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In the minds of those boys, the store was in rubble, each musical instrument splintered and cracked, glass cases shattered, the walls pocked and cratered. I, naturally, was in a puddle of blood on the floor. When they got to the door, the first boy opened it with a flourish, bowing a little as if for royalty, while his buddy, standing grand and erect at the honor, semi-automatic weapon cradled in his arm, stepped out into high noon.
"Making the world safe for democracy," the shop owner said slyly, when the door slammed shut behind them. He shook his head as he put the money—cash—in the register, and looked up. "What can I do you out of?"
"Is that legal?" I wanted to ask, but I knew the answer and didn’t have to ask. Around here, the right of any fool to bear arms is nearly sacred and discussion of the subject can end in a death—usually of the pacifist. So I asked to see a guitar and kept my mouth shut.
The owner brought a small Bently for me to play. "It’s real nice," he
said, "just a little crack here at the bridge." He was right, the guitar
was sweet, but no sooner did I touch it than I realized I didn’t want to
play after all. I lifted it to my knee and strummed a few chords perfunctorily.
"For a hundred dollars you can take her home and fight with your wife
I didn’t laugh. Holding a guitar in my lap in a room full of pistols,
rifles, and semi-automatic weapons, I found that the happiness, really
the tenderness, I usually feel when playing any instrument, was tempered
by gloom. Guitars and banjos adorn one wall of my hometown pawnshop, the
other wall wears guns, and—I came to feel in this sour moment—I live somewhere
in the cross hairs of the contradiction.
GUNS HAVE BEEN a part of my area—the north Georgia mountains—for as long as whites have lived here. They are the legacy of the conquerors. The most common kind of gun among settlers was the "hog" rifle, not generally used on hogs but for hunting deer, bear, and other wild game. A few hog rifles were Kentucky Long Rifles manufactured by German settlers in Pennsylvania, but most were homemade versions built by wily and resourceful mountain smiths.
Like their store-bought cousins, the homemade hog rifle was long, taller at times when stood on end than the hunter. Single shot muzzle-loaders, hog rifles had to be reloaded after each firing, the hunter wrapping a lead-ball bullet in a piece of greased cloth or buckskin and ramming it down the barrel. The method may seem crude, but it was far more effective than the noisy and slow "hammering technique" used on European rifles.
Most hog rifles were plain, the trigger guard and gun plate—the gun’s "furniture"—made of iron, not brass, and the lean stock of walnut unadorned with metal patch-boxes and other finery. But even though they didn’t look like much, hog rifles were in one way a match for their handsome cousins back east. They were deadly accurate, the combination of a long, rifled barrel, patch-protected bullet, and hunger allowing a backwoods hunter to drop a deer from a distance of two hundred yards.
For nearly 250 years smiths have been making guns in the Southern Appalachians, adapting to isolated conditions with creativity and know-how and passing down the traditions, usually in their families. The most famous of these gunsmithing families were the Beans who first settled in the territory near Jonesboro Tennessee in 1796. Bean rifles are so plain that, at first glance, they appear homely and crude. The stock is reinforced by a rectangular piece of metal, and the patchbox, built into the stock, is an elongated wooden door rather than a fancy brass container. It is a "degenerate style" of the original long rifle, as one expert says, but it inspires awe among collectors. Its stripped-down elegance reveals that the beauty of the long rifle is not in ornament, but in its lines, the elongated, tapered wand of wood and forged metal that delivers a pellet of lead along the bead of the hunter’s sight.
It is an excellent killing machine.
WHAT SETS A mountain rifle apart from earlier weapons and modern shot guns is a secret hidden inside the barrel, a tiny, spiraling groove etched along the inner surface. In older guns with a smooth bore the bullet emerged without rotation. Like a knuckleball—it floated dead in the air and was subject to drift, making early pistol duels a relatively safe way of ending a dispute. But the rifle bullet, like a pitcher’s fast ball, spins through the air—rips the air, we like to say—with a much better chance of finding its target.
The rifle barrel is a mixture of will and grace. The outside of it had to be pounded into shape on a battered gun anvil, a hunk of iron gouged with cups and ridges as well as grooves thick enough to hold a gun barrel. In antique stores these anvils are sold as doorstops, a tribute to their primary function, inertia, the anvil holding its shape no matter how much the blacksmith at the local bloomery bangs away on it. There the outside of the barrel is beaten into submission.
