From now on, this weekly Newsletter will be called ROBERT A. MILLS'S OP-ED COLUMN. Access it and enjoy!
Newsletter Dated: 7/21/2012 5:06:07 AM
Subject: SHOOT! - July 21
Wow! I finally made it to 81 last Tuesday, the 17th. (Feels like 181.)
Long before I had ever heard of Jean Sheppard, his A CHRISTMAS STORY, Peter Billingsley or Darren McGavin, my old man finally relented and presented me with an official Daisy Red Ryder B-B gun for my eleventh birthday (‘42). It was all I ever wanted, even now, genuine leather thong and all — plus its 5000 shot-capacity and easy cocking device (it was, in fact, not easy at all, it was goddamn difficult; I had to turn the rifle upside down and strain with all my might to lift the metal loop that fed air and a new B-B into place!)
But it didn’t matter. I now owned the finest B-B gun in all the world, despite my grandmother’s dire prediction I would put someone’s eye out (which never happened, by the way).
I did, however, manage to shoot myself in the finger while loading the magazine’s receptacle. The B-B hit the fleshy underside of my middle finger, left-hand, and I was certain it was imbedded under the skin. The “bullet”, I knew, would eventually work its way into my blood stream and be washed up to my heart, which would become clogged and suddenly cease to function and that would be that. Goodbye, cruel world!
All summer long, and for several years thereafter, I tossed and turned on a damp bed of nocturnal fright, waiting with insurmountable anxiety for the final beat of my doomed heart. It never came. At the age of 54 I decided the B-B had not lodged in my finger after all; it had in all likelihood fallen away, harmlessly spent and unseen by me.
The war-effort back then was a matter of great national derring-do. In 1942 my old man was the pride of Breckenridge Street: an honest-to-God air raid warden! Thanks to him alone not one of Hermann Goerring’s Luftwaffe made it across the Niagara River to our neighborhood in Buffalo.
Dad and mom both insisted we nightly cover the windows of our second floor flat with heavy, woolen drapery my grandmother (who also lived there with grandpa, an unmarried aunt, and of course my little brother) had sewn, and we effectively achieved a total blackout that no Nazi or Jap could have penetrated with anything less than an infrared camera (probably not even invented back then — right?).
A flashlight dangled from the old man’s belt like a Samurai Sword and the beam was protected á la the headlights on cars with a slitted shield over the lens to keep illumination at a minimum — he never turned it on except to make sure he could replenish his canteen and not spill a drop of Calvert’s Reserve (Clear Heads Always Choose Calvert’s!). Under his white aluminum helmet emblazoned with a menacing ARW, believe me, my old man was a patriot and a Minuteman to be reckoned with!
Armed with my official Daisy Red Ryder carbine, I diligently assisted the Pride of Erie County by stationing myself behind the railing of our front porch, albeit twenty feet above the street. If a Nazi or a Jap ever came down Breckenridge Street from Elmwood Avenue, he would be dropped in his tracks by the whoosh of a well-placed B-B between the eyes. The Axis leadership didn’t know it, of course, but I was on duty from 8:30 to 9 — nightly!
By summer’s end, our unblemished record was intact, and subsequent boredom set in quickly. With school soon starting and Daylight Saving Time falling back, the old man began begging off his air raid warden duties. Grandma’s curtains were faithfully used once or twice a week, but the air rifle and I were consigned to the basement where, in our section, the old man constructed a firing range of two old Kotex boxes from the A&P, to which he paper-clipped the standard 5x7 target supplied originally by the Daisy people.
The total distance in the basement, divided down the middle by a wooden partition of almost equally spaced slats and nearly covered by cobwebs, was about fifteen feet. On one side was the grotesque monster of a furnace and forbidding dark coal bin for the lower level; on the other side was an identically grotesque monster furnace and dark coal bin. It was my job (part of the deal to acquire the B-B gun, I was later told) to keep our furnace stoked from September to mid-May. I was also required to remove the ashes every couple days.
Freddie Frap, the Frap family’s eldest (14) of five sons, lived on the first floor, and it was his job to keep their furnace stoked and ashes put outside. I don’t know why exactly but I didn’t like Freddie Frap very much; not only could he make his shovel sing as he flipped coal off the edge and never missed the opening or dropped a lump, but he made model airplanes, both solids and fabric replicas, that looked better than the pictures on the boxes. Besides, his old man, Fred Frap, Sr., was a Navy Shore Patrol veteran who looked like a rendezvous between Ernest Borgnine and Zazu Pitts; mine was a 4-F Ray Milland.
But I owned an official Daisy Red Ryder 5000-shot air gun!
One day Freddie came over to my side of the basement while I was target practicing. “Can I try that thing?” he asked
“No. My dad don’t allow nobody to touch it but me.”
“Big deal. That’s okay. It ain’t real, anyhow.”
“No taint. I know cause I got a real gun. A U.S. Navy military issue .45. My dad give it to me when I was a kid. Wanna see it?”
Before I had a chance to nod in the affirmative, Freddie raced upstairs and came back in thirty seconds, waving the .45 in my face.
“Wanna shoot it?” he asked.
“Sure, why not? You got plenty of big boxes for a target.”
“Is it loaded?”
“Sure. What good’s a gun that ain’t loaded?”
I pushed the .45 away. Freddie looked at me like I was crazy, shrugged and walked away. I think I heard him say, under his breath, “Chicken shit.”
A week or so later, I was playing in Gill Alley, which bordered our house on one side. Freddie was standing at the other end, watching me. I do not know why — maybe it was because I hated him so much — but I raised my B-B gun and pointed it at him. It probably was not even cocked.
At the same time, he raised his arm and pointed the .45 at me — and he fired! I heard the crack of the report, and I saw the flash of the gun. The next thing I heard was the whiz of the bullet as it sped past my ear!
My father, who was in the backyard sunning himself, came into the alley. “That kid take a shot atcha?” he growled, in a voice I had never heard before.
Speechless I nodded, and my old man did a most unusual thing. He promptly marched down the alley and took the pistol away from the petrified youngster.
“My dad — !” Freddie started, his voice a tinny whine.
My own father walked over to the curb, removed the clip from the gun’s grip, and forcibly smashed the .45 into several pieces against the cement.
“Tell your old man,” he grunted, between clenched teeth, “if he wants this thing, come upstairs and git it!”
Years later, as I watched A CHRISTMAS STORY with my own kids, it occurred to me that if Freddie’s shot had been two and a half inches more to the right . . .
Copyright©2012 by Robert A. Mills, all rights reserved