What did we know? by
(39 Stories)

Prompted By Guns Then and Now

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We played with the neighbor kids in grade school, making up stories as we ran around in the back yards, in that white midwestern Norman Rockwell pre-video game era.

Many kids had cap guns in holsters on their hips. These were loaded with red strips which were impregnated with dots of chemicals, and would explode with a loud bang when the trigger was pulled. 

It might be the ubiquitous “cowboys and Indians”, a distorted mythology heavily influenced by movies and TV—The Lone Ranger, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett (that massive fad with Fess Parker, coonskin cap, rifle, and song), plus a long list of “Westerns”.  In addition to the cowboy hats, boots, feathered headbands and fringed jackets, many kids had cap guns in holsters on their hips. These were loaded with red strips which were impregnated with dots of chemicals, and would explode with a loud bang when the trigger was pulled.

If we were not playing that, it would be some takeoff on WW2—with Axis vs Allies, building tents, identifying “sides”, and carrying out somewhat chaotic maneuvers we called war.

But this was all “play”. It seemed to be ancient history, just stories. I didn’t know anyone with real guns, certainly not in my family; the 1950’s were a time of relative peace in the US.  Our child’s play was no anomaly though, and trying to counteract that trend is tough—I have known many parents who have tried to eliminate guns from their children’s lives, only to find any stick or stone turned into a weapon.

The dreary story of my lifetime has wound through US wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and mass domestic killings fueled by a gun culture out of control. And that is only part of the world’s story.    History has seen ever-increasing lethal weapons technology, and the famous Bulletin of Atomic Scientist doomsday clock (currently set at 100 seconds to midnight) illustrates the endgame.

What did we really know, when we would call out as kids, “Bang, bang, you’re dead!”


Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Best last line ever, Khati!

  2. Jeff Gerken says:

    You hit the nail on the head when you identified the problem as “gun culture.”

  3. John Shutkin says:

    You are telling a story that almost all of us are telling in our stories this week, Khati, but you have done so masterfully. And, yes, that was a terrific last line. I even dare presume what we were thinking then – -and I speak as someone who loved to “die” almost all the time: we were just playing. But now, things are, quite literally, deadly serious.

    And “gun culture” has to be the oxymoron of all time.

  4. Marian says:

    You’ve lent amazing depth to our seemingly innocent games of cowboys and Indians, Khati, and captured the disturbing truths present then and now. What a showstopper your last line was, fantastic!

  5. Yes indeed Khati, what did we know, and what will we ever learn as the Doomsday Clock clicks away!

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    Everyone is struck by the similarity we all experienced. We all played the same games, fueled by the same themes and loved playing them, Khati. But you’ve brilliantly captured how the innocence of the 50s turned into the march toward the doomsday countdown of your final line. You got me.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I agree we didn’t understand much about what real guns could do when we were kids. My brothers wore their Davy Crockett hats and enacted elaborate death scenes, but it all seemed so innocent back then.

  8. Suzy says:

    Khati, this is a magnificent story. I can only echo what everyone else has said. But I will add that I absolutely adore your photo, on a real (?) horse in full cowgirl regalia. You are so lucky to have that picture!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      That picture is a hoot—there is an identical one with each of my sisters—I don’t recall the event, but might have been a visit to some photographer with a horse and costumes when we were visiting family in California. It is instructive to see how many of our posts on this topic feature kids in cowboy outfits.

  9. Loved your emphasis on the personal/psychological impact our gun culture has had on us all, but here, in particular, on us 1950s kids. And I had forgotten about cap guns. All that gunpowerder rolled up in red paper. Then, an object of aquisition, now, a recollection of how crazy we were all brought up to be.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      A couple of people mentioned that those little dots on the paper were gunpowder—which I didn’t realize. They sure made a bang. I didn’t own a cap gun, but remember “shooting” one, maybe the kid’s next door. Amazing how pervasive and foundational that ersatz cowboy culture was/is.

  10. John Zussman says:

    Love. That. Photo. And such a beautiful evocation of images of kids at (violent) play. And yes, it led to a generation of adults who waged one war after another, across the globe — but also to a counterculture of the same generation who tried to stop them. Maybe one of us should have studied psychology to understand how that all worked itself out. Oh wait …

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