The inside of a rifle barrel is another matter—it is teased into shape. The smith puts away his hammer and etches a groove as delicate as a tendril into the metal, a long, thin line that can no longer be forged—or forced. In fact, it cannot even be seen. In order to set this spiral groove, gunsmiths cut a line with a rifling guide, a device made from a long strip of wood with grooves running lengthwise along the sides in a long, slow spiral. It looks like an enormous twisted stick of licorice. A dowel with a blade is hooked firmly to one end of this rifling guide and set so that it can pass through the barrel of the gun. As the guide is pulled through a wooden block, it slowly twists, and the knife, running along the inside of the gun barrel, twists too, cutting a perfect rifle groove into the metal.
The guide is a work of art, making external the shape hidden in the
gun, but it is the rifled groove itself, glimpsed as a finely etched rosette
of lines if we dare look down the long barrel, but otherwise invisible,
that seizes the imagination. The ball rides the rifling in the barrel and
traces the line on air. The shape of vine and fiddle-head and twisted strands
of DNA, the rifled line sets the bullet spinning—whizzing—to its mark,
and, like the bit of a drill, through its mark.
ACCORDING TO THEIR SONGS,
mountain folk have an assortment of ways other than guns to kill each other.
Silver daggers and the hangman’s rope are two. Drowning is common. In one
I would my dear for much I wish
Drowning has its virtues—it leaves no fingerprints or murder weapon behind—and the silver dagger is certainly poetic, but the preferred method for murder in the mountains is to blow the victim away with a gun. "Went out last night to take a little round," the song "Little Sadie" begins. "I met little Sadie and I blowed her down," the next line adds in one of the most compact murder stories ever composed. The brevity, the juxtaposition of a night’s stroll with murder, is unnerving, almost comical, so that the killing has a motiveless, even random, feel to it. The murderer—a man named Lee, one version tells us—goes home and sleeps, the ".44 smokeless" under his head, but smoke or no smoke, some plume of regret finds its way into the recesses of the killer’s numbed conscience, and the rest of the tale unfolds like a guilt-driven nightmare.
"I began to think what a deed I done," the killer announces when rising the next day, his self-examination coming pitifully after the fact. There is some attempt, muted in this truncated tale, to make Lee a victim. He is apprehended while trying to read his own wanted poster, and asks the sheriff to read the arrest papers to him. He has no money for bail, is paraded through town dressed in black, and is crammed in a county jail cell. He is a killer without a clue, his crime an impulse, his verdict given in words that he cannot read for himself. The judge stands ominously reading from the papers that condemn him. Whether he is a victim or not, though, he must pay—that is the code of mountain song. "Forty-one days, forty-one nights," the judge says at the end of the song. "Forty-one years to wear the ball and stripes."
"Little Sadie" is, like most mountain songs, a morality tale, a call for justice in a world of random violence, but hearing it—especially when the song is plunked out on a banjo—I find it hard to muster up much indignation. Pity is the more likely emotion, and, perhaps, puzzlement at human weakness and the amoral life. Innocent, silly, baby-faced boys make guns with their fingers until one day, in anger, in foolishness, or by accident a real gun "goes off," someone bends over a wound, and innocence, empowered, takes its toll. Murder is child’s play, the song says, the gun, not the man, is doing the killing.
In "Wild Bill Jones," a companion song to "Sadie," a jealous lover shoots
Wild Bill dead. "I drew my pistol from my side," the killer says, "and
blew away that poor boy’s soul," the gun robbing life, and the word ‘boy’
robbing manhood, from the victim. "My age," complains Wild Bill at the
beginning of the song, "is twenty one. Too old for to be controlled." But
age does not matter. When turned on other people, guns are toys, these
songs tell us, a symptom in the chaos of our lives of weakness and fear,
and we are, by their violence, reduced to children.
WHEN I WAS a boy, my dad gave me a gun. He unlocked a metal chest and gestured with his arm that I should choose one of the guns lined up before me. My hand went instinctively to the Winchester, a shotgun of an old design that had to be loaded by cocking the barrel and dropping shells into the chamber.
"It’s yours," he said, lifting the gun out of the rack and handing it to me. "Use it today."
It was the beauty of wood that caught my eye. Gunstocks—who would disagree with this?—are beautiful. Following the design hidden in the walnut grain, the stock is shaved to conform to the hunter’s shoulder in a simple blend of the human and the natural. Old mountain smiths used a drawing knife—a blade held in two hands and brought toward the body—to get the block of wood down to the basic shape they wanted. Chisels, planes, and knives did the rest, the wood sanded and polished until it glowed. If the barrel is a triumph of will, the stock—and the increasingly fussy tools used to shape it—is the opposite: it wears its stripes, the grain that nature gave it, for all the world to see.
