Every morning for the past 10 years I have chatted with the retired police chief who sells bus tickets from his truck in a commuter parking lot. Then I board the coach for my trip from Cape Cod to Boston where I teach poetry writing. Ernie is an impressive man, sitting there from 4 a.m. until 9, the window open and his shirt unbuttoned even in winter, when I huddle near his door in a hat and scarf. He advises me on what snow blower to buy, and the proportion of bleach to use when spraying mold off shingles. Growing up in a Queens apartment, and now living a rural life, I welcome his counsel.
Over the years, he’s described his family vacations. In some stories, he’s met an aggressive panhandler in a parking garage, or heard a suspicious knock on his motel door late at night. When he recalls how these incidents were safely resolved, he adds without bravado, “I have ways of protecting myself.”
His words rang in my ears, because I suddenly realized: I have no way of protecting myself.
So when I saw an announcement that the police department of our small town was offering a course in firearms training, a course leading to a gun license, I signed up. This was strictly classroom instruction — no range practice, no firing.
Friends discouraged me, asking what I would do with a gun. One of my colleagues at the college where I teach even cautioned that I had “a bit of a temper.”
The six-hour class met in the basement of the station on a Saturday morning. There were 24 of us, taught by two officers who said there would be a written test at the end. My classmates included six men with shaved heads; two women who told me their husbands wanted to take them hunting; a large man whose arms and neck were covered in blue ink, the owner of the local tattoo parlor; four teenagers who had been left gun collections by their grandparents, and one of those grandparents, a World War II vet who constantly corrected our teachers. (“Why are you calling it a bullet, when a bullet is part of a cartridge?”)
The officers were articulate, patient, and thorough. They displayed a revolver, an automatic, and a shotgun, and took each apart. They prefaced many of their anecdotes with the words, “God forbid…” “God forbid you wake up in the middle of the night and someone has broken into your house….” and “God forbid you come home to find….”
Everyone passed the exam, and the officers presented us with certificates stamped with the police department’s official seal and trimmed in gold.
We were given applications to obtain a License to Carry Firearms, and I applied and was fingerprinted and photographed at the station. A few weeks later, the phone rang and a woman’s lilting voice said, “This is Jackie. Your license to carry is ready.”
Now I had to buy a gun, but before that, learn how to shoot one.
The officers recommended the Powderhorn as a reliable arms shop. Cars in front of the store bore bumper stickers that said “Another Vet Against John Kerry,” and “If It’s Tourist Season, Why Can’t We Shoot Them?”
I asked the owner if he could suggest someone to give me lessons.
“I can,” he said, “It’ll take one lesson. $30. You look like a smart guy.” I must have also looked like a weak guy because he advised me to start lifting a 5-pound dumbbell to strengthen my arm and wrist.
My friends were alarmed. My wife said not to tell our son, who was away at college.
I waited until summer, when school was out, but when summer came, I put it off due to entertaining guests and working in the garden. One day in June, I used a small hand snips to dead-head our many large lilac trees. When I finished, I felt a twinge in my right elbow. At dinner, I couldn’t lift a glass without discomfort. And later that night, just pressing the top of a plastic bottle of insect repellent caused a knife-like pain.
The ache continued, so in the fall I visited an orthopedic doctor who diagnosed tendonitis, or tennis elbow, and said there was nothing to do except wear a splint, and to avoid taxing the arm.
School began and I saw Ernie again when I bought my first commuter book of bus tickets. After discussing our summers, I held up my hand and showed the splint’s black band.
“Snipping lilacs,” I said, and we both laughed.
“There goes your trigger finger,” he said. “Hey, whatever happened with that?”
“I never followed up. Now I can’t even shoot a mosquito with bug spray.”
I was relieved, and I had the feeling he was, too. He had served as one of my references, possibly the reason my license was a Class A, which allows the holder to carry large capacity and concealed.
“You’re probably better off,” he said. “God forbid some guy who spends all his time handling these things takes it away from you. And anyway, don’t they say the pen is mightier than the sword?”
I noticed he said “God forbid,” and I got on the bus, no way of protecting myself, but at least protecting myself from myself. • 17 December 2007