Dog Days Stories: Who Needs A Machine Gun?
[NOTE: This is the first in a series of “summer reading” posts, for the “dog days” of August. Taking a break from current politics, religion, and other disasters, most are personal reminiscences, mainly true.]
When I was a boy, it seemed like I was always outgrowing things, especially shoes and pants. Even though I was pretty hard on clothes, scuffing up shoes and wearing holes in the knees of my jeans, sometimes there was still some wear in the clothes when I outgrew them.
Then my mother would sigh and say, “Well, at least we can still get some use out of them,” and hand the shirt or the pants down to one of my brothers.
Since I was the oldest, though, there was no one to hand clothes down to me. I liked that. It meant my new clothes would really be new.
Often enough, when I needed new clothes my mother would bring out a thick catalog from Sears of Montgomery Ward and order them by mail. To do this she unrolled the measuring tape from her sewing box and measured my arm and chest and the length of my leg. To figure out my new shoe size, she had me stand with one foot on a piece of paper, while she placed the side of a knife against my big toe, my heel and on both sides where my foot was widest, and then made a mark at each spot with a pencil.
The people at Sears, or Monkey Wards as we called it, knew what size shoes fit the marks on the paper. And soon a large box would come in the mail, with new shoes and shirts and pants. These boxes smelled like new leather and clean fabric when they were opened, smells that reminded me of a store.
I liked getting these packages, but as I got older and there were more of us, we didn’t use the catalog as much. Instead, once or twice a year mother would put some of us in the car and drive into town to a department store–a Sears or a Penneys or a Woolworths.
I liked these trips better because there were so many different things in the stores, and the whole place smelled like one of the Sears packages, new and clean and fresh. The best stores of all were the ones with toy departments. As soon as my mother’s back was turned, I headed for them.
It was on one of these trips, in one of those stores, on a warm spring day, that I found the most exciting toy gun in the world.
I had lots of toy guns, usually squirt guns or cap pistols. The cap pistols were almost all long-barreled six shooters, like the ones Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger used in the movies or one TV. The caps for them came in little thin rolls of reddish papers, with a row of dark bumps down the middle. The bumps were the gunpowder, or whatever it was that went BANG when I put them in a cap gun and pulled the trigger.
Caps were always fun, even if my favorite toy gun was broken. I could unroll them on the ground, and take a rock and pound on the dark gunpowder bumps with it. If we hit them just right they’d go POW and make a flash and a little puff of smoke. Sometimes we would find a big rock and smash a whole rolled up roll with it, to see if all the caps would explode at once; but usually they didn’t.
The only trouble with caps was that they got used up fast and didn’t last long. So whenever I found myself in the toy department of a store with a little money, which wasn’t often, I would buy some.
I didn’t have any money at all the day I saw that new gun, and there was only sixty-five cents in my piggybank at home, so I could only look at it longingly.
This was not some glossy cowboy weapon, made to look like it was invented a hundred years ago. No, this was a submachine gun, a weapon of modern warfare, a soldier’s gun. It had a dark blue metal barrel and a wooden stock and a key on one side which I could wind up so when I pulled the trigger it would go rat-tat-tat-tat and shoot a few dozen times like a real machine gun. And I could put caps in it too, so the noise would be really loud.
One of the machine guns was on display, out of the box. I picked it up carefully, and was looking it over, not noticing anything else in the world, when my mother tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that we were there to buy shoes, not toy machine guns.
“I’ve gotta have that gun,” I said as we headed back toward the she department. “It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Oh, really?” said mother. “Do you have five dollars?”
Five dollars? I was so wrapped up in the machine gun itself I hadn’t noticed the price tag. But these were the days when a big candy bar cost a nickel, and I could get into the movies for a quarter. Five dollars was a lot of money, and I didn’t have it.
“Besides,” said mother, “aren’t you getting a little too old for such things?”
Too old? I thought. Who’s too old?
True, I was in the sixth grade. And true, a lot of my old toys, including the little cowboy six-shooters, weren’t as much fun to play with as they used to be.
