Johnny Get Your Gun by
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(133 Stories)

Prompted By Guns Then and Now

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Please excuse the oxymoron, but, as I assume is the case with most Retro writers, I am now violently anti-gun. Just ban them all and f*ck the Second Amendment.   But I also assume that this was not always the case, at least among us Boomer guys as we were growing up. Certainly I have evolved on the issue since my early days.  Let me share three vignettes from my own gun-friendly youth.

Please excuse the oxymoron, but, as I assume is the case with most Retro writers, I am now violently anti-gun.

First, as I touched upon in an earlier story, growing up, we boys all had toys guns and other Western paraphernalia and could play Cowboys and Indians all day long; no one gave a second thought to such now red hot issues as gun control or Native American genocide.

 

                                                                (Not me, but it might as well have been.) 

In those days, the toy gun of choice was the Shooting Shell .45 from Mattel, which allowed the kid wielding it  to “fan” it and get off several shots in rapid succession  — sort of the frontier equivalent of an automatic weapon:


The Shooting Shell ran commericals all the time on The Mickey Mouse Club, which underscores just how mainstream toy guns were for kids in those days.  Of course, so were chocolate cigarettes.

I particularly recall that our playground had some sort of miniature structure — I can’t recall whether it was a ranch or a fort — that nicely contributed to the motif for our Cowboys and Indians games..  And I was one of the few (weird) kids who preferred  getting “killed” to doing the “killing.”  I had watched enough Westerns to appreciate just how much a scene-stealer it was, apres being shot, to writhe in agonizing pain and yet still muster enough strength to gasp out some noble last words of love, loyalty, revenge  — whatever —  before, tragically, closing one’s eyes for a last time as the violins swelled in the background.  Indeed, I usually found a way to draw out my death right until the end of recess.  I probably had an audience of one by then.

Second, when I went off to camp a few years later, we had a rifle range and were regularly scheduled for target practice with .22’s.  I loved it, and can still remember, almost fondly, the combined rich smells of rifle oil and, literally, the “smoking gun” after firing off a round.  (Not quite Napalm in the morning, but the same idea.)  Plus there was the trimphant thrill — very rare for me — of then going up to the target and seeing that you had actually hit it a few times, and maybe even a bullseye or two, albeit thanks more to the statistics of randomness than good aim.

And, again, a particular memory. We shot lying on our stomachs on burlap mats with the elbow of the non-shooting arm propped on the ground to hold the barrel of the rifle steady.  To best do so and still face the target directly with one’s “aiming eye” (right for righties and left for lefties), the mats were slightly angled to accommodate our legs. The problem was that I was the only leftie shooter in my cabin, so the blanket had to be angled in the opposite direction for me from that of all the righties.  To minimze the disruption this caused, my blanket was always placed on one end or the other of the shooting line, sort of like this:

/  /  /  /  /  /  /  /  /    \

Again, weird kid that I was, I liked the idea of being the only different one in the shooting line.  However, the rifle range instructor, who had to arrange all the mats for each shooting session, just thought I was a pain in the ass.

Third, when I was in junior high school, my mother was active with the New Haven Symphony and her main project for a while was putting together an annual special section in the local paper, the New Haven Register, which was primarily comprised of captioned photos of prominent New Haveners visiting local businesses.  Typical were photos of my wife’s glamorous mother modeling a mink while descending a stairway at a fashionable New Haven furrier.

One day, I got a message in school that, rather than taking the bus home, I was to be picked up by my mother in the parking lot — but not to worry.  As she explained to me after I got in the car, she was scheduled to do a photo shoot that afternoon for the section at the nearby Winchester rifle range (both Winchester and Remington were prominent gun manufacturers in New Haven in those days) and whoever was supposed to pose for the shot was suddenly unavailable, so she had “volunteered” me to stand in.  There was not much I could do and was sort of flattered — but, age appropriately, felt compelled to complain to her a bit anyhow.

When we got to the rifle range, we were met by its director as well as by Ted, the (terrific)  Register photographer who worked with my mother on the section. On the range, I explained how I had learned to shoot .22’s lying down at camp, and the director confirmed that that was still the best way for a kid to do so.  So I “assumed the position” with the Winchester rifle and Ted also got down on the ground on his stomach in front of me but slighty to the side of where I was ostensibly aiming (duh) and started snapping away with his camera.  Of course, my rifle was unloaded and the director warned me not to even think about pulling the trigger.  Even back then, we were all aware of horror stories with “unloaded” guns.

