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You’ll shoot your eye out, they said. I bought the gun anyway.

At Christmastime in 2019, one man reckons with a childhood filled with toy guns.
Peter Billingsley sits on Santa's lap in a scene from "A Christmas Story." [MGM]
Peter Billingsley sits on Santa's lap in a scene from "A Christmas Story." [MGM]
Published Dec. 18, 2019
Updated Dec. 30, 2019

Sounds of the season are in the air: Merry Christmas, Peace on Earth, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” Fans of the movie A Christmas Story will recognize that last statement as the curse of young Ralphie, a Hoosier kid in the 1940s who wants, more than anything, a BB gun for Christmas. And not just any BB gun. He wants the Holy Grail of BB guns, a Red Ryder special.

Ralphie has grown up fueled by cowboy adventures on the radio. Grownups have no desire to blunt Ralphie’s imagination, but they are alert to real world dangers. First his mom, then his teacher, and finally a department store Santa all deliver the same crushing blow: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” No one wants to lose an eye for the shallow pleasure of BB target practice.

My brother Ted was born with vision in only one eye. My brother Vinny lost an eye to an infection after surgery. I remain the only Clark brother with two working eyes. And yet I have decided to fulfill my own childhood dream. I’ve purchased a BB gun, at Walmart, for $24.99, a Red Ryder model, almost identical to the one Ralphie’s dad delivered on that cinematic Christmas morning. I want to be just like Ralphie and shoot imaginary bad guys right in their saddlebags.

Christmas on Long Island, 1959

I remember in living color the glorious Christmas of 1959 when I was 11. I grew up on Long Island, but my fantasies were of the West. The cowboy adventures of radio and film had migrated to television. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and countless other heroes galloped in black and white across a 15-inch screen. Horses, big hats, spurs, stage coaches, sheriff badges, lariats, saloons, cattle rustlers and gun fights, lots of gun fights, propelled the action.

Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger. [AP]

Western heroes were great marksmen (or women, if you count Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane), but they were portrayed as reluctant sharp shooters. They used their weapons for protection, often shooting a gun out of an outlaw’s hand rather than shooting to kill. On the big screen — or the small one — the good guy wore a white hat and rode a beautiful horse. He was the quickest draw in the West. He could deliver a bullet to the bad guy and leave him lying in the dust without ever spilling a drop of blood. Western heroes were brave, they were virtuous, and from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy, they were so, so cool.

Their guns were cool, too. Each television hero had a special weapon, which became toy merchandise, like Ralphie’s Red Ryder rifle, which is still being sold by the Daisy company in an 80th anniversary edition. Under the tree in 1959 I got a derringer, like the one Jock Mahoney kept up his sleeve in the series Yancy Derringer. I got a replica of a Colt .45 pistol. I got a Fanner 50, a Mattel toy that allowed rapid shooting by fanning the hammer. I got a Buntline Special, a handgun with a long barrel and breakaway holster used by Hugh O’Brian to portray Wyatt Earp. Steve McQueen played the bounty hunter in Wanted: Dead or Alive with a cut-down, lever-action rifle — the Mare’s Leg — strapped to his side.

But the treasure of all treasures was a toy replica of the fast action rifle used by Chuck Connors on one of the best written and acted Westerns of all time, The Rifleman. Connors raised his TV son, played by Johnny Crawford, and helped protect a small Western town from the weekly invasion of shady and dangerous characters.

In the classic "A Christmas Story," all young Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Daisy "Red Ryder" BB gun. [MGM]

Caps for sale

All of the toy weapons I received in 1959 were made to seem more realistic by the use of a tiny paper explosive called a cap. A BB gun fired an actual projectile. You could shoot someone’s eye out. Not with our arsenal. I was quite satisfied by the sight, sound and smell created by the percussion of a toy gun’s hammer against a roll or ring of caps. If I close my eyes, I can still smell them.

Caps were sold in variety stores in strips or discs. Containing a small amount of gunpowder (potassium perchlorate, sulfur and antimony sulfide) they created the snappy sound, pungent smell and puff of smoke we took for real weaponry. If a kid did not have a cap pistol or rifle, he or she could just sit on the sidewalk and strike caps with rocks. For weeks your winter coat would smell like you had just been caught in the crossfire of the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

If you didn’t have caps for your gun, you knew what to do to make your playtime come alive. You could have great fun imitating the sounds of gunshots and ricochets. Kerchow! Kerching!

Going outside to play

This reminiscence reminds me how much I enjoyed playing outside, even in cold weather. If we weren’t eating, doing homework or watching TV, we were outside playing seasonal sports and imaginative games. I realize how different my play life would be if I were a kid today. I’m sure that my game life, even in good weather, would be inside. A PlayStation console would gain me access to vivid point-of-view shooting games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and Rainbow Six Siege, all favorites of my grandson.

If I were holding a toy gun today, it would be manufactured by law to look unrealistic, even if it shot foam projectiles across a room or a backyard. Every toy gun must have an orange plastic cap in the barrel so that it can’t be mistaken for a real gun. One of the dangers of toy guns is that they can be perceived as real. A child that brings one to school to show a friend can get in big trouble. Sadly, children carrying toy guns have been shot and killed by police, a particular danger for children of color.