But this machine gun was different. It was bigger. It was a different color and had a more solid feel when I held it. And it was louder when I pulled the trigger, even without caps in it.
Too old? I thought again. Me? Not a chance.
My mother bought me some new white tennis shoes (no, not sneakers). They felt good on my feet, just what I would need for the summer that was about here. But on the way home, all I could think about was that machine gun. Where was I going to find five dollars to buy it with?
There weren’t many ways for me to earn money where we lived. Our house was on a country road several miles from town. There were no stores or restaurants nearby, and most of the neighbors took care of chores like mowing lawns themselves. There were no paper routes; our newspapers came in the mail. And I didn’t get an allowance.
As the days went by, no new money-making ideas occurred to me, and gradually I quit thinking about that machine gun so much. Summer came, and school was out, and I soon had other things on my mind.
One of them was going barefoot again. Tennis shoes were fine for wearing to school in warm weather, and grownups of course wore them all the time. But for me at home, wearing no shoes at all was better.
At least, barefoot was better after the first day or two. Every summer during those first few days without shoes, it seemed like everything on the ground was put there just to hurt the tender, shoe-softened soles of my feet. Rocks poked them; stickers stuck them; and broken glass cut.
But every summer I persevered, as did my brothers and sisters, because we knew that before long our soles would thicken and toughen, and then these sharp edges of our world wouldn’t bother us anymore.
And sure enough, after a week or so, we could run through the stickery weeds and over the rocks and occasional glass, and hardly notice that they were there.
In fact, one summer my soles got so thick and tough that to show off one day, I took a big needle and sewed some bright red and green embroidery thread into the pad of one foot. My brothers and sisters were amazed, and it didn’t hurt a bit.
One other distraction I had that summer was camp. I had never been to a summer camp before, but that winter I had joined the 4-H Club, which was a club for farm kids, and the state 4-H clubs had a camp up in the mountains by Lake Tahoe. Our club leader told us it was a great place–we could go for a week at a time and there was swimming in the lake, hiking in the woods, campfires at night, and for a few dollars extra a trip to a carnival in Reno.
A week at the 4-H camp cost twenty dollars. Of course, if I didn’t have five dollars, I didn’t have twenty dollars either. But in this case my parents said that if I did my work around the house, and some special chores like cleaning out the junk from an old shed next to the garage, I could earn a week at camp.
I did the work, and so late that summer I climbed onto a yellow schoolbus for the long ride up to Lake Tahoe.
Camp was fun, but it was also something of a shock. We did swim in the lake (the water was so cold), and hike in the woods, and have campfires at night, just as I was expecting. But some other things happened that I wasn’t expecting.
In our cabin at night, some of the older boys used a lot of cuss words when they talked, words that until now I had only heard grownups use, and then only when they were really mad. They also told jokes about sex; these were embarrassing, because I didn’t understand most of them, and didn’t know when to laugh.
Then one morning some older boys sneaked into one of the girls’ cabins and stole one of the girl’s underwear and ran it up the flagpole in front of the dining room, while they played a new song, “Rock Around the Clock”, over the loudspeakers. The girl was very embarrassed, but all the older kids seemed to think it was funny. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about it myself, since I had never seen anything like it before.
The only real disappointment at camp was that the schoolbus broke down the day before it was to take us into Reno to the carnival, so we didn’t get to go. But the counselors kept us busy, and we weren’t unhappy for long.
Coming home was a letdown after camp; it seemed so ordinary. In the last weeks of the summer, the weather was hot and dry and the days seemed to drag by.
One afternoon I spent several hours earning pennies by swatting flies for my mother: ten flies for a penny. I killed a hundred flies that day, and earned a dime. Another day when I got out of bed and went into the bathroom, I saw in the mirror that there was a single dark hair sprouting on my chest. Soon I was almost anxious to get back to school. One of the only remaining things there was to look forward to was a trip to the store to get some new school clothes and school supplies.
