By Sarah Vowell
If you were passing by the house where I grew up during my teenage years and it happened to be before Election Day, you wouldn’t have needed to come inside to see that it was a house divided. You could have looked at the Democratic campaign poster in the upstairs window and the Republican one in the downstairs window and seen our home for the Civil War battleground it was. I’m not saying who was the Democrat or who was the Republican—my father or I—but I will tell you that I have never subscribed to Guns & Ammo, that I did not plaster the family vehicle with National Rifle Association stickers, and that hunter’s orange was never my color.
About the only thing my father and I agree on is the Constitution, though I’m partial to the First Amendment, while he’s always favored the Second.
I am a gunsmith’s daughter. I like to call my parents’ house, located on a quiet residential street in Bozeman, Montana, the United States of Firearms. Guns were everywhere: the so-called pretty ones like the circa 1850 walnut muzzleloader hanging on the wall, Dad’s clients’ fixer-uppers leaning into corners, an entire rack right next to the TV. I had to move revolvers out of my way to make room for a bowl of Rice Krispies on the kitchen table.
I was eleven when we moved into that Bozeman house. We had never lived in town before, and this was a college town at that. We came from Oklahoma—a dusty little Muskogee County nowhere called Braggs. My parents’ property there included an orchard, a horse pasture, and a couple of acres of woods. I knew our lives had changed one morning not long after we moved to Montana when, during breakfast, my father heard a noise and jumped out of his chair. Grabbing a BB gun, he rushed out the front door. Standing in the yard, he started shooting at crows. My mother sprinted after him screaming, “Pat, you might ought to check, but I don’t think they do that up here!” From the look on his face, she might as well have told him that his American citizenship had been revoked. He shook his head, mumbling, “Why, shooting crows is a national pastime, like baseball and apple pie.” Personally, I preferred baseball and apple pie. I looked up at those crows flying away and thought, I’m going to like it here.
Dad and I started bickering in earnest when I was fourteen, after the 1984 Democratic National Convention. I was so excited when Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate that I taped the front page of the newspaper with her picture on it to the refrigerator door. But there was some sort of mysterious gravity surge in the kitchen. Somehow, that picture ended up in the trash all the way across the room.
Nowadays, I giggle when Dad calls me on Election Day to cheerfully inform me that he has once again canceled out my vote, but I was not always so mature. There were times when I found the fact that he was a gunsmith horrifying. And just weird. All he ever cared about were guns. All I ever cared about was art. There were years and years when he hid out by himself in the garage making rifle barrels and I holed up in my room reading Allen Ginsberg poems, and we were incapable of having a conversation that didn’t end in an argument.
Our house was partitioned off into territories. While the kitchen and the living room were well within the DMZ, the respective work spaces governed by my father and me were jealously guarded totalitarian states in which each of us declared ourselves dictator. Dad’s shop was a messy disaster area, a labyrinth of lathes. Its walls were hung with the mounted antlers of deer he’d bagged, forming a makeshift museum of death. The available flat surfaces were buried under a million scraps of paper on which he sketched his mechanical inventions in blue ball-point pen. And the floor, carpeted with spiky metal shavings, was a tetanus shot waiting to happen. My domain was the cramped, cold space known as the music room. It was also a messy disaster area, an obstacle course of musical instruments—piano, trumpet, baritone horn, valve trombone, various percussion doodads (bells!), and recorders. A framed portrait of the French composer Claude Debussy was nailed to the wall. The available flat surfaces were buried under piles of staff paper, on which I penciled in the pompous orchestra music given titles like “Prelude to the Green Door” (named after an O. Henry short story by the way, not the watershed porn flick Behind the Green Door) I starting writing in junior high.
It has been my experience that in order to impress potential suitors, skip the teen Debussy anecdotes and stick with the always attention-getting line “My dad makes guns.” Though it won’t cause the guy to like me any better, it will make him handle the inevitable breakup with diplomacy—just in case I happen to have any loaded family heirlooms lying around the house.
But the fact is, I have only shot a gun once and once was plenty. My twin sister, Amy, and I were six years old—six—when Dad decided that it was high time we learned how to shoot. Amy remembers the day he handed us the gun for the first time differently. She liked it.
