Savage Country

“Do you want to play guns?” he asked me.

This was a complicated question, and while I stood not knowing what to say, the summer heat beat down through the cloudless Virginia sky. Twenty years has gone by now, and each summer heat wave brings back this vivid memory. It will forever be with me, as clear as it was that day when I was eight.

A dozen or so boys watched me, waiting to hear my answer, and not one of them seemed to notice the oppressive humidity hanging thickly about us. The leader of the horde stood out in front, eyes fixed on me, with a toy cap gun in each hand.

The first part of the question that my eight-year-old brain had to address was this boy’s use of the word ‘guns’. He said it like ‘guns’ was an activity. In my universe, guns are not an activity; guns are things, guns are objects, guns are weapons, and guns can be used for many activities, but they are not activities. They can be used for hunting, or warfare, or even the occasional wild west duel that takes place at high noon on a hot summer day with the hero only seconds faster than the crooked sheriff who finally, finally got what was coming to him, but guns, in my universe, were not an activity.

In my world, as an eight year old boy who grew up playing games like, Boggle, and Scrabble, and the magnificent Trivial Pursuit, ‘playing guns’ did not compute. So I stood there silent for a moment as this other eight-year-old boy watched me, his mouth held open slightly, and all the other boys crowding in behind him also brandishing toy weapons of various kinds. They looked for all the world like a tribe of savages. Some were shirtless, some had skinned knees, and one even had an unnoticed booger hanging from his nose. But every one of them burned by the sun under which they played each summer day. They all looked at me like they didn’t understand why I wasn’t responding, as if they couldn’t have asked a simpler question.

But as I mentioned before, his question was multifaceted. I tried to step out of my universe and into some crazy parallel universe where ‘guns’ was an activity. The question then hinged around the rest of his sentence, ‘do you want to…’ Now that was a loaded question, pardon the pun. Did I want to…what? What did ‘playing guns’ entail? I had no way of knowing what I was signing up for. If I said ‘yes’, would I be resigning myself to an afternoon of getting stung by humming steel pellets fired from the smoking mouth of Red Rider BB guns? Entirely possible. I didn’t know what these booger-nosed hooligans were capable of. The mere savagery of that undetected booger was simply beyond my comprehension. A boy who can look another human in the face while standing there in such a state, well, he must be capable of anything. Saying ‘yes’ was right out of the question.

But to say ‘no’, now, there was another conundrum. If I said ‘no’ to the prospect of ‘playing guns’ without knowing what in involved, well I could be passing up on the greatest event of my life. The day I kissed Sally from School was good, but ‘playing guns’… that could be monumental. An eight year old goes to play with savages; he leaves a boy, he comes back a man. I could see the headlines already! The radio broadcasts! The cinema posters! I was sure that to say ‘no’ would be closing the door on one of life’s great opportunities… forever.

“How do you play guns?” I asked back at him.

The tribe’s leader looked at me like I was an alien from outer space assuming the form of an eight-year-old human boy. His eyes scanned my tucked in polo shirt and my khaki pants, and it was as if a realization dawned on his face. He knew right then that I really was an alien from outer space, at least an alien from a different city, a different suburb, and a whole different way of life. He realized that I had a whole different culture, and he didn’t hold it against me for a minute.

He just held out a Smith and Wesson replica cap gun and said, “You take this one, and shoot at me, and I’ll take the other and shoot at you.” He paused for a moment, looking at me to see if I understood, and then finished with, “It’s every man for himself.”

I took the toy six-shooter in my little hand, and I swear I grew six inches taller. My universe turned on its head. My world flipped upside down. But never for one minute did I want anything else. In my old universe there was order, there was reason, there were games that have boards, and rulebooks, and winners and losers. But here, out here in savage country, there were no rules; there was mayhem. Glorious mayhem. No winners. No losers. Just endless hours of joy serenaded by the pap-pap-pap of the cap guns, and the happy hollers of eight year old boys. Eight-year-old boys being eight-year-old boys.

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6 thoughts on “Savage Country

  1. I suppose I would have been one of the shirtless, skinned knee group opposite you. We were country and small town kids in the 50’s and early 60’s. Playing WITH toy guns was matter of fact and “normal”. Every kid I knew did. Not one had that mom who did a background check on playmates. Our biggest problem was that no one, NO ONE wanted to be the bad guy. It was unthinkable that we would even pretend to be the schlump who tried to shoot Superman or Wild Bill or Sky King. So we had to have imaginary bad guys. Making up awful names for them and vanquishing them over and over. I look back at it now and well, now I get to do it all over again. Making up bad guys and having my sometimes not so heroic heroes vanquish them in various ways. The childhood training ground for a novelist.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the comment, Mike!

    In all honesty, I also grew up on the shirtless, skinned knee’d side of this story. I just grew up in a suburban neighborhood, so we had to be super creative. Picnic tables became warships, back porches became fortresses, and about 2000 loops around the house became the Oregon Trail.

    But there were two things that I remembered feeling from those days: One was the complete confusion when I met a neighborhood kid who grew up playing video games and didn’t know how to imagine fighting off the Union Army (I was raised in Virginia) at the battle of Fredericksburg, or unleashing a cloud of arrows on the French Cavalry at the battle of Agincourt. It baffled me, and I remembered feeling like they were just a little bit alien.

    The other thing I remember, is feeling that the neighbor kids thought that we were completely mad. A few of them would want to play with us, and we would welcome them, but I really believe that the neighbors thought we were insane.

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  3. This is great quality writing. I would frame the story as if the speaker is an adult telling a story when he was eight. Right now, it reads like we are inside the mind of an eight-year old. However, this character clearly has an adult mind by the level of diction and description.

    Minor edits; I would delete “back at” in your dialogue tag. No semicolon after “space”. A semicolon functions like a period in this instance. It would have to be followed by an independent clause.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really appreciate your feedback. I definitely meant this to be from an adult looking back, but it certainly didn’t come across as clearly as I had hoped. Tried to clarify in the second paragraph. Good catch on the semicolon! I like using “back at” in this case because I want to try to convert that the adult is being pulled back to his eight year old self in small ways as he delves through this memory. But when I do a rewrite, I will definitely take another look at that.

    -Anderson Ryle

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Back Doors of Fancy Places – Live | anderson ryle

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