The last available parking spot on a winter’s Monday evening was accessible only by sucking in the Jeep’s gut and squeezing in next to a steroidally muscled-out pickup truck embellished with a “gut deer” bumper sticker, in the recognizable design and typeface of the popular American milk ads of our time.

Fortunately, tight spots are a speciality in these parts.

The Bataan Death March from the Jeep to the building offered similar back-bumpered aphorisms: If It Flies, It Dies.  When You Only Have Seconds, the Cops Will Be There in Minutes.  This Vehicle Protected by the Second Amendment.  You Can Keep The “Change”: McCain Palin ’08.

Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.

Surely I’m not the only one wondering what I’m doing here.

The class was held inside the back warehouse of the rural power company, conducted over a backdrop of road signs and coils of cable.  We pulled Church-bingo style folding chairs off a cart and squeezed in to the semicircle formed by a hundred other chairs, all occupied with others from our region interested in obtaining a hunting license, the prerequisite for which was attendance and completion of this, a state-sponsored and volunteer-led weeklong hunting safety course.

I’m new in town and only here part of the time, and as such, haven’t yet managed to chisel away at the insularity.   I reek of city, evidently, and as I’ve since learned, country people have singular olfactory talents.  I don’t know how; I’m as filth-drenched as the best of them, and even more tattered, but they can spot me.

It’s the brain thing that shows up not unlike stigmata, or a ruddy breastpocketed letter A, or a lightning-bolted forehead:  I’m the sucker in the room whose attendance was spawned from a mental red alert thanks to the coupling of the words “free” and “class” in a flyer at the village supermarket.  They’re here for the promise of flesh between their teeth.

A disclaimer: I have no personal interest in hunting.  I don’t even eat meat (though not for sanctimonious reasons, so rest assured mine isn’t the voice of a PETA-inspired candid camera games of gotcha.  Let’s leave it at “you eat what you want and I’ll do the same”), and am the sadly self-admitted sort of animal person who coos at goats and rains from the eyes at the sight of limping birds.

But it seems a civic duty to know what’s legitimate running-around-armed-in-the-woods behavior and what’s not.  One doesn’t have to participate in an activity to be curious about it.  Which is closer to the real reason I’m here, a reason that doesn’t wave its hands in front of the old noodle until it has gone all the way down Retrospect Way. I’m fresh off a passel of catastrophe reading, book after book of environmental disaster and economic collapse, and it’s evidently started to weigh on me: if it should ever come to pass that I’m shooting raccoons to feed myself, I wanted to be licensed to do so.    Because, of course, when calamities collide and we’re left making raccoon stew for basic subsistence, the only enforceable civil servants will be the game wardens, checking stamps on one’s license.

Give me a break: I’m vegetarian and taking a class to get a hunting license; logic needn’t apply.

But let’s drift back to the class: the semicircle’s chairs are occupied by a surprisingly diverse group of people, when judged along broad strokes of gender and age.  An ardent boy of six-or-so is barely contained in his front-row seat, continually up and admiring the collection of long guns on display at a front table.  The backs of the chairs immediately in front of me are embellished with pink thongs that barely protrude through, attached to freshly graduated nyphettes, in their early twenties accompanying men much older, but about whom much more can hardly be said, because any reasonable mind (of any sexual orientation) positioned in bird’s eye view of pink thongs stays with the pink thongs.

The man in charge, introducing himself as Eric, has made one singular point obvious, if not by his brilliant orange vest, then by his proud and exclusive handling of the terrifying-sized arsenal at the front table.  Before beginning the class, before even introducing himself, he explains the one rule of the assembly:

“Whenever I say “What’s the Name of the Game?” no matter what’s going on, no matter who’s talking, no matter if I’m in the middle of a sentence, you’re to stand up in your place and shout, as loud as you can, “Muzzle Control!”  Let’s try it.”

He tries it.  I remain seated, obdurately, which goes unnoticed (thankfully).

For those unfamiliar with the patois: “muzzle control” refers here to the concept of never pointing your gun at anything you’re not willing to fill with lead.  Which sounds obvious, until you go hunting with the likes of Dick Cheney or actually try to handle a gun.  You might try it with a stick: pick one up and pretend it’s a gun– go ahead, nobody’s around to politically judge you.  Then walk around with it, put it down and pick it back up, pretend to load it, or clean it.  It can be difficult not to inadvertently let its barrel point right at the dog, the radiator, or the ceiling upstairs and the people dwelling in the apartment above it.  As such, the whole “muzzle control” principle is drilled-in early and often, and is generally accepted as the most important rule in any firearms safety training.  Which is why reducing it to a cheer seems offensive, if not fatal.

