This story is fiction. That is, it’s basically a true story and all the characters are real, but the gaps in my memory have been filled by fiction. Since I’m the lone survivor of this ancient event, who can gainsay my version? – JLW
ONE TIME recently when my wife was annoyed at me for not pressing a merchant to do something he had promised, she said, “You’re just like your mother, you will believe anything anybody tells you.”
I was more amused than anything else at her denunciation and said, “Assuming what you say is true, just tell me one time when my belief that a person will do what he says has caused me any grief. I have been outwitted, cheated, and made a fool of, but not once that I can recall was it because I mistakenly believed that someone would do what he had promised.”
It is not true that I am completely credulous, but it is true that until I have reason to believe otherwise, I believe that a person will do what he says he will do. If he doesn’t do it, I’m not really surprised. I could hardly have failed to notice that many people do not do what they promised, and I am certainly aware that many people are quite lax about doing something at the promised time. Nevertheless, there is some justice to my wife’s characterization.
I tried to seriously think if I had suffered as a consequence of credulity and could not think of a single instance where I was harmed by believing someone who failed to produce.
I used to have a boss who, though obviously worldly wise, conducted his business affairs as if everyone with whom he dealt was honest and straightforward. When he traded his car, he took whatever the dealer offered. He never worried about being cheated or ripped off, and he never worried whether he might get a better bargain on something if he shopped more carefully. Once when he had failed to pay his automobile insurance on time, he called his agent and told me that the agent said, “Don’t worry, I’ll cover it for you until your check arrives.” I advised him that the agent would cover him as long as he didn’t have an accident, but that if he suddenly had a claim he would find himself very much uncovered. My boss simply said, “No, he wouldn’t do that.” In a way I grew to envy his unconcern in that he avoided all the hassles that develop when one tries to be a canny shopper or conduct his business with proper precautions – he never spent hours on the phone trying to force some store or manufacturer to live up to its claims for a product. He just ignored it all and seemed none the worse for doing so.
Finally while thinking about credulity for some time, I did have a flashback of a time when I was deeply hurt by believing someone’s promise. Perhaps that incident, nearly 60 years ago, should have taught me a lesson. Perhaps it did, who knows?
Before tularemia started killing rabbits and rabbit hunters, the first days of the rabbit-hunting season in my hometown brought on a virtual massacre of rabbits. My Uncle Wallace and sometimes my Uncle Morgan would come from Hamilton, Ohio to participate in the carnage. For a few days the woods would be full of hunters, each of whom would kill something on the order of 150 rabbits each day. In a town of about 1000 people more rabbits were killed than could be eaten, canned, or even skinned. It never occurred to me that there was anything questionable about this killing. I loved to shoot, and as far as I was concerned, game was meant to be shot. One time a neighbor, annoyed with birds in his cherry trees, offered my cousin and me a penny for each one we killed in his trees with our BB guns. That afternoon we presented him well over one hundred dead birds and he reneged on his payment giving us a quarter a piece. With a BB gun, I would shoot anything that I thought I could get away with – birds, tin cans, bottles, cars, boys, anything.
On my grandfather’s small farm, my uncles and my grandfather would kill their share of rabbits, and I would tramp through the fields with them, wishing they would let me try their shotguns. I was seven or eight years old, and my grandfather said that I was too small to use his 10-gauge shotgun. Truly I could hardly lift it. Three or four years later I sneaked it out one day and thought the recoil had broken my shoulder when I fired it. He said that I might be able to use a 410-gauge shotgun if we had one but we didn’t have one. My grandfather had a .22 rifle which he sometimes let me use when he took me to hunt squirrels, but he wouldn’t let me hunt with it when so many hunters were roaming around because he didn’t think a rifle was safe then. Hunters were always getting sprayed by each other’s nearly spent shotgun pellets, and even a .22 rifle carries much farther than a shotgun.
One year a man named William Brawner came along with my Uncle Morgan to hunt with him. I remember almost nothing about his appearance, but I do remember that he was very friendly to me and told me interesting stories about his experiences hauling sheet steel in a huge truck. I suspect this became stamped on my mind because a few years later my Uncle Morgan was killed in an accident while doing the same thing. One of the things I liked about Mr. Brawner was that he answered my numerous questions immediately and without showing impatience. My grandfather, a taciturn man at best, would often wait so long to answer a question that I would forget what I had asked or would be three or four questions ahead of his answer. For two days I hunted happily all day with Uncle Morgan and Mr. Brawner and helped carry the rabbits home in the late afternoon when we were finished.