My mother was in charge of writing the captions and headlines for the photos, and she told me that she had decided to call the photo “Johnny Get Your Gun,” a popular phrase which, I have now learned, was first coined in about 1916 to urge the Americans (“Johnnies”) to join the Great War. (In 1971, a movie called “”Johnny Got His Gun,” based on a 1938 anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, was released. But in the early 60’s, the phrase “Johnny Get Your Gun” was still viewed non-ironically.)

I wasn’t crazy about the title since, at that time, I was busy morphing from “Johnny” to the way cooler “John,” but, again, I really had no choice.  At least my mother let me help her choose the photo, which was actually pretty good.  And I must admit that I did enjoy having this semi-macho photo of me in the Register for all my friends to see.

I searched for the photo on-line in the Register’s archives a few years ago when a friend of mine suggested I run for political office — a suggestion I wisely rejected.  I had remembered it and was wondering if it might be discovered and dragged out by someone trying to question my now strongly pro-gun control position.  (Though I also thought it might help me attract a few gun nuts.)  In any event, my search did not uncover the Symphony’s special section, presumably because it was considered an advertising supplement rather than part of the regular paper. Too bad, really, since I would just about kill for a copy of it now for this story.

With a knife, of course.  I probably have not touched a gun since that photo shoot and, if this Johnny ever got a gun again, he’d simply turn it in to the police.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————

UPDATE!

Encouraged by my Retro pals (are we called “Retrogrades?”), I followed up with the New Haven Symphony people to see if they might have copies of the special supplement with the Johnny Get Your Gun photo.  Perhaps motivated by a generous contribution from me, the Symphony’s development office referred me to the librarian at the New Haven Museum (formerly the New Haven Historical Society) where, I learned, the supplement is archived.

And, voila!  (Again, perhaps due to a little “motivation” on my part.)  Here is the photo:

Note that my memory was just a bit off.  The exact title is “Johnny, Gets The Gun,” complete with an odd comma.  And the rifle was, in fact, a Winchester.

While I was at it, I (nicely) imposed on the Museum librarian to also search for any photos with the name “Shutkin” or “Blakeslee” (my wife Kathie’s maiden name) on them, and again hit pay dirt. Here is a picture of my mother, which also confirms that she was in charge of the whole shebang for the Symphony.

And here is Kathie with her two sisters.  I remember drooling over this picture in the eighth grade – due to my crush on Kathie, not the ice cream:

And here is a photo of Kathie’s glamorous mother, who was often featured in the section:

My work here is done….

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: funny, right on!

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You do a great job of recapping our youthful enthusiasm for guns, John. Whether playing “cops and robbers” or the far more popular version that you describe, guns were everywhere for boys (and frequently, girls) playing in the 50s. I remember being fascinated by cap guns (presumably my older brother’s). And Westerns were all the rage on TV – those heroic, mythic individuals on their ranches out west, carving their way to tame the land after the Civil War. Now we have Amon Bundy leading the charge.

    Also fascinating that you learned to properly shoot a rifle, then your mother used you as a model for an add for the SYMPHONY! I do love the phrase “Johnny Get Your Gun”, recalling the WWI recruiting phrase. This is all wonderfully evocative of a more innocent time in our country; or at least it feels that way to me. Thanks for taking us back in time, John.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks so very much, Betsy. And you got it exactly right here — as did you with your story. It was a much more innocent time for all of us, particularly where guns were concerned. And, of course, the idea of automatic weapons for civilians was unthinkable back then.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Happily, Betsy, as you will see from my addendum, I was able to track down the picture of me. As mentioned, I expect the NRA will be asking me to pose for them any second now.

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        Great sleuth work (paired with some financial incentives?), John! SOO worth it so we can see the ad – which is adorable in its own way, plus the glamorous Blakeslee family photos. Kathie was definitely crush-worthy (please pass that along). Wonderful that all these years later, that crush was requited. And her mother…well, glamorous, indeed! I love the smoke behind all of you in your ad (or is it sagebrush; difficult to discern). Did your rifle really create that much? I think that was just for the effect, but its great, nonetheless.

        • John Shutkin says:

          Thanks so much for the kind words re both my sleuthing (in a shameless, mercenary sort of way) and the photos! Will definitely pass on word to Kathie from you.

