Sure, I had store-bought weapons, too. Some of them I really loved, like that Daisy Red Ryder BB-gun.
Sniping in my mom’s flower garden at the lead toy soldiers you could buy for 5¢ at Woolworth’s helped get me through the dull hours of many a hot summer afternoon before the 3 o’clock release to go out to the vacant lot for baseball.
Target practice was better than the edifying alternatives. Reading the World Book Encyclopedia, doing a Paint-By-Number still life, working on a Cub Scout Arrow Point project, or — heaven forbid! —memorizing Bible passages in the elevated style of King James’ 17th-century English weren’t nearly as fun.
The 1950s and 60s of our childhood were the heyday of guns, and it was South Texas. World War II was only a recent memory for many of our veteran dads. The movies at the Plaza and Tivoli downtown featured lots of guns firing blanks in the war films and westerns in those days.
Besides that, it was South Texas, and guns were an everyday tool for ranchers and hunters. Was anyone worried about the rifles hanging in the pickups’ rear window racks out in the Nixon High parking lot? Did anyone even notice?
During the Eisenhower years, the most popular Christmas present for boys aged six to ten was a toy gun. How many boys of our generation didn’t have a cap-gun firing revolver and a holster in 1957?
By the time boys turned eleven or twelve, and earlier for some of us, there were the significant birthday presents of real guns, guns that could bring down a buck or doves flying south overhead. It was one of those male rites of passage. With that rifle or shotgun, men admitted you as a novice to their tribe’s inner circle of arcane mysteries. Among other things, if you’d been honored with a gun, you might go on a hunting trip and overhear stories and jokes you weren’t supposed to repeat.
Shooting guns at birds and deer in the monte outside Laredo was great fun, indeed.
It’s just that I also really enjoyed shooting toy weapons that I made myself.
Looking back, I realize that it was my good fortune to have a dad who was handy with a large collection of tools. He’d grown up in The Great Depression helping his father build a series of housing upgrades for the growing Clouse family, and his teenage job included working in the repair shop of a 1930s gas station.
When I was 9 years old, I watched him build a large room off the back of our house on Garfield evenings after work and weekends.
Looking over my father’s shoulder, there were regular demonstrations of auto and lawn mower repair.
The woodworking and machine tools needed a place to be kept, so he built a 10’ by 12’ workshop. It was connected to the detached laundry room outside, where the washing machine did the washing by itself with no help from a dryer. The welded T-shaped metal pipe clothes line in the back yard dried our laundry without the modern wonder of electricity, pitched as “better living” in the jingles of the day.
That little workshop and its tools kept me busy. And mostly out of trouble. Boredom, the bad angel lurking on every boy’s shoulder whispering suggestions of departure from the straight-and-narrow paths of virtue, went unheeded, because I could always go out to the workshop and make something.
It was there that I made the first gift I ever gave a girl, a Valentine’s Day present for my second-grade unrequited love, Jeannie, a girl with the platinum blond curls. The ‘jewelry’ was a bracelet made from a six-inch strip off a roll of lead solder (whose silent L has always annoyed me like a pebble in a shoe, as has it’s a-phonetic co-offender, colonel, now that I think of it.) The solder wire was impressed with the diamond-shaped grid pattern of the jaws of the vice I tightened with all the arm strength I could muster. Then I bent the (to my eyes) artistically patterned metal into a bracelet shape, put it in a box my mom provided, wrapped it in paper of a suitably romantic motif, and included one of those little Valentine cards for classmates you could buy in those days, 25 for a dime. It was a crushing moment to watch Jeannie open the box, make a face, and throw the gift in the trash.
Maybe because they were less ambitious and unfraught with the complexities of romance, I was more successful with the toy guns I made in the workshop.
The tools there helped me put together what we incorrectly called a “slingshot,” although I later learned to call it a catapult, a weapon that fired pebbles out from between a forked branch propelled by strips cut from inner tubes connected to a leather pouch for the payload.
There was more skill to make and operate one of these deceptively simple looking weapons than met the eye.
In the first place, you needed to be a good judge of wood strength. Choosing a forked branch with a hidden weakness, I discovered in a painful lesson, meant that one of the forks would break off and come flying back at your face as you stretched the attached elastic bands back toward your cheek.
The rubber strips had also to be cut to just the right length for the size of your arms. Too long, and you wouldn’t have arms long enough to pull the pebble in the pouch back far enough. Too short, and you’d lose power or break the bands.
