America’s Gun Myth

Ad for Daisy air rifle, c. 1968.

Columbine. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. The names of the schools where shootings have occurred ring out in a frightening, familiar litany. Some remain in the public consciousness for years. Other fade from memory as soon as the news cameras and microphones are put away.

Twenty years ago, my own district became the site of one such shooting. Edinboro, PA. Late April, 1998. I was a high school senior set to graduate in a few weeks’ time, and had spent the day with classmates on a field trip to Toronto. We visited the CN Tower and felt the thrill of vertigo standing on its glass floor, and cracked jokes about receiving Canadian currency in change after lunching at a nearby McDonalds. I toured the Ontario Science Centre with a group of friends and marveled at the tiny poison frogs, preternaturally bright, in the rainforest exhibition. We chattered on the four-hour bus ride back, arriving back in Edinboro shortly before midnight. And we returned to our homes and went to sleep, not knowing that our quiet college town had just become a bellwether for a horrifying trend of shootings that would only grow more nightmarish in the coming years.

I learned the news early the following morning. Four people had been shot, one fatally. The casualties included my middle school science teacher Mr. Gillette, a tall, blue-eyed former football coach. He was only in his 40s, but his balding head made him appear older, at least to my teenage eyes. He and I had a good relationship, once talking about geodes and minerals after class following my family’s trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And now Mr. Gillette was dead.

I remember walking out to the backyard in shock.  It was a beautiful spring day, bright and warm, with white clouds drifting in the sky. I sat in a hammock and looked at robins hopping on the tree branches, wondering how the world went on, how nature could be so oblivious to the fact that my entire town had been rocked off of its axis.

As the weekend passed there were vigils and songs and candles and prayers. Come Monday, we returned to school. I walked a media gauntlet every step along the sidewalk from the parking lot to the school entrance, a gauntlet now lined with news vans and cameras and reporters from the local newspapers all the way up to national networks. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel like “news.” I felt only sad, confused, invaded. And pissed off.

We weren’t headlines. We were kids.

At home, I saw my town and the story of what became known as the “Parker Middle School shooting” surreally played out on CNN and other outlets. It quickly grew into a repeated narrative: a 14-year-old loner named Andy Wurst had taken his father’s gun, entered the venue where the off-campus dance was being held, and shot Mr. Gillette on the patio. He then opened fire on his 8th grade classmates before running out of the building into a nearby cornfield. The venue’s owner, armed with a shotgun, gave chase and Andy was taken into police custody. He remains in prison today.

Lake Edinboro. Edinboro, PA.

Eventually the reporters and their ever-present cameras went away, and I was relieved. While the media was present, they had a wildly distorting effect on everyday life. The story they told about the place I lived wasn’t one I could recognize.  I’d grown up a free range kid, riding bikes with friends across town and spending hours playing imaginary games in a nearby woods. My parents hardly ever locked their doors. Violent crimes were practically unknown. And yet, overnight, home had seemingly become a place where previously unconceivable violence could – and had – occurred.

Too many other American towns have shared in this experience. Too many other students have lost classmates, friends, teachers. Too many other children haven’t lived to see their high school graduation.

I am angry. I am angrier now than I was 20 years ago. Because we have seen this. Again and again and again. And again. We grope for ways to explain it, for ways we can assure ourselves that every time will be the last time. All too often, the answer is another gun. We create the myth of escaping death by becoming capable of inflicting it. This myth has long, insidious roots.