          There was certainly no smoke from the rifle. It wasn’t loaded and I was still told repeatedly to not even think about pulling the trigger. And not a whole lot of sagebrush in suburban Connecticut, where the rifle range was. But we did have a great photographer from the newspaper. My mother later hired him to take portrait photos of my brother and me.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    You certainly brought up memories for me, John. I know my brothers played those cowboy/Indian games but I never knew the details of their guns of choice. My son shot a rifle at camp that sounds much like what you describe. I even have a photo that I decided to omit from my story. I couldn’t agree more with your feelings about gun control. As the 4th weekend is in full swing in Chicago, so many gun deaths have been recorded. I wonder what will happen in the next few days as more folks “celebrate.”

    • John Shutkin says:

      Yes, Laurie, I sensed that memories would be like many of ours as kids — and certainly boys — happily playing with guns.

      Please have a safe 4th there. As I write this in Massachusetts, we seem to be dealing with a cult of gun loving seditionists in a stand-off with the State Police.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I was able to track down the picture of me, Laurie. And will have a sizeable charitable deduction to show for it.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    A well-written retrospect as always, with lots of twists, perspective, and humor. I didn’t go to camp as a kid, and am impressed by the stories of (the boys at least) having shooting guns as one of the activities! Who knew? The “Johnny get your gun” also reminded me of “when Johnny comes marching home”, the rousing pro-war song that later evoked the consequences faced by the Johnnies who came home damaged. Great pix–too bad that picture of the you at the glamor shoot with your mother was lost.

  4. Marian says:

    There are so many wonderful things in this story, John. I confess I can’t remember the ads on Mickey Mouse Club for that gun, but maybe they were so directed at boys. There are those who think that Sarah Winchester (of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose) went slightly mad because she felt guilty about gaining wealth from weapons of destruction. Although, as you articulately point out, people had a more innocent attitude about guns back in the day.

  5. Wow Johnny, too bad, we’d all kill to see that photo too!

  6. Suzy says:

    Fabulous story, John. I love the diagram of your shooting line. It never would have occurred to me that a lefty would have to lie at a different angle from a rightie. Of course, it also never would have occurred to me that you would lie on your stomach to shoot a rifle. In movies, that was only when they had to take cover behind a rock or something, to be protected from the shots coming the other way.

    Like everyone else, I would so love to see that photo of you. Amazing that it was an advertising section for the Symphony! You definitely need to find the “somewhere in the Universe” where that photo section still exists.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. As to the shooting line, we boys were very much aware that shooting on your stomach was a “girl’s” way of doing it — not like the cowboys on TV — but that is how they made us do it. Plus, we never would have been able to shoot with any accuracy standing up and holding the rifles.

      And, tihs week’s story may well “prompt” me (pun intended) to contact the New Haven Symphony and see if they have copies of the special section from 1962 in their archives. If so, I promise to share it with my Retro pals.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I searched the Universe and found the picture — and then some. Thanks for the encouragement, Suzy!

  7. “Chocolate cigarettes”…now you have my attention! And “I would just about kill for a copy of it now…” intentional pun or not? In any event, I join the others in hoping you’re able to find it…without going to extremes!

    • John Shutkin says:

      You may safely assume that all my puns/plays on words are intentional, Barb; that’s just the way my (twisted) mind works.

      And I got out an email yesterday to the New Haven Symphony in hopes of finding the article and, more generally, all the special sections my mother worked on in its archives. And I did not go to any extremes — I just coupled the inquiry with a generous contribution. Subtle, no?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Happily, Barb, I was able to get the picture — and then some — without having to kill anyone even.

  8. Loved the story and the aptness of the title, John. Yup; similar experiences growing up but without that camp experience. But it did trigger (sorry) a much more recent memory. My partner Barbara has two children, a son and a daughter (in that chronological order). The son is bigly into Airsoft weapons and Airsoft “meets” (I think that’s what they call them. Airsoft is sorta like paintball; nonlethal. So he regularly enjoys playing soldiers with his buds. I remember one weekend when he was staying with us and watched him, fully geared up in camo etc. and with his supplies left for a meet. When his sister called. She was in the Army at Fort Jackson and had just returned from a live fire drill. The irony of the son playing solider and the daughter doing it for real has stayed with me.

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