By Hyrum Grissom
My old Jeep Cherokee bounced along the dirt road up to the shooting range early on a spring morning. Sitting beside me was my four-year-old son staring out over the Southern Arizona desert as the beautiful orange sun rise streaked out over the purple horizon. “Are we really going shooting Dad?” He asked me, eyes wide . . .
Suddenly I’m four years old again sitting in my Dad’s old beat up Chevy pickup as we headed out to the range on a Saturday morning not unlike this one. Guns arranged behind the back seat in whatever way Dad could get them to fit in those old soft and hard cases.
I’m sitting with a drink from the gas station in my lap, trying hard not to spill it as we bounce down the old Arizona road.
“Thanks for taking me shooting, Dad.” I told him.
I reach over and tussle my sons’ curly hair, just like mine before time took its toll, and I say, “Yeah, buddy. Are you excited?”
He grins at me, his smile taking up the entirety of his little freckled face and he nods enthusiastically.
“Ok, buddy do you remember the rules we talked about?” I ask.
He thinks hard for a minute, “Keep my finger…”
“Off the trigger until it’s safe to shoot.” I finish for him. “Very good. Also remember, don’t point it at anything except what Dad tells you is a target.”
He’s still nodding and smiling at me.
Dad backed his truck in to the parking spot behind the firing line so we could unload. Behind us random pops and bangs surprise me a little and I flinch, noticeably.
“Do you have the squishies your Mom gave you?” Dad asked me.
I unclench my fist; I’d been squeezing them like a treasure I was afraid I’d lose after my Mom’s stern warnings.
He smiled at me a bit; taking them out of my hand he squeezed them before slipping them into first my left ear and then my right.
“Alright, let’s go shoot.” Dad said.
He carried the gun cases but handed me the paper bag from the local grocery store with the ammo.
“Remember, don’t drop it, son.” He said.
I clutched the bag to my chest, willing myself to not let the bag slip as I slowly and proudly waddled up to the bench at the firing line.
It was early enough in the morning that no one else was there; quietly I handed my son the range bag with the little Ruger Mark II in it and a few small boxes of ammo.
“Here, why don’t you put this on the bench there, buddy.” I nodded where I wanted him to go.
Carefully he gripped the small nylon bag in his arms and carried it over to the table, gingerly setting it down.
Quickly I grabbed two targets, one for him, and one for me, and walked to the firing line where my son joined me.
“Go ahead and say it, Son.” Dad said.
“…cold range.” I said in a low voice.
He laughed, gently. “No louder, son.”
“COLD RANGE!” I shouted, uncomfortable for the brief moment as all the adults turned to see who had ordered a stop to the shooting.
I handed my son his target and we walked out into the cleared dirt range. Leaping from spot to spot he asked, “Can I put mine here!?”
“Is that where you want to shoot?” I asked.
With a nod he sat his target down, I walked a few paces further to place mine as well before we turned and headed back to the bench.
Before the range went Hot, Dad saw me fighting with my foamies, each one trying to slip out of my little ears. Placing his hand on my shoulder he stopped me long enough to pluck them out before slipping his headset style on me.
“Now you don’t have to fight it, son.” He said.
Down the line men glanced back and forth as ones and two’s emptied off the range till no one was left down range. Someone at one end called, “HOT RANGE!” It echoed down the long line of the public range till the last bench responded, “HOT RANGE!” Immediately the pops and bangs of every imaginable firearm soon erupted into beautiful cacophony.
Sitting at the bench I held the little magazine in my hand, showing my son how to slide the loading button down as I slipped each round in on top until the magazine was full. With the next magazine I let him try, but his hands weren’t quite strong enough, so I controlled the loading button but taught him how to slip rounds in, one by one.
“Are we ready to shoot now, Dad?” He asked me with a smile.
I winked at him. “I don’t know, are you?” I asked.
His response was half holler, and I’m sure there was a yes in it somewhere.
Together as we slowly loaded the pistol, I reminded him of the sights and what to be looking for, before we slowly chambered a round and I supported his hands while he looked down the sights.
“Are you ready to shoot, son?” I asked.
“Yeah!” He said.
“Alright, are you aiming at your target?” I asked.
“Yes.” He said.
“Slowly, put your finger on the trigger and pull it.” I told him.
A brief pause, a snap, and a small spurt of dust and dirt kicked up a few inches from the target.
“Ok son, try again.” I told him.
We repeated the cycle; he’d look down the sights, and I’d tell him it was ok to pull the trigger and there’d be the old familiar snap and then a small puff of dirt and sand would erupt near the target. First, shots landed to the right, then the left. Sometimes they’d hit behind, and sometimes in front.
I don’t remember if I hit the target at all that first time to the range with Dad. I remember falling in love with the sound of gunfire and the smell of so much powder, the ringing of steel targets and the flight of ejected brass.
As I got older the trips expanded to the whole family. Eventually Dad let me help teach my younger brothers how to shoot.
I learned my Mom loved to shoot, and to be honest, while Dad was decent with a rifle, my mother was born to ranchers who settled the American West, and she was no stranger to rifles or a revolver from childhood and thanks to her, I learned to love both.
But Dad always had his pistol with him. An old Remington Rand he’d been issued when he went overseas. I asked him once why he carried it; the only dads of my friends who carried guns had badges to go with it. He just smiled and said, “I’ve got this because I’ve got you.”
As the Arizona sun crept higher and the heat started to catch up with us, we both started to feel the familiar sweat start to build. I could see the fun and excitement were starting to fade in my sons eyes.
“Alright, buddy, how about one more?” I asked as I held up the last loaded magazine.
A little slower, a little more subdued, he nodded.
We walked through the now familiar steps, the now familiar process of loading the gun. He’d check his sights and then would pull the trigger.
“Slow it down for me, buddy,” I asked. “Remember, line up the front sight on the target, and then slowly just pull the trigger back gently.”
The familiar snap, and there was the echo across the empty range as the little 22LR bullet hit his target and echoed back to us.
“Did I hit it?” He asked excitedly.
“You hit it!” Dad was proud of his son.
“I want to get my target!” He jumped down, ready to run.
“Hang on buddy, let’s go out there together.” I said.
Dad’s been gone nearly 20 years now. He passed long before my sons and daughters were born. But every time I take my kids to the range, I feel closer to him. I’ve tried to teach them all the things I learned. I didn’t just learn how to shoot; I learned about life. I learned about respect. I learned what it means to be a dad, what it means to be a human being.
I have a lot of friends from college who ask why I have guns, why I’m a “gun-nut.” They don’t understand this isn’t a fad; this isn’t rebellion, or even politics. Even a culture seems too simplistic. Whether we are born into it, or adopted into it, whether we start at 4, or 40, it becomes part of us. In so many ways it defines us. And so when we stand for it, it’s because to us, it’s sacred. I know that’s why I love teaching my son to shoot. And I know that my Dad did, too.