Because didn’t guns win the West? Didn’t the American Revolution start with “the shot heard ‘round the world”? Isn’t the “right to bear arms” as unalienable as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The fact is – for anyone who still cares for facts – guns remained exceptionally rare for America’s first decades. Gunsmiths were few and far between, as only a small number of settlers could afford firearms. Guns were expensive and time-consuming to make. Many components, including gunpowder, had to be imported from England, as colonists lacked the means to produce these materials themselves. During the War for Independence, American forces relied heavily on shipments of French muskets. After the war, American-produced guns remained modest in number; the Hawkens brothers, a well-known pair of St. Louis gunsmiths, employed a dozen men and even then they were only able to make about a hundred rifles a year.  The U.S. government itself shied away from encouraging new gun manufacture well into the mid-1800s. For years after the Civil War, Springfield was stuck using leftover parts from Civil War-era weapons in the rifles that it produced for the U.S. Army. And Army brass frowned upon weapons capable of rapid fire. Bullets cost money, and officers worried that trigger-happy soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

But as American gun production became easier, cheaper, and faster, companies skillfully manufactured a need for guns along with the guns themselves. Advertisements presented firearms in all manner of alluring guises, from the hallmark of gentleman shooter, to a reliable form of home defense, and even as a stylish accessory for fashionable women. During the 1880s and 1890s, manufacturers targeted female buyers with illustrations of attractive, corseted ladies engaged in hunting or sport shooting with “suitable” (i.e. small caliber) rifles. These chic women frequently appeared surrounded by admiring men as well as other quarry. Simultaneously, Colt marketed revolvers toward nascent police forces in America’s larger cities. (In those days, many police officers furnished their own weapons.) The grips of Colt’s 1888 “New Police Single Action Five-Shot Revolving Pistols” are decorated with an image of a uniformed policeman. The officer is drawing a gun against an assailant. His assailant is brandishing a knife.

But what sells guns better than fear? Guns have promised protection against everything from burglars to vagrants to attacking grizzlies. Now some of us look to guns to protect us against school shootings. I believe such hopes will be disappointed. Rather, they indicate the dangers of when inherited beliefs go unquestioned.

Guns did not build America. And I’m convinced that more guns will not save it. Only courage and change will do that. Courage to question and challenge the status quo, as the students from Parkland have been doing. And change that is abysmally overdue – change in our worldview, change in our policies, change in the way we look at guns. Some myths we need to let die.

References:

Douglas C. McChristian. The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK, 1995. p. 107

Laura Browder. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006. pp. 3 -7.

Colt’s Military and Sporting Arms, 1888. Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Autry National Center, Museum for the American West. Object ID 87.118.167.

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Where I’ve Been: A Writing Roundup

Photo by Penny Shaut. http://pennyshaut.com/

 Howdy folks! Quite a lot has happened since last summer’s cattle drive. I’ve moved, gotten married, adopted a cat (and a dog), and yes, I’ve been writing. Here is a quick rundown of links to recent articles and blog posts.

Roadtripping With the King James Bible

During my famous road trip of 2010, which was the instigation for this blog, I carried along a Victorian-era copy of the King James Bible. I wanted a book that had actually existed during the heyday of the American West, and after a lot of searching, I finally found one. I wrote about my “heirloom” for Manifold Greatness, a blog that correlates to an NEH-sponsored exhibition on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible.

Buck Taylor, the Original Cowboy Hero 

The figure of Buck Taylor, one of the stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, continues to intrigue me long after I returned from the West. I did a quick post on Buck for my friend Ken Ackerman’s blog, Viral History.

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of American Cowboy magazine. I spent five days driving cattle through the Nevada desert, listening to coyotes howl at night and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes during the day. It was fantastic!

Food from the Age of Shakespeare

I like cooking and eating just as much as I enjoy history and pop culture. When I got a chance to blend the two in an article for Smithsonian, I couldn’t wait! This article chronicles my experiences preparing 17th-century recipes, which have no measurements, cooking times, or temperatures. Amazingly, they were edible.

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Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference.

Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives.

They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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The Odyssey

Sunset near Bozeman, MT.

Although I never left America, I feel a hint of culture shock coming back to the East. Yesterday I reached the fields and rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and am spending the day in my hometown before heading back to Washington, DC tomorrow. It feels fitting to be back here in the original frontier west of the Appalachians. Time for some reckoning up.

