Guns are an ubiquitous part of Southern culture, though for any of the adamant proclamations about their importance, there is also a downside to their prevalence. In addition to narratives about the roles and functions of guns in self-defense and hunting, gun deaths are more common in the South than in any other part of the country. This essay looks back on one such death in Louisiana in the 1970s.
For an Athlete Dying Young
by Margaret Donovan Bauer
and for his family
Whispers spread on a Monday morning as we wait in line outside our elementary school building before being led in by the nuns and other teachers of our classes. A boy in high school accidentally shot himself over the weekend. I recognize his name. He was a football star, a basketball star, probably track, too, but I didn’t go to track meets. It’s a small town. Everyone goes to the football and basketball games.
And news travels fast. Many with siblings in high school already know about it. It’s 1974, and we have never heard of something like this happening before.
I doubt that anyone in my small town in the 1970s could have imagined a time in which such a tragedy would be a regular news story. From 1969 to 1981, my years in elementary and high school, I can remember only this one story of a youth dying from a gunshot wound. It was self-inflicted and, by all appearances, an accident. The tragedy occurred in the home of a hunter, a man presumably well-versed in gun safety, as hunting is a popular sport for men and their sons in south Louisiana. As I remember the story, the hunter, either just back from a hunting trip or heading out, set his pistol down in the living room before making a quick trip upstairs, perhaps only to go to the bathroom. Also in that living room: the hunter’s teenage daughters and their friends, male and female.
What was a hunter doing with a pistol? I wonder as I recall the story to myself, forty-five years later. I am not a hunter (though I have no problem with traditional, old-fashioned, no-automatic-weapon hunting, as long as the prey is eaten). I am told by my significant other that hunters sometimes carry pistols to bring a merciful death when they come upon a wounded, suffering animal. This makes sense to me. So much more humane than the boyfriend of a friend who confessed to illegally baiting the swamps where he hunted ducks, which he also admitted to having no taste for, even in gumbo.
As I say, if you don’t eat it, you should not hunt it. I can’t relate to killing for sport, but I can relate to bad choices. I have been fortunate that the worst choices I’ve made in my life were fixable. Some bad choices, sadly, are irreversible.
Like when one of the boys among the teenagers in the hunter’s living room that mid-1970s Friday night picked up the unattended gun and suggested a game of Russian Roulette to his friends. Did the youth assume the gun was not loaded, given that it had been left out so casually? This was south Louisiana, where—and a time when—people knew how to handle guns. Or maybe, reports of accidents like this one just did not go far beyond the local news.
I was only in the fifth grade. I was not among the high schoolers gathered in the hunter’s living room. This scenario is what I imagined when I heard about it on the elementary school playground the next week, what I recall in my mid-fifties as I regularly read in social media about children accidentally shooting themselves, other children, family members after coming upon an unsecured, loaded gun. Back then, this occurrence was shocking news that set the town speculating about the deceased, an effort, perhaps, to make sense of the senseless, so they could sleep better in a world in which healthy, promising young people can die so unexpectedly.
The boy who playfully picked up the gun was a star football and basketball player on our town’s single-A, Catholic high school teams. As I envision the incident, based on my recollection of hushed-toned schoolyard storytelling, this teenage boy put the gun back down, spun it around, and when it landed facing him, picked it up again, put it to his head, and pulled the trigger, everyone expecting, of course, a click rather than a bang. I picture a wide-eyed look of surprise on his face when the gun exploded, of horror on the faces of his friends sitting around him. I hear the eruption of screaming as they scoot and scatter back, away from the blood and gore. I wonder how many of the parents of the young people there that fateful night realized their child might have just as easily been the one who jokingly picked up the gun and shot himself in the temple.