After supper we sat around the pot-bellied stove in the living room, and the men talked about hunting experiences. My grandmother sat close to the lamp and mended clothes without taking any part in the conversation. I sat on the floor near Mr. Brawner and studied my favorite book, the Sears, Roebuck catalog. The two things I wanted most in the world were a typewriter and a 410-gauge shotgun. It was my custom each evening to read all the catalog details about each of these though I long since knew them all by heart. I also wanted a .38-caliber pistol, but I was realistic enough to know I wouldn’t be allowed to have that even if I had the money to buy it. Most of all I wanted the shotgun. I could look at the picture in the catalog and imagine how the stock would feel on my cheek, how loud the discharge would sound, and how hard the kick would be against my shoulder. When children want things, it is with unalloyed passion. I did realize that I had as little chance getting hold of $8.95 to order a shotgun as I did the $40.50 for the rebuilt typewriter. Both prices were so above my reach that they seemed about equal to me.
While I was looking at the pictures of the shotguns, Mr. Brawner said, “Which gun would you like to have?”
I told him that I wanted a 410 because I thought I could shoot it ok. Mr. Brawner then said, “Well, my son has one just about like that one. He ain’t used it in years, and I bet he’d give it to me to bring to give you next year when I come. Course your grandfather would have to agree to you having it.”
When I immediately beseeched my grandfather, he said, “Well, I don’t know. He’s mighty little for a shotgun.”
“You said, Grandpa. You said I was big enough for a 410,” I wailed.
When he gave in, I felt the gun was good as mine. All I had to do was to wait a whole long year. At once I started planning how I would save up enough money to buy a box of shells, and thinking that this time next year, I would be killing rabbits by the dozens.
According to the catalog a box of shells cost 57 cents. If I saved every penny of my income, it would take only four weeks to save up that much money. In summer I could earn a quarter now and then by mowing a couple of neighbors’ lawns and working in their gardens, but there were no paying chores in winter. Each Sunday my grandmother gave me a nickel for Sunday school, and most Sundays when I passed Mrs. Johnson’s house, a few houses down the street from us, she would call me to her door and give me a dime for the Sunday school collection. Some Sundays I had to pass her house two or three times before she saw me. I used to puzzle about her because I heard someone say, “She lives off the interest, never touches her capital.” Anyway, I had long since decided that fifteen cents was too much for the Sunday school offering so I usually handed over the nickel and kept the dime. In an emergency such as saving money for shells, I saw no reason why the whole fifteen cents should not be saved. My only big expense was the Saturday-afternoon movie, and for that my grandmother would give me a dozen eggs which I would sell at the grocery store for a dime for the movie. Sometimes she would give me extra eggs, and I would have a nickel for popcorn as well. By sometime the next spring I had saved enough to buy a box of shells and bought them at the town’s hardware store for a little more than the Sears, Roebuck price. I didn’t ask my grandfather to order them because I didn’t want him to know I had the shells. He had already expressed his skepticism about Mr. Brawner’s promise, and I didn’t want to hear it again.
For Christmas that year I received a rubber stamp outfit in which each letter was a separate little stamp. The first thing I did with it, with some help from my grandmother, was to print a letter to Mr. Brawner reminding him about his promise to bring the shotgun. Each character was about 1/2-inch high so the letter took several sheets of a Big Chief tablet. My capability for alignment was even worse then than it is now so the lines were a bit shaky, but all in all I thought the letter was quite readable. My grandfather said he did not know Mr. Brawner’s address but that he would send my letter to Morgan and ask him to deliver it to Mr. Brawner. It was at this time that he expressed his doubts about Mr. Brawner’s promise. “Sonny,” he had said, “I wouldn’t count on this too much, or you’re liable to be mighty disappointed.”
“He said he’d bring it and he will.”
“Well, maybe,” he said. “I hope so.”
It seemed to me that many years had dragged past before autumn came again and the opening of the rabbit-hunting season was announced. My grandfather got a letter from my Uncle Wallace saying that he and Mr. Brawner would come for the first weekend of the season. I took my shells from their hiding place and looked at them, took them out of the box, and carefully replaced them one at a time like a miser counting his gold pieces. When Friday night finally came and Uncle Wallace’s car pulled into the driveway, I was tense with anticipation.