I didn’t expect to see a pair of cowboy boots made for a child in the 1860s, or George Armstrong Custer’s toothbrush, or the letter James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok wrote to his wife Agnes just three weeks before his death in Deadwood (“We will have A home yet then we will be so happy I am all most shure I will do well here.”] The chair that he died in is still on display at the second iteration of the No. 10 Saloon.

I didn’t think my dad would get pumped when I dropped in Janis Joplins’ greatest hits and that he’d turn it up so we’d both be singing along to “Bobby McGee.” I laughed when I saw how the grasshoppers really do plague South Dakota (just like in the Little House On the Prairie books), and not even incessent Mexican ranchera music at 2am at a campground outside of Dodge City was enough to make me forget how scattered and beautiful the stars were that night.

Coming soon will be a photo montage or some sort of denoument. For now, it’s doing laundry, folding maps, and wondering how often I can get away with wearing my own boots in DC.

PS Photo is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer’s Odyssey. This is what the sky looked like the first night I got to Bozeman.

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Behind Cowboys and Soldiers

So I’ve spent the last three nights camped out near Bozeman, MT. Montana was the American end of the old cattle trails up from Texas, and those routes have been the basis for my northward drive over the past week. Along the way I’ve been diving into the past backwards, reading accounts written by the men themselves of life along the trail.

There’s a cowboy diary in Oklahoma City I picked up in the first week of the trip. Jack Bailey trailed a herd from Texas to Kansas in 1868, journaling in a battered notebook along the way. The cover is half worn away, but the pages still bear his strong, angled handwriting in brown ink that is still clear to read. I imagine him writing as the cattle are bedded down, or in odd spots along the trail (he records writing by a lakeshore at night, or under a tree ahead of the herd, or at the counter of the drugstore in Emporia, KS.)

I had read the diary twice through in a printed edition before seeing the original in the flesh, but the seeing the handwriting is like hearing someone talking. There is now a voice to the words. Jack dates each entry and includes the day of the week as well – sometimes he draws little curlicues and dots around the Ts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No print edition could have told me that.

In Cody, WY I leafed through the old photos and papers at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the hunt for William Levi “Buck” Taylor. Taylor had been a star performer in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West (the British Prime Minister dropped by to say hello during the show’s 1887 tour stop in London) and he had an international reputation as “the King of the Cowboys.”

Despite the fame, the long intervening years have caused his trail to go cold. Newspaper reports after he left the show suggest that all was not well. There were stories of an elopement with a young lady from Baltimore, assaults, a Buck Taylor impersonator. Letters home from another Wild West performer fail to mention Taylor’s name. His story is a hazy one, half-wrapped in legend and sensationalism. I found little that could be definitively traced to him, aside from period photographs and Wild West Show programs. Nothing that he had touched.

That night, I moved back to the present to watch rodeo cowboys. The Cody Nite Rodeo happens every evening throughout June, July, and August and gives a slice of Americana so thick it seems almost caricatured. After the opening prayer and national anthem, Bill Idol’s “White Wedding” kicked on over the speakers. I watched as men rode and roped and bucked steers and tied calves. Women and girls did barrel-racing and a few brave ladies did give the calf roping a try. Part of this trip was undertaken to find my limits, and I found some at the Cody Nite Rodeo. There’s no way I could do what they do.

Cowboys aren’t the only archetypes out here. Driving south and east out of Montana today I stopped by the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On June 25, 1876 George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary were decimated by an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. To my disappointment, the battle site was crowded. I had hoped to walk alone and collect my thoughts on what this clash had meant then and why we are still drawn to it today. It seemed a hopeless mess from the start: the officers of the frontier Army could not coordinate their attack, the Cheyennes and Sioux were fighting with everything they had, and neither side was willing to accept a partial victory. It was all or nothing.

From my vantage point of the 21st century, there is no glory in America’s decision to purchase the success of one civilization through the death of others. Custer had it coming.

