Episode 8 of American Butterfly: Guns, Lots of Guns
“I ain’t afraid to love a man. I ain’t afraid to shoot him either.” — Annie Oakley
It took me some time to understand the debate over guns. We grew up with guns everywhere. New rifles and shotguns stored under the beds. Well-worn rifles displayed in the den. A Revolutionary War era flintlock, its stock eaten by worms, on the mantle in my grandparent’s home. Pistols stacked in closets. Hunting knives stored in drawers. Our home was an arsenal. Only the ammunition was kept with even the slightest pretense of care.
At first, of course, it didn’t seem unusual. How do you know what is usual as a kid? After visiting other friends’ homes, it became clear that guns were pretty common in the world but still not as ubiquitous as at our home. A friend’s father and older sibling might hunt and store their rifles in the garage. A pistol or shotgun might be placed somewhere in the house, maybe close to where the parents slept. Some were held in gun safes.
Mom’s mother, Lausanne Wayles, grew up in Paris. Not the Paris of love. Rather, Paris, Tennessee in Henry County, near the Kentucky border. It was a town of 6,935 people in 1940. Her mother raised Lausanne and her siblings after her husband passed away. She barely made ends meet, owning one of the two florist shops in town. Lausanne went to school in a wooden schoolhouse and helped teach the younger kids, similar to how it was done before Horace Mann of Massachusetts created the school “factory” system in the 1840’s. Around the age of 16, Lausanne became a teacher.
Lausanne’s husband, Paul, my grandfather on my mother’s side, was a successful business man. He founded Paul Trenton Glass Company with locations across the Mid-South. Mom explained that every prominent business man of the era needed to own a sporting goods store. Paul had bought one located in his hometown of Paris. He asked Mom and Dad to run it. All I remember from that time are scenes from the Independence Day parade, a small town America affair. Within a year or so the sporting goods store was closed, but the most valuable inventory was moved to our home. In Memphis, we were practically living in a gun shop.
By modern standards my family was irresponsible. Most people today would be shocked at the thought of having guns scattered throughout a house with three young children. When a gun is not loaded, however, it feels more like a weight than a weapon. For some, they can be works of art. For us they were mostly heavy rods of iron to be dusted around and eventually sold to people who would put them to some good use.
Unlike many neighbors and schoolmates, we didn’t hunt or shoot much growing up. We had relatives who loved recreational shooting, some even winning national titles later in their lives. Dad had grown up helping feed his poor family with the fish he caught, but he never really had the luxury of hunting game. As much as hunting is a way of life for many, it can be an expensive activity that requires time and access to land.
My brother declared that his “last request” before his first child, was to work a season at a hunting camp. He found an unassuming lodge. He cooked, released birds for pheasant hunts, and guided trips. His stories about the men who arrived with their new gear and barely-used rifles were priceless. To get everyone to bed on their anxious first night, he would give a big, exaggerated yawn and say, “Well, it’s going to be an early morning. Best get some shut-eye.”
According to the Gallup organization, the percentage of American’s stating they have a gun in the home has dropped from around 50% in 1968 to 37% in 2019. Nonetheless, we hear today that the number of guns in the US is vast, hundreds of millions, always going up. Knowing that a hunting rifle can last 100 years and more, some Americans must be living in veritable gun shops, too.
My brother ultimately preferred bow hunting. To JT, the bow was more fair.
“You have to better understand the behavior of the animal, be more clever, and get a lot closer. You have to execute a more skillful shot,” he said.
Guns are not designed to be fair. My family would learn that lesson well.
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.