Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Guns and Gunpowder

Bob Isaacson, planning the next explosion
It was visiting my grandfather at his home in Hope Ranch that I recall having my first experiences with guns. My grandfather had been the real thing: an old time Arizona cattleman who had enjoyed the southwest's incredible boom years and somehow survived its vicious droughts.  He had retired to the comfort of this secluded, idyllic suburban enclave, but would often gaze out at the big coast range mountains, covered with their brush and rugged rock outcroppings, as if they reminded him of the Galluros, the mountains that formed his old ranch's northern boundary.
      Sometimes he would walk down a path to the east of the lake and its tidy golf course to see a herd of Santa Gertrudes cows someone had pastured on the other side of the hill. Years later my grandmother chuckled, telling me, "The only old cows he watched were the ones playing golf." Every time we came to visit, we would always beg him to show us his guns. He would take us out to his office in the converted stable beyond the little formal garden and the tall, heavily scented orange trees.
      Once there, he would unlock the office door and let us inside. Sitting at his dark wooden desk, he would take out the guns one at a time and let us hold them. There was a repeater rifle, a beautiful, shiny double-barreled shotgun, some small, single shot 22 rifles. Later, I could identify one of the rifles in a picture in an old, family photo album, taken the instant a ranch hand shot a gray wolf caught in a steel foot trap, the wolf's head shoved back against its shoulders by the impact of the bullet. There was an old fashioned Colt six shooter, just like the ones on TV or movie westerns, like Rowdy Yates had on Rawhide or Gary Cooper in High Noon.
      My grandfather used to wear the colt revolver on his ranch. Once an angry neighbor had pulled a gun on him over a dispute about stray cattle or property lines. A man had actually been killed by this pistol: It had gone off as he crawled through a barbed wire fence to shot a sick dog.
      There was my grandmother's little silver 32-caliber revolver that she carried in her purse during the long and lonely trips into Willcox, the nearest town. Once a robber had jumped onto the running board of her open car as she drove alone back to the ranch. In my mind's eye I always saw her barreling down the Allan Flat road, one hand holding the steering wheel of her big Packard car and the other one shoving the short-barreled pistol into the startled bandit's face. In reality, however, she simply sped up and coolly brushed him off against a cactus.
      The only thing she ever actually shot, she told me, was a skunk in her garden. Nonetheless, I could brag to my friends that my grandmother carried a silver pistol in her purse. None of my friends could match that one. Their grandmothers only sat on sofas or played cards. To me, all of these family guns were mystic emblems from a past that seemed still palpable, still within my grasp.
      Around the age of eight, I started packing an iron. My first gun was a Benjamin pellet gun. It was the sort of gun that you had to pump up by means of a long lever below the barrel to get air pressure. It had a little breech loading lever mechanism  which I would uncock and into which I would insert a small pellet or BB. It made a strange sound when fired: Fuossssh. This gun was pretty powerful. To me it was no ordinary BB gun. My brothers, whose first gun it had been also, falsely told me that if I could pump it up 22 times, it would have all the power of an actual 22  caliber rifle.  I would labor for fifteen minutes trying to pump it up to the magical number of 22. Fuossh! It would literally blow a lizard sleeping on a warm board in half. It was like hunting mosquitoes with a hand grenade.
      I pretended the lizards were mountain lions and I was the bounty hunter. At that time lions had a $500 bounty on them. I would see huge pumas hung by their hind legs from trees in photos in the Santa Ynez Valley News with the grinning hunters standing next to them, cradling their guns in their arms. $500! So I went hunting. one afternoon I methodically shot all the lizards I could find in a big pile of old boards up the hill. When I couldn't find any more, I left for lunch. For days, I returned to the pile to shoot more, but there never were any, at least during that summer. I began to feel badly about the massacre, even guilty. I thought about capturing lizards elsewhere and repopulating the site, but I never did. I avoided the place finally, feeling sort of crummy about it.
      When I was still pretty young, ten or eleven, my parents bought me a Napoleanic flintlock musket when we were on a trip to Canada. I was proud of the huge musket with its dark-oiled wood, shiny metal parts and brass fittings. Of course, they also bought me two sizable cans of black gunpowder, one with finely ground powder for the touch hole and one with coarser powder for the charge in the barrel, so that we could fire it. We would usually only shoot it on special occasions, such as when weekend guests were just about to leave.
