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Once Upon A Time In New York City – A coming of age “gun rights” story

October 7, 2013

The year was 1957.  I was not quite 15 years old as I stepped out of the 14th Street National Guard Armory with my book bag in one hand and my rifle in the other.  The streets were crowded with rush hour traffic and pedestrians heading home from work.  I crossed the avenue to wait for the eastbound bus on 9th Avenue.

It never ceased to amaze me that no one particularly noticed me carrying a gun.  Perhaps it was because it was covered in a padded green felt carry case but by shape and size it was obviously a rifle.  I was always self-conscious when I carried it to school and back home.  After all, I was just barely a teenager.

When Brother Augustine came around to each classroom to recruit members for his freshman Rifle Club, I was immediately interested and intrigued by the idea.  There weren’t many sanctioned after-school activities at St. Bernard’s, the Manhattan freshman annex to the Bronx-based Cardinal Hayes Memorial High School.  It would be good to get involved in something.  This could be fun if I could surmount some minor hurdles.  Specifically, I didn’t have a gun and I had no idea how to shoot one.

Most of the twenty students whom the good brother recruited fell into the same category.  However, old Brother Augustine had the answers.  First he made a deal with the local Marlin Firearms Company distributor to provide basic rifles at a deep discount.   Next the National Rifle Association would provide the safety course and certify and sponsor the team as well as provide safety literature, ammo and targets.  Brother Augustine, a lifelong NRA member, would show us how to care for and maintain our rifles and how to shoot them.  This sounded like a pretty good deal.

The Avenue D bus to Alphabet City pulled up and I got on along with a few other people.  It was empty as this was the turnaround stop.  After showing my bus pass I humped my heavy book bag and rifle all the way back to the rear seat.  Still, no one seemed to notice.  Trying to remain inconspicuous, I propped my rifle up by the window and opened a book to start some reading homework.

Joining the Rifle Club meant getting my parents permission as well as footing the bill for the equipment.  We were poor and I knew it would be a strain.  The single shot, bolt-action .22 Marlin could be bought for $15, a month’s tuition at Cardinal Hayes.  Besides, we lived in a tough neighborhood and I figured Dad would turn me down thinking it would make me a target.  After all, a .22 rifle was much more valuable to a gangbanger than a homemade zip gun.  But Dad surprised me.

The bus began to fill up at the next few stops.  A policeman got on at Union Square and began walking the aisle scrutinizing each passenger.  I furtively turned my rifle case around to show the NRA patches.  By that time I had already earned the Safety Course patch and two Marksman patches that Mom had proudly sewn on the flap.  The NRA patches, along with metal badges, were awarded as shooting scores increased and certain proficiency milestones were met.

Brother Augustine turned out to be an excellent teacher and I seemed to have a “shooters eye”.  We shot at a distance of 50 feet at 3-inch targets over open sights from prone, sitting, kneeling and standing positions.  I really wanted those Expert and Sharpshooter badges and dedicated myself to becoming better.

The ammo was strictly controlled and range safety rules were scrupulously enforced, initially by the bear-like Irish Christian Brother and eventually by the self-governing actions of the students. He divided us into 4 teams of five each.  We rotated through the weekly routine he posted conspicuously at the range and while one team was shooting, the other teams were performing other tasks.    We knew that any serious transgression or accident would spell the end of the team at best and seriously injure someone at worst.  By then we had all bought into the program and enjoyed it immensely. We were doing something very special; we knew it and we relished it.

The officer shot a glance my way and for a moment I thought he would question or challenge me.  I pretended not to notice and braced for the embarrassing third degree.  I always carried my Hunter Safety Training Program certificate, issued by the State of New York Conservation Department, in my rifle case.  I also carried my membership card for the NRA-sanctioned St. Bernard’s Rangers, the name we chose for our team.  It could have been the patches, the Cardinal Hayes book bag or my tie and sport coat that convinced him there was no problem.  He got off the bus at the next stop.

Mom was probably behind the “great compromise” that bought me the Marlin.  All I needed to do was keep my grades up and get a haircut.  I got the better of the deal.  With a little extra effort, my grades would not be a problem, even for me coming from a public to a parochial school.  Insofar as the haircut, my long hair and DA back would never have passed inspection when I went to the main Bronx building the next year, anyway.  So I got the haircut!  Dad even threw in another $3 for the sling, which was essential for steadying the rifle on the center of the target.  He remarked that the NRA certification is what sold him.  I still think it was the haircut.

When the bus pulled up at 6th Street and Avenue D I got off and crossed the street into the Jacob Riis Housing Project.  We didn’t have a Starbucks back then but the few times I stopped at Rosie’s candy store for a newspaper or an egg cream, I never freaked anyone out.  Rosie never asked me not to come back.  It seemed like people looked more at the person and their demeanor than simply the gun.

My building was alongside Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive and I walked the one block briskly toward home.  I made this walk every day but it was on Tuesday, while carrying my rifle, I felt most self-conscious.  I sauntered past the 2 Housing Authority policemen who seemed to be in the same spot every day discouraging the after school crowd from playing any kind of ball game.  Invariably, a game would start up as soon as they left but for the moment I had to get by them without incident.  They glanced over and let me pass without intercepting and questioning me.  I nodded to my friends who were gathered on a bench but I would not linger to chat.  We were advised to get home as soon as possible, without loitering, while transporting our rifles.  It made sense to avoid any unnecessary encounter so we followed that admonition, most of the time.  Finally, at home, I placed my rifle under my bed where it would stay until next Tuesday morning.

I really loved being part of the St. Bernard’s Rangers Rifle Club.  We went on to become an extremely competent and disciplined group of shooters.  Almost everyone shot the open-sight Marlin.  Only a few more affluent kids had sophisticated target rifles with covered sights.  One of them was the top shooter on the team.  I was second.  We only had one inter-school meet where our top 5 shooters competed against another high school’s top guns.  We lost but were competitive, disciplined and respectful.  Being held to the high standard of responsibility required to handle firearms built character, even for young teens.  A lot was expected from us.  We learned to handle that responsibility and didn’t disappoint.

The memory of those times and circumstances astounds me to this day so many years later.  I, a young teenager, once traveled on public transportation in New York City, sometimes stopping for a drink and walked through a public housing project with a cased .22 rifle and never had an incident.  Not one, for the entire school year.  Has the world changed so much?

I was saddened when the school year ended.  Tuesday became my special day and I always looked forward to that after school activity.  The group of us learned the essentials about firearms, how to handle them safely, maintain them and enjoy the competition.  It was a new and different set of skills.  We also developed confidence in ourselves and learned to accept the responsibility that others had expected from us and entrusted to us.

The National Rifle Association enabled all of this with their safety training, skills development and support.  There is no telling how many competent and responsible adult firearm enthusiasts exist today because of the help from the NRA.  How many young men and women have thrived, grown and had character building moments because someone taught them and trusted them to handle firearms at a young age?   It’s a sad commentary that New York City has become a hostile and unfriendly “gun free zone” and the NRA has been demonized and excoriated for supporting gun owner Second Amendment rights.

I suppose the world has changed that much.  People now focus on the inanimate object, the gun, and not the person.  Somehow, that doesn’t seem like progress to me.

I eventually earned those Expert and a Sharpshooter badges.  And the level of expertise I achieved served me well years later as a soldier in the U.S. Army.  But that’s another story.

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