Relative Safety


Funny, the way things can happen.

Take shooting yourself in the foot for instance; that oft-quoted analogy actually does occur, even to a totally safety-conscious person like myself, now and then.

Well not now maybe, but it did then:

Bonnie is my first cousin, the only daughter of Uncle Pete, and since Uncle Pete was not only my uncle but my boss at the Crown Zellerbach paper mill, I had agreed to teach Bonnie how to safely handle a gun. She was moving away from home into an apartment and Uncle Pete wanted her to have the means to defend herself. So he bought her a gun, you see.

I don’t recall the make, model or even the caliber but it was a semi-automatic pistol, a design I wasn’t terribly comfortable with. This was in the late 1960’s and semi-automatic handguns hadn’t the popularity they have today, but I did own one—a Ruger Mark I .22 caliber—so I was familiar with how they functioned and was confident I had the knowledge and skill to instruct Bonnie in the safe handling and proper use thereof. When Uncle Pete first asked me to do this a little red flag started to pop up in the recesses of my mind but I skillfully avoided it in the same manner I would later use to push myself over the edge of an advanced ski run after 15 minutes on the bunny hill.

The little red flag that popped up this time though had nothing to do with recklessness; I was raised with guns and knew the in’s and out’s of shooting with a weighted knowledge of gun safety. In the Marine Corps I qualified as Rifle Expert in recruit training and was assigned to serve as a supply clerk in an artillery regiment. When the opportunity arose, I decided I would rather serve as an observer in the Naval Gunfire section, which was OK’ed by the Top but would require me to carry a radio. No problem there, except it also required proficiency in the use of the M1911 .45 caliber semi-automatic handgun—radio operators had to have one hand available for the radio, hence the need for a sidearm—and I finally came to a firearm I could not hit the broadside of a barn with. My military coach tried everything he could think of; sight picture, breathing, trigger squeeze, all to no avail. He even let me shoot two-handed back in the days of standing sideways to the target with the pistol extended out in one hand. Any chance I had for Naval Gunfire pinged away like an ejected cartridge case so, chastened and befuddled, I went back to my old job at Headquarters Battery.

Still, in the years since I had become fairly comfortable with my semi-automatic Ruger, although I still preferred revolvers, and I wasn’t in any way worried about teaching Bonnie safely.

I took Bonnie out to a place her brother and I went to often, a bluff-lined basin some fifteen or twenty miles south of Grass Valley in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The area was perfect for shooting, and I set up a few targets for Bonnie and showed her the basics much like my old pistol-shooting coach had demonstrated in the Marines, but hopefully with more success. I had my Ruger with me, properly holstered, as I instructed Bonnie in her run-throughs. She was a good student and picked it up quickly, leading us to the actual loading of the magazine with live rounds. At this point I unholstered my Ruger and was demonstrating the necessity of always keeping the muzzle pointed downrange, even if distracted. I was standing to her right and slightly behind her so I could watch her gunhandling closely and as she readied to shoot I lowered my hand holding the unloaded Ruger so it was hanging at my right side pointing downwards. For some reason I didn’t holster it, but I did consciously bend my wrist outward so the gun’s barrel wouldn’t be hovering over my foot, which I might point out reinforces my abiding concern for safety.

So it was with complete and utter unbelief that I heard a deafening bang before Bonnie commenced shooting. At the same time somebody hit me in the foot with a baseball bat, causing total numbness all the way to my ankle. It took only a split second to realize I had, somehow, just shot myself. With an unloaded gun to boot, which, speaking of boots, mine was giving up a little curl of smoke out of what appeared to be a bullet strike next to one of the eyelets.

Oops.

Bonnie, demonstrating her awareness of all I had taught her by keeping her gun and her attention downrange said:

“That was scary, but you’re not going to distract me.”

Um…

It had belatedly come to my attention my gun wasn’t unloaded at all, in severe and unacceptable disregard to the most basic of all safety rules.

Oops, indeed. Ah, but how to tell the trusting student?

And there were other complications too, such as my car; a ’60 Chevrolet Biscayne manual transmission with the gearshift on the steering column. Medical facilities were some 20 miles distant and Bonnie would have to drive us over there. That could be a problem as she’d never learned to drive a stick shift.

Breaking all this to her was difficult. She thought I was joking at first but as the gravity of the thing dawned on her…well, she took it as well as could be expected if you discounted the saucerlike eyeballs peering mightily through her bedsheet-white face. But there was a silver lining; Bonnie worked back in Antioch as a receptionist/assistant to a podiatrist—a foot doctor, to us laymen. How wonderfully convenient was that?

It was a herky-jerky ride to the hospital in Grass Valley but Bonnie did very well under the circumstances, and the sheer difficulty of keeping the car in some kind of motion had the added bonus that she was too busy to grill me. That came later, when I saw Uncle Pete and Bonnie’s brother, cousin Bob.

An unforeseen advantage lay in the fact that I wasn’t allowed to return to work until I could wear my steel-toed safety boots, which took a few weeks, thereby delaying the merciless ribbing I was sure to find there. I grew a mustache and carved a notch in the grip of the Ruger, and I told my fellow workers not to mess with me; us man-shootin’ gunfighters weren’t to be trifled with.

It helped, but not much. As they say in the Westerns, I was rode hard and put away wet. But I did have this; Bonnie was my cousin and therefore a relative, so I was able to proclaim to everybody that at least I brought her back home in Relative Safety.

And that helped too, but not much.


Notice the gun fighter's notch.