Monday, March 18, 2013

The Day I Took a Gun to School

I can't remember if Mrs. Kahwaty taught my English class in the 10th or 11th grade.

I know I had Mr. Engsberg senior year. You should have heard him recite Polonius's famous speech to Hamlet, the one with "neither a borrower nor a lender be," and "to thine own self be true." It was hilarious. Either Shakespeare or Mr. Engsberg was a very funny man.

And I also had Mr. Rieck one year. I think it was Mr. Rieck in 10th grade, Miss Kahwaty in 11th.

Yes, that's right. It only matters because I want to put a year on this.

Our assignment from Mrs. Kahwaty (who was something of a dish, by the way) was to memorize a poem, then recite the poem to the class. But we couldn't just recite it, we had to make a theatrical presentation out of it. Having recently read Jude the Obscure ("Done because we are too menny" still sends a shiver down my spine), I knew Thomas Hardy wrote poetry, and went looking for something of his I could act out.

I read as few poems as I could before settling on The Man He Killed, a poem about World War I.

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin! [This means "we could have had a beer together."]

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.

Perfect! It was about war and drinking! And it was not so short as to make Mrs. Kahwaty think I was trying to get away with something.

So: what I obviously needed to do was make some effort to suggest, while reciting the poem, that I was a soldier.

In our basement was just the thing: a bolt-action .22 rifle which belonged to my eldest brother, who during high school was the terror of all tin cans south of the Mason-Dixon line. The gun had sat in our basement – rarely touched – for years in the company of a World War I-era rifle and a pre-Civil War Colt revolver.  Every once in a while I'd pick up one of the rifles and "fire" it, without ammunition, but that gets old fast.

A bolt-action .22
Why not take the .22 to English class and use it as a prop? What could be easier? I had this all worked out.

The day of my presentation, I grabbed my books and the rifle and headed for high school, about six blocks away. Arriving at the usual time, with several hundred other students, I carried the rifle into school, through the crowded halls, and put it in my locker. When fourth period came along I went back to the locker, took it out, and headed to Miss Kahwaty's class.

Sandy Scheiber came first. He could get his legs into a lotus position, so he dressed like a yogi and did something from Allen Ginsberg.

Then it was my turn.

My presentation was masterful. I wrapped a white rag around my head, to suggest I was wounded. I explained beforehand what "wetting a nipperkin" meant. At one point, I dramatically operated the bolt and pulled the trigger – pointing at the floor, of course. It was all over pretty quickly.

After class the rifle went back to my locker, and at the end of the school day I carried it back home.

Nobody ever challenged me. Nobody ever suggested that I shouldn't bring a gun into school.

This was in 1965 or the first half of 1966, at the latest. JFK had already been murdered with a mail order rifle. On August 1, 1966, a man named Charles Joseph Whitman shot and killed 15 people and wounded 32 others, most of them from the observation deck of a tower on the Austin campus of the University of Texas. It was, I think, the first mass shooting at a school in American history. Everyone correctly thought it was really terrible and strange, but I don't think anybody thought it was a new trend.

Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy, and George C. Wallace wouldn't be shot until 1968.

The National Rifle Association, which then supported responsible actions to keep guns out of the hands of lunatics, had not yet become lunatics themselves.

It was a different time.


Chip said...

Great story, Bob. I remember that Marlin bolt action rifle too. We also had a pump action Winchester 22 as well. I give. What's a nipperkin?

Bob Miller said...

I THOUGHT that was a Marlin, but wasn't sure enough of it to say so out loud.

A nipperkin is something like a half-pint – in this case, of beer.

Bob Miller said...

From the owner of the rifle in question, this note, via email:

Addendum of note: The pre WW1 rifle you mentioned, the one with the little male screw thing on the end of the barrel was for putting on a silencer. Dad told me that he and Uncle Ted legally used it when they were shooting rats down at the dump. Times have really changed.
PS Good story!