And although I pass judgment on his actions, I feel sympathy for his fate. Standing on the ridge, facing the small hilltop where Custer and a handful of soldiers made their famous Last Stand, there is a shallow ravine to the right. The ravine is filled with clusters of white gravestones. They mark where the soldiers fell, some in groups, a few cut down alone. Those headstones march up along to the hilltop in a white trail, completing the run these men did not make in life.

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Hurricanes and Other Hazards

005 (2)The atmospheric drizzle of last Thursday evening turned into a fullscale torrent by Friday afternoon courtesy of Hurricane Alex. Not enough to stop intrepid adventurers from bravely exploring Austin’s downtown and venturing across Lady Bird Lake. Once on the other side, the rain hit full tilt and I ended up spending half an hour huddled under an overpass with some stranded joggers. Strangely, it was the most relaxed moment of the trip to date. There was nothing to do, no place to be except right there, watching the rain.

That evening, Circe and I headed to the Broken Spoke, one of Texas’ oldest, old-school honkytonks. Its the kind of place where the floor tilts and if you stand close enough to the dance floor, you can feel the vibrations of peoples’ feet hitting the boards coming up through the soles of your shoes. During one turn around the floor my partner asked where I was from, and when I replied “Washington, DC” he said, “The last time my people been up there, they was ridin’ with the Confederates. Ain’t been back since and don’t mean to go back.” I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to laugh or not but I did anyway.

Today I dropped Circe off at the Denver airport and picked up my father. The Rockies beckoned. We drove to Estes Park and soaked up a few fleeting hours of sunshine. While hiking a trail called the Devil’s Backbone, we came across a chubby snake sprawled out in the middle of the path. We looked at each other, trying to assess its’ species and debating on whether to shoo it away or just try to get a running start and jump over it. After some very long seconds, the snake inched its way into the grass and away from us. As it slid by, we saw a two and a half inch rattle at the end of its’ tail.

The sunshine and warm temperatures disappeared the second my father and I crossed the Wyoming border. It is 51 degrees here and threatening to drop even further. I’m not terribly afraid of snakes, but I’m not too keen on sleeping out the next several nights in the cold. I suppose it wouldn’t be true West if it didn’t give me a little kick from time to time.

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Love, Texas-Style

039Ahhh, Texas. I hit the northern plains Wednesday afternoon and knew immediately that something was different. The skies seemed to open up a little bit, the land got a little bit wider. Sure the sides of the highway are built up with motels and gas stations and fast food joints, but I can’t help but wonder how the land struck those early pioneers who’d grown up in the New England woods or Southern pine forests.

The first thing I did when I got to Texas, crosseyed from having driven from Oklahoma City that morning and the air hot and muggy enough that my shirt is sticking to my back within 2 seconds of stepping out of the car, was to dive into the Baylor University library. I was digging around their manuscript collection looking at papers of ranching families from the late 1800s. Maybe it sounds dull, but it was actually fascinating to unravel parts of life stories from the paper trail they had left behind. And that’s how I stumbled across the love story between Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton.

In the middle of a thick folder of papers a little note pops up, written on faded blue-lined paper.

Miss Lily Sutton,
Can I have the pleasure of your company for a drive this evening?
Your friend,
E.C. Jones

I turn over the note, and to my delight and surprise, there is Lily’s reply.

Mr. Jones, I accept your invitation for a drive this afternoon with pleasure.
Your friend,
Lily Sutton.
Cuevo, Texas. May 8th, 1881.

The formality of the language and the quaintness of it all is, frankly, adorable. I read on breathlessly as their courtship unfolds. The pair progresses from “Mr. Jones” and “Miss Sutton” to exchanges of “I never wanted to see any body as badly in my life” and “An intire [sic] week passed away before I heard one thing of you for your letter only came today. It is needless to say how much pleasure it afforded me to hear from you.” They ditched the platonic “your friend” for “ever yours” or “ever your own loving Lily.”

