Essay by Dana C. Jennings
School violence – December 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
I AM AS DISTURBED as the next person about the deadly mixture of guns and schools that has spilled across America in recent years. But I also know firsthand the violent feelings children can get when they are bullied and pushed around. I remember well the day in 1938 when I took a gun to school in the rural town of Cassoday, Kansas.
Dad’s .38 Colt bounced on my hip with every hoofprint fat old Babe planted in the shallow snow. As we cut across the school yard to the frozen road home, the big boys patted snowballs ice-hard for my benefit. Heading his little mob was big pudgy Jerry, almost old enough to vote but staying eligible for Conference games with a little grade-fudging by the teacher himself.
“Druther play ball after school than slop hogs,” he often said. He went out of his way, I thought, to humiliate me at every turn.
Fresh from the city, I just didn’t fit into a cow country school. Kids gave me a girl’s nickname and sniggered a lot. I drew the Colt from its holster as the gang wound up for a throw. My brain played back last week when Jerry and his sycophants (a word I’d just learned) trapped me in the school horse barn, saddling up for the four cold miles home.
“Grab him!” Jerry had commanded. Two big guys pinned my arms back. Jerry didn’t need them; my 120 pounds were nothing to his 200. His biceps were thick as my quads.
My throat tightened as his blows came back in memory. Now, a week later, my teeth no longer wobbled in their sockets. The girls still teased my yellow-green face as it came back from black eyes and broken nose. The teacher never noticed the blood and bruises. “You have to learn to settle your own differences of opinion,” he counseled. “Amicably.”
“Hate the sin but love the sinner,” Rev. Loy taught me. “A soft answer turneth away wrath. Forgive. Pray.”
“You haffta learn to defend yourself,” Dad said.
“Fighting isn’t nice,” Mom said.
We’d been practicing a playlet in English class. I forget what it was about, now, but a revolver played a bit part at the denouement. Teacher was a realism nut and wouldn’t have a play gun. I said I thought Dad would let me bring the old Navy Colt he’d given me last year. Prof said OK.
Dad, an artillery officer in France 20 years before, taught me guns early on. He gave me a .22 Winchester when I was 12. It fed us rabbits until we got sick of them. He taught me, first, firearm safety, and then marksmanship. “Never point a gun at anybody, ‘nless you’re gonna shoot ‘im,” he repeated.
Mom feared and hated guns, but she said in her most motherly tones, “A gun could save your life someday.” As I dressed for school, Dad said, “Don’t take any ammo,” and Mom said, “Be careful.”
I slipped six .38 shorts into my pocket anyway.
Now, before trotting home in the early winter dark via town and barber shop, I loaded the Colt without any idea why. A line I’d heard in a cowboy movie ran through my head: “Six pills in the wheel will cure anythin’ but lead poisonin’.” I toyed with the idea of shooting everybody in school and then myself. “Serve ‘m right!” I thought. But that didn’t seem like a real good idea. I only had six shots. I wasn’t mad at everybody. And I might not like being dead. And anyway, Mom and Dad could never face the neighbors again.
As Babe crunched across the graveled lot toward gate and freedom, Jerry and his grinning gang hopped happily through the snow coming toward us, arms cocked for the throw. I spurred Babe into her clumsy gallop, pulled out my loaded gun, pointed it at the sky, and let out a cowboy yell.
THE MARAUDERS STOPPED, dropped their ice balls, mouths slack open. By the time they recovered, we were out of snowball range.
Down in town, I tied Babe to the barbershop hitching rail. Hiding behind her bulk, I shelled the cartridges out into hand and pocket. Barber’s eyes got big when I hung holster on coat hook. I was grateful for a few minutes to hunker by his glowing, sighing coal stove.
Groggy Gross, the town drunk, stumbled in just as I slid down from the chair. “Shootin’ at them pore he’pless kids!” he slobbered. “Boy, sheriff’s gunna gitcha now!” My hands turned wet and limp as trembling dishrags, mouth dry as ashes. I protested, “I didn’t either shoot!”
Those four miles home were the longest in history. Every headlight was the sheriff hell-bent to get me. When my folks asked how school was I lied and said fine. After chores and distracted homework, handcuffs and prison bars busied my dreams.
I expected big trouble at school, but everyone pretended nothing happened. Jerry never looked at me again.
I tremble now when I reflect the narrowness of that squeak. Any added insult could have tripped my trigger. I never took my gun to school again.
Dana Jennings is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo (http://www.hcn.org). He grew up on a Kansas farm, served in World War II in the Navy, and now writes for the Rawlins, Wyo., Daily Times on agricultural issues.