Target shooting is still fun for adults.  In fact Steven (who has several grandchildren at this point) can often be heard, up the hill from my camp, constantly improving his aim. Taking a break only to eat, sleep, fish, catch a Mets’ score, or enjoy his newer hobbies: harmonica playing and axe throwing. (Not simultaneously, otherwise, you’d have seen him on youtube by now.) All this practice came in very handy one day, when his wife, Lynda, (who if I want to use in a story, I have been instructed to refer to as the “young, attractive, skinny lady from up the hill a ways”) asked him to get rid of a mouse in the cabin.  After only six shots he was able to dispose of the intruding pest, and increase the ventilation in the place at the same time. 

The main BB gun festivities, however, have always been in the hands of kids. Learning to shoot is as important a part of a boy’s education Up the Lake as learning to: swim, climb rocks and trees, and extinguish an unauthorized fire burning in the woods (before your parents see it) using only your bodily fluids. (I'll wait for you to finish going “ewwww.”)   To continue…Before we all get condemned by the Suburban Pacifist Association of Mothers (SPAM) for encouraging this violent behavior, let me say this.  I have seen their children throwing tantrums in the supermarket, and frankly, I wouldn't trust them with a half-sharpened paper clip.  We, however, had two advantages: (A) Generations of experience with Up the Lake BB gun use and training, and, more importantly (B) Italian mothers from the Bronx.  Even the most uncontrollable of us always knew that there was the possibility of a disciplinary action that made getting shot a much more enjoyable option.  With these two factors, we could be assured of complete safety with the veritable arsenal usually up there at any given moment (not counting the few accidents I'll mention later, or playing BB gun tag, which seemed like a good idea at the time). My grandfather gave me my first BB gun when I was about eight or nine, which is late for an Up the Lake kid. I believe Nick received his first as a fetus.

There have always been several power levels of weapons available.  My first gun was the lowest, an honest to goodness Red Ryder BB gun (no compass in the stock or thing that tells time, though).  Even at its minimal power, it provided countless hours of fun, mostly searching for the infinite number of BB's I would pour on the bedroom floor while attempting to load it with the cover still on. (I’m still getting yelled at when they get found during the beginning of the year cleaning.)  It had a simple lever mechanism to set a spring, which would fire the BB when the trigger was pulled. As time went on, more and more of the spring force was diverted from the BB into the gun itself.  This meant, in its final days of use, it could only fire downward at targets less that six inches from the barrel.  It had an added bonus.  The resulting recoil from the jolt of the spring through the frame would slam the stock into my arm with the force of jackhammer. (A small wooden jack hammer I guess, but give me a break, I was ten.)  At that point, my Dad got me the pump action compressed air rifle, which was pretty much the standard issue for small arms there. Normally we'd shoot at bottles and cans up in the dump. (Mostly bottles, 'cause cans don't 'splode good.)

A demonstration of power levels was given on a truly rare find.  We pulled a full sized glass pane from a window out of the dump one day, and set it up as a target in the conveniently placed nest of roots of a fallen tree.  (See, God wanted us to do this.)  The BB's had less of a chance of shattering it than a woodpecker does of felling a redwood.  As we enjoyed making our little spider web of cracks, one of the corners vanished.  Nick's older brother, Joe, had shown up with the next level of armament, his Sheridan .22 pellet rifle.  (The most powerful air rifle in the world, did we feel lucky, punk?  Yes we did…because he wasn’t shooting at us this time.)  We were a little upset that it would take less than the original estimate of "freakin' forever" to break the thing, but as long as he aimed at the edges, it was acceptable.  Suddenly, the entire window exploded like . . . well, like a big pane of glass hit by a rock from my Uncle's surgical tubing powered, wrist rocket slingshot.  He stood there with an evil look on his face, but we were unable to get mad, as it was the most impressive destruction we’d seen all summer. Plus, more importantly, he was going to let us try the slingshot.  The escalation of firepower can be a good thing, between friends and family anyway.

