The Truth, Mainly - 12/11/2000

Christmas guns and other male fantasies
by Leon Satterfield

"I'm making my list," my wife says. "What do you want for Christmas?"

"I thought you'd never ask," I say. "I want a .50 caliber machine gun."

"You'll shoot your eye out," she says. "Now what do you really want?"

"What I really, really, truly ooly want," I say, "is a .50 caliber machine gun. A Browning M2HB HMG like they let me shoot once in the army. It was neato-jet."

"What in the name of the Spirit of Christmas," she asks, "would you do with a .50 caliber machine gun?"

"Oh, you know," I say. "The usual things. Protect our home from unwanted intruders. Save a little on groceries by bringing home fresh venison."

"If you use a .50 caliber machine gun to protect our home from unwanted intruders," she says, "you'll make a real mess. And you don't like venison."

She's right. I would make a mess. And I don't like venison.

"OK," I say. "I'll spell it out. As an American male, I was born with an innate need to have a .50 caliber machine gun. My mother wouldn't let me have one. Now you won't either."

"Stop sucking your thumb," she says. "And where in the world did you get the notion that as an American male, you're incomplete without a .50 caliber machine gun?"

"Everybody knows that American males are incomplete without our Old Betsies," I say. "We always have been. We always will be. Old Betsy, whether it's a Red Ryder BB gun or a WWII bazooka, has been a natural American male appendage ever since we got off the Mayflower."

"And how do you know that?" she says.

"The same way I know everything else," I say. "From going to movies and watching TV and reading books like The Leatherstocking Tales and magazines like 'True Westerns.' Why don't they publish those any more?"

She rolls her eyes and pulls a book out of her knitting basket.

"You read this," she says.

It's called "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture" and it's by a guy named Michael Bellesiles.

"What kind of name is that?" I say. "And why should I read his book?"

"Because," she says, "he teaches Colonial American history and his research goes beyond movies and TV and Natty Bumppo and pulp fiction. He says it's a myth that all of you guys have always had guns."

"And how does he know that?" I say.

"He looked at probate records of the things Americans used to will to their heirs," she says, pointing to page 13. "He says, for instance, that between 1765 and 1790, only 14 percent of settlers in New England and Western Pennsylvania left guns to their kids. And half the guns didn't work."

"Another fuzzy-minded historian," I say. "Facts, facts, facts."

"And he says," she goes on, "that guns had to be imported from Europe and most Americans then couldn't afford to pay two months' wages for one."

"OK, Miss Smartypants," I say, "if they didn't have guns, how did they hunt? How did they get meat?"

She reads aloud a passage from page 103:

"Hunting is and always has been a time-consuming and inefficient way of putting food on the table….If a settler wanted meat, he did not pull his trusty and rusty musket, inaccurate beyond twenty yards, off the hook above the door and spend the day cleaning and preparing it….To head off into the woods for two days in order to drag the carcass of a deer back to his family…would have struck any American of the Colonial period as supreme lunacy. Far easier to sharpen the ax and chop off the head of a chicken ….Colonial Americans were famously well fed, based on their farming, not their hunting."

"Then," I say, "how come I think all good Americans always had guns? Answer me that."

"Because," she says, "you are a boob. You're easily taken in by movies and TV and lousy shoot-'em-up literature."

"Like fun," I say.

"And because," she goes on, "since the mass production of American-made guns after the Civil War, people like Charlton Heston have convinced you that American males are hard-wired to shoot guns. It's a message, you know, that appeals to sexual insecurity. The old gun-as-phallic-symbol business."

"Does all this mean," I say, crossing my legs, "that I don't get my .50 caliber machine gun for Christmas? Because if that's what it means, then how about an M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle? It's only a .30-06."

That's when she bonks me over the head with Bellesiles' book. As a woman she's got a way with words. Just like men have a way with guns. It's nature.

And one more thing: I don't even know what a phallic symbol is.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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