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Sunday Stories from the South
I suppose that most men would like to think that they could shoot someone to defend life and limb. But I expect that many wonder if they actually could pull the trigger if it came down to it. This was certainly true of me.
It is almost a truism that every house in the South contains more guns than people. We love our guns. We collect them. We like to sit around and clean them, basking in the gleam of polished steel and the scent of Hoppe’s No. 9. Guns are more than tools for hunting or our last line of defense. Hell, we even love the noise: that music of opening morning of deer season, the blast and boom of skeet shoots, the anthem of liberty on the 4th of July.
I got my first gun before I lost my first tooth. Grandaddy gave me a shotgun that had belonged to his grandfather. “When the Depression hit, this kept our family from starving,” he said. “And when some bad men came to take what few groceries they had, this made sure the pigs stayed in the pen and the beans stayed in the pantry.” It wasn’t so much a weapon as it was a sacred artifact imbued with the holiness of the heritage of my people.
Some have the idea that everyone in the South believes that whatever can’t be baptized should be shot, but few are so cavalier. Even as a boy, I was put through the paces of gun safety and the ethics of exactly when, and where, and what to shoot.
My grandfather boiled down the “Law of the Gun,” distilling it in two great commandments. 1.) Barring varmints and predators, never kill an animal I didn’t intend to eat; 2.) When it came to the matter of raising my gun in the direction of another man, this was only to be done if he meant me or my family harm. Seven years ago, I came face to face with an opportunity to obey that second commandment.
For a week, I had been preaching under a tent in North Georgia. It was one of those meetings where saints felt their salvation so deeply that they became as wild as peach orchard boars. Shouting and running and dancing, throwing hymn books and babies.The air was thick with gospel music and high-octane praise. Neckties hung from the rafters and hair pins littered the dirt floor, both either cast off or shaken loose by those in the throes of campmeeting ecstasy.
In these wild Baptist revivals only two expressions of worship were frowned upon: the quiet kind, and those that held forth in the tongues of the angels. Ever by those who wanted to converse in the tongues of the angels. So every night, the host pastor would say, “If the Spirit moves, y’all obey the Lord. Just keep it in the King’s English.” This was necessary because tents draw Pentecostals like cow patties draw flies.
The meeting ran longer than intended because sinners were getting saved, backsliders were coming home, and a few Presbyterians were even discovering their vocal chords for the first time. When we finally closed out on Saturday evening, I had to drive through the night in order to be back in my own pulpit on Sunday morning.
I arrived home around three in the morning. I was exhausted and my back was hurting from hours of being cooped up in the vehicle. I just wanted to climb into a hot shower and then between my cool sheets. But the intruder had other plans.
It was dark when I pulled into my driveway. And I don’t mean the kind of dark that exists in the suburbs where all that’s missing is the sun. That sort of place where the street lamps line the streets provide enough luminescence to read a newspaper on the sidewalk at midnight. I mean “country dark.” What Moses meant when he talked about “thick darkness.” Where the nearest neighbor is half a mile away, where there are no light poles, and where the light of the moon doesn’t make it to your house until shortly before dawn.
What’s more, I don’t like the dark. It isn’t that I’m afraid of the dark. It’s that I am a Christian. St. John said “men love darkness because their deeds are evil,” and I’ve always been inclined to believe him. So I was a bit anxious when I got out of my pickup and could hardly see underneath my carport. My poor headlights were pumping all the light they could muster, but they were barely able to cut through the fatty part of the thick darkness.
It was summertime. My biggest fear was that I would make it to my front door and be greeted by the tell-tell thump of a ground rattler on the stoop and not be able to see it before he had gotten a taste of the back of my leg. But that fear was soon replaced by a greater horror, an unanticipated terror.
As I made a move to close the door of my truck, I caught a faint glimpse of something moving out of the corner of my left eye. I froze. I eased my eyeballs around without turning my head. I looked like one of those owl clocks whose big eyes spin around every hour on the hour. I stood motionless but my mind was racing. I did not want whatever was lurking just out of sight to know that I knew it was there.
Ever so slowly, I reached back into my truck and grabbed my Walther 9mm that was wedged between the driver’s seat and the console. “Nine in the clip and one in the chamber. Not as many rounds as I’d like but it’ll have to do.” I thought.
An old gospel tune rattled around in my head. “Life’s evening sun is sinking low, a few more days and I must go…” And for a while it seemed as though time stood still. As if I was viewing the situation rather than participating in it. Like St. Paul, whether in the body or out of the body, I could not tell; God knoweth. But the one thought that kept pressing into my skull was, “You can’t mess around and die tonight. You haven’t lined up anybody to teach your Sunday School class!”