The main reason to learn to shoot, apart from there being only so many hands of solitaire a guy can play on a day too cold to swim, is to go hunting.  All of our fathers had hunted, some more than others. (My Dad being an “other”, but he owned the orange jacket so it counts.)  Our main goal was to eventually shoot some animal or near animal.  Even to this day, no creatures are ever seen in the dump where we stalked our prey.  Not that we killed them all, in fact, we never saw any at that time either.  It was simply that we were so loud that they’ve steered clear of the area ever since.  One day Nick, Skip and I were walking through the woods, and we saw some grouse (in the same way that General Custer saw some Indians).  The ground was literally alive with them.  Full of excitement and blood lust (but in a family friendly way) we ran violently up to the cabin and returned fully armed.  When we got back to the exact spot, we found . . .  nothing, not a single animal, not even a dead bug.  The birds were so thick when we first saw them, we probably could have killed some just by scaring them into flight, and picking up the collision victims; but on the return it was as empty as a tanning salon in the Sahara.  We did bag a couple of items that day.   Skip shot a lighter we found, providing a small but impressive pyrotechnic display.  Then we all enjoyed the fountains created by shooting a six pack of beer someone had left under some rocks. We also enjoyed running for our lives while laughing once we realized that the owners were still swimming at the time, but don't tell our Mothers.  Finally, as we emerged into a more open area on the less than eventful safari, Nick sighted a crow on a branch, took careful aim, fired, and the bird fluttered to the ground.  Sadly, we never did find out if it was a hit, or the bird was just laughing at us.  As we noticed the crow's descent, we also noticed a house less than a stone’s throw behind us.  Not wanting to be the target of said stones, we returned to our running and laughing, thus ending the day's hunt. 

That was one of the more successful ventures.  On another occasion Nick, Danny and I spied a bird while we were using Nick's .22, CO2 cartridge powered pistol.  As it was Nick's gun, he got the first shot, then the fourth, then the seventh, then the tenth, etc.  We stood there taking turns at our feathered friend, who passed though appearing: amused, mocking, and finally bored. (The bird won the Oscar that year for best supporting avian in a forest or glen.)  After slightly over a half hour, (We had a really bad day, OK?) the bird finally flew off, and went on to sign a four-picture deal with Paramount.

Although that pistol seemed to have trouble with birds, it had no problem with other organic targets.  It started as simply as all Up the Lake disasters do.  Nick and I were shooting some cans he set up on Indian Rock. (It’s a rock that some people say looks like the profile of an Indian wearing a headdress, others say it looks like George Washington, but they still call it Indian Rock. This is yet another unsolved, Up the Lake mystery.)  His sister Chrissy and her friend Patricia were with us.  An omen of things to come occurred on my turn.  I was holding the gun at my side trying to pick a target, when I heard a short, but familiar report.  Through her laughter Chrissy compassionately informed me that I had shot my foot.   I didn't believe her at first, until I looked down and saw the circular divot removed from the rubber toe of my sneaker. (My prize winning explanation to my parents, "Uh . . . I kicked a rock.")  Then Patricia asked for a turn.  Reluctantly, Nick handed her his prize pistol.  She placed the gun under one leg, while standing on the other, and yelled, "Trick shot!"  Before she fired, however, she lost her balance, and pivoted, like a ballerina music box on the "clearance: irregular" shelf.  Then, to put it much more delicately than it looked, she shot Nick in the shorts.  Nick dropped to the ground yelling and grasping himself, while the girls laughed. (This was an important life lesson.)  Nick, and his still possible future heirs, was lucky.  The shot missed anything important, and didn't break the skin.  Once he recovered, and offered a prayer of thanks to the god of nearly empty cartridges, we went back to shooting, ALONE.  Now, Sherman, set the Wayback Machine for one year later.  We had just come up from swimming and stopped at Skip’s cabin so he could change. He had gotten some hand-me-downs from Nick, and as he finished dressing called out, "Hey, these shorts have a hole in them!" Three days later, when Nick and I stopped laughing, we told him why.

