Before the bodies were buried in Jonesboro, some writers and pundits were saying that last week’s shootings were just part of the Southern way of doing things. After all, this was the third Podunk school massacre in the last half-yearone in Mississippi, one in Kentucky, and one in Arkansas.
Well, I know a little something about living in Podunk. I know a little something about growing up with guns in the house. And I know more than I want to know about redneck violence. From everything I know, the wise-asses who want to put these shootings off on Southern culture are, well, just short of half-right.
I grew up in a South Carolina cotton mill town. My father, Jabo, taught me how to shoot. We started out with a pellet rifle, then went to a pellet pistol. Just like those two boys in Arkansas, I graduated to rifles, shotguns, and hand-cannon pistols while I was still in elementary school. Every Friday afternoon, after Jabo and his employees had gotten paid, and they’d started on their Friday drinking, I’d walk over to Jabo’s shop and challenge ’em all to a target-shooting contest. I bet ’em I’d win, and I did. Best of all, they’d all get drunk and forget about it, and I could do it all over again the next Friday.
Somewhere along the line, Jabo explained to me the Redneck Rules of Gunfighting, which went something like this: Never pull a gun unless you mean to kill somebody. Once you’ve shown the gun, you must kill somebody. If you’re surrounded, kill the meanest man first, then keep shooting until you’re out of ammo; then go get more ammo.
The corollary was: If somebody pulls a gun on you, they mean to kill you. Try to get away. If you’re able to get away, you must then go kill the person who pulled the gun on you, because if you don’t, he will eventually hunt you down and kill you.
I took this literal and serious. My stepbrother, Geames, might have been the meanest redneck of all time. Every Friday night, he’d go out drinking, find a would-be bad-ass with a “Born to Raise Hell” tattoo, and beat him senseless. Geames bit off one man’s ear and another man’s lip, and he bragged about it every chance he got. Jabo warned Geames that one day, somebody would shoot him, just out of fear.
Well, two people shot him. Geames was hit three times in the first attack, and he was up and around in a few weeks. The second time, a jealous husband shot him three timesonce in the abdomen, once in the chest, and once in the neck. Then the guy went back for more ammo. It took Geames a year to die.
Jabo never stopped grieving.
Back when I was first getting used to testosterone, I nursed a few serious grudges. The family guns weren’t locked up, and I could’ve walked out of the house with an armload of weapons anytime. I didn’t have much adult supervision in my teenage years, and there was nothing stopping meor even actively discouraging mefrom doing big damage and causing big trouble.
But I never went hunting for my enemies. I never even tried to sneak a beer, even though I was playing in rock ’n’ roll bars when I was 13. It wasn’t because I was afraid I’d go to jail, or hell. On my darkest, angriest days, I didn’t spend two seconds thinking about my own future.
I kept myself straight for one reason: I did not want to disappoint Jabo. Not like Geames did. The way I saw it, a good son did not disappoint his father, he did not bring any shame or grief.
Yes, a lot of us Southerners love our guns. There was a time, not too long ago, when we needed them to put food on the table. Not long before that, we needed them to run invaders off our land.
But if any of you are going to try to tie these Arkansas teenage ambush killers to some flaw in Southern culture, put some effort into figuring out when and how some of our Southern boys got to the point where they didn’t give a damn if they broke their daddies’ hearts. Figure that out, figure out how to fix it, and we might just be able to start setting things right.
Visit Walter’s Web site at www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at Walter.Jowers@nashville.com.