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The Measuring Stick

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

I read an editorial the other day, grabbed by the heading, which asked: "At what point does a child become an adult?"

I had a feeling that most folks know the answer to that, but it's buried deep, and they'd have to sift doggedly through a lot of childhood recollections to get to it.

But in my own case I could clearly frog-leap all those years and state unequivocally that the day I began to think like an adult was the day I got a .22 rifle and a box of cartridges.

In the days of my boyhood a gun was practical, and every rural home had one for every purpose: hunting, predators and protection. Kids had to learn about guns fast.

My father was a careful, practical person who studied the law and always did things by his own clock. He had three children, all different, and although I'm sure he thought I had the attention span of a guppy, he was hopeful that I could learn.

When I was 8 years old he gave me a BB gun for Christmas. He said only, "Mitch, you're responsible for what you shoot." That was all, but it was more effective than a thousand-word lecture, because it left to my imagination what responsibility was. To this day I have to think before I pull a trigger of any kind, including the one that controls my tongue.

My first .22 wasn't new, but neither was my first bike or my first sled. Those were depression times, and store-bought things were rare. It was a time of hand-me-downs and barter, with so little cash changing hands, as my uncle Frank remembered it, that "Nickels got as thin as paper and you had to stack up six quarters to make a dollar."

At the age of 10 I didn't have to ask my dad's permission for a real rifle, but I knew better than to ask for the money, because there wasn't any. As it turned out, I didn't have to buy my .22. I got it through a chain of typical boy-barter deals that would have impressed my math teacher.

I swapped upwardly, starting at home. A neighbor showed me how to make rabbit traps and then let me set them in his little orchard, where I promptly caught three rabbits in one night. I sold the rabbits to another German neighbor fond of hasenpfeffer and, in the process, learned how to skin and clean them. I used the money to buy an old wind-up record player, which I swapped for a shiny miniature steam engine that worked-and probably today would bring $500 in the antique toy market.

I traded the steam engine to my best friend for a first baseman's glove and traded the glove to a teenager in exchange for an earsplitting, chrome wind-up siren that the Kahoka fire department had used. It would, when cranked, make every coyote for miles around howl like crazy, and it got the same reaction from my mom, who demanded that I get rid of it without further testing.

It was the siren that finally got me my .22, traded to a hound man with running dogs. He wanted the siren to locate coyotes before he turned the hounds out, and he left word at the barber shop that he had a .22 rifle to trade.

I rode my bike the long, dusty way out to his farm, and I can still remember taking the little rifle into my hands. It was a Stevens single shot with a rolling block action, a small lever under the breech that dropped the action down to let you load one cartridge at a time. It had buckhorn sights and a little wooden forearm, worn and scarred by a couple of generations of crossing fences. It was short and compact and exactly my size. A boy's gun and my blood sang to look at it.

My hound man, being an adult, had to lecture me some about owning a gun. "My daddy always said one of these things was a measuring stick," he observed. "You had to be as tall as your gun barrel before you had sense enough to shoot it," he chuckled. "Reckon you're big enough to be careful."

I smiled at that. While I fondled the rifle, he removed the siren from my bike basket and turned it over in his big hands.

"I reckon we'll have to trade on faith," he smiled. "I can't try this si-reen, or my old woman would have a conniption. I'm satisfied to swap if you are." We shook hands solemnly.

He dug in a musty drawer full of odds and ends and handed me a nearly full box of .22 long cartridges. "The largest it'll chamber," he said. "I'll just throw these in, to boot." I thanked him warmly and took off riding like the wind, one hand on the handlebar, the other clutching my first real rifle like a Pony Express rider ahead of a Sioux war party.

I was deeply thankful for the nearly full box of cartridges bulging my pocket. I loved the inscription, "RANGE ONE MILE-BE CAREFUL." Wow! I thought, BE CAREFUL wasn't a careless admonition to a kid-it was directed to everybody. And how about ONE MILE! The concept left me breathless. Forget my Daisy pump air rifle. I now owned a man's firearm that would shoot a mile. Cartridges that warned grown men to BE CAREFUL.

I didn't go straight home with it, either. No boy would have. I had already passed the bounds of my endurance, waiting to try the thing out. I stopped this side of civilization at a woody field near town, where the coffee brown water of the little Fox River wound through cottonwoods and willows, and the land was abandoned fields.

I found a can by the road and walked back into the field with it.

