“To him who is in fear, everything rustles.” — Sophocles
I grew up watching my dad aim at groundhogs out the kitchen window. This is to say, my parents are rednecks. There are many variations of redneck, and they are the quiet and meditative kind. You can tell because they rarely speak or leave their farm. My dad has spent most of his life smoking cigarettes in a field, staring at the heifers. My mom has spent most of hers wondering where my dad is. Getting a glimpse of them out in public is like sighting wolverines. Their idea of vacation is Bob Evans for dinner, though if they went they would likely do so at different times. Like the president and vice-president, they don’t travel together. Their fear of something happening to both of them is all-consuming, and not because they are afraid of death, or worried about the effect it would have on their children. It is because nobody would know how to feed the sheep in the morning. If I got a call from the hospital saying my parents had been in a car accident, I would grab a pen and a pad of paper. Even before I find out what condition they are in, I will receive instructions: how many buckets of corn, how to turn the water on, who is sick, where is that hole in the fence to watch out for.
Currently I am a Lecturer of English at a small university in Oklahoma. It is a good job with health insurance. Often mistaken for an aging hipster, at heart I am still a redneck. If you look closely you can tell. I wear a lot of flannel under blazers. I’ve figured out a way to tuck yoga pants into cowboy boots and make it look professional. I tend to end up in rural areas, teaching students who also grew up on farms. While our similarities unite us, like the way we have never forgotten the 4-H pledge, there are also profound differences, and they mainly have to do with guns.
I have never shot a gun and most likely never will. I am afraid of them even though I grew up with them, scattered all over our childhood home. Actually, that’s not true. They were kept in the mudroom in a pile on top of the washing machine. Once, when my husband, Todd, was doing laundry there, he attempted to move a few stacks of Newsweek in front of the dial and found a revolver. There is also a rifle propped up behind the toilet and a semi-automatic leaning against the sink. According to my dad, this is where he keeps his guns so he can grab one as he heads out the front door to shoot a coyote.
What I love most about this set up is that it shows how unwilling my parents are to participate in our culture of fear. I find this at once surprising and encouraging given the amount of nightly news they take in. To be fair, they have had their moments. Several years ago, when I rented a car for a job interview in Wyoming, my mom called to tell me that rental agencies don’t have to abide by standard safety checks.
“These two girls were on their way home from Florida and the car started to fill up with smoke so they couldn’t see where they were going, lost control, flipped down a hill and died. Dad told me to tell you.”
For the most part, however, they are your typical pragmatic baby boomers, voting against school levies and avoiding doctor visits. During a recent debate on gun control in my classes, my students reiterated that the world is full of crazy people and that’s why they all keep a gun underneath their beds. I couldn’t help but think of my parents, sound asleep in their living room with the lights on and the TV blaring. If people decided to rob them, it would be laughable. First of all, they don’t lock their doors. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t since most of the doors in their ancient home barely even close, let alone lock. At the door, intruders would be greeted with an array of firearms so in case they’d forgotten theirs they could use the same one my dad has for taking down uncompromising roosters.
“If anyone breaks into my house, they’ll be walking away limping if they’re lucky,” one of my students, Carson, announced during the debate.
Everyone nodded in approval.
“Yeah,” another said. “That’s how we do it where I come from.”
“Why do you think that something bad is going to happen to you?” I asked.
Carson rolled his eyes. “Because crazy people are everywhere!” he said, throwing his hands in the air, exasperated he had to repeat himself.
“Something bad has to have happened to you before,” said Jeff, a student who had told me multiple times that he was from the hood.
Maybe this was why I didn’t understand their fear: nothing bad had ever happened to me. My childhood was storybook. Three sisters, one brother, never alone, we ran around outside in our bare feet playing tag and other games we made up. We rode our bikes to the railroad tracks and back. We baled hay and herded sheep. A treat for us was a 2-liter of soda, which we got if we ordered pizza. I didn’t know that mashed potatoes could be made from flakes out of a box until I was almost 20. When I see kids picking out pumpkins to carve from a giant bin at Walmart, I have to turn away, gasping in horror that this is what some kids have to do, instead of bundling up for a scenic trip to the local pumpkin patch. Who am I to tell someone not to be afraid of the world?
“You own guns, Ms. Thompson?”
“No, Shaun,” I said. “But my family does.”
He nodded and gave a little shrug. His way of saying, that’s a good answer, I’ll take it, but it could have been better.