The size of the pebble mattered as well. At a certain point, a stone would be too heavy to go very far. Little ones were so light that they didn’t have the throw-weight to go where you aimed or the momentum to go straight. Odd shapes were guaranteed failures, because they took unpredictable trajectories like knuckleballs fluttering through the resisting air.
Although I spent many hours firing this weapon, I never brought down any backyard game with it, although it did teach me an important lesson about shooting. Once, as I tracked a butterfly with my aim across the yard, weapon loaded, bands stretched back, and ready to fire, it stopped on a branch of the hackberry tree, and I let fly. Too bad I hadn’t considered that behind the perched butterfly was one of the house’s ‘picture windows’ and the rock hit the glass rather than the butterfly. Financing the broken window replacement cost me months of allowance.
All these years later, that toy is not an entirely pleasant memory for me. I’ve never been able to forget the ugly racist name it bore when I was shooting stones at birds and insects in trees.
There was a useful, even more low-tech school version of these slingshots. This particular device of mischief was the essence of simplicity. You caught a longish rubber band around your left hand thumb and the index or middle finger, bent around it a little boomerang-shaped piece of paper chewed into papier–mâché or not at your discretion, pulled it back, aimed at a classmate in front, preferably one looking at the blackboard, and fired. Its accuracy beyond four feet or so was terrible, but excellent in close quarters and a quemarropa.
The cap guns all of us boys had were okay, but they were never one of my favorites. The little gunpowder dots of the caps in their faded-red, paper rolls were cool, though. Once when my indulgent namesake grandfather was in Laredo on a visit, he bought me more boxes of caps than I’d ever been able to afford. There were so many that my trigger finger got tired pulling it for the “Bang! Bang! Bang!” sound effect, and I had to put the pistol down. So, I rolled out the unfired caps in the roll on the sidewalk and exploded them by hitting them with a claw hammer. Caps in guns made noise to enhance the illusion of firing a real gun. Hitting caps with a carpenter’s hammer on the sidewalk just made noise without creating anything more than a wastefully repetitious and meaningless pop. A French poststructuralist in the 70s would have said I’d “deconstructed the cap gun into the undecidablity of its essential arbitrariness.”
As I said above, I really liked homemade guns.
One of my favorites was the ball-point pen ink-tube gun that all the guys at United Day and Lamar were making in 1960. You’d forgot about those, hadn’t you?
[Old-timers, you may skip the description and construction details that follow.]
For those of you fortunate enough to be too young to have seen them, here’s how they worked.
Sorry, but I have to start with some historical background you younger readers may ignore: early ball-points had a brass tube filled with ink to roll out the ball at the writing end, not plastic like the Bics you buy by the bag today. The brass tube was open at the top so the ink could flow out the rolling ball at its point and had a crimp about an inch up holding the coil spring that retracted the point when you clicked the button at the top of the pen.
To make the gun you had to take the pen apart and get all the ink out of the brass reservoir. First, though you’d wiggle the tube back and forth at the crimp until the tube broke in two. With a straightened coat hanger you (carefully! Do not try this at home without adult supervision!) slowly pushed out the ink onto a sheet of paper. If you pushed too hard, the ink would squirt out and get all over everything. Very messy and certain to ruin your clothes or even worse, something uncleanable your mother treasured. With the coat hanger you could also push open the out-of-round break in the brass tube. After running hot water through what was to be the barrel of your gun to remove the last sticky ink, you were ready to fabricate the gun’s only other moving part. All our ink writing utensils in 1961 were unreliable and messy, so to see ink all over a classmate’s hands was an everyday sight. The clue that tipped off the fabrication of weapons was which hand the ink was on. Right-handers had ink stains on their writing hands from leaky pens. Ink on the left hand meant cleaning out avocado gun barrels. For left-handers, vice versa.
The ammunition was ideally a clean avocado pit, something that was available in quantity in every Laredo kitchen’s food scraps. Holding the brass tube in one hand and the avocado pit in the other, you pushed the tube about half-an-inch into the semi-hard flesh of the pit. When you pulled it out, there was a half-inch wad of avocado seed stuck in the end. Turn it around, and load the other end in the same way. In your hand you held a fully loaded ball-point pen gun that might get you kicked off a flight by the TSA today.
To fire it, you needed an 8-inch piece of coat hanger, with one end bent down 90 degrees, basically a short L-shaped rod. If you were right-handed, you’d grasp the loaded brass barrel in your left hand, push the coat hanger rod into the end of the barrel, take aim at an unsuspecting classmate, and fire it by pushing the rod as hard as you could down the barrel. The air in the tube between the avocado plugs compressed, until with an almost silent “flup,” the avocado projectile at the business end of the gun shot out.
