Uncontrolled Guns

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Another chapter in the author's memoir: Life After Leukemia

The debate about gun control and the 2nd Amendment continues to rage, and it doesn’t look like it will subside anytime soon. I come from a hunting family, so I stand shoulder-to-shoulder with gun owners, even though I have not hunted in thirty-five years or even own a gun. I will say that proponents on both sides make some good points, and I listen attentively. Predictably, opinions are motivated by politics more than by a desire to solve the problem of guns being used for the wrong reasons by the wrong people.

But I don’t write opinion pieces—I tell stories. And some of my stories happen to be about guns. Now, maybe after reading about my experiences with guns, you’ll decide to sell yours and discontinue your membership in the NRA. That’s your prerogative. These tales are true and no names have been changed, since no one is innocent.

As I said, I come from a hunting family. You might even say I was raised in a hunting town. At the end of October, the woods and fields around our little village were filled with shotgun-toting men and boys looking for rabbits and pheasants, and on the Monday after Thanksgiving, factories were at a fraction of their normal productivity, since most of the male population were elsewhere tracking down a trophy buck.

The shooting stories begin with my dad who, when I was a year old, decided to supplement our food supply by venturing into a field behind his dad’s farm a few days before the official start of hunting season. He kicked out two ring-neck pheasants and shot them both with a single blast. Lest you think this is a tall tale he made up to impress his son, a state game warden witnessed the rare feat, and the lucky shot cost my father seventy-five dollars. I have newspaper clippings to prove it.

When I was about ten years old, an uncle who lived about an hour away came to visit. He was a cool guy, and I never passed up a chance to spend time with him. He wanted to do some target practice with a revolver he had recently bought, so I went with him to try out the new gun. After he shot a dozen or so rounds at old cans and bottles, we were returning to his car when he decided to take a cowboy-style shot at a couple of discarded tires. Instead of penetrating the rubber, the bullet bounced off and hit me on the breast-bone with enough force to knock me on my back. I was wearing a sweat-shirt, so I was not seriously hurt. I was a little dazed and carried a silver-dollar-sized bruise for a few weeks. But I often wonder what kind of life, if any, I would have had if the bullet had hit my head instead of my chest.

When I was about thirteen and a hunter myself, my dad and I did some small-game hunting on a Saturday morning. Afterwards, he left the two shotguns for me to clean on Monday while he was at work. I brought them into the living room so I could talk to my mom, who was sitting in a chair darning socks and watching some television show. Intending to clean and oil his gun first, I picked it up and aimed it just below the TV. While explaining to Mom that I’d love to someday have a gun like this, I squeezed the trigger and fired a shot though the floor! It seems that my dad, who was usually a fanatic about safety, had not completely emptied the gun after we were done hunting, and I, stupidly, had not checked. My mom took the mishap in stride, and my dad took the blame. While there was no way that I would have ever pointed that “empty” gun at her, I was nevertheless haunted by “what-ifs” for many years after.

Fast-forward to 1969 when the Selective Service System conducted a lottery to determine the order of call to military service during the Vietnam War. All men born from 1944 to 1950 were eligible. My birthday number was 339, so with that and a student deferment, I was saved from the draft and signed up with the army reserves that same year. I joined a combat outfit--Company B, 6th of the 68th Armor, to be exact—and on July 23rd, just three days after the first moon landing, I left for that little piece of heaven known as Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Other than homesickness and missing my future bride, I had no problems in the army. I was fairly coordinated, skinny as a rail, knew how to throw a baseball (which is how you toss a grenade, by the way), and could handle weapons. We trained with the M-14, which is nothing more than a souped-up hunting rifle, so I was right at home with it.

The Levan curse with firearms didn’t materialize until I had finished basic training and arrived for advanced tank training. It was here that we began to train with the individual weapons used by a tank crew—the 45-caliber pistol and the 45-caliber machine gun, better known as the grease gun.

The grease gun, aptly named because that’s what it looks like, had a 30-round clip and, compared with other automatic weapons, fired much more slowly. It also had a flaw: there was a small pin that frequently broke, preventing the gun from being fired in short bursts. You guessed it, that’s the one I got my hands on when we went to the range.

In order to qualify, it was required that each man fire five or six bursts at a target 50 yards downrange. Piece of cake. I confidently stepped to the line, and fired the first burst. The gun immediately began to empty the clip—something I wasn’t expecting--which put me into a momentary panic. Even though I kept the gun pointed downrange, in my confusion I lowered it a bit and it was now firing ten yards in front of me. Within seconds, one of the cadre, eyeballs and neck veins bulging, was inches from my face questioning my IQ, my ancestry, and even my gender, all the while spewing spit and invectives that I’ve never been able to share in polite company.

As I was pleading my innocence, he was already grabbing another clip. “You better damn well be right!” was all he said as he slammed the clip in. Of course, the same thing happened when he fired at the target, but I was much too smart to say “I told you so.” I didn’t expect an apology from him, and he didn’t disappoint me.

My last gun-related episode has nothing to do with handguns, shotguns, or rifles, so I probably shouldn’t include it here. But it scared me every bit as much as any of the other incidents and involved a much more dangerous weapon—the 90 millimeter main gun on the tank. Here’s the scoop:

We were at Fort Drum, NY for our annual two-week training. One evening our tanks were on line for target practice. They parked old half-tracks, trucks, and personnel carriers at the base of a mountain and allowed us to blow them apart. Even the most fervent gun-control advocate could not help having a good time doing this. This old equipment was about a half mile away, and you could watch the huge tracer reach its target. So much fun, and no chance of anyone getting hurt. Especially here. Not only was there a mountain behind the targets, but another higher mountain was behind that one to add extra safety.

Sighting in on a target is mostly computerized. You look through the sights and see two images, crank a knob until they come together, and move the turret right or left to center the target. Easy as child’s play…except when the computer malfunctions and the gun is elevated to fire five miles instead of a half mile. We fired and watched in horror as the tracer disappeared over that second mountain. One of the crew members yelled “Holy s**t!!” We had no idea what was beyond that mountain. Later, some wise guy from another tank claimed he had it on good authority that there was a town in that direction.

It was my duty to tell our company commander, Major George Mack, what just went down. His eyes got bigger, but he remained calm. He just mouthed the words “Two mountains?” and shook his head. That round may have landed harmlessly or it might have destroyed some poor farmer’s barn, which he probably blamed on a meteorite, since there were never any reports of casualties or damages from any of the nearby towns.

Well, these are my gun stories. No commentary needed. As I said, I don’t own a gun right now, but I’ve been giving some consideration to keeping a Glock around the house. Not so much for protection, but there’s this fat-assed groundhog that lives behind our garage and feeds on my tomato plants…

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