I had only shot a .22 once before and wasn't sure, but I set my can against a fallen sycamore log and stepped back 100 yards, three times farther away than my old air rifle could shoot on its best day-with a tail wind.

I walked back to my bike and wiped one of the moldy shells on my pants. I put it into the breech and cocked the hammer. The can winked in the sun, no bigger than the front bead-sight, and behind it was the safe bulk of the log. I aimed and fired and the little rifle cracked like a whip.

But to my horror, instead of the clank sound of a can shot through the middle, I heard the high keening whine I'd heard in a dozen Tom Mix movies-a ricochet. The sound of people shooting at people. RANGE ONE MILE-BE CAREFUL! the box had yelled.

I stood stunned in the silence.

I must have shot low and hit an unseen rock in the field and now the bullet was on its way to Iowa . . . or worse. I waited for a human scream as the cordite odor of the shot wafted back from the barrel.

I listened for the sound of breaking glass, the whinny of an injured horse, the bawl of a struck cow, an angry yell from a wounded farmer.

I don't even know what I listened for because all I could hear in my head was the nasty whine of a rifle slug going somewhere it didn't belong and my own heart pounding like a marching-band drum.

I saw a headline in the Clark County Courier-big black letters, "GUS JAYNE'S BOY KILLS ELDERLY WIDOW WITH CARELESS SHOT!"

And it was at this point that my father's unadorned words entered my mind as clearly as if he were there. "Mitch, you're responsible for what you shoot." In those hard times a name was all you really owned and it was important to a family beyond measure. With one pull of a trigger I had reduced my family's name to the shameful level of a crime report.

Hardly daring to put one foot before the other, I walked into the field, fear dragging at my feet along with the barbed vines of blackberry runners. My first shot, and I had to try a long one, not knowing the gun's trajectory, never having tried its sights, not knowing what lay behind the tree line. Not knowing anything! Dumb as a fishing worm. A dumb kid!

The June sun shone warmly on the field, but it didn't warm me as I walked toward my can, then past the tree line where I could now see the sunny splotches of a pasture where my bullet had most likely gone on a killing spree. As I moved through a tangle of hedge apples, I thought I could see black shapes in the pasture. Cows! My lord, my fateful bullet had ricocheted into a pasture full of black angus, and one of them probably lay bleeding to death right now.

"JAYNE BOY KILLS PRIZE ANGUS COW VALUED AT $1,000,000!" I hurried through the thicket, tearing my clothes on briars, my heart in my mouth. A hundred feet from me a black shape lay motionless in the tall grass, and

I had to gather every ounce of my courage to approach it. It shone in the sunlight, black as coal, and was utterly motionless.

I wiped the sweat and blood from my scratched face and took another fearful step, and a wave of relief washed over me. It was a burned stump. The field was full of burned stumps and blackened trunks shiny against the sea of orchard grass. Not cows, stumps. I felt a rush of relief that left me faint.

Clutching my rifle, I kept walking up the sloping pasture across the top of the next hill where an old woodlot made deep and impenetrable shade. No house, no animals, no carnage. From the high point I looked in every direction for the roof of a barn, a housetop, any sign of people. Still uneasy, I made a wide circle. After a half hour, I decided that whatever else I might have done, I had at least missed any living thing in my part of the world.

I came slowly back to the road where my bike lay on its dusty side and I collapsed beside it in the grass. I had hardly dared look at the rifle, but now I lay it across my lap.

I worked the small lever and the tarnished shell popped out with a little 'spung' sound. What a tiny thing to so thoroughly jar my mind. Before, the gun had seemed shiny and graceful. Now it looked dry and rusty and sinister and deadly-a sleeping rattlesnake.

I had learned a great lesson, and I let it settle while my sweat dried and the briar scratches turned to a dull ache on my arms. Tomorrow I would get a square of cardboard and bring it back here, and I would shoot, from maybe 10 feet away until I knew how the rifle shot.

I would back away slowly until I knew how much the little .22 slug dropped and how much the breeze would affect it. I would be right here, shooting at my target, and if anyone came along to tell me my wild shot today had hit something, I would give myself up and go quietly. After all, I was responsible for what I shot. I was not some dumb, careless kid.

Having decided all that, I picked up my gun and raised the bike from the weeds. The gun was looking better all the time. It was a fine gun. "A measuring stick," the old man had called it, and I kind of liked the thought.

With a leather sling and some practice I could probably carry it crosswise from a shoulder while riding my bike and have both hands free to steer. You had to think about that sort of thing, it occurred to me gravely, when you became an adult.

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