* * *
My husband and I get along so well because we are afraid of the same things, and one of those things happens to be guns. As a girl, I wasn’t expected to have an interest in them, even though it was the country. For Todd, a boy growing up in Appalachia, guns were so commonplace that once, at a child’s birthday party, a boy asked him what kind of gun he owned. He was eight.
Some of our friends, committed hunters, like to take out their guns and show them to us when we come visit. When this happens, both of us spring into action, fabricating reasons why we need to go to the kitchen or get something out of our cars. I hate it. I will look at your gun, nestled quietly on your coffee table, but I don’t want you to pick it up. That gives the gun life, potential. I don’t even like to see my dad hold a gun. Perhaps he is the same way, because when he walks outside carrying one, he covers it up with an old t-shirt. He claims it is because our dog, Eli, doesn’t like guns. This is true, as Eli, a true liberal, barks whenever he sees my dad pick one up.
* * *
I really did watch my dad shoot a rooster once. New Year’s Day, he used a .22. My sister, Rachel, and I, home for a visit and feeling ambitious initially said that we wanted to do it.
My dad, unflappable, didn’t even look up from loading the gun. Monk-like, if monks smoked cigarettes, drank 16 cups of black coffee in a day and shot bitchy roosters, he gestured toward the row of Carhartts hanging in the shower (just go with it) and walked outside.
Our reason for wanting in on the action was less than pure: it was revenge. Last week, when our parents had to leave town for a rare funeral, one of our jobs was to feed the myriad fowl, which included that bipolar rooster, capable of full-fledged, air-born attacks. When our mom instructed us how to handle him, she lowered her voice, as if she didn’t want him to hear. We leaned in to listen.
“Cover yourself up, head to toe, when you go in,” she whispered. “He’ll go after your legs. And be quick about it. Get in and get out.”
We nodded, but neither one of us fully believed her. We had the foolish invincibility of youth on our side. So on the first day of chores, when I was across the road, watering the cows, I heard the unmistakable shriek of my youngest sister. Rachel had gone in to feed the chickens only wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty.
When our parents returned, it was quickly decided by unanimous vote that this was not going to be the year of the rooster.
Now, it’s not like we both wanted to shoot the rooster, together, or that we wanted to take turns pumping him full of bullets Inglorious Basterds-style. We just wanted one of us to do it and not our dad. Rachel doing it was the same as me doing it, and vice-versa. You know, we’re sisters. We shoot livestock together.
My dad handed me the gun first. I was 23, and it was the first time I had held one. Surprised how light it felt, barely more than a paperback, I almost dropped it. I gave it to Rachel who promptly and inexplicably tripped over a rock, nearly killing us all.
My dad, the proud father of four artistic and well-read daughters, put the rooster in a cage and shot his head off.
* * *
When my brother was a kid, my parents didn’t let him have toy guns. Instead, he had a cash register, which my mother claimed he slept with at night. I think this explains why he grew up to be a pharmacist.
My parents are so apolitical they should be studied. Every five to six years, I might hear one of them mumble something like, Well, Congress makes the rules anyway. For years, neither one of them was registered to vote because they didn’t want to be summoned for jury duty. That changed when we moved out and they could vote against the school levies with less guilt. As a result, I skipped through a blissfully sheltered adolescence straight into adulthood. We didn’t have cable, and this was pre-Internet, so I had little concept of the stark divisions that existed in America. We also didn’t go to church, so I knew nothing about religion. To top it off, we were poor, but I didn’t know because no one told me.
I try to remember how unaware I used to be when I stand in front of my students and listen to them tell me that the reason we have guns is to protect us from the government. I nod and stare at the wall in the back of the room, imagine beads of water rolling off a duck’s back, a technique I learned in a world religions course.
My goal always to speak very little when we have discussions, I let my students say anything. Sometimes, though, I can’t help it. I especially couldn’t help it when they told me that Hitler took all the guns away before he persecuted the Jews.
“I think your bias is clouding your judgment,” I said.
They were raised to be good. I know their parents were strict, and taught them to view figures of authority with respect. They just stared at me after I said that, and I couldn’t tell if they desperately wanted to say something or had no idea what to say. My guess is that I betrayed them. They had thought, up until that point, that I was on their side, and that’s because they think everyone is on their side. Some of them went to high school with nine other kids. They live in dried-up towns with one gas station and half a dozen Baptist churches. They were mad at me, I knew, but I also saw how hurt they were. We trusted you.
