“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.
Banner Image: By Alf van Beem (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons