It all started when the magpies invaded my garden. Not only was their metallic croak nerve-grating, but they soon homed in on my bird feeders and frightened away the much smaller chickadees, redbreasts, and sparrows that had gorged on the seeds throughout the winter. Then a flock of pigeons took up residence on the roof of my garage and started snooping and clucking around the feeders. Even though they were too big and clumsy to perch on them, they would waddle on the ground and peck at the spillings. Like the magpies, they made the neighborhood less attractive to the smaller birds. Whenever I saw these bullies through my kitchen window, I would rap on the pane or open the door and clap my hands to frighten them away. Sometimes it scared them off, but often as not they would flutter away briefly and return. I tried throwing pebbles in their direction, but my aim was erratic and the feathered beasts were not impressed.
Then an idea took shape in my mind: I would solve the problem with an air rifle. I had no intention of killing the intruders. I would just pop them in the tail feathers or wings. They would soon realize my garden was an inhospitable environment and move on to somebody else’s garden. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to get my hands on a BB gun. This was just before Christmas. When my wife asked me what I wanted as a gift this year, I said I wanted a pump-action air rifle. She thought I was joking. I explained that it was not really about the gun, it was about chasing away magpies and pigeons. She found the idea ridiculous, but I persisted. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized it was about the gun. I wanted that object—trigger, stock, barrel and all.
It was a strange desire on the part of a staunch opponent of America’s gun culture. I have unfriended people on Facebook for posting photos of themselves posing with their arsenals. Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Brook, and all the other countless gun massacres sent chills up my spine and filled me with anger at the feckless politicians who do nothing to control the spread of deadly weapons. Yet here I was desiring, even craving, an object that had the size, shape, and feel of a real rifle. Was I wavering on the gun question?
No. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my fixation was something whose deepest roots went back to my childhood. When I was about 10, my father bought me a pump-action Daisy air rifle. I don’t know why he chose that particular gift—he wasn’t a hunter or sportsman and, in fact, I never saw him shoot or even hold a gun. He hadn’t even been in the army, excluded from the draft by a heart murmur. Maybe I begged him for it, wanting to play cowboys and Indians or something. Or wanting to be like my Mississipi cousins who actually had .22 rifles and went hunting. Whatever the reason, I got the gun and I fell in love with it. I loved the smell of oil on metal, the feel of the imitation wood grain stock on my cheek, the adjustable crosshairs on the telescopic sight, the sound of BB’s rolling around in their chamber, and the thwunk when I squeezed the trigger. Most of all, I loved hitting targets—coke bottles propped up on driftwood logs along the levee, paper targets nailed to tree trunks, matchsticks glued to the sides of cardboard boxes. And I was good at it. I could actually split matchsticks at 20 feet. My father was impressed. “If we ever have a shooting war again,” he told me, “you’ll make a hell of an infantryman.” Those words made me proud. That gun was part of a father-son bond, and a source of paternal approbation.
Though I was never into hunting, I must confess there were times when I shot at birds while wandering through the woods. I once killed a sparrow perched on a tree branch. It fell at my feet with its little head bleeding and its wings flapping helplessly. Then it lay still. I felt terrible and buried it in the sandy ground under a pile of leaves. Another time I shot at a pigeon on a neighbor’s rooftop. Hit in the head, it reeled over and fell down the chimney. The neighbor found it in her fireplace the next day and called an exterminator to remove it. I don’t think I actually intended to kill that pigeon, but I was remorseful—and fearful that my parents would suspect me of doing the deed. (If they did, then never let on.)
Those are the only birds I remember killing. But I did do other dumb things with my air rifle, mainly egged on by friends. From the balcony of my parents’ home, a schoolmate and I traded potshots at a corner streetlight until we finally chipped through the glass globe and hit the lightbulb inside. It sparked briefly then went dark. Our momentary triumph was tinged with fear of being charged with destroying public property. We immediately hid the rifle under my bed and retired to the TV room to provide an alibi. Another night, we shot at the side of my father’s corrugated iron garage as someone was passing on the sidewalk. It made a loud whack and the pedestrian skeedaddled. Stupid kids. And lucky: what if the victim of our practical joke was packing a real gun and shot back at us? In a crime-ridden city like New Orleans, that was not a far-fetched scenario.
I eventually grew out of my gun infatuation as I grew older and my interest shifted to learning the clarinet and playing Beatle tunes on my guitar. By the time I went off to college, my Daisy pump-action was a distant memory. I have no idea what happened to that gun. There was no sign of it when I cleared out my parents’ home many decades later. In fact, I never even thought of it again—until the magpies and pigeons in my garden suddenly brought it back to mind.
For a time, I was dead bent on getting another BB gun. Seriously. I even visited the quaint old shop of an arms dealer in my town of Saint Germain-en-Lay, 10 miles west of Paris. I had observed it for years without ever going inside. It was a tiny storefront with a green wooden door and a window full of lethal-looking shotguns and enormous hunting knives with jagged blades. Inside the cramped interior, dusty display cases held row after row of rifles of various sizes and shapes. Behind the counter sat an elderly man who eyed me with suspicion, or perhaps contempt at my manifest ignorance of firearms. When I asked about BB guns, he exchanged amused glances with another white-haired man, apparently a customer. He pointed to a display case containing half a dozen guns. “Those are all air rifles,” he said. “They start at 250 euros”—close to $300. I said I was really looking for something in the 50 euro range. The two men laughed. “For 50 euros, cher monsieur, maybe you can get a cap gun, but not here!”
It turned out his air rifles shot lead pellets, not BBs, and they were used by competitive target shooters. “What do you want an air rifle for?” asked the man behind the counter. “Just to shoot at pigeons in my garden and scare them off,” I replied. He guffawed again and shook his head. “Monsieur, this is illegal—and dangerous. I will not sell you a rifle for such a use.” I left the shop enlightened, if somewhat humiliated. Back home, I found a whole line of Daisy air rifles on the Internet at prices starting around $35. I considered ordering one, but suddenly realized I didn’t want it any more. Had I finally grown up?