Dad and I went skeet hunting that afternoon—I was probably fourteen—and
he called "pull" as I held the gun to my shoulder, took careful aim at
a clay pigeon in flight, and usually missed,
Not long after Dad died, my stepmother took me to the gun rack and told me to choose the ones that I wanted. I knew right away which gun was mine. Dutiful and dismayed, I took it home. On the long drive I thought about cold mornings and a mother-of-pearl sky, and suddenly missed my father very much and was happy for the souvenir. But no sooner did I pull into the driveway of our house than I knew I couldn’t keep it. I’m no hunter. I went with Dad to be with him, not to shoot. The gun was useless to me. Also—and this was irreducible—my mother died by a gun, shot herself when I was a boy, and I had promised myself I would never keep one in the house. So I sold it to a friend who was amazed that I would part with a fine piece in such excellent condition, especially one given to me by my father. If I ever changed my mind he would sell it back, he said. My mind, though, was made up.
But—and this is the heart of the matter—I loved the gun. My attachment to it was not just sentimental, not just because it was a gift from my father. It goes deeper. Sometimes I waited for hours alone in the gooseblind, sitting still, while I did nothing but listen to geese and watch, with a steady gaze, the checkering on the stock of the gun. I loved the uniformity of crosshatches waffled into the wood and forearm grip, and the way sunlight, filtered through a mesh of camouflaging straw above the blind, puddled on the polished surface like poured syrup. Some say that checkering was the invention of bored hunters who whittled on the stocks of their guns while waiting for squirrel or deer, killing time by making wood beautiful. I would like to think that my response was purely aesthetic, too, unconnected with killing.
But death is built into the attraction of all guns and part of their seduction. It is eerie how easily a gun comes to the hand, as if hands were made for weapons, the fingertips irresistibly drawn to the stock. This attraction—this impulse to take the gun—wears off in time, and after an hour or so of frenzied waiting in a cold blind, the hand may be held to the gun by little more than the warmth it has given away, but when geese appear, honking and bobbing like church bells suspended in air, drawn to their deaths by a lonesome call and handsomely carved decoys, the hunter inevitably stands, brings the checkered stock to his cheek, and, driven by a love he had not known was in him, tightens his grip and pulls the trigger.
IN Guns in American Life, a critique of America’s love affair with guns, Jarvis Anderson examines the "dreadful contradictions" of our love of these killing machines. Words such as "beauty" and "tasteful" are applied to handguns, which have been more "damaging to civilian life" than any other weapon. Gun owners personify the gun with words such as "noble" or "sweet" and give it names like "Betsy." The gun may be "a cold machine, a thing of wood and metal," according to Carrol C. Holloway in Texas Gun Lore, but "clothed with rich garments of dreams it cannot be cold." The dream, Anderson suggests, takes root early, as guns, and gunslingers, are romanticized on TV and in movies. The Colt .45 commemorating John Wayne came—the ads said—with a "lovely ivory grip" and "elegant packaging," the manufacturers, Anderson writes, inviting buyers to "wrap their hands around the grip of a Colt and imaging themselves ‘right back through history.’"
Is that it? These are the myths that no doubt sell guns, the images that those boys carried in their heads, I suppose, as they sauntered out of the pawnshop, one of them wielding a semi-automatic weapon. Is the allure of the gun merely hype, generated by advertisement and pop culture? Or is there something more—something intrinsic to the machine itself?
Part of the allure must be a sense of awe at what guns can do—a sense of all that they can take away and the accompanying feeling of power, a temporary omnipotence. Only those who have never taken a gun in their hands are immune. To resist the urge is, in fact, remarkable. "But you didn’t shoot," McCaslin says to Ike in The Bear by William Faulkner, and Ike defends the missed opportunity to kill the old foe that he and his family had hunted for years by reading aloud Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and making an appeal to his cousin. "Courage and honor and pride, and pity and love of justice and liberty," he says. "They all touch the heart, and what the heart holds to becomes the truth, as far as we know truth. Do you see now?" Truth and beauty—it is the Keatsian equation. That is what guns can take away, and, by appropriation, claim.
