"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

I Was A Member Of The NRA

I was 10 when I was packed off to Camp Wanaweta on Cape Cod.  I hated it.  Sundays were the worst because I had to sit through an evangelical, Bible-thumping service by Pastor Hendricks under the oak trees; and then head off to Catholic Church in Mashpee to suffer through a second hellfire harangue.  By the time I got back, the rest of the camp had gone swimming or played softball, and I was fussy and irritable because I had to be zoot-suited up for an extra two hours, breathe the sweat and whisky fumes of the hung-over tourists who made it to Mass, and miss lunch.  All that was left when I got to the dining hall was a few hot dogs stewing in a nasty, oily, and scummy pot; and gnawed  buns.

I was too fat to be able to haul myself up on the inflated army raft offshore in the lake; too bored with archery, crafts, and singing to be any good at them; and too homesick for my mother’s pasta and baked artichokes to be happy. 

There was only one thing I liked about Camp Wanaweta, and that was riflery.  Once a week we walked out to the cranberry bogs and shot .22s.  I loved shooting and everything about it – the crack of the small-bore, the smell of the cordite, the feel of the shiny spent cartridges, the ease of sliding a greased bullet into the chamber, and squeezing off a round.  The camp was trying to save money, and our allotment of .22s was small, so I took my time, adjusting the rifle stock so it fit perfectly into the crook of my shoulder, perching the muzzle perfectly on my raised arm, adjusting my eye to the sights, relaxing the non-shooting eye and focusing on the target.  There was something very pleasing about that pure moment of concentration, the shot, and the thwack of the bullet in the target.

I kept all my targets and could remember the day and the time that I shot.  I remembered why four bullets had been so tightly clustered that there was a quarter-sized hole in the middle of the center black, but one lone outrider up in the far reaches of the white.  I knew that I had thought of the fat, unctuous pastor; or the smears of mustard on the disgusting apron of the cook; or the cold, rainy days shut in the cabin, and lost my concentration.  But my outriders were few and far between, and I became a very good shot.

Camp Wanaweta was a sponsor of the NRA, so that we were awarded arm patches for our proficiency.  Based on riflery skills, you were classified as a Pro-Marksman, Marksman, Marksman First-Class, Sharpshooter, Expert, or Distinguished Expert. Even as a young kid I easily made it to Sharpshooter, and I proudly displayed my medal, my insignia, and my certificates.  The only reason why I didn’t protest more about dumb, boring, regimented Camp Wanaweta was because of riflery, the cranberry bogs, and my NRA medals.

I hated prep school even more than camp and for the same reasons.  Every Sunday I had to sit through an endless Protestant service and Bible-thumping oratory at chapel, and then truck off to St.Margaret’s Catholic Church in Windsor to hear more sanctimony and sex-fueled obsessive harangues.  The regimentation was far worse than at Camp Wanaweta – we could never leave.  We were interned in dorm cubicles, jumped at first bell, second bell, too-late bell; did obligatory KP duty, scraping slop and half-eaten tuna casserole into disgusting kitchen dumpsters; and were herded into Assembly after Assembly.

Like at Camp Wanaweta, there was one and only one bright light – riflery.  Thanks to my earlier experience and NRA proficiency, I made the rifle team.  This time there were plenty of bullets, travel to away schools for meets, and best of all, practice only took an hour.  No calisthenics, no laps, no pushups, no sweat and showers, just squeezing off 25 rounds at the rifle range.  The experience was even sweeter than at Camp Wanaweta because the range was indoors in a school basement which had been retrofitted for gun lanes, pulleys and wires to push and pull the targets, and great lighting.  The sound of firing echoed in the basement, and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. The best part was shooting down other people’s targets.  The steel armor brace which protected the clip and the attached target was beveled, so if you hit the leading edge just right, the bullet would fragment, cutting down the target in a perfect semi-circle of spattered lead.  You never knew when you would hear the familiar whang!, see the cable holding the brace, clip, and target shake and twist, and see the target float to the floor. 