With the gun in my hand, I turned toward my carport. Pistol breast high. Finger resting nervously on the trigger. When I turned my heart sank to the bottom of my Florsheims. Standing at the edge of my carport, between the empty dog pen and the front door, was the figure of a man. A tall man. A tall man leering at me in the stillness of that terrible darkness.
I tried to gather up all of the testosterone in my body and force it into my lungs. I intended to yell in some loud, manly way. I wanted to intimidate the looming man with my voice the way he was intimidating me with his silence.
I opened my mouth with the intention of booming some thunderous, “Hey you!” But on top of being terrified, I was hoarse from six nights of hollerin’ about damnation. So when I spoke, what came out was a broken throaty whisper. Like a boy who’s just stumbled into the squeaking awkwardness of puberty while inflicted with a bad case of laryngitis. “Hey you,” I squelched.
He said nothing. He just stood there. Peering at me.
To my own surprise, I found myself edging slowly towards him. He answered my motions with his own slow steps. Countering my movements, keeping himself always directly opposite me. He would not be hemmed in.
I cleared my throat. “I don’t know who you are so you better state your business. Don’t make me shoot you.”
He continued to move around to my right as I inched left. There would be no getting to my front door without passing through him.
“Look here,” I said. Sounding a little more like a man of my years now. “Stop moving around. Tell me what you’re doing here. If you try to get between me and that door I’m going to shoot you.”
He refused to answer. This unsettled me more than anything. Internally, I was begging him to speak. I would have felt better about the whole situation if he had said, “I’ve come to rob you,” or “I’m here to disembowel you with a soup spoon and sell your liver for beer money.” Anything would’ve been better than the silence.
I don’t know if it was courage or adrenaline or some spiritual unction from On High, but I took three quick steps towards him into the warm glow of the headlights.
“Dear God.” I thought. “He’s bigger than I thought.” He stood a full head and shoulders above me. And he was about two ax handles wide across the shoulders. And when I moved, he moved toward me without hesitation.
“This is your last warning,” I said. Surprising even myself at the ice in those words. “If you move again I’m going to kill you and go to bed and sleep like a baby.”
I raised my gun to square off with him. And when I did I saw that he was doing the same. He meant to kill me. God only knows who he was or what I had done to make him want to take my life. But it was now evident that he was only waiting for me to get close enough so as not to miss.
When I saw him raise his arm to center his weapon, I fired. Three times. The sound of gunshots echoed in the carport. Despite the pistol’s loud report I heard the ting of three brass shell casings strike the concrete floor. At least one shot had missed the man and hit the red brick behind him. I saw the dust swirling in the low beams of my truck lights.
Ever so slowly, I moved toward the door, keeping my gun trained on the place where the man was lying. With my free hand I reached into my pocket for my keys. But they weren’t there. Of course. The truck was still running.
I made my way down the steps toward my pickup. Though I was sure that the man was lying there dead, or at least severely wounded, I still have that spot near the wall a wide berth. I kept the gun pointed there just in case.
When I removed the keys from the ignition the world went black. I now had to make my way to the door of the house from muscle memory. Carefully now. I couldn’t afford to get tangled up with a freshly minted corpse.
I stabbed the key into the doorknob and reached inside and turned out the carport light. It was one of those long fluorescent bulbs that burned so bright that you could get skin cancer if you stood beneath it for more than five minutes.
When I turned to see the state of the intruder, this man who had forced me to do what I had prayed I would never have to do, I just collapsed in a heap on the front steps. I guess I was in a state of shock.
After a few minutes, I heard the sound of sirens. Someone had heard the gunshots and called the law. A sheriff’s deputy pulled up and asked me to lay my weapon on the ground and kick it away.
“What happened here?” He said, his hand resting on his own sidearm.
“I’ve been out of town preaching. When I got home I saw a man lurking under my carport. He wouldn’t answer when I questioned him. And when he wouldn’t leave. When I told him that I would shoot him he acted like he was going for his gun so I shot him.”
The officer’s eyes widened. “Well, where is he?” He said.
“I suppose that most men would like to think that they could shoot someone to defend life and limb. But I expect that many wonder if they actually could pull the trigger if it came down to it.” I said.
I looked at the officer and spoke flatly, regrettably, “At least I don’t have to wonder anymore. I just killed a man that wasn’t even there. I shot my own shadow.”