Friday, March 14, 2008

On Dewey Whitwell's Knee, I Consider My Second Amendment Rights

Back then an eight-year-old girl not quite at home in a starched cotton dress with a grosgrain sash could climb into the evangelist's lap in the parsonage after the revival meeting, and nobody'd think anything of it. He had Necco wafers in his pants pocket and he handed me a couple and I took them, not my favorite candy but not bad either– such mild chocolate you had to think about it, secular host, dry powder on my tongue, tasting, before the chocolate kicked in, faintly of shoe polish and copper pennies, the stuff in his pockets. He was a robust man with red cheeks and a ready smile, a special guest, and my parents encouraged me to sit on his lap, his preacher suit pants scratching the backs of my thighs. Somehow we got it together, where I'd put my arms, shyly, one around his shoulder, and I can't remember where he put his arms, but it was proper and even a bit absent-minded. He seemed tired after his rousing sermon: being a traveling evangelist was hard work. I got the feeling my parents wanted me to be nice to him to make up for his daughter, just a year or two older than me, who was back home in Tennessee. Memory fails: let's call her Missy. Maybe he'd like to have a little girl sit on his lap to remind him of Missy, so he wouldn't feel so lonely so far away from home.

So I perched there, balanced on his shiny serge lap, and he told me about Missy, blonde curly headed Missy, and how he and Missy liked to do a lot of things together, how one thing they liked to do was go out hunting. Did you ever go hunting, honey? I think even a girl should know her way around a gun. My Missy has her own gun, he said. I gave it to her, a little .22. How he missed walking out into the woods together with her and coming back with a rabbit or two, he said, one that Missy might have shot herself, with Dewey Whitwell's help, of course. A little girl with her own gun? It astounded me. “I'm proud of that little girl,” Dewey Whitwell said as I cast my eyes downward and imagined.

Where were my parents, people horrified of the gun, not far removed from Quaker forebears who refused to have anything to do with killing? Was my mother in the kitchen regretting that gentle instinct to offer Dewey Whitwell my little substitute childlike love? “He's not like us,” she might have whispered, biting her lip, upbraiding herself for setting me up. But it was too late – there I already sat, transfixed on Dewey Whitwell's knee, imagining me in Missy's place, brandishing my own little private weaponry, placed in my pink and eager hands by Daddy Dewey, God's hearty messenger to half the Protestant Midwest. Me walking hand and hand through the Tennessee woods, the TVA booming not far away, the squirrels and rabbits dashing right into our sights. My hand in Dewey's, both of us in flannel jackets, my blue jeans rolled up...Dewey would have taught me how to walk as still as an Indian through the underbrush, and he would have whispered don't make a sound. The cinnamon air, the sweet swampy air – we'd appreciate it all together. I coveted what Missy knew.

Then the story about Missy was over and Dewey Whitwell kind of woke up and looked at who was sitting in his lap, and I was pretty sure he was disappointed to see that it was me, a poor substitute, a plain Ohio girl with straight brown hair in her scratchy church dress, a little girl who read Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins, a little girl who'd never held a gun and whose father felt really bad when he sliced through a snake with his riding mower. Oh, the glamorous Missy, whom I would never be. My embarrassment, my humiliating inadequacy stung: I didn't add up to Missy. Missy with her .22 and her daddy and hushpuppies and rabbit stew out on the porch and men playing banjos at night, Missy picking the chiggers off her blue jeans and accepting Daddy Dewey's praise for her steady hand and silent step. But most of all, I envied Missy's gun.

Fifty years later, after Malcolm X, and after Medger Evers, after Kent State and Jackson State and JFK and MLK and RFK, after Marvin Gaye and John Lennon and Vietnam and Iraq, the world and I have traveled a long, long way from Missy's gun. I'm sitting in conference with an earnest kid whose paper exhorts the government to “stop controlling guns." I listen with weary and conscious pretend dispassion as he says, “really, if teachers had guns maybe Virginia Tech never would have happened. And maybe not NIU either. If teachers just had guns.” He looks at me again as I say nothing. “It's your Second Amendment right,” he says.

I avoid eye contact, taking a breath. “Look at me, young man,” I say. “Do you really want me walking into class with, say, a holster and a six-shooter?” I quickly smile – but I really don't want to make fun of him. This is serious. He smiles wanly back, sure, I suspect, I'm about to launch into proof I'm one of those college liberals. But I don't.