"Guns in the house are dangerous," my dad said once while locking up the heavy metal footlocker where he stored his rifles. "They fill up a boy’s eyes."
MY DAD LOVED guns for what they could do—bring a goose out of the sky in a tumbling, flapping, agonized bundle—but his love for them went beyond that. After each day’s kill he took the guns apart at the kitchen table under a light—lining up the parts on a towel in the order that he had removed them, cleaning each one. He cleaned the barrel with a cloth—swabbing the inside—and then put all the pieces back together. When he was done—here’s the part I remember best—he would hold the gun up in one hand, turning it slightly this way and that in the light, tilting his head, simply admiring it.
It is inevitability that my father loved, gazing down the tube of his weapon, siting some imaginary point in the ceiling above the kitchen window, a feeling akin to the fiddler’s string of notes finding its way back to the first chord of a tune. At such moments, Dad’s love of what guns do—the reliability of their intricate machinery in the service of the kill—had nothing to do with killing, and, of course, it had everything to do with killing. That is the contradiction, hidden in the gun lover’s passions. That is the distancing from blood that makes guns dangerous. The gun has nothing to do with blood, and it puts the bleeding carcass in the hunter’s hand.
Inevitability is never pure. It at least has consequences. There may have been no rush of delight in my father when he cleaned his weapons, none of the thrill that he obviously felt when he brought down a mallard on the wing at sixty yards, but his gaze was not idle aesthetic appreciation either. Instead there was a steady beam of love for a machine that did what it—and nothing else—could do, over and over again, superbly. Elegance, not mere beauty, registered on his eye. Sometimes, holding the rifle he had just cleaned at eye level, the light pooling on the polished stock and dying on the charcoal bluing of the barrel, he looked at me and just shook his head, knowing that this kind of appreciation could not be explained. It was something you got.
The gun surely empowers, and by its sureness, claims mastery over us
as well. Seeing my father there, in memory, holding the gun to the light
and turning to his son, I have to smile at the way the image says so much
about him and who he was. The analogy—the legacy, I guess—is the image
of me lifting a banjo from the towel on my kitchen table after changing
the strings, and looking down the neck, eyeing the tension. When Dad slipped
the gun into a cloth case for the night and placed it on the rack, he instinctively
wiped his hands saying, in so many words,
NOT LONG AFTER the smoke had cleared at the assassination of President Garfield, somebody composed a song, the childlike meter and rhyme taking the sting out of the suddenly terrified innocence of Americans. I found the tune on a record by Bascom Lunsford, the banjo player and folklorist from North Carolina. "Going down the street the other day I heard the report of a pistol," Lunsford says, speaking rather than singing the opening lines, as if the ballad emerged out of the reporting of the event. "What does that mean?" At that point Lunsford sings, explaining musically how a president can, in an incomprehensible instant, be killed.
Oh they tell me Mr. Garfield is shot
Though shot, President Garfield is apparently handy to the speaker in our song who walks up to his bed and asks—what else?—"How’s you feelin’?" Garfield, on his deathbed, explains that he plans to eat ham, eggs, bacon, and beans before he dies and spends eternity in heaven, and that he would be glad, as well, for his wife to remarry after he is dead. "Don’t ever let a chance go by," Lunsford’s tenor voice croons. It’s a great moment in folk song. When Garfield dies—full as a tick, I suppose—his wife puts roses on the grave.
In a lawless world, a world where the keeper of laws, the president, can be shot, we have little recourse. The song—the cry for justice—is our only revenge. It keeps our roses red and is where on earth we spend eternity.
THE HARDEST JOB for the goose hunter is sitting still all day in gray, dank, icy weather. The cold of the air seeps into coats, the cold of the floor seeps into boots, and the cold of the seats seeps into long johns. When I hunted with Dad, we passed time by eating chocolate and sipping coffee, till the coffee got cold, and when all that was done, we pulled in our shoulders and shrank into our coats, savoring what was left of our body heat. Nothing helped. Well, wiggling might have helped, but my father’s instructions were emphatic. Don’t move. So we sat, sometimes three or four of us, hunkered down in woolens and holding the rifle in front of us silent and still as monks in prayer.
