I am Bobby Odendaal, twelve years old and invincible. In my hands rests my Christmas present, the newly-unwrapped air gun . Not a BB or a Daisy, but a genuine Crosman. I trace my vingers across the lettering of the box: Crosman Optimus Breakbarrel Air Rifle by Crosman. It has a shiny barrel, a walnut stock and a scope. With a rifle like this, a man can conquer the world!
Mother is aghast. “What, in Heaven’s name, has Uncle Ben done now! Look at your son!” Whenever I’ve done something wrong, I’m Dad’s son. “He’s given your son a lethal weapon.” Mom has set ideas about violence and war. She hates guns.
“Oh, it’s just an air gun, Darling.” Dad only says Darling when he’s in deep trouble, then he says it with a capital ‘D’. “Uncle Ben didn’t mean it like that. Boys have to learn to shoot sometime. Look at it as aan educational toy.”
Mom isn’t buying that. “It’s educated boys that turn out to shoot people. Educated men become murderers and assassins. Educated my foot! That thing gets sent back to my mad brother Ben Bitterwater the moment to Post Office opens on the 27th.”
By now I’m crying. This is the best thing that has happened to me since that doctor slapped my bum, and now I can’t keep it.
Dad intervenes (a brave act).
“Look Darling, lets talk about this. Let’s lay down a set of rules and see how it goes. The 27th is two days away. If our son is responsible with the gun, we may want to reconsider.” Now I’m their son. Not Robert or Bob – but their son. Nothing like shared responsibility. Way to go, Dad!
“Like what?” Mom spits out the question like she wants to get rid of a bee that found its way to her molars. Dangerous sign, but I suppose Dad knows it. He called her Cobra once – when we were alone. I can see he is careful to answer.
“Look son,” he says eventually, “that thing can shoot right through a piece of corrugated iron.” Mom gasps in horror. “So you can never aim it at anybody. So the rule is: if it is alive, you may not shoot at it. If you want to fire it, go somewhere you are sure you’re not going to hit anybody or anything.” I stop crying now. I know he means alive things, but have to smile: why shoot if you want to hit nothing? I’m wise enough to say nothing. Dad turns to Mom: “Satisfied?”
That was how my regular trips to the doctor started that afternoon. On some of them, I was the patient. Doctor Jerkins (we had endless fun with his surname in our later teens) was a dour, humourless, dull man with drooping eyelids, an Einstein moustache and a straight line for lips. He was (not surprisingly) an old bachelor who lived in the room behind his office. That helped a lot.
Uncle Ben Bitterwater had given me a Joseph Roger’s for my tenth birthday – it had a blade made of solid steel and I could shave off my three pubic hairs with the first attempt with its razor-sharp edge. My plan now was to carve my initials on the walnut stock, as a sign of ownership. If Mom saw how much I wanted that air gun, she might feel differently about sending it back; or so I thought.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have ever tried to do a perfect O with a penknife in walnut. The B had angular roundings, but was still recognisable. To have a square O was unthinkable. With great care and surgical skill, I set about digging out bits of wood to create the letter. This is when the knife slipped and embedded itself in my left forearm.
I didn’t cry.
With the knife still sticking in my flesh, I kicked the gun under my bed, and climbed out through the window. Once on the garage roof it was tricky to get down; but I’d practiced this maneuver so often in the past. It was easy to get to the low wall at the dustbin, then onto the dustbin, then onto the ground. Once on the other side of the garden, I let rip with the howl that I had suppressed so long and stormed into the house. Whatever else happened – Mom was not to connect the gun with my accident.
Doctor Jerkins pulled the knife from my arm, said it was lucky I didn’t sever any arteries or nerves, and put in a single stitch. In all honesty, it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would.
Predictably, Mom confined me to the room for the afternoon. “If you almost kill yourself running about with an open knife, then it’s better to go to your room and stay there.”
Now I could inspect the Crosman at my leisure. It was marked with an angular B and bits of the O, but that would have to suffice.