Most of the heroes of my hometown have been boys like this handsome young athlete: the star players who give the community something to cheer about on Friday nights on football fields and basketball courts. There really wasn’t much else to do on a weekend night aside from attending a high school game, at home or “away.” On Saturday nights, high schoolers rode around the town—west down Main Street, around the Sonic, east down Main Street, around the courthouse, over and over again. Some cars carrying couples, the girl sitting in the middle of the bench front seat, right next to her boyfriend, his senior ring on a chain around her neck. Groups of girls, groups of boys rode in other cars, trucks, and vans, these vehicles more likely to pull into the Sonic and order something, then flirt with the carload of the opposite sex parked at the ordering speakers on either side. (Once I reached driving age, my father would marvel at how many miles we could put on the car without ever leaving town—and we really did not leave the city limits on such nights. We actually believed we might miss something if we did!)
After graduating from high school, those who remain in this small town start new families as quickly as possible and look forward to their own children becoming the star athletes or their cheerleaders—and then their grandchildren, although, for decades now more of the young people leave after high school and do not return. Like me: I left for college in 1981 and kept going. The remaining members of my immediate family moved away from there four years later. I am told by fellow natives who still live in Louisiana that our hometown is dying. Many who didn’t leave for college or who returned after college are leaving as they retire. The population reached a high of 9,584 in the 1980 census, but was down to 7,660 in 2010, and was last estimated at under 7,200. Some people do stay, of course, and from what I see on social media, not much has changed: high school sports remain the source of entertainment and stardom.
I think I first contemplated this sad episode in my hometown’s history in college, when a professor assigned A.E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete, Dying Young,” in which I read,
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
This poem recalled to me the tragic story of the boy from back home who killed himself before he “wore [his] honours out,”* prompting me to wonder: Did this local big fish feel trapped there and decide he didn’t want to swim around the same small pond forever? Did he put that gun to his head with a subconscious death wish, believing he would never surpass his achievements in high school sports? Did he decide to give himself the merciful death a hunter might give a wounded animal?
I was projecting, I realize now. I knew very little about this tragic figure, several years ahead of me in school. But I did understand how scary moving from the small town I’d lived in my whole life to a city was and how disconcerting it was to go from our small high school where everyone knew who I was to the anonymity of a huge university. In high school, I had achieved my own star status of a sort, not in sports but in leadership—yearbook and newspaper editor, President of the Honor Society, and captain of the dance team—culminating in being selected “Most Likely to Succeed” of my graduating class. On the other hand, I was worn out by the social pressures of high school, and by the time I read this Housman poem, I was enjoying the lack of pressure from professors who had no preconceived expectations about me.
In hindsight, my speculation about the boy’s possible intentions when he so casually pulled the trigger of a gun he was aiming at his own head was probably motivated more by my college boyfriend than this local legend I’d never known. My boyfriend had also been a star athlete from my hometown, a class behind the boy who died. And, I would later learn, my boyfriend could not stand to be away from the community in which people remembered him as a key player on the football team that won the state championship.
At the time of my first introduction to Housman’s poem, I did not consciously associate my boyfriend with the speaker, but in truth, he very likely shared the speaker’s sentiments that the deceased boy’s death saved him from learning how fleeting life’s victories are. My boyfriend had gone to college for only a semester before returning to live with his parents—and his remembered glory—whereupon he resumed riding around town on weekend nights when he was not at his alma mater’s football or basketball games, which is how I came to get to know him during weekend visits home from college. We dated long-distance, the plan being that I would move back home when I finished college. By that time, however, after university life, I found our hometown stifling.
The increasing number of shooting accidents involving children reported across the country in recent years has brought the memory of the unfortunate lad to mind more frequently, and as I prepared to write about the incident, I researched my hometown paper’s coverage of the gun fatality in the hunter’s living room almost five decades ago. From the quoted remarks of the boy’s teachers, I determined that the death was, indeed, a tragic accident. The young man was a strong student with a promising future, one of those who would have gone to college after graduation, as his siblings (and I) did, and likely never returned to our hometown, as his siblings (and I) did not. He was no more the kind of youth who would perceive high school glories as the pinnacle of his life than I was. What a waste, I thought as I read the glowing descriptions of the youth from his teachers. I wonder what he had planned to major in when he went to college, what career was ahead for him. What might he have contributed to whatever community he moved to after college, our shared hometown very likely not where he would have settled to raise a family.