Again he shouts: What’s the Name of the Game?

I remain seated.

He assures us, for the first of what will be many times this week, that if we just follow his lead, we will all score 100% on the test to be administered at the end of the week, and we will all be certified to hunt this state’s woods just in time for deer season.

“Now, who here keeps a loaded weapon in their house?”  A few scattered and enthusiastic hands shoot up, before Eric’s resulting scowl sends them to discover sudden itches, stretches, and other more reticent gesticulations.  “There is absolutely no need to keep a loaded weapon in the home.”  For once, I’m starting to think this guy and I might be of like minds about something, a sensation so welcome that I have to reach up and stop my pupils from dilating to a place far beyond my head.  But he continues:  “here’s why you don’t keep loaded guns in the home.  Let’s say you leave your firearm lying around loaded.  And let’s say your wife, or your girlfriend, or your mother, comes in to do some cleaning, and pulls out her dust cloth to dust off your gun for you.  What might happen, if she’s doing a good job dusting your loaded gun, really getting into the finer spots, and reaches into the trigger guard?”

There are moments whose better endings, when mentally replayed, seem obvious to script, moments whose actual existence is an embarrassment on reflection.  Instead of standing up as a resident loudmouthed gender equality advocate speaking on behalf of half the room’s population, I was, shamefully, caught in the headlights.  Gutted and field dressed in disbelief that this attitude could still be present, much less vocalized, much less vocalized by an authority and representative of the state.  There were probably not a few lachrymal events due to the surprise, and probably no small amount of fidgeting, and not much else is remembered of that night, other than the ways in which I might’ve handled it better.

At the next evening’s class, which I attended only out of pure petulance, the gun table was fully loaded and covered with a new arsenal.  Eric began right away, spending thirty minutes presenting a piece from his collection and asking the group to guess what sort of action the gun possessed.  Again for those for whom this language is foreign: the “action” is the mechanism by which rounds are loaded into a chamber.  It’s either the Terminator or Rambo movies where a movable part is on the barrel of the gun is shoved back and forth to chamber a round, and instead of holding the firearm still and pushing/depressing a pump, Terminator/Rambo holds the movable part and shakes the gun in a cinematic display of bravado?  This is a “pump” action.  The kind where you break the barrel at a 90-ish degree angle with the stock of the gun and the shell pops out (and if you’re me, hits you in the forehead 75% of the time?)  This is a break action.  There’s a bolt action, with a little bolt which, when turned and slid back, extracts a spent shell and allows you to load a new one (n.b. snipers in the old war movies, if memory serves), before turning and sliding again.  Eric’s display includes lever actions as well, and a few that resemble those found in battered old mafia photos from 1940s Chicago.

There are others.  Handguns have revolvers and semi-automatic guns have other mechanisms.  Tanks have whatever tanks have.   But deer aren’t hunted with tanks, so Eric went on and on, with the same wormy six-year-old in the front row jumping out of his seat and his skin to answer (and get a closer look at) every piece presented.  I wasn’t sure why being able to identify a specific type of action on a foreign firearm was important to being able to safely kill a deer, but given that I don’t plan to kill a deer, it’s not a problem I had to solve.  The best scenario I could imagine was something like this: I’m walking through the forest in the off-season.  The Bad Guys here are engaging in some poaching-type activity (by rote, see, since it’s the off-season), and I’m going to be Rambo, or the Terminator, or better, Ellen Ripley.  So the bad poacher empties his load into the woods, and I have to somersault, caterwauling off a tree branch and landing with a foot to his head in a go-to-jail blow to his consciousness.  Now, I can’t do this unless I know what his hands are up to during the re-chambering process, which I’ll only know if I can identify the action on his gun,  So it may not help me with the deer hunting I’ll never do, but my good Samaritan side has to know this stuff.  Fine by me.  I’ll learn it with the six-year-old, but without his enthusiasm.  Unfortunately, none of the firearms on display are poison dart guns, so this kid keeps at it.