Not long ago I went into Best Buy to see what toy guns looked like these days. For about $7 I purchased a Hasbro Nerf Micro Shots Rough Cut 2X4. “Got to have one of these,” I said to the young clerk. It is approved for ages 8 and up. It is white, orange and black, more like a space blaster than a Saturday Night Special. It fires two foam projectiles with this warning: “Do not aim at eyes or face.” The clerk explained I could build a full arsenal of Nerf weapons, some that suggest automatic weapons or bazookas.

“This will do for the squirrel in my yard,” I joked, holding up my new toy.

“No,” he said, “for a squirrel you need a BB gun.”

Be careful where you point that finger

I remember a zealous mom who insisted that no son or daughter of hers would ever get to play with a toy weapon. This well-meaning resolution lasted until the moment she realized that her son could turn any object into a weapon, including his own hand. A fallen tree branch could be retrofitted as a rocket launcher. Want to play Star Wars or Harry Potter? A resourceful tyke could find lightsabers and magic wands in any garage or tool shed.

I have now read the opinions, pro and con, about purchasing toys weapons for children. I have come to believe that, in a culture saturated with guns, toy weapons are, with a little supervision, a good thing. They are, in general, a harmless expression of childish aggression. They help separate in a practical way what is real and what is imaginary. They can prepare the way for serious conversations about gun safety.

If my 11-year-old Christmas was my best, my 12-year-old Christmas was my worst. My parents assumed, or wanted to think, that I had outgrown my toy guns. They bought me a winter coat. An ugly one. One that I came to detest wearing, especially at the school bus stop. It was the kind of coat that bullies would rip off your back and throw out the bus window. In short, the coat turned out to be more dangerous to my interests than my toy weapons.

Home at the range

I provide absolute proof that a youthful affection for toy guns does not foreshadow a shoot-'em-up lifestyle or membership in the National Rifle Association. Unlike my son-in-law, an ex-Marine, I did not experience military service. Unlike my dad, a U.S. customs officer, I was not required to keep and show proficiency with a weapon. (Dad kept his gun in a locked box on a high shelf in a closet. I never saw it.)

It might surprise you to learn that I never fired a real gun until I turned 70 years old. My son-in-law Dan took me to an indoor firing range in Clearwater. It was an eye-opening, if ear-shattering, experience. The place was run with meticulous care for safety, and after signing some papers, donning a pair of noise blockers and picking out a paper target, we entered the shooting area and posted a target at a distance of 30 feet. Although they were available, I did not choose targets with a human form, opting instead for a traditional target with concentric circles and a bull’s-eye. I hit the bull’s-eye just three times in about 50 shots. The recoil was stronger than I had imagined. That was the first of several surprises.

Marksmanship was harder than I thought. The noise in that confined space, even with ears covered, was deafening and scary. It made me think of the sound terror that must be part of mass shootings. A semiautomatic spit out hot empty shell casings like popcorn. If an adult Ralphie used one, a shell might hit him in the eye. I am glad Dan took me to the range. I hope to return.

This may sound controversial, but in American culture some familiarity with firearms seems like a civic benefit, maybe even a responsibility. You may not want to own one. But what if you find one? Or find yourself in a place where someone — for good reasons or ill — is determined to use one?

Ralphie’s mom was right

When Ralphie went out into the snowy backyard on Christmas morning and aimed his new BB gun at a target, the projectile ricocheted, broke his glasses and bloodied his cheek. Prophesy fulfilled, Ralphie had but one recourse: to lie his little ass off. Yes, of course, Hoosier mom, it was an icicle that hit me.

The headline on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission alert reads: “BB guns can kill a person. High-velocity BB guns, which have muzzle velocities higher than 350 feet per second, can increase the risk. The CPSC has reports of about four deaths per year caused by BB guns or pellet rifles.”

Here are typical warnings attached to BB guns, which turn out to be something quite different than the weapons I received in 1959: Not a toy; adult supervision required; misuse or careless use may cause serious injury or death; may be dangerous up to 350 yards; recommended for use by those 16 years of age or older.

That led me to re-read the warnings across the box containing my Red Ryder carbine: This product can expose you to lead, which is known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Warning: Do not brandish or display this airgun in public. It may confuse people and may be a crime. Police and other may think this airgun is a firearm. Do not change the coloration and marking to make it look more like a firearm. That is dangerous and may be a crime. Warning: for ages 10 years or older.

OK, I get it, I get it. My new plan is to resort to the land of make-believe. In my mind, my new rifle will be a toy, a cap gun. No BBs will be fired in the yard, the garage or the house.

If any of those bad guys show up at the ranch, I will aim and fire at the varmints, using the best voice gunshot noises ever created: KERCHOW! KERCHOW! BAM BAM BAM! PCURR! PCURR! KERCHOW! KACHING! Take that, Dangerous Dan, you desperado!

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times. He is the author of several books, including “Writing Tools” and the upcoming “Murder Your Darlings.” He lives in St. Petersburg. Contact him at rclark@poynter.org.

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