My father took half a dozen empty quart oil cans from the trunk of our family car, pitched them into the small, slow-moving stream, then loaded a single-shot .410 shotgun and handed it to me.
“There…,” he said, pointing at the oil cans bobbing in the water. “Hit one of those.”
I raised the small shotgun to my shoulder, pulled back the hammer, and let fly. I can’t remember if I hit one of the cans on that first shot or not, but I remember it feeling good.
Wow! I thought. I just shot a real gun for the very first time!
I wouldn’t recommend introducing a kid to firearms in that way today, but it was the late 1950s when I first pulled the trigger and things were different then, especially in the Midwest. Most everyone who lived in the country owned at least one gun and hunted. And if one of the local farmers had driven by and seen Dad and me sinking those cans in the creek they would have smiled and waved. Like I said, things were different.
That same year, a long, narrow, neatly-wrapped package appeared under the Christmas tree a week before the big event—and it had my name on it!
I waited until my parents weren’t looking one day to heft the package, then gently laid it back in exactly the same place, hoping they wouldn’t notice it had been moved. Yep, the weight was about right, but could I even dare hope what it might be?
The last few days before Christmas dragged by at the glacial pace they always do for any kid, the package growing ever more tantalizing by the day. Finally, the morning arrived, and Dad gave me the nod over his second cup of coffee. I quickly tore the wrapping off the package and discovered a dark-brown, well-worn gun case beneath.
Holding my breath, I slowly unzipped the case to reveal a .22 caliber, lever-action Marlin, model 39A. Remembering my recent hunter-education course instruction, I kept the muzzle pointed in a safe direction as I pulled the little rifle from its case and beamed at my father.
“It’s not new,” he explained. “But it’s yours.”
I shot the Marlin a few times that winter, with Dad showing me how to load the gun, line up the sights, and squeeze the trigger. But we did more frequent shooting the following summer, once the weather had warmed. My parents were members of an area boat club, and we took the .22 with us on weekends to the lake. This was no fancy boat club, mind you, and we didn’t even own a boat. But my uncle did, and my parents joined the club so we could use his boat occasionally.
The boat club was a great place to shoot a .22 because there was an old, abandoned dump nearby, with plenty of rusty cans and glass bottles and jars to use as targets. And each trip Dad would dutifully remind me of the basics of gun safety before we started plinking.
But one day, several summers later, life suddenly changed. We were at the boat club once again on a warm summer afternoon, and it came time to shoot the .22. “You go ahead,” said Dad. “I think I’ll just sit here in the shade by the lake.”
It was a simple yet profound statement. In essence, he was saying, I trust you now. You may still be a kid, but you’re no longer a child. I trust you to be responsible with your .22.
“Just don’t shoot yourself in the foot,” he added, smiling.
We’ve all likely had life experiences such as that, shooting a small-gauge shotgun for the first time that led to firing a .22, or maybe vice versa. Those early childhood experiences were the start of a lifelong enjoyment of firearms for me, a love that I have since passed on to my children and they are now passing on to theirs.
My point is that I own firearms today because my father did before me—a right and privilege we as Americans enjoy that much of the rest of the world does not. And in addition, firearms are a heritage; a heritage that must be intentionally passed down from generation to generation. And that’s what the NRA is all about.
Unfortunately, there’s a sober ending to my story. Years later, after I had married, my lever-action .22 Marlin and the little .410 shotgun were stolen from our home, both probably pawned for some quick cash. I think of those two guns from time to time, wondering where they are today. I like to believe they’re still around somewhere, still thrilling yet another young person as they did me more than half a century ago, starting him or her on a lifetime love of shooting.
Readers, what was your first gun? Do you have it still? What do you plan to do with it? Tell us in the comments!