There were two competitive positions in riflery – ‘Offhand’ which meant shooting standing up; and ‘Prone’, or lying down.  Prone is a lot easier because you can rest your arms and steady the gun, shooting offhand required the shoulder strength to hold the rifle steady until you had lined up, sighted, and fired.  I was good at both. 

The trips to nearby schools were the most fun because we could leave campus.  I always chose to ride with The Pink Whale, the fat Latin teacher who always hummed opera areas, but who had his own car, so I didn’t have to take the school bus.  We arrived, had a short practice session to get used to the new rifle range, shot for an hour or so, and then left. 

The school was also a participating member of the NRA and I rose in the ranks.  I didn’t display my badges, medals, or certificates – riflery was considered a ‘sport’ for dweebs, and the jocks hissed and booed when I went up to get my Varsity letter at the end of the season – but I paid no attention because I loved shooting.

In the summers I used to go to Lake Compounce, an amusement park not far from where I lived, and spend hours and money at the rifle range.  I racked up stuffed animals, cheap plastic trophies, and giant striped lollipops, for I had never lost my talent for tight groupings in the black.  My first few shots were always off-center, but in predictable patterns, so I could compensate for the mickey sight and return to the black.  After a half an hour at the range, I told the guy that I didn’t want any more stuffed animals, and that I would just shoot.

For years after high school I never had a rifle in my hands; until about 30 years later when I was in Copenhagen and visited the Tivoli Gardens. Then, in the early 80s, they were a fanciful, magical place – a mix of grassy park and floral gardens, amusement park, boardwalk, town square, and European plaza…And they had a rifle range.  I remember how excited I was to pick up the gun, slip in the familiarly greased cartridge, sight the target and fire.  I again ran the table, returned all my stuffed animals, and went back the next day.  I still have my targets, and they have the same strong memories as do my photographs.

My parents did not permit BB guns, so I had to shoot my friends’ guns.  It wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as shooting the real thing – pumping an air gun was just not the same as lock-and-load – but plinking squirrels and rabbits was.  We used to creep up to known rabbit holes in the woods behind my house, wait for Peter Rabbit to emerge, plunk him, and watch him hop around in circles.  Only one of my friends had both a .22 and an air rifle.  He lived in a remote house on the far side of Southington Mountain, so his parents let him shoot varmints and rabbits in the woods.  Sammy was a wild man, however, and he and his cousin Val would have actual gun fights.  They did not try to hit each other, but to come as close as possible.  Only once, when Sam’s bullet creased the tree a foot from where Val was standing, showering him with bits of bark, did one of them almost get killed.

So, in all this current fuss about gun ownership, the Second Amendment, and individual rights, I have to admit that I have a soft spot in my heart for the NRA.  It was not the political organization it is now ("I'll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands", said Charlton Heston); but something more like the YMCA, or Stamp Collectors of America.  I belonged to a national organization which sent me mail, and I got badges, certificates, and recognition.  Only when my mother died a few years ago, just short of 100, did I collect and finally chuck my NRA shoulder patches that had been in the drawer of my bureau for 60 years; but I can still vividly see the dank cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, smell the gunpowder, and hear the thwack of the bullets hitting the target. 

3 comments:

  1. So this is why you,re fussy and irritable? Oh yeah blame the guns Ron! I,ve been to Tivoli and sorry, it,s not a gun mecca. Harden up that NRA soft spot in your heart, sr parlato!

    PS hi Peg

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  2. ron, i have 2 camp programs from camp wanaweta in mashpee that appear to be from the 40's by the photo's and the phone # being "garden8-4881"! no dates in the booklets, but they are certainly unusual. any interest? flash300@comcast.net

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  3. The camp director was "Pa" Hicks
    Jeff Kendall, 72 in 2016 - there
    for 3 years in the early 50's

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