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.
Not a hero
7 months ago