This, as it happens, is how every night’s first half of time is killed.  There’s a different spread of weapons presented every day, and it’s not unlike spending a week with a professional chef and ingredients of your fridge; god knows how he thought to spice things up using the same hunk of moldy cheddar that’s been in there for six months, but it’s different every day, and by the end of the week, I know what to look for to spot a bolt or a pump, and my visions of saving the world from evil poachers now involve a full gymnastic swing on the tree branch followed by a full-twisting dismount before delivering the knockout kick (identifying the action so effortlessly buys me the time for such physical ostentacity).

The second half of each evening’s class is Movie Time.  If you took a driver’s education class in the US in the 1980s or 1990s, you likely were subjected to one of life’s most sadistic of cinematic experiences.  The firearms safety analogue isn’t much different.  In one example, a pair of adolescent pals (boys, of course) enters the woods to shoot cans with their father’s rifle, which they’ve of course appropriated without his knowledge.  We all know how it ends (and for those who don’t, one kid never returns from the woods Unleaded, as it were.  Never.), but we, Eric’s class, are meant to shout out at will the behavior that gets them into trouble:  they should never travel into the woods without adults knowing what they’re doing!  When walking through the woods, the carrier should always keep the Muzzle Controlled!  One shouldn’t have his finger (yes, his) inside the trigger guard, until ready to fire!  Just Say No (rather, if one is not comfortable with one’s situation, graceful backing down can be done (without feelings of emasculation))!    Just because it sounds like a turkey, it doesn’t mean it is a turkey!

The next night, a different movie but the same:  One shouldn’t drink beer while hunting!  One should respect a property owner’s “posted” signs!  One shouldn’t go hunting in a group so large that one cannot possibly maintain a line-of-sight on a target without also being within line-of-sight of fellow hunters (the Cheney problem?)  Ad ridiculaneum!

We suffer through a week of this, and it’s a week whose daily trips to the class are immediately followed by trips to the warmly obliterative bar, and you only have to make it from Monday to Friday for a state-sanctioned test to be administered, and for the entire ordeal to be behind you for life.  And, as is wont to happen, Friday does come, eventually.  And with it, test day.

The test, we’re told, is multiple choice.

The innately, almost uncannily adept test-taker in me, at this news, knows that this will be about as challenging as operating a new toothbrush.  But the subsequent enumeration resulted in what was hopefully not too audible of a wince:

“I’m going to administer this test a little different than what you’re used to.  I’m not going to be biased against those who don’t do well in testing situations.  Or those who can’t read.  There are a hundred questions on the test, and a hundred of you.  Now, we’re going to go around the circle, row by row.  I’ll read the questions and possible answers, and when it’s your turn, you tell me the answer.  And if you’re wrong, the class will correct you.  We’ll do this together, as a team.  That’s how hunting is done safely: when the group works together.  Do you understand?”

A sample question (recalled, admittedly, from memory, and maybe ever-so-slightly exaggerated for the sake of anecdote): “Your gun is jammed up and you’re not sure why.  Do you: A) first open the action to see if a cartridge dislodges, B) Shake it, or C) look down the barrel?”

And on it went, snaking through the rows amongst the literate and the not-so-literate.  On the rare occasion an incorrect answer was supplied, the group collectively groaned in the Amateur Night at the Apollo style, prompting immediate corrections until, as predicted, every last person in the room had one hundred correctly placed circles on one hundred choice answers.  And with that, we were told to keep our exam papers for future reference.  Participants under the voting age were given one final task: to deliver themselves to the local rock quarry the next morning and prove themselves capable of safely shooting a .22 caliber rifle without forgetting The Name of the Game.  Those of us who’d seen a few election cycles were promptly plied with Certificates of Completion and sent on our respective ways.  Bumper stickers were not distributed along with Certificates, a final blow.

Re-entering the world as license-ready hunters and huntresses, it was hard to miss the sight of the garbage can just teeming over with freshly discarded exam papers.  “Future reference” as exhibited here would have to be had in the continued hosanna for Muzzle Control.  But when Wild Boca season comes around, I’ll be ready.

___________________________________________________________

Miette Elm purrs through the world’s finest works of short fiction as creator and host of Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast (www.miettecast.com). With a distinctive lilt whose origins are best described as the result of continental drift, Miette began narrating books as a way to get under the hood of great writing to see how it’s made.

Sometimes, she’s also a writer.

 

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