The bit about the corrugated iron suddenly presented a challenge. Was it just something Dad said, or…?
My room, you see, was on the first floor, right above the garage that jutted out from the house. That meant that I had a whole testing range at my disposal. Mom and Dad were having a nap – their room is on the opposite side of the house. Cometh the challenge, cometh the opportunity – and mine was there, right under my nose, ready for the taking.
Loading the Crosman for the first time is like your first kiss – you never forget it. There’s something magical about slipping the little bullet into its housing, closing the barrel and then knowing you are ready and armed. Come to think of it – it is far easier than a kiss, anyway. The bits fit together better.
It’s not necessary to aim at a roof. You point and let fly.
My little projectile created havoc faster than I could imagine. It dented the roof, didn’t penetrate the corrugated iron – and the next thing I hear is the glass breaking in the Joneses house across the street. The gun was back under the bed in a flash and I buried myself under the blanket, waiting for the mayhem to follow.
Outside the Christmas afternoon slumbered on, the town was quiet – and then I remembered that the Joneses were away for the holiday. Margate by the sea; they always went there for the holidays. That meant they would only discover their broken window when they return, and by then it would be impossible to connect the broken window with me.
Mom always said, if at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again. No sense in wasting education, I always say. So I tried again. This time the bullet flew through the roof just like that. One moment there was this roof that kept out the rain, the next there was a little black hole right in its centre. Talk about incriminating circumstantial evidence! I climbed ou of the window again, this time to plug the hole with some putty I stole from the window. I did a neat job. Standing back to inspect the result of my labour, I fell off the roof.
Dr Jerkins said it was a clean break and that I was lucky the bones weren’t displaced. The cast could come off in three week’s time.
So there I was: left arm stitched up, right arm in plaster of Paris. Dad tried to look stern but Mom didn’t have to – she lambasted me all the way from the surgery to the house. Still, she didn’t connect the gun with the incident, so that was a reprieve.
Mom closed my window and said it didn’t matter if I suffocated to death – if I dared touch that window again I wouldn’t need lungs anyway. She can be very convincing if she sets her mind to it.
There’s no greater challenge in life than to put a boy into a closed room with an air gun nearby. And if that boy has a bandaged arm on the one side and the other is in a cast, anybody with rudimentary knowledge of child psychology will tell you what will happen next.
I lay down; rested the barrel on my one knee; held on with my only workable hand and tried to get to the trigger with my one big toe. You must understand that this was not in defiance of my parents or even an attempt to test Mom’s endurance any further. It’s the challenge…
Sure, the gun was loaded. What’s the sense of practicing maneuvers with incomplete kit? Ask any soldier; you’ll get the same answer.
Now, here’s a strange fact. Trigger guards are too small for big toes. Did you know that? It’ll allow your trigger finger with ease, but not your thumb. Or toe. The only way to get a toe in there is to ease the trigger back, ever so slightly.
The gun went off.
The window broke.
Mom started screaming.
Dr Jerkins said Mom was lucky – she came from a strong family. Once the sedatives have worked out, she’d be her old self again.
So here I am, all on my own in the bus, on my way to Uncle Ben Bitterwater. The gun is in its box under my seat. Uncle Ben lives in Bitterbrak, on the other side of Rolbos and we’ll be there soon. Dad said Uncle Ben Bitterwater would meet me at the garage at Grootdrink, where the bus fills up with diesel. Uncle Ben will understand better if I told him everything myself, he said, and if he sees the way I look. And, since I caused all the trouble, I was the person to return the gun to him.
“You have to learn responsibility, son.” To his credit: he tried to look serious. I think he only wanted to get me away from Mom for a few days.
When the bus stops, I scan the little crowd outside. I recognise Uncle Ben Bitterwater immediately: he has his usual wide-brimmed hat on, the one with the strip of leopard skin and the feather at a jaunty angle. He’s not that hard to spot – he’s the only one with a crossbow over his shoulder.
I don’t think I’m going back home. Dr Jerkins could run out of things to feel lucky about.