Things are different when you grow up in the country.
Away from the structure and compressing norms, the social contract gets rewritten into more practical terms. For example, I never learned to drive – at least not in the traditional sense. I got pointers on shifting and signaling, but those things were taught to me years before I turned 16 so I could back the truck up to a horse trailer or take the old blue pickup down to get my brother from a field when it was lunch and the rest of us were hungry. A large part of me wishes I had found those privileges totally illicit so I could have enjoyed the youthful satisfaction of getting away with something. There is nothing more divine to a child than forbidden fruit.
For the most part, the liberties afforded to my brother and I seem to have had negligible impact on the adults we grew into. I doubt if he even thinks of his time wandering unsupervised miles from home, or brandishing power tools at the age of twelve.
When I was 10, my brother and I spent our Christmas break from school with my mother. She was living in the panhandle of Nebraska – an hour from any town with more than a gas station. She and her new husband were working on a small farm property in exchange for their rent and minimal pay. The barn there was in pretty bad shape, but the mobile home we shared was tidy and warm. Her husband, Jay, was gone a lot. That was fine by me.
I loved my mother, but visiting her was hard. She has always been a profoundly unhappy woman; she suffered quietly, even when we were there. But, more so, I simply hated winter in Nebraska. It is bleak and unforgiving; after feeding cattle in the morning and breaking ice for the horses, there was rarely much for us to do during the day. The only thing I really looked forward to on those visits was unleashing absolute hell with that most American of childhood totems – my BB gun.
My father had given me the air gun earlier in the year as a reward – good grades and passable behavior. The day he bought it for me, we took it to Lake Dillon and spent a couple hours skimming BB’s off the top of the lake and taking aim at cans on the beach. At his home, in the city, the small backyard surrounded by neighbors and glass meant my peacemaker had to stay holstered. But not in Nebraska; things were different in the country.
One day during that stay, my brother and I got bold and took the ranch owner’s new tractor out for a spin in the dead cornfields surrounding the house. I brought my rifle, and he took first turn at the wheel. It was a wonder-machine; bright red with a heated, glassed-in cab. Normally it had a bucket up front, but it had been taken off for the winter. Together, we chugged circles around the fields, stopping occasionally to take pot shots at center pivots and dead corn stalks.
Eventually, we grew hungry and decided to head home. I was on the ground shooting when he started the engine and began to drive away, leaving me alone with a long, cold walk. Panicking, I jumped on the ladder and tried climbing into the cab. My brother’s cold, muddy boot met me and knocked me into the dirt next to my rifle. Tears filled my eyes as he drove away without me. Furious, I reached for my gun, leveled the metal sights at the back of his head, and pulled the trigger. The steel BB shattered the back window of the tractor and left him ducking for cover. I screamed at him, but began to cry harder, confident I had killed him. Of course I hadn’t; he quickly sat back up and punched the engine, eager to get home and report what I had done, stranding me bawling in the quiet freezing field.
My mother didn’t even allow me to warm up before cornering me about what had happened. Naturally, I lied, weaving a masterpiece about a misfire to avoid her wrath. Truthfully, any punishment would have felt light; I knew what I had done. Had you stopped me in the instant before the shot, during my rage, I would have asked only for a more powerful weapon.