08 April 2008

Roger and Me

"Play me a song about pistols and rifles
Winchesters, Smith and Wesson, .45's and Enfields
Saddle 'em up and ride 'em down
There's a darkness out on the edge of town
Preacher at the graveside with a bible
Play me a song about pistols and rifles"

--"Pistols and Rifles" by Fred Eaglesmith

I once read somewhere that every boy needs an old man. It takes an old man to teach a boy how to do important things, like how to spit, how to skip rocks, the proper and correct way to capture a frog, and how to protect yourself against Indians. I was lucky enough to know such an old man while I was growing up. His name was Roger. He was my friend.

He was born, September 9th, 1901. Just three days before, President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo, NY. Five days later, Mckinley was dead and Theordore Roosevelt took the oath of office.

The town he grew up in was very different than the late 1980’s suburb that we knew. While he always knew of cars, he also knew of horses, buggies, and blacksmiths. He was in his early 20’s when radio came to prominence and in his fifties when TV supplanted it. He had first hand knowledge of things we had only read about or had seen on TV like milkmen, iceboxes, and speakeasy’s.

My friends and I started visiting Roger for one reason and one reason only, CANDY! Roger ALWAYS had candy, or cookies, or some other kind of sweet treats and he happily shared with us. We would drop by, and listen to him tell us stories about the good old days while we munched away.

There was the time when he and a friend “borrowed” an old buckboard wagon and rode it down a winding mountain road, whooping and hollering, until they hit a tree and were thrown off. There was the time when he shot three deer with one bullet, and another when he caught five fish on one hook. Not to mention his numerous victories against the local Indians.

He had done it all. In his life he had been a cowboy, a pirate, a bootlegger, and an astronaut. But, would you expect anything less from a man who graduated high school in the top ten of his class? (There were only eight students).

One day. when I was about 12, I noticed a .22 rifle leaning against the wall by the front door. I asked if it was loaded and he said it was, that he always kept it loaded, “in case the Indians attack” he said with a knowing grin.

“Do you want to shoot?” he asked heartily.

“Sure!” I said, both excited and a bit nervous. I had never shot a gun before

He sprang to his feet, picked up the weapon and walked spiritedly out the door. He pointed the rifle away from the other houses on the block, into a pocket of woods, leveled the barrel, took aim at nothing in particular, and fired. He handed me the rifle, showed me how to brace it against my shoulder, how to put the safety on and off, how to work the bolt action, and and how to gently squeeze (never jerk) the trigger.

I followed his instructions carefully, and, trembling just a bit, ever so gently pulled the trigger. It was only a .22, but it seemed to explode in my hands, the but of the rifle pushing back against my shoulder. I am pretty sure I didn't hit anything. I hadn't even really aimed at anything. I re-loaded and fired at will, shooting wildly into the woods. When we were done, he loaded the rifle, and put it back in its place leaning against the wall by the front door.

As far as I know, the rifle stayed right there for the next six years until one day in the spring of 1992. Roger, now blind, and nearly deaf, and unable to care for himself, felt his way to the front door, stood the rifle upright, raised the barrel to the underside of his chin, and pulled the trigger.

I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day, six years before, on the first day I ever shot a gun, I watched Roger load the bullet that would one day take his life. Every time I hear “Pistols and Rifles” I can’t help but think of him. I never got to say goodbye.

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