It was lonely being a fan of the hapless New York Mets in the early 60's. It didn't make sense to root for a team that would lose game after game in the emabarrassingly, improbale ways they did but I've always rooted for the underdog. Day after day, my little green transistor radio was plastered to my ear straining to hear Ralph Kiner through the static, trying to remain upbeat.
'You gotta' believe', was our motto and believe I always did.
I was 7 in 1962, that summer of the Mets first official year; they would go on to pile up 120 losses and my Little League team would win our world series. We were an odd pairing. I was the star pitcher and slugger rooting for the worst team in baseball. I had no allies among my friends or teamates, no one to talk to about the Mets but my Uncle Jack. He was the only other person I knew who was a Mets fan, so when we would take the long drive from Long Island to Ridgewood, Queens where he lived, I was always excited until I actually arrived.
Uncle Jack was a WWII vet, a cranky, chain smoking alchoholic who didn't like people chattering while the game was on, especially exciteable kids. I was allowed to sit near him on a foldup chair in what was the livingroom of a railroad apartment, as he sat sunken in the only other chair in the room. He was a small man with a worn face and a protruding, Roman nose that matched perfectly with the peak of his silver, flatop haircut. With one hand holding an unfiltered Camel and the other clutching a can of Piels on the armrests, he was planted in his fuzzy, upholstered chair for the duration of the game.
I don't remember him ever getting up out of that chair, except on that hot, Saturday afternoon.
Uncle Jack and I traded stats and stories of Mets games gone horribly wrong that year before the game began and he was talkative, even complimentary on my knowledge of the team. But as the innings wore on and the alchohol took its toll, he became sullen. He responded less and less to me than to what was happening on the TV, to another inevitable Mets' loss.
I didn't take the cue that it was time to stop talking. I didn't realize he had heard enough.
As the rest of the family gathered in the other half of the apartment, he moved as fast as I'd ever seen him move and in one motion got up, took my arm, opened the door into the hallway and rushed us both down the dark, rickety wooden stairway to the damp basement. Against the wall was a homemade workbench, with a small incandescent bulb strung by a frayed wire from the ceiling. There was an odd assortment of stuff everywhere; old rusted tools, pieces of dirty wood, milk crates and various Maxwell House coffee cans filled with hardware. I recognized the blue can, it was the only thing that made any sense to me, as my little kid brain was wondering why we were there and not watching the game.
Just as my eyes were becoming accustomed to the dim light, Uncle Jack took my arm again and without a word, walked us both to the concrete stairway leading up to the rear yard. The sudden transition from near dark, to the low afternoon summer light was shocking and I tripped several times negotiating the steps. I stood there blinded as I could hear him begin to talk. There he was, head down, sitting low on a milk crate, as talkative as I could ever remember.
Between his splayed legs on the concrete was a can and resting on his knees, a rifle.
Now as disappointed as I was that we weren't watching the game, was as surprised and excited I became ,when I realized that Uncle Jack was instructing me on how to load his rifle. I'd heard about BB guns but I had never seen one before, let alone shoot one. As rabid a baseball fan as I was, my boy fanatacism with anything 'war' related was it's equal.
At home I had thousands of toy soldiers, standing armies of WWII and Civil War battles set up on my bedroom floor. I built and painted models of tanks and airplanes and had every new gun toy that came on the market. If my friends and I weren't playing sports, we were playing war games. I couldn't wait to get home and brag, that I had spent the afternoon shooting a BB gun.
My uncle had built himself a target range in his small backyard. A long wooden bench stood in the weeds at the end of the yard, about 30' feet away, which meant that the back windows of the houses on the other side of the 5' cyclone fence, were within range of an errant shot. Uncle Jack crouched and fired several times into the screwed in coffee cans along the bench. A dull ping and clink could be heard after each shot, as he hit the can and the pellet dropped inside.
He was quite proud of his shooting prowess and his BB recycling system.
His mouth strained a rare, crooked smile. He handed me the rifle, put me in position and left.
So there I was, under the high first floor windows, out of eyesight but within earshot of my mom's laughter, with a loaded BB gun in my hands. The freedom of being outside, by myself, with a loaded rifle, was exhilarating. I had goosebumps as the adrenaline streamed through my veins. The gun was long and it was heavy but the cold steel felt comforting against my clammy skin; I had a grin a mile wide as I squeezed the trigger. I had no idea where that BB went as the kickback almost knocked me over. It took me a while but eventually, I got the hang of it. Ping...clink, my holes in the cans joined the hundreds of others.
I reloaded and shot some more. Ping...clink...ping...clink.
In the corner of the yard was an evergreen shrub, dark green with red berries throughout. It was the same shrub we had at home, the one I always used as my hiding place in our war games, always thick with sparrows. A flock arrived as I was reloading, it sounded like hundreds of them were suddenly in and around that bush and in the silence, a few landed along the edges of the cans. Eventually, only one sparrow remained and it just happened to be on the can in the center.
I watched it, down the long barrel of the gun, do what sparrows normally do in the afternoon sun, it chirped, preened and fluttered its' grey wings. I raised the rifle a little, aimed it purposely at the sparrow and squeezed the trigger. There was no ping....or clink. The sound was not what I expected to hear, honestly I don't know what I expected. I can tell you that the sound and sight of what I saw, immediately hallowed out my stomach, and I could feel the blood draining from my face. I could feel my mouth open involuntarily and I remember very slowly getting to my feet, barely holding on to the barrel of the gun as I stood there, breathless, almost paralyzed.
Whatever feelings I had, I couldn't put a word to them then, all I knew was how overwhelmingly, profoundly........WRONG it felt. I walked through the weeds, dragging the rifle behind me. I guess I was hoping that what I saw, didn't really happen or that maybe the sparrow was still alive. It wasn't, I found it among many other bird carcasses scattered behind that bench. I stood there whispering, over and over and over as tears welled in my eyes, 'I'm sorry', hoping that might make it right or at least make me feel better.
By then, my mom spied me from the window and all hell broke loose. She of course realized what I had done, before she got there and I got clobbered a few times. Then she turned her wrath on Uncle Jack. We left after a very ugly confrontation and never visited that apartment again, but not before my mom scooped up the bird and placed it in a brown paper bag. She made me dig a grave the next day, place the sparrow in a small, cardboard match box and bury it in our backyard. My mom was an animal rights advocate and made sure I had respect, for all living creatures. I learned a hard lesson that day and kept it a secret for years.
It was the last time I saw Uncle Jack before he died a few years later. My mom never forgave him for giving me that gun and he never forgave her, for wrapping that rifle around the wrought iron railing in his backyard, before she left.
I was just a 7 year old kid, but shooting that sparrow and the shame and guilt I felt afterward, forever altered my outlook on guns.
These days, I am devoted to my wife and 12 year old daughter. I have written about them often, here at the Kos. Although I am a gentle soul, I have a fierce determination and commitment to their well being and safety. I don't and never will own a gun.
I just don't believe that a gun, determines or defines my dedication to that commitment.