I wonder when Clitus is going to ante up and finally seal the deal. The pair swaps letters for nearly a year and a half, writing to each other at odd hours, promising to keep the missives short but somehow, can’t seem to stop themselves from writing on and on.

At last, the wedding invitation. It is a plain white rectangle of paper, simply announcing the marriage of E. Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton at the Episcopal Church in Cuevo, Texas on January 17th, 1883. As far as I can tell, they did live pretty happily. After nearly a decade of marriage, Clitus was still sending Lily letters from his business trips, addressed to “My Dear Little Girl.”

That evening, I was ready to emerge from Victorian-era romance to the 21st century by way of downtown Austin. After almost a week of traveling solo, I connect with my good friend Circe and we proceed to get knee deep in what the city can offer.

We start with dinner. One of the tattooed guys hanging out in front of one of the endless places to get inked in this town recommended Stubb’s Bar-B-Que . It was all we had hoped it would be – large plates of meat upstairs, a band downstairs, cool exposed brick mixing happily with neon signage. From there, we roll to a bar called The Library because my curiousity was piqued by a place that has floor to ceiling bookshelves and also serves booze. Turns out its a Texas chain, but still a fun place for drinks and people-watching. There is live music everywhere. Seems you can’t throw a rock without hitting a guy with a guitar, and that is just the way we like it.

We end the night at Maggie Mae’s. Yelpers are all over this place, and justifiably so. The staff are friendly and the crowd this Thursday evening seems relaxed and readu to have a good time. We listen to Jeremy Steding and his band (tagline: “A Damn Good Ride”) and they do crowd-pleasing covers of Johnny Cash and Tom Petty. While on break, Jeremy stops by at every table to distribute smiles and business cards. The kicker of the evening, though, is an amazing guitarist (also a pretty good dancer) named Adam Rogers who gets onstage and makes that thing wail. His acoustic rendition of the notorious “Thong Song” stunningly enough actually sounded good.

Yes, this is a long, long way from 1881.

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Lewis and Clark Slept Here

I have been on the road three days and have covered 1,337 miles, or almost a third of the total trip distance. I have been waiting for the landscape to change, but the variations have been subtle. On Saturday I rolled through hour after hour of Ohio and Illinois farmland. Today I covered Missouri and a good bit of Oklahoma. The Missouri bluffs were pretty and greener than I expected. The other surprise: roadkill armadillos.

Picture of empty highway.
Highway leading across the American West.

Yesterday I knocked around St. Louis with my sister. We ditched the Arch and explored the Delmar Loop, rubbing elbows with Midwestern hipsters and trawling vintage clothing shops. In late afternoon we climbed the Indian bluffs outside of the city, about the oldest and most mysterious thing the area has to offer.

Clark recorded seeing the Cahokia Mounds while the expedition was camped out on the eastern side of the Mississippi River during the winter of 1803/1804. It was a freezing day in January, the cold bitter enough that his wet feet froze to his shoes so that they had to be carefully extracted from the leather. Quite a change from the sweltering heat of midsummer I felt yesterday, a field of rolled haybales visible just to the left and the city limits of Collinsville, IL hardly a stone’s throw away.

Beyond St. Louis I hit Interstate 44, built to bypass historic Route 66. There was a earlier route that predated both of these roads, a universe away from joyriding Americans reveling in the freedom of the highway. This same ground had been traveled over by Cherokees marching westward on the Trail of Tears. This is the dark side of the American dream and the pioneer spirit, the part that kills or dislocates whatever gets in its way.

Tomorrow, I’m off to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum to look at some old cattle trail maps and other relics. This seemed the place to start digging into the West, to see it in its distilled museum form.

Tonight, I’m camping out with the sounds of cicadas surrounding my tent. I chatted with a couple folks who were impressed and maybe a little surprised to see a woman traveling alone. Turns out they spent a stint in northern Virginia. It’s a small world.

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