And yet, the memory of my earlier consideration of the possibility that this young man subconsciously committed suicide that night reminds me that the period of youthful angst, when every heartache feels like a tragedy, is no time for a young person to have easy access to a firearm. Could fear of the huge unknown coming after graduation from a small school in a small town lead to careless feigned nonchalance and risky behavior, like the drinking my friends and I did in high school or like not checking a gun barrel for bullets before putting it to your head? Some angst-ridden teens turn those firearms on others, and many turn them on themselves, as we also now hear about far too frequently.
Which brings me to why I am driven to write this story down—what inspires much of my writing in recent years: my struggle to understand old friends and family whose views on social issues are so different from my own, even though we grew up in the same place and time. Through social media, I have reconnected with now middle-aged old friends and acquaintances back home, and this forum reveals their (as well as family members’) views on social issues that would likely not be expressed during a quick catchup at a reunion or during a holiday visit. Reading their posts and shares, I am baffled by their resistance to “gunsense” laws like background checks and requiring gun safety education in a society in which accidents involving children and firearms, as well as suicides and mass killings, are not so anomalous as my one recollection of a youth’s death by gunshot during my childhood. Nothing is foolproof, of course. We knew about gun safety back in the day, and still this horrible tragedy occurred, due to the hunter’s carelessness and the young athlete’s sense of immortality. But if one life is saved because of regulations that make it harder to get a gun before one is both properly trained and determined not to be a known threat to the community or himself, then isn’t it worth it to be slightly inconvenienced before purchasing your own? And if gun owners are held criminally responsible for accidents like what happened to that boy, wouldn’t that be an incentive to them to take more care to secure their firearms out of the reach of children?
The other tragic deaths of young people while I was growing up occurred from car and boating accidents—tragedies resulting from human error compounded by youthful carelessness we can all understand. Doesn’t everyone have a close call story related to past recklessness? I for one always thought anyone else was a better choice to be behind the wheel when I was drinking (teenage drinking being another consequence of a boring small town), and so I would hand my car keys over to friends who were, I realize in hindsight, perhaps only a fraction less inebriated than I was. There are laws about drinking and driving and drinking while boating, which I’ve never heard anyone rage against as though someone were trying to take their car or boat away. I witnessed, in my youth, the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers campaign gain momentum. It was largely unopposed (or perhaps quietly opposed), not viewed as an effort to infringe on anyone’s rights. But guns, it seems, are sacred.
Thirty years after this young athlete’s death, I lost an aunt and uncle to gun violence during a home invasion in the midst of the chaotic period in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps this personal loss inspired my passionate support of legislation that would make it more difficult for criminals to purchase guns they might end up using on a man and woman in their own home, filling my cousins’ heads with horrific images of their parents’ last moments, depriving their young grandchildren of grandparents, taking them away from their siblings and nieces and nephews.
Long before my family’s devastating loss of beloved relatives to the kind of senseless killing one usually only hears about on national news, I was shocked by the news coverage of the Columbine killings. In 1999, it was unimaginable that children not too much younger than the college students I teach would die so violently during a regular school day, that children not too much younger than my students could kill their schoolmates so viciously. I remember exactly where I was when I heard this news.
“Hey, y’all, check this out,” a friend said, as we were leaving her house, heading out to eat. She’d noticed the headline on the screen as she aimed the remote to turn the TV off. I don’t remember if we eventually went out, but I clearly see us, all teachers, standing in her living room staring at the TV, not believing what we were seeing. Such things did not happen—then.