The BB gun can always bring excitement to even the calmest moments Up the Lake.  Nick and I were sitting in his cabin one night, not attempting to destroy anything for a change, when Danny burst in, looking very pale, and holding something to his chest.  He said, "You guys gotta help me!"  For a reason that has never been adequately explained, Nick's first thought (he informed me later) was, "Maybe he killed his grandmother." (We had been doing nothing for a while.  Boredom heightens the imagination, perhaps?).  Therefore, Nick had a surprising (to me at the time) look of relief when Danny lay what he was clutching in his hand onto the table.   It was his other hand.  With all the drama of an entire Broadway season Danny said, "I shot my finger."  Through talking to him we discovered:   (1) He took his air rifle apart, and put it back together. (2) He held his finger over the end and fired to see if the air still came out. (3) He forgot he didn’t unload it before taking it apart. (4)  He didn't want to tell his grandmother (who he was staying with) because he didn't want to upset her. (5) He thought the BB was still in his finger and wanted us to get it out. We took all these points as totally understandable and acceptable.  After all, several equally uneventful nights before, we had conducted a scientific experiment into the effects of holding a match to a pool of nail polish remover in an ash tray, and the most effective way to extinguish the cabin floor after it spilled  (and we didn't get caught, either (Hi, Mom)).  So, we figured we were in no position to be judgmental.  Danny told Nick to get his sharpest knife.  In unison we all said "The Chief.”  Nick (as did his older brother, nephew and probably several other relatives) had a collection of knives that filled a small valise, and was willing to talk to anyone about them, at great length.  While this could occasionally frighten neighbors, it came in handy for emergencies like this (which happen Up the Lake with an almost alarming regularity).  We all knew his small Chief knife was the sharpest blade in the entire galaxy (according to Nick), so he went and got it.  My job, assigned by my two comrades in foolishness, was to wipe Danny's head with ice so he wouldn't pass out.  This turned out to be very crucial, because Nick poked the knife into the bullet hole and made the same noise that the dentist makes on your teeth with that hook while he talks to you about tartar and the need to floss more.  After what felt like several centuries of this, it seemed prudent to give up.  This was partially due to the dawning of the idea that grownups might be able to handle this situation better than Doctor Nick and his side kick Compress Boy, but mostly because Danny's finger had swollen up to the approximate size of Nell Carter.  We called in our parents, who yelled a lot, (ooooh, big surprise) then told his grandmother, and took him to the hospital.  The story has a happy ending, though.  They got get the BB out, allowing Danny to return to swimming through the weeds after turtles and such, albeit with a bandaged, sandwich bag wrapped finger, held above the water like a white, puffy version of Jaws. Not only that, but he also won twenty bucks from one of the adults who was convinced there was no BB in there.  As you can see, Up the Lake provides valuable, educational, moral, and economic lessons for all of us.

The BB gun was an important part of our childhood.  It was often a gift from a father, grandfather or brother, and had great sentimental value.  This led to an attachment of frightening proportions, at times.  Nick and Skip had mild disagreement about which one of them owned a certain rifle one summer.  This disagreement was of the same level as the one between the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s, the Israelis and the Arabs, and Congress and the Truth.  The best way to describe it is a two-month, continuous fist fight (as long as at least one of them was awake), which I believe culminated in extended grudges, a few inter family squabbles, and no one getting the gun.  Even for several summers afterward, the slightest reminder would trigger anything from a rude remark, to a brawl between these two close friends, and cousins, over the ownership. 

Now time has passed, the feud has mellowed, we've all passed drinking age, and I've spent several evenings Up the Lake reminiscing with both of them, together and separately.

And finally…

After all these years…

I found out whose BB gun it really was . . .

And it’s none of your business.

Up the Lake Index


Nick said...

Aah the chief. I couldn't remember the name of that knife.

Jeff McGinley said...

You have so many, that's understandable. The name is permanently etched in my memory, however, as you talked about it all summer, and when Danny asked for your sharpest knife, the name was said in unison with awe and reverence. Thanx for stopping by, it means more when real lake people read them.