When someone off-handedly said to me on my eighteenth birthday during my freshman orientation that I was old enough to shoot a gun, the idea kind of stuck. I grew up in Brooklyn and the only thing I knew about guns was that they were for cops, and if they weren’t for cops, they were illegal. My neighborhood in Brooklyn was more like a small town than I’d like to admit: many people who grew up there never left, and if they did were bound to come back. Our set of experiences all closely mirrored each others: most of our parents were strict Italian or Irish who sent us to Catholic school; we ate in the same places, partied in the same places, and seemed to all be headed on a similar course. Suffice it to say, I was the only person in my high school to ever attend Bennington and probably even the only student who had ever even heard about it. When I came to Vermont the closest I had ever been to a gun, beyond seeing it on Law & Order SVU, had been standing next to a cop on a crowded train. Out of curiosity I peeked down at his holster. I had never even seen a gun in its entirety.
When I came to Bennington there were many things I had never done. I had never driven on a winding road, been camping, lived within a twenty mile radius of a Wal-mart, been to a contra dance, knew someone who played the Banjo or, of course, shot a gun.
By the start of my Junior year, I owned a Subaru and had whipped it around a turn on 7A while holding a coffee too many times, been camping and canoeing, been to Wal-Mart more times than I am comfortable admitting and took my first Banjo class, but the idea of shooting still lingered. When I had first thought of going to shoot, I saw it more as something gimmick-y – some real “Vermont-ish” thing to do that would make a cute story at the Christmas table. As time passed though, I began to take the idea more seriously. The debate about gun law and restrictions was becoming more of a hotbed issue by the day, and the more I heard it spoken about, the more I realized that I had no realistic idea or experiences about guns or gun owners. So by the time Cale, who I had met while he was working at South Street, Pierce and I had made plans to go shooting, I was genuinely and seriously interested. We decided on a Wednesday. The morning was pretty cold. We set out for South Street where we switched into Cale’s car, and drove off to the gun shop in Shaftsbury to get ammo. The shop looked like an old wooden and slightly run down shack on the outside. A cheerful black lab greeted us at the door and Cale went to speak to the two men behind the counter. When Cale asked what kind of ammo we would like one of the men behind the counter snorted and said that so would everyone else. The other man eyed me curiously and the dog jumped up to almost my height, putting her front paws on my shoulders. Perhaps my clothes were not quite right or perhaps it was something about my demeanor in the store, but it was clear that both men looked at me knowing full well that I didn’t quite belong.
We then drove out to Cale’s parents house which was one of the most charming, beautiful cabins I had seen. After meeting Cale’s dad, he gave Cale his guns and asked if we had any experience shooting. He reminded us to always treat the guns with the utmost respect. We went out to the backyard where we could set up a small plank to put bottles, cans, jugs filled with water, and a small makeshift target right in front of a small hill so that all the bullets would fly safely into the dirt just beyond the targets. Cale set the guns down and started by taking out the rifle. He proceeded to explain everything to me. I was shocked and nervous about all the details he laid out for me – I had always naively assumed that the kind of people who owned guns and were exposed to them would be more casual around them, but it turned out both Pierce and Cale instantly became serious upon taking out the guns from their coverings. I nervously smiled and realized that I had been far too off casual about this whole thing. Cale explained certain protocol that seemed so obvious but had never occurred to me: the gun should always been pointed down range, never turn and face someone holding the gun (whether it’s loaded or not), always let everyone know when you take the safety off and never put you finger on the trigger (even if the safety is on) until the moment your target is in sight and
you are ready to shoot. I decided to take my first shot lying on the ground as I felt more secure there because I was afraid of the kick. Cale then showed me how to load the rifle. My scarf, winter coat, and gloves were too bulky and I had to take then off. The cold made my fingers stiff and my nerves made me fumble. The gun was difficult to load, but once it was, I took a deep breath, tried to calm my nerves, placed the butt of the gun tight against my shoulder, took the safety off, aimed, put my finger on the trigger, and shot. The bullet sounded like the a short intensified clip of a car zipping by in the Battery tunnel. The kick back was next to nothing. I smiled even though it was a miss. I grew calmer and more determined to actually make the shot. Pierce explained how breathing was key and told me not to hold my breath. I exhaled slowly, took my next shot, hit my target (a coffee cup filled with water) and with a wide smile, watched the water fly into the air. We all took turns shooting. Pierce and Cale, who had both been shooting many times before, hit nearly every target they shot at, while I hit around one every four shots. When we had used up all the ammo we moved onto the shotgun. The process of loading it was much different, we loaded one shot at a time, as the bullets were obviously much larger and Cale had me practice four or five times loading and unloading the gun myself so I could get a feel for it. The gun was heavier in my hands and my fingers were sore from being cold so I decided that I would shoot from the ground. As I prepared to shoot, I realized that I couldn’t get the butt of the gun tight against my shoulder this time because of the size of the gun versus the size of my arms, so despite my uncertainty, I decided to shoot standing up. I re-loaded the gun, placing it back down on the floor while I stood up, and everyone put on their protective ear and eye wear. There is something instantly gratifying about the click of loaded a shotgun. I pressed the gun tight against my shoulder, aimed (finding it much easier to aim without the scope), took the safety off and fired. The kickback was much stronger. I felt as though I had been punched in the shoulder. The rush from the shotgun was much more exciting than the rifle and I let out an instant yelp of glee. I found the smoky smell of gunpowder that filled the air somewhat comforting. The more I handled the guns I began to develop a kind of calm that Pierce and Cale had established long before me. My feelings and ideas about guns and the people who shot them were completely changed. Shooting was not some wild “Vermont-ish” thing to do anymore. I felt the absolute necessity to treat, like Cale’s dad advised, the guns with the most absolute respect and seriousness. This did not diminish the excitement or the fun, but it helped me to understand the simple reality of what I was doing. To me, shooting for the first time was an experience much like the first time you go to Coney Island and get on the Wonder Wheel, and if you haven’t done this, it is quite difficult to explain it to you.