Just over a dozen years after the Columbine horror, I wept in front of the tiny TV mounted in my kitchen as I watched the news the night of the massacre of first graders and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary. Just the thought of those small children’s bewildered terror was overwhelming to me. I knew I could not conceive of the horror of their parents visualizing their babies’ last minutes. And I was in awe of the devastating courage and sacrifice of the adults inside the school during this rampage, who tried to protect their charges and died with them. Surely, I thought, such young children gunned down, before they were old enough to be blamed for bullying the victim by anti-gun regulation conservatives desperate to explain such senseless deaths—surely, I thought, these babies’ deaths will result in new legislation on firearms. They did not.
Nor did conspiracy theorist Alex Jones incite much, if any, outrage from his loyal viewers when he claimed the whole tragedy was made up, staged by the government with crisis actors playing grieving parents to concoct a case for gun regulation. Jones’s ratings did not suffer enough to take him off the air or even inspire a retraction, thus empowering him to suggest the same conspiracy theory about the students who survived the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, this time just a half-dozen years later. These incidents of domestic terrorism in schools and others at work and in public places, occur regularly now, including, in 2015, at a movie theatre less than fifty miles from my hometown, so close that one of the victims was a young woman from that town, her death inspiring the same local devastation as the young athlete’s demise back in the ’70s. And yet, still not seeming to change the minds of any gun rights advocate I know there.
In the forty years between these two promising young lives ended abruptly with a gun, such tragic occurrences have become so frequent that I marvel at the realization that I know of only one life lost to a gunshot wound in the whole quarter-century of my youth in south Louisiana, a place where people argue for the Second Amendment as if it is under siege, not understanding that those who seek legislation on guns akin to the laws of other countries (that do not suffer the number of deaths by gun violence that we tally in the US) are not trying to take guns away from law-abiding, responsible gun owners.
As I’ve shared already, I was several years younger than the teens gathered in the hunter’s living room that fateful night in the 1970s, long before this kind of horror story was a regular feature on the evening news. What I’ve recounted about a single youth’s death by gunshot in my hometown is the story I remember hearing on the elementary school playground before the first bell called us inside on the Monday morning after this weekend night tragedy. The youngest daughter of the hosting household of this gathering gone tragically awry was a classmate of mine, and a friend. I had spent many weekend nights at her house, often hanging around her older sisters and their friends until we were shooed upstairs. I could very easily have been there on that particular night, a possibility that I am sure did not go unnoticed when word of this accident reached my parents.
As we lined up when the bell rang, calling us into the school that solemn morning after, another classmate remarked upon the death that had occurred in my friend’s home. The girl who asked questions directly of the hunter’s daughter was the kind of girl who spoke out unguardedly throughout our school years, a rarity among Southern girls of our era. [This previous sentence is a little cluttered.] She had brothers around the age of the now dead boy, his teammates on the football field and basketball court. She likely expressed what she heard at home from her grieving siblings, her concerned parents, all wondering about how, as the newspaper reported it, “a .22-caliber pistol was left out” (italics mine). Note the passive voice, the failure to identify who left it out. Perhaps the small-town reporter was reluctant to suggest blame. My tactless classmate was not. She said aloud, in public, what adults likely whispered in their private home about the carelessness of the irresponsible hunter. Needless to say, her questions upset my friend, whose father, the hunter, owned the death-dealing weapon.
At the time, watching my friend fight back tears, I recall thinking the forthright girl should not have said anything. I was discomfited by seeing my friend distraught. But these many years later, when I read about so many accidental deaths of young people, babies even, because an adult did not carefully store a weapon, I realize that people with more power than an outspoken child should have called attention to what a hunter’s recklessness had caused, albeit unintentionally. Yet I cannot even find coverage in the local paper of an inquest after this accident. And even now, the media continues to report passively on gun violence, not investigating very deeply how it is that children have such easy access to firearms. When are we going to hold the gun owners responsible for the crimes committed by children with their unsecured guns?