I had taught in West Virginia and Missouri, so I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I could handle Oklahoma, but I underestimated it. At the farmers market, I overheard a woman say she didn’t want her daughter to go to Washington D.C. for the upcoming school trip.
“You know, not with all those terrorists running around.”
I closed my eyes. My friend Dana and I once got in a fight about which one of us was more liberal, and we weren’t joking. I think we were at Applebee’s. Now, though, I would never win that argument. On Twitter, I still follow all of the magazines and news organizations I’m supposed to. I read feminist blogs and listen to cerebral podcasts. On Netflix, one of my categories is called Fight-The-System Documentaries. Sometimes, though, I find all of these just as bad as their opposition. It’s the inflammatory rhetoric, the underlying layers of anger, the drive to be right, and, of course, the typos.
I knew something had gone awry when I was listening to Rick Perry talk and I thought That’s a good point. What was happening to me? Is this how it starts?
In August of 2013, Chris Lane, a 22-year-old student at the university where I teach was shot and killed while he jogged through the neighborhood of Duncan, Oklahoma. When the teens accused of the shooting asked why they did it, they said that they were bored.
Once or twice since then, I have reached for my running shoes then stopped, turned around, and done something else. I know that I will not get shot if I go for a run around the lake. I might, but I probably won’t. I also know that a sinkhole could open up in my living room as I type this. It probably won’t, but it could. Maybe a tumor is slowly blooming in my throat. Maybe one of my students is planning on killing me. Maybe I’ll comfortably live to my average life expectancy and die in my garden. Maybe nothing will ever happen to me.
* * *
After our gun control debate, I went back to my office, sat down in my chair, ate a granola bar and scoured the library databases for peer-reviewed sources that would prove my students wrong. To keep myself calm and busy while they spoke, I had written down their claims:
“Stabbings have gone up in Europe.”
“Background checks will just make it worse.”
“We’ll just end up taking guns away from the good people.”
“Actually, right now we live in one of the most peaceful eras of human history.”
The last one was said by a freshman, Anthony, who had written his previous paper on Pastafarianism. Living in Oklahoma, the buckle that holds the Bible Belt together, deemed The Reddest of the Red because every single county has went to the GOP since the 2004 presidential election, the paper reminded me that it didn’t always matter what state you lived in.
Anthony, however, masterfully turned a seemingly anti-gun statement into one for loosening gun restrictions. We had been examining a chart that listed the number of deaths that occur every year from guns, country by country. The United States, leaps and bounds above every other country, set off a contained riot in my classroom.
“That’s bullshit,” someone whispered.
I was lost. They had just been arguing that crazy people are everywhere and that’s why they store .9 mms underneath their beds. Why, then, would we not lead the world in deaths from gun violence, especially since over in Europe everyone is apparently getting stabbed to death?
This is a very peaceful time.
I had watched the same guest interview on The Colbert Report that Anthony was quoting. Most of my students didn’t watch this show, and if they did, they didn’t use it to make pro-gun arguments. It was my turn to feel betrayed. Even you? my eyes probably told Anthony. Didn’t you write in defense of The Flying Spaghetti Monster?
I spent hours researching how wrong they all were. I crafted arguments, that were, in my mind, airtight. The Jews only made up 2 percent of the German population at that time. Did you know that? And why would the government let you have something that could protect you if the government itself decided to take over? You see where I’m going here? Also, two words: Drone strikes.
I knew that it didn’t matter. I knew that I would never give the elaborate speeches I was planning, but I kept going anyway, in the name of knowledge. Really, I was looking up information for myself, not for them. These were students in Freshmen Composition, and I was treating them like advanced sociology majors in a seminar. They did not know what a thesis statement was, let alone a logical fallacy. They were just beginning, as we all once did.
I took a journalism course my first year of college. Day one, our professor asked us what we thought about the new Walmart in the town over.
I politely raised my hand. She nodded at me to speak.
“It will bring more jobs to the community.”
She laughed in my face. “My God,” she said. “You are so naïve.”
* * *
The one other time I held a gun went just as poorly as the first. I tried for ten minutes to see something, anything, through the scope, but it was hopeless. My dad helped me position the gun in different ways but every time I brought it up to my eye all I saw were black fields, nothingness. It was as if the barrel of the gun was aimed directly into the dirt we stood on. My arms started to ache, but my dad wouldn’t let me quit.
“Keep trying,” he said. “You should be able to see something.”
But I never did. I couldn’t see it, and I bet if you handed me that gun now, I still wouldn’t.
–Meg Thompson (from Hawai’i Pacific Review)