      The touch hole flash of the musket would burn off our eyebrows, so we started using the ranch's bulky, black, medieval-looking welding helmet for protection, as well as wearing a very heavy Levi jacket. You could hardly see through the helmet's darkly tinted plate of green glass, meant to protect one from the intense light and heat of a welding torch flame. Consequently, whoever was firing the musket could really not see anything at all, which was sort of dangerous when a lot of us kids were standing around watching.
      It was nerve wracking to fire it: sometimes the hammer would fall with a shower of sparks, but nothing would happen, just a dull empty ìclick.î Sometimes the small charge of powder in the pan would explode with a sound like woossh and a small cloud of gray smoke would hover mysteriously over the head of the black helmeted shooter. This might happen three or four times, making the growing suspense almost unbearable until there would be an unexpected double sound: woossh--one one thousand--BLAAM and a ten foot long, beautiful cloud of white smoke would erupt from the barrel and a huge cheer would automatically arise from the onlookers.
We would all run out into the dry summer weeds and stamp out the grass fire the burning wad of Kleenex blown out of the barrel would inevitably start. It was all part of the ritual. The satisfied visitors would drive off, and I would clean out the warm barrel with a cloth soaked in oil. Once my brother and I shot a lizard with it at close range. The lizard died, but, oddly enough, there were no marks on its body. It must have been crushed by the overpressure blast.
      For years I always carried a gun whenever I left the house. When I was eleven or so,  I took over the pump action 22 caliber rifle. I never shot big animals, mostly just cans, ant holes, glass bottles, or a small brick fort I had built and filled with rubber GI soldiers. A 22 has a two mile range, and I did all of this within a hundred feet or so of our house. Amazingly, my parents pretty much ignored my nearby little high tech war games.
      Sometimes I would ceaselessly bombard ant holes at close range and watch them helplessly swarm in mad swirling patterns. Once, probably when I had run out of 22 cartridges, I decided to build real bombs and teach the endless streams of furious ants a lesson. I took down my cans of gunpowder and got a roll of toilet paper. I filled  three or four sections of the toilet paper up with black powder, set them on the brick garden steps that were covered with the angry ants, lit the toilet paper on fire, and ran away. Several impressive explosions with fifteen-foot high clouds of white smoke covered the garden and drifted past the front door of our house. Bricks lay scattered about. I remember my father coming out of the house, still holding his newspaper, wondering what on earth was happening, and then going back inside when he saw that it was just me playing with gunpowder.
      Later, I got the idea of asking my father to drill a touchhole in a tiny brass cannon I had bought. It had already had the barrel drilled out, so if my father could drill a small hole in which to insert a fuse, I could use it as an actual artillery piece. I remember him measuring the length of the barrel in his metal shop and slowly drilling the tiny hole. The barrel was only two and a half inches long. Admiring his careful work, he handed me the cannon, and I immediately ran off to stuff it full of gunpowder and BB's.
      I went up to the pile of old boards behind our guesthouse to find a victim. There it was: a long black bluebelly lizard napping on a weathered redwood board. I slowly wheeled the tiny cannon up to the lizard's head, tilted the barrel down at a slight angle, lit the fuse and ran off in case the toy cannon were to explode into fragments. I looked back from what I thought was a safe distance. It was a strange tableau: the little brass cannon pointing down at the sun drunk lizard, the fuse sparking furiously,  and then BLAM! When the smoke eventually cleared, there was no cannon and there was no lizard. I finally did find the cannon. It had flown a considerable distance backwards, but I never did find the lizard.
      One day my brother and I were rummaging around in our ranch's old blacksmith shop. It's a dark and dusty little redwood board and baton shack on the hill just below our house. We were digging through some dusty boxes of old rusty pipe fittings for no good reason when we both let out a scream: a big yellow alligator lizard had run out of the box and up above the window. It lay on a board hissing down at us. We had a deathly fear of this strange, harmless creature.
      Once, at a nearby ranch near Las Cruces, my brother and his friends had chased one down a gofer hole. One of the frenzied boys put his hand into the hole. The alligator lizard bit his finger and would not let go. They all ran around screaming in panicky circles until the lizard at last unlocked his jaws and escaped. My brother, oddly enough, would never recover from this childhood nightmare experience, and somehow he inculcated me with his own deep level of absolute horror whenever I encountered one of these beautiful, glimmering creatures that only inhabited the very darkest corners of moldy barns or dim, spider web-filled shops.
So we both screamed at the top of our lungs and ran like hell out of the blacksmith shop, up the hill to our house, directly to the gun rack with the 22's and BB guns. He grabbed his pump action 22 and a box of bullets, and we raced back down to the shop that held the unspeakable horror.