Older now than the careless hunter was then, I realize how this moment of such consequential negligence must have haunted him for years to come, if not the rest of his life. In such a small town as ours, it is likely he would encounter the dead boy’s parents on occasion even after the inquest that I assume took place, even if the newspaper didn’t report on it. What were such chance meetings like, I wonder?
I cannot imagine my parents asking other parents about weapons in their homes before allowing me to spend the night with a friend. In south Louisiana, it was a given that people owned hunting rifles, but I don’t remember seeing any firearms in friends’ houses. My dad’s shotgun was in the back of a utility closet right outside of my bedroom. Not much of a hunter, he mainly used it to scare pigeons from nesting in the rafters of our upstairs front porch. It was stored unloaded, but even so, I was never tempted to touch it, and it would never occur to me to show it to friends. It was a time of accepted divides between children’s toys and our parents’ possessions (between children and parents, for that matter). Having read in recent years so many stories of kids showing their parents’ handguns off to friends, with calamitous consequences, I hope parents today are investigating each other’s gun safety practices before dropping their children off for playdates and sleepovers.
I follow the social media pages of the groups who continue to fight for gunsense legislation, often created by victims’ parents who try to make their children’s deaths affect some kind of change. I have come to understand that these parents become victims themselves for much longer than their deceased children experienced the horrifying scene of the massacre. In recent years, the Stoneman Douglas High School victims’ classmates have become activists, recognizing themselves to be victims, too. I am so impressed by these young survivors speaking out against all that led to the deaths of their classmates. I appreciate their advocating, too, for the Sandy Hook first graders who died before their own classmates did and whose deaths affected no changes that might have saved their friends from death, themselves from their horrible grief and, with it, the end of their childhoods before they were even out of high school.
Also through these victims’, advocates’, and activists’ social media pages, I read about too many senseless deaths because of unsecured firearms that find their way into the hands of children. Or teenagers, at a party, just playing around when “The pistol fired,” as our local paper reported, as if the gun pulled its own trigger that night. Ironic. Acquaintances from that same hometown, who assert in social media these days that their Second Amendment rights are at stake, believe that people like me blame the gun. I do not blame guns. I blame irresponsible gunowners and cowardly legislators. Own your gun, I respond. But take responsibility for its kills. Pistols don’t fire without help. People pull the triggers.
I’ve noted on my own Facebook page how pissed I am going to be if I or any of my colleagues or students are gunned down by some angry, disturbed sociopath because some people, including members of my own family and old friends from back home, are so outraged by the idea of gun regulations that they continue to support political candidates who are in the pocket of the NRA. These senseless acts of deadly violence happen, regardless of what Alex Jones tries to tell you. And it could happen to me, to one of my students. Or to you. Or to your child.
Indeed, after dropping their children off at school or sending them out to walk to a bus stop, parents today fear a phone call, text, or news report my parents would never have dreamed of receiving. And incidents like the anomalous 1970s suicidal game of Russian Roulette that took place in my little town now occur daily all over the country, younger and younger children coming upon unsecured guns and shooting themselves or another child accidentally, thinking they are playing a game, not realizing the child in their target line will not get up after the “bang.”
On TV shows, the hero is shot and then seen barely limping, with an arm in a sling, or sitting up in a hospital bed, then completely well by the next week’s episode. In movies, the hero runs through gunfire somehow escaping automatic rapid-fire shots. So what do kids know about the deadliness of guns?
Besides—kids feel as immortal as the superheroes who come back for all the sequels.
But they aren’t, and all it takes is one negligent man to leave his gun out, just for the time it takes to run upstairs to take a piss, and then another man (or perhaps he himself) has to attend his child’s funeral.
Margaret Donovan Bauer grew up on a bayou in south Louisiana and now writes on a river in eastern North Carolina. She is the Rives Chair of Southern Literature and a Distinguished Professor of Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University. After publishing books and articles about Southern writers, she is now publishing essays and working on a memoir about growing up in the South.
* A.E. Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young” is in the public domain. Read the full poem on Poets.org.