In the idealized Hollywood script the native father-figure is seated before the council fire bedecked in his stereotypical tribal regalia. As wolves howl in the background and stars shoot across the sky overhead he instructs his young son, in stoic broken English, about his role in the universe and the sanctity of all life.
My actual experience, while no less authentic, was much less melodramatic. As an adolescent young boy learning to shoot a single-shot bolt action .410 shotgun my father admonished me, “you kill it you eat it!”
Though simplistic in structure there was a lifetime of lessons in that one sentence. Most prevalent at the time was the judgment he was rendering on the actions and attitudes of some of my friends.
I had bugged my dad for some time because my friends all had new bb guns and pellet rifles and I was left out. He never gave in and I would have to wait for him to decide I was ready for a real gun. When it came and the lessons with it I slowly began to understand his reasoning. My friends were using their “toy” guns to shoot everything from the neighbors’ windows to blackbirds and toads to prove their marksman skills; these were not the practices he wanted me to embrace.
Houma people had existed in the coastal marshes, bayous and swamps of South Louisiana for countless generations. Trawling, trapping and hunting was our way of life and my dad sought to pass that down to me.
Within that lifeway the gun was a tool and like any tool it had to be used properly and respectfully. What he taught me that day and the days that followed was that the purpose of the gun was to put food on the table. I learned to take pride in my growing proficiency but I also learned over time that the gun was not a lynchpin of my character or masculinity. Dad saw the use of those toy guns to kill innocent animals just to prove ones skill as contrary to all wanted to teach so he refused to let me wander off in that direction.
I’m still amazed at how, with a few words and a gentle example, he was able to implant these lessons in the mind of a high-strung boy that continue to bear fruit today. I replay all this in my mind regularly as I try to pass on his wisdom to his great-grandchildren.
As I listen to this country debate its gun culture in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut and think back on those years and try to reconcile the world and culture I came of age in and the one my children and grand-children now face. I struggle to put it in perspective and so I turn again to the wisdom of my father.
He had served in WW II with Patton’s 3rd Army and as a young boy I was fascinated with the heraldry, history and regalia of war. I would ask him many times to tell me of his battles but he was more prone to talk about the German and French girls he had met. To this day I know very little about the exploits that earned him an Expert Infantryman Badge with four battle stars and a Purple Heart that he received after the Battle of the Bulge.
When I was older he did confide in me that he could still remember the face of the first German soldier he killed, he aimed and fired as he saw the German aiming his weapon at his fellow soldiers. He never spoke of killing as glorious, even in the midst of battle. I learned as much I think from the things he didn’t say.
In America today most people are far removed from the cycles of life and death. We hear news stories of drone strikes in Pakistan and bombs falling on Gaza and the casualties are spoken of as “collateral damage.” For the cause of the just the death of the “other” is an acceptable sacrifice. So we play it out in our video games and in our movies and our culture becomes numb to the pain. Right debates left on the semantics of gun control, rights and freedom while at the heart of society the contagion continues to spread.
America has been in a state of war, in one form or another, since its founding. Some wars are deemed just by historians and some not but whatever the cause war would seem historically to be the default reaction. An unbiased look at statistics comparing the instances of gun violence in western nations will show what this preoccupation with guns and glory has done to the American psych.
The bodies of those children in Newtown should cause America to examine not its laws but its heart. How do we dissuade the mentally unstable from surrendering to the urge to do harm when violence continues to be perpetuated by policy?