      We crept back into the shadowy darkness and peered above the window. There it was, just where we had left it. I remember it raised its snake-like head and opened its mouth, hissing at us. BAM! BAM! Three, maybe four shots ran out, each illuminating with a spooky orange flash the queer looking lizard writhing around and being blown to bits. Then came a strange silence, after which we heard my father shouting up the hill. The bullets had whizzed all about him as he had been walking to his metal shop. We didn't really get into trouble, but I don't think we never got into quite such a state over an alligator lizard again.
      At some point, however, my two brothers, who were both older than I, were finally sent to a 4H-gun safety course. In the evening, they would go down to the local school at Gaviota and hear lectures on how to check guns to see if they were loaded, how to go through fences when carrying a rifle, and so forth. I was jealous of all of the secret knowledge I thought they were acquiring, and I envied the little, gold pins and badges they earned while taking the course. They would fasten these merit badges onto their little green 4H caps.
      I remember the night they both graduated from the gun safety course. My parents and I picked them and Earl Oliver, one of their classmates, up on the last night of the class. We stopped by the neighboring San Julian Ranch to take Earl home. Earl's father, a tall, Nevada cowboy named Tex, was the cowboss on the ranch, and he and his wife and my parents all sat down in their living room and started talking. I sat in a chair by myself. Earl and my two brothers, all wearing their green 4H caps, disappeared into Earl's room to mess around. I dozed off. BLAM! A bullet suddenly flew through the wall of Earl's room and went through the ceiling just above where Tex was sitting in his well-worn armchair. Tex looked up at the hole in the ceiling and slowly drawled, "Now, THAT was a bullet." Tex had guns in every corner of every room in his house, and my oldest brother had picked one up and, gun safety or no gun safety course, simply pulled the trigger for no particular reason.
      Probably fearing for their lives, my poor parents, at some point, finally got us all situated in various boarding schools around the state, and our passion for guns quickly faded. Not one of us ever became a mighty hunter or a member of the NRA. I think we had simply worked all of that out of our systems at a fairly early age.
After about thirty years, my mother finally called me and told me to come over and get those cans of gunpowder out of her house. I had forgotten all about them all those years. At that time my daughter and I had been reading a Grey Rabbit story about Guy Fawks Day, so we decided to detonate the remaining powder to help the English celebrate the foiling of the famous gunpowder plot, in which Fawks and his cronies had planned to blow up the House of Parliament, as well as all of its members. The twelfth of November finally came. It was a cold, crystal clear night, a night without a breath of wind, a sure sign that time of year that a heavy frost would come later, in the early hours of the morning.
      I took the bright red cans of gunpowder out into the middle of the barnyard, my breath smoking in the icy night air. I found a large cardboard cylinder about a foot wide and eight inches high. I poured the remaining gunpowder into the cylinder and tucked some Kleenex underneath the bottom of the cone-shaped pile of black powder. I lit the edge of the Kleenex, which I had left sticking out of the side of the pile, and ran quickly back to the edge of the barnyard, where my daughter was waiting. We chanted the old rhyme, "Remember, remember, the Twelfth of November, / Gunpowder, treason and plot, / Who can forget that gunpowder treason/ Should ever be forgot?"
      Then we waited maybe twenty seconds, wondering if the flame had gone out. There was no way I was going to go over and peer into the cylinder to find out. Then it happened: There was a frightening hissing noise, almost a roar, and the next thing we knew, before we could blink, a huge, perfectly symmetrical mushroom cloud, maybe thirty feet high, had blossomed in the middle of the barnyard. It hovered, magnificent, perfectly white, and even monstrous in the perfect winter darkness of the black barnyard.
      Very gradually, as there was no wind whatsoever, the mushroom cloud began slowly to collapse, to fall back down into itself, like a huge, clumsy punctured balloon.
I suddenly realized that this image was a dreamscape, the strange fulfillment of my darkest childhood fantasy and fear, the one I had lived with tacitly all of my life, the one I had thought about in my bed at night before sleep came. It was the bomb to end all bombs, the bomb to end all wars, especially the ever looming war with the goosestep marching Russians, the Chinese troops massed and waiting at the Bering Straits, the missiles streaking downward, out of the darkening sky.
But, really, I guess it was just was the end of my own gunpowder era.  The smoke, a sulfur-smelling cloud, now covered the dark, chilly barnyard, dissipating itself like a low ground fog.