I helped Uncle Wallace and Mr. Brawner unload their luggage and covertly checked every piece that looked big enough for a shotgun. As far as I could see, they had only two shotguns, their own pump guns. While they were being greeted in the house, I searched the car for a 410 shotgun but could find no package that was long enough to hold one. I knew for certain that Mr. Brawner had not brought the gun. I didn’t see how I could face him, knowing this. As it was already past my bedtime – they had left Hamilton after Uncle Wallace’s working hours – I slipped in by the back door and went to my bed without anyone seeing me. Once in bed, I cried for a while, controlling my sobs so I wouldn’t be overheard and pretending to be asleep when my grandmother looked in on me.
At breakfast, Mr. Brawner tried to make conversation with me, but I replied as shortly as I could, never looking at him. Finally he said, “Well, young man, are you going hunting with us?”
Well, of course, I had been looking forward for a whole year to doing that, but now I didn’t want to. I couldn’t think what to say. I just sat there dumb for a long moment. Finally my grandfather said, “I want Sonny to go hunting with me a little later this morning after I do some chores. I need him to go with me.”
I was astonished. My grandfather took me with him to lots of places but always because I asked or even cajoled. I had never heard him say that he wanted me to go with him or that he needed me for anything. Now I was able to look at Mr. Brawner, and I said, “No, I’m going with Grandpa.”
Later in the morning as we walked through the meadow, I asked my grandfather, “How come you said you needed me to come with you?”
As I mentioned earlier, my grandfather was a self-contained man of few words and given to long pauses and much consideration before he said anything. Usually I didn’t have the patience to wait for his replies before asking another question or going on to talk of something else, but this time I just waited him out.
“I need you to carry the rabbits,” he finally said.
“You don’t, you never shoot but three or four. How did you know that I didn’t want to go with Uncle Wallace and Mr. Brawner?”
“Well, you ain’t exactly poker faced,” he said after a long wait.
“What’s a poker face?”
“Quit talking so much. We came out here to hunt, not to talk,” he said.
“Grandpa, why did he do it?”
A rabbit jumped up in full stride about 50 feet away, and my grandfather quickly raised the gun to his shoulder, and the big gun roared. I ran and picked up the dead rabbit and put it in the bag I was carrying. He reloaded the shotgun, and we walked down the hill and got a drink from the spring that fed the cattle tank. Then some ten minutes after my question, he tried to answer it.
“Well, Sonny, lot’s of people make promises that they don’t really mean to keep. It makes them feel like a big man – offering people things, and it doesn’t cost them anything. Grownups expect that, and kids have to learn it. Trouble is, I don’t reckon there’s any way to learn it without being disappointed like you are. But you don’t want to grow up to do that. You want to be a man that people will say your word is good as your bond. Mind what I say.”
That was the longest single speech my grandfather had ever made to me. I quit asking questions and tried to think about what he had said as we went on hunting. I began to feel a little better, and I even thought of what I could do with the 25 shells I had bought. I would sell all but three or four of them to Fred Ginter who had a 410. My playmate, Dan Palmer, and I would use the rest of them for our game of “bullseye.” On the rare occasions when we could get hold of both a .22 rifle and a shotgun shell, we would stick the shotgun shell into a hole in the door of the tobacco barn, with the cap pointing toward us and then with chalk draw a target about the shell with the cap as the bullseye. Standing about 25 feet from the target, we would shoot in turn until the winner hit the shotgun shell. The resulting explosion was very satisfactory. We considered the game to be great fun and probably quite dangerous, too, and this added a thrill to it.
After my grandfather had shot three more rabbits, we climbed the hill at the back of the farm and walked back across the meadow to the barn where he skinned and gutted the rabbits for my grandmother to cook for our supper.
Late Sunday afternoon I helped Uncle Wallace and Mr. Brawner load up the car for their return to Hamilton. We were all standing around to say goodbye, and after Uncle Wallace shook my hand, so did Mr. Brawner. Mr. Brawner said, “You ain’t been so friendly this year like you were last time. How come?”
My grandmother did something I had never heard her do before. She spoke up in the company of a man, not a family member, without any of them asking her a question. She said, “Well, he was disappointed that you didn’t bring the gun you promised him.”
“Oh, my gosh,” said Mr. Brawner, “I clean forgot about it. I promised to bring you my son’s 410 didn’t I? Well, listen, Sonny, I’ll bring it next year for sure. OK?”
“OK,” I said, but this time I didn’t believe him, and it was a good thing, too, because I never saw him again, and not to this day have I owned a shotgun of any kind.
Hand set in Deepdene; display type is Cheltenham Bold. Question marks on cover are Stymie Open. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 430 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770