Amy shared our father’s enthusiasm for firearms and the quick-draw cowboy mythology surrounding them. I tended to daydream through Dad’s activities—the car trip to Dodge City’s Boot Hill, his beloved John Wayne Westerns on TV. My sister, on the other hand, turned into Rooster Cogburn Jr., devouring Duke movies with Dad. In fact, she named her teddy bear Duke, hung a colossal John Wayne portrait next to her bed, and took to wearing one of those John Wayne shirts that button on the side. So when Dad led us out to the backyard when we were six and, to Amy’s delight, put the gun in her hand, she says she felt it meant that Daddy trusted us and that he thought of us as ”’big girls.”
But I remember holding the pistol only made me feel small. It was so heavy in my hand. I stretched out my arm and pointed it away and winced. It was a very long time before I had the nerve to pull the trigger and I was so scared I had to close my eyes. It felt like it just went off by itself, as if I had no say in the matter, as if the gun just had this need. The sound it made was as big as God. It kicked little me back to the ground like a bully, like a foe. It hurt. I don’t know if I dropped it or just handed it back over to my dad, but I do know that I never wanted to touch another one again. And, because I believed in the devil, I did what my mother told me to do every time I felt an evil presence. I looked at the smoke and whispered under my breath, “Satan, I rebuke thee.”
It’s not like I’m saying I was traumatized. It’s more like I was decided. Guns: Not For Me. Luckily, both my parents grew up in exasperating households where children were considered puppets and/or slaves. My mom and dad were hell-bent on letting my sister and me make our own choices. So if I decided that I didn’t want my father’s little death sticks to kick me to the ground again, that was fine with him. He would go hunting with my sister, who started calling herself “the loneliest twin in history” because of my reluctance to engage in family activities.
Of course, the fact that I was allowed to voice my opinions did not mean that my father would silence his own. Some things were said during the Reagan administration that cannot be taken back. Let’s just say that I blamed Dad for nuclear proliferation and Contra aid. He believed that if I had my way, all the guns would be confiscated and it would take the commies about fifteen minutes to parachute in and assume control.
We’re older now, my dad and I. The older I get, the more I’m interested in becoming a better daughter. First on my list: Figure out the whole gun thing.
Not long ago, my dad finished his most elaborate tool of death yet. A cannon. He built a nineteenth-century cannon. From scratch. It took two years.
My father’s cannon is a smaller replica of a cannon called the Big Horn Gun in front of Bozeman’s Pioneer Museum. The barrel of the original has been filled with concrete ever since some high school kids in the ’50s pointed it at the school across the street and shot out its windows one night as a prank. According to Dad’s historical source, a man known to scholars as A Guy at the Museum, the cannon was brought to Bozeman around 1870, and was used by local white merchants to fire at the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians who blocked their trade access to the East in 1874.
“Bozeman was founded on greed,” Dad says. The courthouse cannon, he continues, “definitely killed Indians. The merchants filled it full of nuts, bolts, and chopped-up horseshoes. Sitting Bull could have been part of these engagements. They definitely ticked off the Indians, because a couple of years later, Custer wanders into them at Little Bighorn. The Bozeman merchants were out to cause trouble. They left fresh baked bread with cyanide in it on the trail to poison a few Indians.”
Because my father’s sarcastic American history yarns rarely go on for long before he trots out some nefarious ancestor of ours—I come from a long line of moonshiners, Confederate soldiers, murderers, even Democrats—he cracks that the merchants hired some “community-minded Southern soldiers from North Texas.” These soldiers had, like my great-great-grandfather John Vowell, fought under pro-slavery guerrilla William C. Quantrill. Quantrill is most famous for riding into Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863 flying a black flag and commanding his men pharaohlike to “kill every male and burn down every house.”
“John Vowell,” Dad says, “had a little rep for killing people.” And since he abandoned my great-grandfather Charles, whose mother died giving birth to him in 1870, and wasn’t seen again until 1912, Dad doesn’t rule out the possibility that John Vowell could have been one of the hired guns on the Bozeman Trail. So the cannon isn’t just another gun to my dad. It’s a map of all his obsessions—firearms, certainly, but also American history and family history, subjects he’s never bothered separating from each other.
