Growing up in Indiana, we lived a short drive from Lake Monroe, a big man-made lake just south of Bloomington. My Dad pretty much always owned a boat, and sometimes, two boats–a sailboat and a speedboat. We went boating all the time, every weekend during the summer, more often when school was out. We sailed, we swam, we waterskiied. I couldn’t begin to count how many childhood memories involve boats.
I remember one day in particular, a weekday in the fall, a cold, windy day. My Dad’s sailboat, the Viking Queen, was an old tub, slow and ponderous in normal wind. But on a really windy day, she came to life. This one day–it was a Tuesday, I remember– after school, my Dad and my younger brother and I took the Queen out in a storm. I was, I don’t know, maybe twelve, thirteen. These sirens were going off indicating unsafe high winds–we could see all the other boats sailing in, while we sailed out. And on a gray, sleety, miserable, windy day, Dad and I sailed the Queen. It was the fastest we ever got the old girl to sail. My job was to hold the jib, and to swing the jib over when tacking into the wind, and my hands were red with cold, and I was shivering. And none of it mattered. My Dad and my brother were grinning, sleet pelting their faces, and I felt as elated as they looked. It was one of the happiest afternoons of my childhood. And I had a very very happy childhood.
My brother and I wanted a boat of our own, saved up our babysitting money, and bought a rubber raft, and, on vacation in Utah, we rafted all the way from Deer Creek Dam to Utah Lake. My grandmother kind of freaked out–two little boys, rafting down this dangerous patch of Provo River, except it wasn’t really all that dangerous. It was fun. I was maybe 11, my brother maybe 9. But we had life jackets, we were both really good swimmers. And it really wasn’t all that dangerous a river.
Eventually, the old Queen proved too decrepit to sail, and Dad bought a speedboat, and suddenly waterskiing entered the picture. That was fun too. And he also got this hard plastic sled thing, called a zip sled, and you’d tie that off to the back of the boat, and lay on it, and the boat would tow you, bouncing across the water surface.You could crack a rib on that sucker, especially at speeds that turned the lake surface to concrete, but it still made for a thrilling few minutes.
I got to thinking last night: What would my childhood have been like without boats? It’s hard to imagine. I’m sure it was something of a financial sacrifice for my parents to own a boat, but they had to have thought it was worth it, and they’re right. That’s one of the best ways we bonded as a family, swimming together, waterskiing together, zip sledding. Mostly on Lake Monroe, but we took the boat everywhere, to Lake Powell, down the Ohio River. We took our friends out with us. We loved, loved that boat.
Dad also owned a gun, an old .22 single-shot bolt action rifle. It wasn’t much of a gun, but every once in awhile, we’d go out into the woods and prop some tin cans up on a log with a hill behind it, and we’d back off a ways and shoot. I can remember maybe four or five times we did that–maybe we did it more often, but it wasn’t often enough or important enough to remember.
My childhood would have been tremendously impoverished if we hadn’t had boats. We spent hundreds of hours, maybe thousands of hours, on the water. We loved, loved boating. I can barely remember going shooting, on the other hand. If Dad hadn’t had a gun, and if he had never taken us shooting, my childhood memories would be . . . more or less what they are now. We still would have gone hiking–the gun wasn’t significant.
I was thinking about this yesterday, as we processed the horrific news from Sandy Hook Elementary, from Newtown Connecticut. We were a family that loved boats, and who didn’t really care much about guns. We have family members–mostly people who joined our family via marriage– who don’t have the same boating background my brothers and I enjoyed, but who have similar family memories involving guns. For lots of families, guns matter. They hunt, they shoot skeet, they go target shooting. Guns are how they bond, just like boats are how we bonded. I know of family members-by-marriage whose childhoods were as much about guns as ours were about boats.
It must be horrendous to be a gun lover, right now, to have grown up hunting, to have bonded with Dad and brothers over guns, when something like Newtown takes place. Suddenly guns are being blamed for a horrible murder, for something that evil. You have all these positive gun-related family memories, and suddenly guns are being demonized. As a gun owner, you suddenly become suspect, possibly complicit. You’re branded. You’re a ‘gun nut.’ You’re crazy. You had nothing to do with this insane killer, and you think what he did was beyond horrible, but suddenly you’re being portrayed as someone kind of like him.
I have to think that sucks. I imagine that would be just awful.
I do it too, judge things that way. I don’t like guns, don’t like ’em at all. When our kids were little, and they were invited to play at their friends’ houses, we always asked: ‘was there a gun in the home?’ If there was one, our kids weren’t allowed to play there. I don’t apologize for that either. As a parent, my job is to keep my kids safe, and houses with guns are less safe than houses without guns. Kids explore, kids are curious, kids get into things. Kids like playing soldier, or cop, or cowboy. Boom.
My emotional reaction to guns is to think ‘unsafe,’ just as my emotional reaction to boats is ‘perfectly safe.’ Logically, I know that’s absurd. What were my parents thinking, letting an 11 year old and a 9 year old take a rubber raft down a white water river unsupervised? What was my Dad thinking, taking a sailboat out on a lake while all sorts of sirens were calling all the other boats in? But I don’t think of those situations as unsafe or irresponsible. I tend to think the most irresponsible thing my Dad ever did was keep a gun in the house. I’m rationally aware that that’s nonsense, but that’s still how I feel. Guns=unsafe. Boats=boisterous adventurous fun. I’m glad my brother and I took that raft ride.
I know that most gun owners are responsible people. I think they keep their guns secured, that they train their kids in gun safety and follow gun safety protocols. But I also don’t regret not letting my kids play in gun owners’ homes. Illogical? Of course. But when it comes to our kids, we tend to react emotionally, and not rationally.
I have also heard every Second Amendment argument, and regard them all as spurious. And if there’s one thing I’m grateful for, one tiny shred of news from Newtown that strikes me as positive, it’s that there weren’t any armed citizens in that school. I can just imagine it, how much more horrendous the situation could have been, with an untrained citizen returning fire. How many more kids might have died in a cross-fire?
But that kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere, will leave our nation just as polarized over guns as ever. Eleven thousand handgun homicides a year suggest a real problem. And the President’s comments on Friday suggest that he will be seeking a legislative solution. Now, more than ever, we have to work to find a common ground with gun owners and gun lovers and Second Amendment defenders. Find a way to keep our kids just that tiny bit safer.
I like boats. I need to start looking for things I have in common with those who like guns just as much.