A 22 Rifle Christmas
By Roy W. Harris
I was awakened by the smell of homemade biscuits rising softly from the oak fired cook stove and quietly hanging like an invisible cloud over the bed. The sun still had a good hour to travel before rising in the morning sky. Mammy (my grandmother) had been busy in the kitchen since 4:00 am preparing biscuits from scratch along with fried chicken (yes fried chicken for breakfast) and her family trophy winning chocolate gravy. We dressed quickly and made our way through the early dawn to the barn 100 yards or so away. The biting cold morning air was forgotten as we placed the bucket in the proper place and old Betsy yielded her cream rich milk.
We soon found ourselves back at the house and seated on long benches beside the large table surrounded by a morning feast fit for Harris & Brown royalty. Biscuits, fried chicken and oh yes; that wonderful chocolate gravy. After breakfast mom, dad, my brother and I piled into the car and headed a few miles up into the hills to the Thorn Gap community where my grandma and grandpa Harris lived.
Billy Lee Livingston was a legend in our minds. He was bigger than life with his stretch suspenders and long sleeve shirt moving from the gas pumps, to slicing bologna to punching keys on the manual cash register. The car lumbered down the big hill and coasted into the small parking lot beside Billy Lee’s Store. I couldn’t wait to get inside. I knew there would be a cold Dr. Pepper waiting for me. But more importantly, dad had given me 50 cents to buy a box of 22 rifle shells. I knew
exactly where the gun ammunition was located in Billy Lee’s store. I breezed
through the door and around the black pot bellied stove making a bee line for
the shells. I quickly picked up a box and plucked them and my 50 cents down on
the counter. I’d completely forgotten about my Dr. Pepper.
Uncle Luke, my dad’s older brother, lived just up the hill behind Billy Lee’s Store. We turned off the main road and into his driveway parking in front of his log farmhouse. Chickens were eagerly policing the front yard while two blue tick coon hounds barely lifted their heads when we set foot on the front porch. The screen door open and “well looky whose here, come on in” the warm familiar voice of my aunt Betty ushered us into the living room in front of the blazing fireplace. My eyes automatically shifted the right. Lying neatly in a homemade gun rack above the bed was my uncle’s 22 Winchester pump rifle. We visited a while then it was time to head to grandma’s house. My mind was on that rifle. I missed most of the conversation around me and was afraid that dad was going to forget to ask my uncle if I could borrow his rifle. I had borrowed it before and I was at the age when boys are working their way into becoming men and shooting a rifle was one rite of passage. As we stood to leave, my glance dropped to the floor and then the words came; “Luke, Roy would like to borrow your rifle again if it’s ok.” Sure he can my uncle said walking towards the bed. He lifted the rifle from the rack and handed it to me. I can’t describe the feeling of being 13 years old and walking to the car with a 22 rifle in my hands.
Our car rolled along the dirt road, rounded a curve and came to a stop in the driveway just beyond my grandparents’ tin roofed two bedroom house. A plume of grey white smoke rose lazily atop the hand built rock fireplace and the smell of burning coal burning filled the air. My grandfather with his long sleeved flannel shirt and familiar strapped blue overalls met us on the porch. Oh it was so great to see him. Grandma was right behind him. You could feel the warm air rush through the door but there was something much warmer than the air. It was the unconditional love I felt each time I went to my grandparents’ house. Hellos were said as we gathered around the pot bellied stove and enjoying just being together.
I had left the rifle on the front porch leaning against the wall of the house as I went inside. It was great to see my grandparents but my mind was on the adventure that awaited me on the porch. Finally dad asked Grandma if she had a couple of paper plates that I might use for targets. Since this was not the first time I’d brought the rifle to her house, she knew exactly what I needed. It seems like grandmothers have a knack for knowing just what it takes to please grandchildren. Dad drew a big X on a plate and we tacked it to a tobacco stick. We walked across the dirt road and hammered the stick into the ground in front of a dirt bank. We walked back across the road and dad said “son it’s all yours” and went back inside.
This was what I’d been looking forward to for weeks. I carefully pulled the box of 22 rifle shells out of my coat pocket, picked up the rifle and sat down in a wicker chair facing the road. I opened the latch that released the long loading tube so I could load the ammunition. I dropped one shell at a time into rifle until it was completely loaded. Now I must say, when it comes to weapons, I was a pretty good shot, especially for a 13 year old. I hit the target with every shot. I repeated the process of loading and firing one more time. I had fired 36 shells and had 14 left in my box of 50. I released the aluminum tube and slid it up making way for the shells to drop into the rifle as I had done the previous two times. I sat the rifle down and leaned it against a porch post. I bent down to pick up the box with the remaining shells. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but somehow my knee bumped the rifle, it fell off the porch and the aluminum tube hit the ground first. A feeling of panic swept over me. Maybe the fall from the porch didn’t hurt the rifle? I leaped off the porch and grabbed the rifle. Oh no! The tube was bent. Maybe I could bend it back straight and everything would be alright. I climbed the steps and sat back down in my chair gripping the rifle between my knees. I held the barrel of the gun with my left hand and begin to bend the tube. It was easy to bend but I did not realize that once aluminum is bent, it cannot be bent back straight. I tried and tried for what seemed like an hour, but the tube just could bend enough to slide back into the rifle.