After tooling a million guns, after inventing and building a rifle barrel boring machine, after setting up that complicated shop filled with lathes and blueing tanks and outmoded blacksmithing tools, the cannon is his most ambitious project ever. I thought that if I was ever going to understand the ballistic bee in his bonnet, this was my chance. It was the biggest gun he ever made and I could experience it and spend time with it with the added bonus of not having to actually pull a trigger myself.
I called Dad and said that I wanted to come to Montana and watch him shoot off the cannon. He was immediately suspicious. But I had never taken much interest in his work before and he would take what he could get. He loaded the cannon into the back of his truck and we drove up into the Bridger Mountains. I was a little worried that the National Forest Service would object to us lobbing fiery balls of metal onto its property. Dad laughed, assuring me that “you cannot shoot fireworks, but this is considered a firearm.”
It is a small cannon, about as long as a baseball bat and as wide as a coffee can. But it’s heavy—11O pounds. We park near the side of the hill. Dad takes his gunpowder and other tools out of this adorable wooden box on which he has stenciled “PAT G. VOWELL CANNONWORKS.” Cannonworks: So that’s what NRA members call a metal-strewn garage.
Dad plunges his homemade bullets into the barrel, points it at an embankment just to be safe, and lights the fuse. When the fuse is lit, it resembles a cartoon. So does the sound, which warrants Ben Day dot words along the lines of ker-pow! There’s so much Fourth of July smoke everywhere I feel compelled to sing the national anthem.
I’ve given this a lot of thought—how to convey the giddiness I felt when the cannon shot off. But there isn’t a sophisticated way to say this. It’s just really, really cool. My dad thought so, too.
Sometimes, I put together stories about the more eccentric corners of the American experience for public radio. So I happen to have my tape recorder with me, and I’ve never seen levels like these. Every time the cannon goes off, the delicate needles which keep track of the sound quality lurch into the bad, red zone so fast and so hard I’m surprised they don’t break.
The cannon was so loud and so painful, I had to touch my head to make sure my skull hadn’t cracked open. One thing that my dad and I share is that we’re both a little hard of hearing—me from Aerosmith, him from gunsmith.
He lights the fuse again. The bullet knocks over the log he was aiming at. I instantly utter a sentence I never in my entire life thought I would say. I tell him, “Good shot, Dad.”
Just as I’m wondering what’s coming over me, two hikers walk by. Apparently, they have never seen a man set off a homemade cannon in the middle of the wilderness while his daughter holds a foot-long microphone up into the air recording its terrorist boom. One hiker gives me a puzzled look and asks, “So you work for the radio and that’s your dad?”
Dad shoots the cannon again so that they can see how it works. The other hiker says, “That’s quite the machine you got there.” But he isn’t talking about the cannon. He’s talking about my tape recorder and my microphone—which is called a shotgun mike. I stare back at him, then I look over at my father’s cannon, then down at my microphone, and I think, Oh. My. God. My dad and I are the same person. We’re both smart-alecky loners with goofy projects and weird equipment. And since this whole target practice outing was my idea, I was no longer his adversary. I was his accomplice. What’s worse, I was liking it.
I haven’t changed my mind about guns. I can get behind the cannon because it is a completely ceremonial object. It’s unwieldy and impractical, just like everything else I care about. Try to rob a convenience store with this 11O-pound weapon, you’d still be dragging it in the door Sunday afternoon.
I love noise. As a music fan, I’m always waiting for that moment in a song when something just flies out of it and explodes in the air. My dad is a one-man garage band, the kind of rock ‘n’ roller who slaves away at his art for no reason other than to make his own sound. My dad is an artist. He’s got his last masterpiece all planned out. It’s a performance piece. We’re all in it—my mom, the loneliest twin in history, and me.
When my father dies, take a wild guess what he wants done with his ashes. Here’s a hint: It requires a cannon.
“You guys are going to love this,” he smirks, eyeballing the cannon. “You get to drag this thing up on top of the Gravellies on opening day of hunting season. And looking off at Sphinx Mountain, you get to put me in little paper bags. I can take my last hunting trip on opening morning.”
I’ll do it, too. I will have my father’s body burned into ashes. I will pack these ashes into paper bags. I will go to the mountains with my mother, my sister, and the cannon. I will plunge his remains into the barrel and point it into a hill so that he doesn’t take anyone with him. I will light the fuse. But I will not cover my ears. Because when I blow what used to be my dad into the earth, I want it to hurt.