In addition to sudden movement, shiny metal spooks birds, so gun barrels
are dulled to a sooty iridescence created by a process called bluing. Almost
anything that rusts metal can be used to blue a gun barrel—salt, green
walnut hulls, or horse manure mixed with water work. The trick is not letting
the process go too long since that will pit the surface. Hacker Martin—who
was perhaps the best of the modern mountain gunsmiths—described his method
of bluing a rifle this way:
Use a quart of cheap alcohol, to keep her from freezing, and a quart of common cooking water. Rain or soft water is best, of course. Into that throw a handful of bluestone and an ounce or two of nitric acid. Fill up the gallon glass jug with chamber lye from your bed pot. Cork your
Bluing causes metal to absorb light, to trap it, the light running through the blue in broken, geometrical patterns like the lines of light in a star sapphire or the dull glitter of galvanized steel, light playing along the surface, but never escaping. For hours under an accusingly cold and mercilessly gray sky I watched what was left of the sunlight disperse along the barrel of the gun, muted and vagrant, the day elongated and in miniature transformed by the phosphorescent glow of the metal to a moonless, midnight scene. Beauty trapped—that’s what I watched during hours of numbed contemplation. A blue beauty, glinting and uncontrollable, as slippery as spilt oil and ephemeral as nocturnal flight. Beauty blued, imprisoned, muffled in camouflage and consigned to one task: the kill.
THE KILL. Abullet has a dull, simple shape with one excuse for being—to penetrate flesh. Mountain smiths made bullet molds with a "cherry," a strip of metal, bobbed at the end, like a note on a stem. Primitive bullet molds were also carved in stone—a base stone with a lid that had holes at the top for pouring the molten lead. The bullet that formed was irregular and crude, but blasting out of the long barrel of the rifle it was deadly enough to bring home food. Today the bullets come encased in a shell and the shells can be worn in straps over the shoulder in a frightening array of firepower. There are bullets that cut through metal and, worse, bullets that on impact explode. Young men—boys in a pawnshop—can buy them when they tire of pretending to blow people away with their fingertips.
The gun barrel may be elegant and the stock handsome, but the bullet is ugly. Emptiness gathers about its shape. Ridged, ribbed, tapered, or scored with lines it is meant for travel on thin air. It rides a spark and blast, spinning through the whirligig of the rifle barrel, and emerges whizzing on a single buzzing note, neither rising nor falling for three hundred feet, apparently defying gravity, and before the hunter can blink an eye, finding a target—some home—in tree or dirt, and at times a softer landing in flesh, lodging deep in a puddle of blood.
I HAVE A PHOTOGRAPH of two men in overalls, one holding a homemade banjo and the other a percussion rifle. The mountain behind them is stripped of trees, suggesting that the photo is from the thirties when logging came to this region. The banjo player is clearly proud of his instrument. He stares straight at us, a flat smile across his face, his hand held in the clawhammer position. It is harder to tell about the man with the rifle because he holds the gun to his cheek, as if to fire, and his hand and the gunstock hide his face, but he also holds a noble pose, and I suspect that the face behind the gun is smiling, too, as proud of his prized possession as the musician. Both the neck of the banjo and the barrel of the rifle point off, toward the side of the photo, in parallel lines.
Guns and song.
Before mountain gunsmiths varnish the stocks of their rifles, they often
stain the wood with lines of soot to make the polished surface look like
the back of a fiddle. When they drill metal parts they use a bow drill,
holding the drill against the chest and moving the bow back and forth,
looking just like a country fiddler. Music and weapons have an ancient
connection. Trumpets, bagpipes, fifes, and drums have led warriors into
battle and the lyre and the fiddle have offered solace when the killing
was done. During the Civil War, banjo music could be heard above encampments
plunking out sentimental tunes late into the night. Celts, I have read,
would declare intermission in battles while minstrels played songs of home,
and epics of war—from Homer to Beowulf—set the stories of fighting and
agony and valor to music so that the tales
I would like to say that music is compensatory, there merely as a comfort, a solace after violence and the kill. I would like to think of song in opposition to the gun, the music somehow wiping out and replacing the blast and the report of a gun, but I know that even though music offers compensation for violence, it is not entirely innocent. The banjo hangs in the same room as the rifle, and the thrill of hitting the fifth string and cocking a pistol are not opposite but akin. Mountain banjo players often talk about "cocking" the fifth string. Alien as music and violence may seem—one bringing agony and the other balm—the machines of death and song have the same source in the inventive and manipulative nature of human beings who cannot refrain from creating objects that express their nature. The banjo and the rifle are the products of the same pair of hands. Taken together they identify us—smoke and words and lead and song sent out into the world by the buffed and crafted agents of the death and delight that is in us and is us.