Now what could I do? I was so afraid. How could I tell dad? What would my uncle
Luke think of me? I’d probably never get to use his rifle again. I might never get
to use any rifle again. It was cold outside and I was getting colder by the minute. It dawned on me that I couldn’t stay on that porch for the rest of my life. I leaned the broken rifle back against the wall of the house and went inside. I was quiet, much quieter than normal. I couldn’t look at my dad for fear that he would see the despair in my eyes and ask me what was wrong. All of that was to no avail. Then the words came; where’s the rifle. It’s on the porch I said in a sheepish way. ”It got kind of quiet out there, what happened?” he asked? How did he know that something happened? I told him that I had accidently knocked the rifle off the porch and bent the loading tube. We walked out on the porch together and he picked up the rifle. I thought; maybe he can fix it. Well he looked at it for a few minutes and said he couldn’t fix this. I told him how sorry I was and without hesitating he said “I know you are son, but you’ll have to tell your uncle Luke what you did.” Oh no! I thought dad would do that. We wouldn’t see my uncle for at least a day or two. I wasn’t sure if I should feel glad or sad about that. I had to think about facing my uncle Luke the rest of that day, also that night and again then next day.
The day came and now I would have to face what I had done. Even though it was an accident, I dreaded facing my uncle. I could feel a lump beginning to swell in my throat as we left the highway and turned into my uncle’s driveway. The car rolled to a stop and dad and I got out. He carried the rifle and I followed him down the slate sidewalk and onto the wooden planked porch. The door open and my uncle encouraged us in. It was very awkward. The three of us stood in my uncle’s living room and my uncle sensed that something was wrong. Dad spoke up: “Roy has something to tell you” handing him the rifle. I had rehearsed what I would say for two days but now the words did not come easily. I could hardly speak. I tried to explain what had happened and how sorry I was but when I got to the being sorry part my quivering voice finally gave way to tears. I was heartbroken because I felt that I had let my uncle down, disappointed my dad and failed in my struggle to become a man. Just as I thought my world was coming to an end, my uncle did the strangest thing. He tossed the rifle on the bed as though it was not all
that important. He dropped down on one knee, put his arm around me and somehow I knew it was going to be ok. He said; “Roy, don’t you worry about that rifle. I have a good friend who is a gunsmith and I know for a fact that he has a
spare loading tube in his shop. I’ll run by there and pick one up and I’ll have
that rifle ready for you the next time you want it.” I could hardly believe
what I was hearing. My tears dried up and my ruined world changed to one of
joy. It all turned on a few words of understanding and forgiveness. My uncle
did purchase a new loading tube and he had the 22 rifle waiting for me the next
time we came to TN on a visit.
I honestly don’t remember what I received for Christmas that year, but I can tell you what I received the next Christmas. A long narrow box appeared underneath the Christmas tree. Its dimensions were clearly consistent with the length and width of a 22 rifle. You guessed it. I peeled off the wrapping paper, opened the box and a bolt action, magazine fed 22 rifle with a fancy leather shoulder strap lay waiting for the hands of its’ new owner, me. All had been forgiven (though not forgotten by me) and my confidence had been restored. I had moved one step closer to manhood with this very important rite of passage. I now had my own 22 rifle.
I’m many years removed from that 13 year olds’ experience. But I have reflected many times and drawn from the lessons I learned from that very difficult experience. I learned that we all have accidents and make mistakes. Some cannot be avoided and some can. I also realized when we make mistakes we have to face them and the sooner the better. They won’t just go away. We usually save ourselves a lot of worry and trouble by owning up to what we’ve done as soon as possible. I learned that those who truly love us do so even when we make mistakes. I learned that mistakes are generally short term events and that life will get better.
This story also tells us has a spiritual application. It is a good picture of us, our heavenly Father and the true meaning of Christmas. We are born into this world with the problem of making mistakes. This problem is called sin by the Bible. We cannot help ourselves and we cannot fix the problem on our own. It’s a problem we have to face at some point in life and the sooner we face it the better off we will be. We have a heavenly Father who understands that we cannot fix ourselves. He loves us in spite of all the mistakes we make. If we will bring our broken lives to him he has a plan to fix them. Just like my uncle provided a new loading tube to replace the bent one, our heavenly Father provided His Son Jesus Christ. He was born in Bethlehem on Christmas day and brought with Him the offer to replace our broken lives with brand new ones. He was bent and broken so you and I can be straightened and fixed. We simply must come to Christ, confess our mistakes and shortcomings, tell Him that we believe He can fix them and ask Him too. If we ask Him he will forgive us and give us brand new lives.