I’ll never forget my first real gun, a seven-shot Ithaca .410 pump shotgun. It was a surprise Christmas present from Mack, my alcoholic grandfather who, in the 1950s, had murdered a black musician with a ball peen hammer when the guy rolled into Mack’s Paris, Texas gas station asking for a battery charge after hours. Apparently, the man had been rude.
Growing up in rural Texas I was constantly surrounded by firearms. My dad frequently took us bird hunting, and shortly before Mack gifted me the rough-looking shotgun with the chipped Bakelite stock and smudged bluing, my father had shown me and my brother where the keys to his gun cabinet were kept and, after a brief lesson, told us that we were free to take out the guns (a single shot Remington .410, two Browning .20 gauge shotguns—side by side and over and under, a 16-gauge duck gun, an 8mm Mauser deer rifle, a .22 and various pistols) and go plinking—which amounted to blowing the stuffing out of horse apples, beer bottles and snakes, not to mention meadowlarks, opossum, raccoons, rabbits and any other small game unlucky enough to show itself and hold still while we were on the warpath. I was 13, my brother was 10, and for a while we unleashed a veritable apocalypse of fire and brimstone on our deserted little corner of Collin County. By some miracle, I only shot my brother once … but that’s another story.
The closest I myself ever came to dying by gun violence, however, was four years later when I joined my best friends on our first real climbing road trip.
We were an odd set of misfits at Plano Senior High School, united in alienation. At that time, 1981, Plano was the biggest high school in the nation. Our class alone had 2,000 students. Because of the class size and the stew of hormones that inevitably congeals around that number of teenagers, scurrilous cliques formed like fat globules at the top of cooling chicken broth, and poor kids, ugly kids, klutzy kids, kids that were too smart, and parochial country kids like me found ourselves lost and lonely in the midst of an affluent and urbane crowd. During the 1980s Plano High School was famous for hazing, teen drug abuse and suicide, prompting a 60 Minutes special about the “epidemic.” I gravitated to sports, but found my closest friends not among the jocks, who seemed to be a group notable for their gratuitous allegiance to intoxication and sex, two mysteries that I pretended to dismiss while wishing I had the courage to explore them. The truth is, I was naive, bookish and immature and I found my tribe among the nerds, the guys who volunteered to read from the Scarlet Letter, who tried out for the “Whiz Quiz” TV show, who did well in the science fair and shrunk under the abuse of more popular classmates.
In fact, both of my best friends—the guys who would become my climbing partners—had first attracted my attention by getting their asses kicked. Pete, a medium-sized, pimply white kid had been the subject of a severe and public beating when he insulted the girlfriend of a big, popular jock just because he was jealous and had a masochist’s desire to be noticed. The guy had slammed Pete into the lockers and Pete had fallen to the floor, assuming a defensive, leg-kicking posture. I joined the crowd and watched as the big guy literally stomped Pete’s face and called him a faggot. Later, Pete gave a report in civics class on an extensive limestone cave system under the city that he had supposedly discovered and mapped. Everyone knew that the cave system was an invention, but I was drawn in by the pure audacity of the lie, and soon after that we became friends and learned to climb together on a railroad trestle near Pete’s house by practicing techniques gleaned from Robbin’s Basic Rockcraft.
I met Ryan when he moved from somewhere up north and joined the track team. As a Yankee, he was immediately suspect, called a faggot, and hazed relentlessly. For example, he once had his hands taped to his head and was placed with a load of wet jockstraps in a running industrial drier. That’s when I knew he was destined to be my friend, and sure enough he was soon joining us at the trestle, learning to climb by trial and error with a nylon tow rope and a swami made out of seat belt webbing.
As soon as Pete, the oldest by a few months, secured his driver’s license, we took our very sketchy knowledge of rock climbing to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and narrowly avoided death on a weekly basis as we tried to climb the slabs and cracks and set up belays with the single set of Hexes, eight oval biners and five tied slings. I’m sure that anyone who is reading this can recall a few climbing close calls, but the fact that Pete, Ryan and I survived our first few trips to the Wichitas is evidence of a benevolent supreme being who deploys a posse of custodial seraphs charged with protecting gumbies.
It was the summer of our 17th year when we decided to make our first road trip to a “destination” area. Raised on a steady diet of John Long Stonemaster stories, we elected to drive all the way to California. Being Texans and therefore inured to heat like tempered steel (or, possibly, just completely addled) we chose Joshua Tree in August. I have a clear memory of arriving at Ryan’s father’s apartment early in the morning, wiping the sweat of humidity off Pete’s 1977 LTD’s front windshield and watching as Ryan hobbled outside, bent under a huge pack, dragging a duffel. We threw his gear into the trunk, a space that encompassed the square footage of a small flat in New York City, and loaded up, but just before we pulled out Ryan said, “Wait a minute, I forgot the gun.”
“What gun?” I asked.
“My dad’s .44.”
“Why do we need a gun?” Pete asked.
“You know,” Ryan said. “It’s the desert. There could be snakes. Plus, people are crazy in California.”
Pete and I met eyes and nodded. Ryan had a point. So we waited while he ran back inside and got the short-barreled Smith and Wesson. He shoved it under the front seat, and thus armed we set off into the urine-colored sunrise and onto the highway that stretched out to Joshua Trees and tawny rock 30 hours away.
The temperature hovered near 100 degrees but we were surprised that there were no other climbers. The dry desert nights seemed cool to us and we climbed a bunch of the classics in Hidden Valley and caroused late into the night talking about climbing and girls. On the night of the “incident” we had scored a six pack from some weathered dudes in a Westfalia, the only other climbers we saw on our trip. We were, as usual, talking about sex when Ryan said, “You know what Cindy likes?”
Cindy was Ryan’s girlfriend. Pete and I burst out laughing and started making of fun of Ryan, saying things like, “Tell me what Cindy likes.”
But Ryan wasn’t laughing. He was beet red, staring at the table, tight lines around his mouth.
“What does Cindy like?” I asked.
“Shut up, man.”
“No,” Pete said. “Tell us.”
Ryan stood up and jutted his head forward. He tried to say something but choked on emotion. His eyes watered and he turned away and started walking toward the LTD.
“He’s getting the gun,” Pete said.
For some reason I never thought about running. At that point it was almost like a Chekhov short story. The gun had to reappear. Everybody knows that guns are magnetic. Human beings are evolutionarily drawn to power, from fire to firearms, and that gun was pulling us like north pulls a compass needle.
I think you probably see where this story is heading. A part of me admired Ryan for going after the gun. There is only so much disrespect a person can take after all, and he had clearly reached his limit. There was a hallucinatory few moments where it could have gone either way, where Ryan seemed capable of exorcising his memories of spinning driers and jockstraps, all those moments where he was humiliated and powerless, by blowing away his friends. But that white heat dissipated rather quickly and turned to angry words and threats and urgent apologies and finally a wide-eyed compromise where the gun was locked in the trunk.
We were all a little chastened on the long, sun burnt and bruised drive home. Something was broken. We could feel it—our friendship would never be the same. It hurt me to know that my best friend nearly shot me, but later I discovered that those sensations of disruption and sadness are partly the feeling of wisdom accruing like tree rings.
The gun violence breaking out across North America has sparked a debate on gun control, but I know first hand that people like my grandfather will kill whether he has a gun or a hammer, and people like Ryan will never kill no matter how much power he holds in his hand. Gun control comes down to self control.
But I also know that human nature is fallible. Climbers mess up knots and die, and good kids get guns and wind up killing each other.
Thoughts or opinions about gun control? Please comment below.