It was May 11, 1967. My father drove from Rochester, NY to Johnstown, NY to visit. He picked me up and we drove to Amsterdam which was nine miles away. We parked in the lot next to a store that was very small but packed with stuff and I had been there before. I don’t remember the name of the store; we just referred to it by the owner’s name, Vito’s. We walked in.
“Hey Vito!” “Hey John!” That was always the exchange upon entry. They always said the same thing and shook hands with gusto. I usually said “Hi Vito” but today I was uncharacteristically silent. I knew we were there for business and I was hoping it concerned me. I was not going to say a word. Too risky: it could jinx the whole trip.
My father pointed to something hanging on the wall behind the counter. “That’s the one” my dad said, Vito repeated “That’s the one” and took it off the wall and put it in its original box. My father paid him then said “See ya Vito, thanks!” Vito replied “See ya John, thanks!” Then we walked outside.
Ten steps or so from Vito’s front door and about halfway to the car my father, so unbelievably happy, did what I could have only thought impossible if not completely and utterly improbably. He handed me the box and said “Happy birthday, son!”
It was the day before my eighth birthday and I now had my own BB gun. (This is my rifle. There are many like it but this one is mine.) It was profound on many levels. First, I was still technically 7 years old and to me, on the eve of my birth, there were only two age groups: 0-7 and 8-100 so I was a still a kid and my dad thought a lot of me to give me a gun. Second, I was a gun owner. I joined the league of extraordinary gentlemen I read about in Sports Afield (the doctor up the road would let me have his old magazines).
That meant at any time Jack O’Connor could invite me over for brandy and we would talk guns — him about his, and me about mine. Third, I was in third grade at the time and could look upon my peers as mere children and that Mrs. Hugg, our teacher, probably didn’t have a BB gun so she was somehow now a bit of an equal. Yes she could teach, but I could hunt. Fourth, I was keeping this masterpiece of steel and plastic. I knew it. No matter what mom said.
“Oh my God. What will mom say?” I wasn’t even going to bring it up with dad. We were too having too much man fun for me to discuss the women folk. Anyway, on the eve of your eighth birthday you understand you gotta do what you gotta do. Face the potential taker of BB guns head on — if it were to be a showdown, I vowed I would not be the one to blink.
My father dropped me off in front of the house. Two choices were mine. Hide my Daisy under the porch or walk in like I owned the place. This was the defining moment of my young life and I chose the latter. You can’t sleep with your gun if it is under the porch.
Me, “Dad got me a BB gun.” Mom, “OK, just don’t shoot it inside.” That meant — at least — I could shoot it and it was staying with me.
Six months or so pass and I was still a one-gun kid but that was about to change. I don’t remember who’s basement I was in exactly but it was damp and dark. Buried in a pile I saw the butt of a gun. I pulled it out and it was busted up pretty good: screws out of the stock so that it barely hung on and it did not have any guts. Guts is the thing that goes in the barrel that actually enables the BB to shoot. I have no idea what the real name is for that part to this day. I asked if I could have the gun and — miraculously — it was suddenly mine.
Somehow shortly thereafter, which is proof of divine intervention, I found some guts for the gun. I can remember seeing them on a table but don’t remember where the table was but I do know it was another basement. I asked if I could have the guts and it was given to me. I now had two guns.
The guts stuck out of the barrel by a few inches. The gun shot about four inches low at twenty feet. But — and this was the most important part — I had repaired it with a variety of parts from a variety of places so it qualified as a custom gun. Now if ever Jack O’Connor invited me over for brandy we could talk custom guns — him about his and me about mine.
On May 12, 1969 — another really good day — I received another BB gun for my birthday. It was a Daisy Model 25, a pump action gun. Now I have guns with multiple actions and 2 years of shooting under my belt. It was time to venture from behind the house and into the mountains where a man of my experience belonged.
To get to the mountains you have to walk through town and people will see you. Johnstown, NY was a town of Italian, German, Czech & Slovak immigrants. Almost all the old folks spoke with an accent. I can’t tell you how good the food was no matter who you visited. So me and my pump gun walked down the sidewalk.
Soon an old woman was shouting at me from her front porch. ‘Hey Mika, you come-a here now, come-a hear now.” I did, I went over to her. She pulled me by the shirt and into her back yard and told me to stand there. She gave me instructions to stay there and shoot something, her accent made it hard to understand but she was clear I was to shoot something. She ran and grabbed a broom off her back porch and went inside. I could see her through an open window on her second floor and she began banging the ceiling with her broom. Then red squirrels came running out the vent to her attic! I was there to shoot red squirrels. Holy cow! I’m not in trouble — I’m a hired gun!
The word spread. Then more old ladies shouted to me from their front porches and stood me in their back yards to shoot red squirrels that invaded their attics. Then the cold Adirondack winters came bringing with them enormous icicles that loomed and promised death from above if they dropped on an unsuspecting passer-by. Then people asked me to shoot the icicles from their roofs and rain gutters as I walked to the mountains with my BB gun.
It was a new stage of life. I was not to be feared, or despised because I had a gun. I was an asset, a resource, something that saved attic wires from being chewed and heads from icicles. A kid with a gun walking by was something everyone wanted.
I hope long from now some kid with a BB gun grows up to write hunting stories and writes his tale of how people liked kids with guns. Give a kid a BB gun instead of a video game. It will change his or her life for the better.