By Kwame P. Dean
April 17, 2021
We had moved from cosmopolitan, coastal Virginia to a small town in central Illinois. We moved from a modern home to the old house of my father’s childhood with its tiny rooms under roof, a fraction of the size of the rooms we had before. My room was dark all of the time as the sunlight struggled to make an impression on the dark wood and pitch of the roof. Thankfully, it all felt temporary. My refuge would once again be restored when, a few years into the future, a new house would be built to replace this one. I would again have a place suitable for reading and thinking away from everyone else. Apart from the occasional visits I allowed my younger brother, and the forced invasions of my mother when she would clean because I was too lazy or distracted to, it was my room in every sense.
My cousin Darren was a city kid. Brought up in Chicago and then a small metropolitan area with big city problems an hour away. I liked him. He was older than me by a couple of years but never lorded that over me. He was cool, easy to make laugh and quick to smile. I think I would have been a better middle child than an older brother as playing with Darren took off the pressure and he taught me things I couldn’t find in my encyclopedias. Darren was one of six so having the chance to visit us away from his small family apartment in the projects was probably a welcome change despite the boredom. We were forced to use our imaginations to play army or cowboys appropriate to the big backyard and room to run. Oddly, we never thought to be Indians. To aid our re-enactments, we usually were satisfied with the clicks of cap guns without the caps. They still smelled like the remnants of gunpowder and carried the “bang, bang!” advantage of infinite ammunition. The only disadvantage was in the debates about who got the other first.
One time, the last time, was different. The Christmas before, I had graduated from my toy repeater rifle BB gun to an air rifle that looked like the real thing. It could fire pellets or BBs and was powerful enough to kill small animals, or so I was warned. That, and the fear of shooting a neighbor’s window gave me enough respect for it to leave it alone most of the time. Of course, I was told to never point it at someone as I could “put someone’s eye out”. I think every American boy of my generation heard that warning and most of us had never met a kid who’s eye had really gotten put out. It quickly faded into the list of “things adults say to keep us from having fun”.
So during Darren’s visit, a rainy day meant we were forced to play inside. Not bothering my mother meant we were forced to play upstairs. Darren had a shiny, plastic replica Colt six shooter and I had my new rifle. The rifle wasn’t loaded but I had pumped it to build up the air pressure so there would be a satisfying “pfft” of air when I pulled the trigger. No “bang” for me this time.
Playing a combination of cowboys and hide and seek, I waited in the darkest corner of my room and listened. The creaky floors announced everyone, no matter how careful, so I knew when he was coming. Darren reached the door with his six shooter at the ready. I was ready too. He burst in with a “bang” and I pulled the trigger. Darren dropped his gun and went down to one knee immediately, his hands covering his right eye. It was so convincing that I excitedly congratulated him for his acting prowess until I saw the blood.
Too panicked to think of anything else, I yelled for my mother as the terror set in. Normally my first instinct would be to cover up my wrong doing, as my brother can verify. But this time, there was no space in my head for any thought other than praying I hadn’t actually put Darren’s eye out. Lucky for Darren, a cut on the eyebrow was responsible for the bleeding. My mother took care of that and then immediately arranged my punishment by calling my father at work and exiling me to my room to await the carrying out of the sentence I knew I deserved.
It was rare for my father to beat us. My mother was the usual judge, jury and executioner for the only infrequent occurrences of talking back or fighting with my brother. My dad was somber and conducted a brief interrogation though the facts were already clear. I recognized this years later when after starting my own military career, I too was trained to determine blame. I was exhausted from the fear, relief and waiting. I just wanted the inevitable to be over with as I answered his questions with tears streaming down my face more as a prequel to what was going to happen than for regret. He used his leather belt. He just took it from around his waist. There was no preordained instrument of punishment hanging around our house like my grandfather’s razor strap that he kept long after he stopped using straight razors. This was just a regular belt. My dad took off the belt slowly with a kind of ceremony to reinforce the gravity of the act. He told me why what was about to happen was going to happen. As an 11 year old, I didn’t need the explanation. This was about not doing it again and I never did.
After 16 years in the military, the extent of my weapons training was little more than target practice and simulating the “bang, bang” of my youth with blanks, a big red blank firing adapter in the muzzle of my assault rifle and laser sensors…professional laser tag, if you will. I think I’m capable of shooting someone if I’m protecting others but I don’t know. I hope I’ll never need to find out.
Interestingly enough, during military training we were told when firing blanks with our M-16 rifles not to shoot at a target who was too close. We could put someone’s eye out.