Needless to say, these guns were hard to aim with any accuracy, so all too often there was friendly fire and collateral damage, but that was nothing compared to the disciplinary problem you had when a teacher made a surprise look in your direction at the moment of firing.
Some guys achieved greater range by wrapping string around the brass tube, so you could get a better grip with your off hand. Others had a stronger urge for authenticity and created wood stocks to scale, that made the humble ball-point pen gun look like a miniature rifle.
We had no end of fun shooting these things at each other, and for a year or so around 6th and 7th grades, you could see boys at school with their avocado pit ammo, those tell-tale, egg-shaped bulges, in their Levi’s pockets.
My poor friends from elsewhere, denied the advantages of childhood in Laredo, have told me that they, too, made these weapons. But I’ve always pitied them: Mexican food hadn’t conquered the world yet, and they were forced to use the much inferior potato for ammunition in their unappealingly named ‘spud guns.’ But then no one from Laredo ever demonstrated for my entertainment the jaw-dropping 200-yard range of a 4-inch acetylene “Potato Cannon” aimed at boats moored offshore on a holiday weekend, either, so I must acknowledge the potential utility of the humble potato as a payload.
We also fired the self-explanatory “clothes-pin gun,” another DIY weapon common enough in schoolboy arsenals that could shoot a variety of projectiles, from seeds to BB’s.
While not actually a gun, pea shooters were another low-tech weapon of the day. I was not a big fan of the pea shooter. You had to put the seed projectiles that you planned to blow out the end of the tube into your mouth. Once, George Medina made me laugh just as I was about to blow the pea shooter outside a Lamar Jr. High classroom. My cheek was full of un-popped popcorn kernels, and I aspirated one dramatically.
Another time I experimented with dried navy beans I’d pilfered from my mother’s pantry as ammunition, and they left an unpleasant, bitter taste in my mouth for hours. Once I tried using a 12” piece of copper tubing as a sturdier improvement over the plastic pea shooters everyone else was using. I’d found under some fittings in a box of plumbing odds and ends in my dad’s workshop. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that one of the ends had been dipped in acid flux for soldering before being discarded. Jalapeños will burn your lips all right, but nothing like acid soldering flux.
A couple of years before the zenith of the avocado gun’s popularity, a couple of us in 3rd or 4th grade at United Day developed another toy weapon. The identity of the inventor of the needle dart is buried like Ozymandias in the sands of time, but it had to be someone on this list of All Stars: Freddy Dickey, Larry McNary, Jack Suneson, Bill Leach, Rolando Silva, or Les Norton.
The needle dart is descriptively named. All you needed was a full-sized wood match, a sewing needle, some thread, and little pieces of paper. To assemble the dart, you broke off the combustible chemical match head and cut two slices at 90 degrees to each other into the end of the match stick. Obviously, since this was to be a dart, you’d slide two little pieces of paper into the cuts to form the vanes. At the dangerous end, you’d hold on end a sewing needle stolen from your mom’s drawer and push the end with the eye as best you can into the end of the match stick. This was a risky operation, and many of our thumbs or palms were pricked, but with none of the dire consequences that ensued for Snow White.
After winding a few coils of thread for a grip around match stick’s needle end, it was ready. But it was there that inspiration for our burst of schoolboy creativity went silent: we had the darts, but no dart board and no ideas about how to make one. There we were out on the dirt playground with shirt pocket quivers of needle-nosed wood darts, and nothing to throw them at. If the inventor’s name for these homemade darts is lost to history, so is the name of the genius among us whose brilliance saw that we could throw them at each other.
It was great. The little darts would stick in your clothes, and you could pull them out and return fire.
The fun ended quickly when somebody (not me) got hit in the cheek with an errant dart. It was painful enough to require a trip to the office, and when the principal, the terrifying Miss Dalziel Cobb, a character right out of Dickens, coerced an explanation from us, the game was over. All darts were confiscated, parents notified, and “you could have put somebody’s eye out!” lectures were sullenly endured.
None of this is to disparage the pleasure and utility of shooting real guns.
My father didn’t pass on to me a legacy of any real passion for firing them. He’d spent most of the war at Laredo Army Air Base teaching draftees to shoot 50-caliber Browning M-2 machine guns out of B-24’s, and after several million rounds and hearing loss, he just wasn’t that big on guns. And, unlike a lot of guys in Laredo, I didn’t grow up deer and bird hunting.
Besides that, I always enjoyed making things.
Maybe that’s why my memories run back mostly to mischief with those generally harmless, makeshift homemade guns.