Posted by jdg | Wednesday, August 08, 2007 | , ,

After a mile and a half ride, I would lug my bike across a fallow corn field to get to the gun shop, a windowless pole-barn set on a hill overlooking the nearest blue highway, a road my parents specifically identified as too dangerous for cycling. The gun store had been around for more than half a century and had some legitimate business name, but it was always known simply as GUNS, because the word GUNS stood on its exterior in giant 10-foot letters that glowed red for miles across the county. The journey across that corn field and back usually discouraged any follow-up visits for a few months: the ground was uneven and it was often easier just to carry the Huffy than roll it through the waist-high switchgrass and forbs.

I grew up in what then seemed like "the country." But that fallow field was never replanted, as far as I know. Now it is a parking lot for a big box hardware/lumber store, with a McDonalds, a Subway, and a tire store out there islanded by asphalt. It was all built after I went to college. But at thirteen, it felt so liberating just to leave home on my own two wheels and go to a store, even if all it sold was weaponry I couldn't buy. Once every summer, the farmer who owned all that land would have an all-day sheep auction and he would hire a lady to sit in a trailer and ladle sloppy joe meat from a crock pot onto wonder buns for a dollar each. She also sold candy and pop. I looked forward to riding my bike down to that trailer every year. There was something so satisfying about being able to engage in such commerce on my own accord. That's partly why I loved going to GUNS. They had a pop machine and charity candy for sale at the counter. I remember strolling through the aisles of the gun shop, staring at semi-automatics and revolvers, assault rifles and shotguns. I admired the sophisticated lines of vintage Walthers and Lugers, the slick, gimicky plastic of the Glocks, the harsh beauty of a Sig Sauer .45 caliber handgun. I would spend hours there, wandering with the distant staccato of small-arms fire from the basement shooting range, dreaming of turning eighteen, examining everything from boxes of bullets to the armpit holsters to the compound bows and their vicious broadhead arrows. I would hover over the case of Rambo knives, listening to the clerks describe to their customers what kind of damage the various pistols would do to an intruder's skull. When you're a 13-year-old boy, you are not just grateful that the only business within bike-riding distance is a gun shop and not, say, a place that sells dollhouse miniatures or scrapbooking supplies. You are in heaven.

One night, a few years later, GUNS caught fire. My dad and I drove over there in his truck, while the disco lights of the local constabulary and the firetrucks and the red ten-foot letters of GUNS itself were outmatched by the flames illuminating the night. There is a strange sense of community when some local building catches fire: neighbors come out from behind their televisions and have conversations when they might not have spoken in years; hands are shaken, news exchanged. Someone is a grandfather now. Somebody else had a good old dog die and now they got a new one. Word quickly spread throughout the township that GUNS was on fire, and soon more rubberneckers in pickup trucks and station wagons were lining up along a road that now spans five lanes between a Wal-Mart Supercenter and a Meijer's Thrifty Acres, all assessing the heroism of the township fire department, the performance of the brave volunteers, the possibility of a malicious cause of the blaze, and the speculated damage to our township's lonely island of commerce. I remember some men were drinking beer, the flames reflected in their glasses. Before the fire could be contained, the building was rocked by a series of explosions: enormous hollow, echoing booms, probably from the cannisters of gunpowder. "It's nearly muzzleloading season," a nearby man said. "They sell a lot of black powder there."

Then the ammunition boxes caught fire. I remembered where they were kept along the eastern wall of the store, 25-round boxes of Remington buck shot piled 50 high and ten deep, hundreds of boxes of .45 caliber bullets and countless 5,000 round boxes of Winchester rifle ammunition. Now you could hear them whistling into the darkness. The volunteer firefighters tore away from the scene in their Broncos, cops barreled towards us screaming through their loudspeakers to get the hell away from there, bullets, they said, were flying in every direction. I've never seen my dad drive so fast, my teenage body tucked snug under his right elbow, my shoulder practically against the wheel and his big battered hand around my head.