A few days before the shopping trip, an envelope came in the mail with my name on it. Inside was a letter and a check for five dollars. The letter was from the 4-H Club, explaining that the check was a refund for the trip to the carnival in Reno that we didn’t get to take at camp.
I don’t think I had ever received a check before, but right away I understood what that five dollars meant. The almost-forgotten machine gun! Now I could buy it! And the seventy-five cents in my piggybank (the sixty-five that was there plus a dime for swatting flies), would buy a lot of caps for it, too.
This was terrific! Now I would have a blast for the rest of the summer, and even have something really cool to show the guys at school. Of course, you weren’t allowed to take cap guns to school, but I vowed I would sneak it in under my jacket.
I begged my mother to take me back to the store where I had seen the gun, and she promised she would. So a few days afterward, there we were, and I pushed past the shoes and pants and shirts and the piles of lunchboxes and new plastic covered looseleaf binders, all the way back to the toy department, hoping and praying that they would still have some left.
There were only two, and I snatched the box up and held it tight, then went looking for caps. A little bag with five rolls cost fifteen cents. Remembering my multiplication tables, I figured my seventy-five cents would buy five bags, but I put one back when mother reminded me about the sales tax. Only then, with these trophies firmly in hand, was I ready to go back and look at the shirts and pants.
The machine gun was great at first. The caps went off with just the loud rat-tat-tat-tat that I had hoped, and you could even smell the gunpowder smoke afterward. I ran all around outside our house on my thickly-padded bare feet, shooting at anything that moved (and a lot that didn’t), fighting a whole imaginary war singlehanded. Even after the caps were all used up, which they quickly were, the loud metal clicking of the wind-up trigger was music to my ears.
At least, it was until the first day of school. I was hoping it would be cold that morning, so I could wear a jacket and hide my machine gun under it. Instead, there was a heat wave all that week, and all the boys came in short sleeves shirts and there was no way.
But it was just as well–in fact, it turned out I was lucky it was too warm for a jacket, because that very day, when we went out for recess on the playground, I heard some of the boys using cuss words, the kind I had thought only grownups used, and then only when they were really mad.
Then one of the bigger boys told a sex joke I had heard at camp. I still didn’t understand it, but this time I knew when to laugh. And strangest of all, one of the other bigger boys started bragging about how he now knew how to dance, with girls, to that new song, “Rock Around the Clock.”
When I got home, I ran to my room, to get out of my new schoolclothes and especially to get those new school shoes off my feet, to enjoy the last few afternoons of barefoot weather while my soles were still thick and tough. I turned to the dresser to grab my machine gun.
But then I paused. The gun looked different. I knew it was still the same size, yet it seemed smaller. It was the same steel-blue and brown colors, only now they looked dull and ordinary. It had the same trigger and key to wind up for the rat-tat-tat-tat sound. But instead of making it seem like a real soldier’s weapon, these features all made it look like a toy.
And not just a toy, I realized, but a kid’s toy.
A kid’s toy?
All at once I felt very glad that it had been too warm to wear a jacket to school. If I had sneaked that machine gun in under it, nobody in my class would have thought it was cool. In fact, the other boys would probably have laughed at me for wanting to show off a kid’s toy.
Somehow, without my noticing it, they had changed, from being kids into something else–almost teenagers, I guess. And I could see that I was like them; I was changing too.
It wasn’t the machine gun that was different, it was me. I guess you could say I had outgrown it, like a pair of shoes or a shirt.
While I was still thinking about all this, my brother Cal appeared at the open window of the bedroom, to ask if I was ready to come outside and play soldiers.
“No,” I said, “I don’t think I want to.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “Come on.”
I picked up the machine gun. “Oh, all right,” I said. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Well, I thought, I suppose I can still play with it here, especially since none of the guys from school are around to see me. But soon, though, I had a feeling the machine gun would be handed down to Cal, just like a piece of outgrown clothes.
And speaking of clothes….I looked around the bedroom floor. I might be going out to play with a kid’s toy one more time, I thought, but today I believe I’ll wear my tennis shoes.
If you like this post, please share it.
More “Dog Days” posts . . . .