What he doesn't know is that once I sat on Dewey Whitwell's knee, and wanted Missy's gun so badly I wanted out of my own life, and that back then walking in the woods and taking aim at other creatures and bringing them home for dinner was somehow tied to "God's plan" for my life, yet something wild and brave and big, something related to staying out of the eternal fires of hell. Having my own gun and walking in the woods with Dewey Whitwell, "God's plan"– it seemed to be my right, my destiny. But as I was about to learn, my mother the heretic still fretting behind the kitchen door, claiming my Second Amendment rights was one of God's plans, one of many of God's plans, that would thankfully elude me.


Therevf said...

My brother found your blog and pointed me to it. Dewey Whitwell was my grandfather, and "Missy" (not her real name) is my mother! I don't know what happened to the .22 but I do have Missy's 20 Guage Shotgun, obviously what she used when she was older! Hunting with my granfather and his beagel's was something far removed from Vietnam and VT... Pastor Scott

Macy Swain said...

Hi, Pastor Scott. Yes, I do understand that it matters to distinguish between the killings of Vietnam and hunting for food. As I'm hearing from you and your brother, it strikes me that this is one of the complications of the discussion about "Second Amendment Rights" -- some, like your grandfather, behaved with respect and used what they caught to feed a family. It's the widespread, and often thoughtless, proliferation of guns that disturbs me, and I hope my little homily here does not in any way imply that your grandfather's use of guns is like Virginia Tech. I'm trying to capture something about my own attitudes as a child: my own despair as deaths-by-guns has grown over the years, and I now live in one of the most violent cities in America, where very few people use their guns to feed their families. I understand your grandfather was a beekeeper, too, a skillful and reverent steward of the land. If we were all like your grandfather, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in. Thank you so much for writing in.

Anonymous said...

I'm your "Missy" and I did treasure my gun. It is a 20 guage and does now reside in TX with my son. I loved the time spent with my Father as he taught me to hunt and fish but would have been envious of the time you had sitting upon his knees. He was not at home very much during my knee sitting age. Thank you for this look into a wonderful part of my life and for filling a void in my Father's life.

Macy Swain said...

Wow. Thank you so much for this. I guess we all get what we get. I thought about not using your father's actual name, since in memory so much is unreliable, but I'm glad I did. Otherwise I would have missed hearing from you and your sons. It's nice to think that however we experienced your father, he lives on in each of us. I feel lucky that I got to know him, even a little bit. Our yearly revival meetings were also very memorable, very emotional, and at Canton Calvary, as I recall, quite well attended. Of course this was before American Idol and March Madness, etc. etc. The spring revival was, as I recall it, considered something of a spiritual tonic. Anyway, you can see that your father left an impression on me. What did you hunt? Would it be okay with you if I changed the reference to the gun in my entry to 20-gauge so that it would be accurate?

Anonymous said...

I have just talked with my son who originally contacted you. We are all so excited and so glad that you did not change the title. You may change the gun to 20 guage if you want to. We had Beagle Hounds and hunted for what Dad called Swamp rabbits. They were quite large and I must admit that I enjoyed listening to the dogs run as much as anything. Lunch was also fun as it would consist of Vienna Sausages, cheese and Fig Newtons. Yes, I well remember the revival meetings but must admit that I now hurry home to watch "Idol" and Dancing with the Stars. I also inherited a love for sports, especially football. Thank you again for remembering Dad. I am going to look through his scrapbook to see if he kept a bulletin from your Father's church.

Therevf said...

I love your story, you have it for your reason of expression of your thoughts about guns, and for us it brought back fond memories! I also think it is interesting, I still have my mother's gun, though I don't recall it being shot since I was in High School over twenty-eight years ago! Probably shot a rabbit!

I served in Desert Storm, but I have longed for us to leave Iraq and for our sons and daughters to all come home!

My grandfather, Dewey, was a tremendous evangelist, who didn't believe in card playing, bowling, or even the movies! Beyond sports and hunting I don't know that he had a vice in the world.

I recall a past-time of his, putting the truck engine in neutral at the crest of the mountain and seeing how far the truck would travel!

Thanks for sharing your memory, so that it would stir up ours!