“It is a fact,” Neil Westen, gun expert, tells me. “That the state of New York is a communist country.”
Standing here, at RC Sporting Club in Ravena, NY, with pieces of foam packed into my ears, I smile to Mr. Westen as he hands me a .22-caliber rifle. And, though ninety-percent of this statement is clinically and empirically incorrect, I had something to learn this man.
Ravena is basically uncharted territory: Mobile homes and abandoned lots filled with scrap metal line the road that leads to the shooting range. For a misanthropic millennial, like me, who hasn’t ventured far from his life in swanky suburbia, the sojourn to RC Sporting Club was eerie and uncomfortable to say the least. The last thing anyone would ever expect me to do is shoot a gun, especially outdoors in wintertime.
My dad, Ed, manages a local color-engineering plant. As I understand it, his team makes the formulas for colored plastics that huge companies— like Apple or Microsoft—need for their new gadgets and doohickeys. One of his “guys,” as he calls them, is “the smartest and most intelligent one-sided man you’d ever meet.” He is also, for all intents and purposes, a gun nut. I was interested.
Neil Westen runs a karate dojo, owns seventeen guns—some of which he assembled himself—and watches FOX News. Mr. Westen was nice enough to give us tour of RC Sporting Club and let me shoot a few of his guns on an outdoor shooting range. From my dad’s initial description of this figure, I was concerned, if not in anguish, about the compatibility between the two of us, since I don’t know karate, never seen a gun in person and don’t watch FOX News. What in the world would we talk about when we weren’t shooting? I wondered if he had read anything.
My dad was giddy at the prospect of me, his son, shooting a gun. He was like one of those pre-teens, readying for a grand outing at Six Flags. He shined his moccasins, the closest thing he owned to hunting boots, lacing them up nice and tight. It was as though we were preparing for the hunt with Sir Gawain and King Arthur. He put on, what I imagined as majestically, a flannel-lined, plaid-yellow button-down shirt. Looking nothing like my usually normcore, awkwardly-dressed father, this man was ready to shoot something.
We entered my dad’s manual transmission 2014 Honda Accord. “This is going to be fun, man,” he said. “I haven’t shot a gun since I was your age.”
“I didn’t know you ever shot a gun.”
“Yeah,” he tells me as he moves his right hand to shift into first-gear. “Your grandfather and I would shoot your great-grandfather’s musket behind camp in the cemetery.”
“You shot a musket with grandpa? Like Civil War-era muskets?” I said.
He offers a long explanation of his great-grandfather’s musket, where it came from, and that they were used in the Civil War.
“They were long-nosed guns for militias. It was the 1800s, so technology wasn’t as developed as today. They would take the musket ball. That’s the black ball that shoots out. And they took the ball and put black powder in it…”
His words melted into the slush Peanuts characters hear when adults spoke. It was not that I uninterested, because I desperately wanted to be. But the words he was using—something about chambers and barrels—it was all very confusing. Just as I re-focused into the conversation, he said, “I guess you’re officially becoming a man.”
Holding back the impending eye-roll, I thought what did that mean—I was “officially” becoming a man? Were there official rules of entry? If so, could I get a copy? Being the all-knowing millennial that I am, having taken one cultural theory class, I explained how there is no such thing as a “true” real man: that our ideas of maleness changes from time to time. I told him of the various waves of Feminism, the idea of the resistant reader, as well as Gilbert and Gubar, The Second Sex, Judith Butler, and Queer Theory.
He tried to stay with me, nodding in agreement, as I started with Marx—the idea of dominant discourse and production—and ended with Emma Watson saying that feminism is not “man hating.” I couldn’t believe it. I became perplexed as his usage of gun jargon. How could I expect him to understand 60 years of gender theory?
On some level, I think needed to become this real man. A real man, I think at least, tries to understand things that are incomprehensible and keeps listening. Maybe shooting this gun, doing something that I just don’t understand, is the first step in to true masculinity.
We arrived to an abandoned parking lot were we met Neil Westen in his 2001 grayish-green Outback. We were supposed to meet him at 10:00 in the morning. We arrived at 9:58.
Neil, in the flesh, rolls down his window a fourth of the way with the hand-crank. From the passenger seat, I see him, a man two years older than my father, sporting what my dad calls a “Ron Burgundy,” or what other people would call a full beard: A hair patch, evenly black and grey, around his mouth and covering his jaw. Over his eyes are a meticulously placed ’80s pair of sunglasses. Outdated music underscores his grand entrance. I must be in the presence of Arnold Friend, I thought.
“You’re late,” he said.
“Two minutes early, Neil. We said ten, didn’t we?” my dad said. I raise my hand to wave to Mr. Westen, thanking him for taking me along.
Before I open my mouth, he utters an incomprehensible noise, rolls his windows up and yells over the dated music, “keep up!” His tires screech and the engine roars, as he races down Gun Club Road, leading to the club. My dad follows on his tail with just as much, if not more, noise. The triumphant masculine, roaring of engines combat each other as we drove through the unpopulated streets of Ravena.
We finally arrive to the gun range. The place was worse than I ever imagined and definitely not Six Flags. It was no bigger than a playground at an elementary school. To the east lay a field of dead crab grass, and to the west was a little wooden shack, where I imagine they serve chicken wings and beer to children. Half of the range—the field of dead grass—was for use of assault rifles and the other half was for shotguns.
As Westen took three large black cases out of the trunk of his car, a man accosted us. One was a large and tall, with less than excellent speaking ability, and the other was short with a full beard. Both were wearing plaid. Red. Flannel. Shirts.
The large man, who couldn’t both walk and talk, struggling to remain upright, waddled over and said to us, in what seemed to be one breath, “Ya’ll b’long ‘ere” My dad and I looked at each other, as if to say what the fuck. Westen raced over and replied, in a not dissimilar dialect, “They’re with me. I’m a member.”
I couldn’t understand the next five-minute conversation between Stumpy and Westen because the two mumbled their words. The gist of the conversation was that, because of insurance, only one guest is allowed on the shooting range at a time. This fact was reiterated again and again by Stumpy in the exact same words and sentence structure.
A second man walking the confidence of John Wayne approached Neil and Stumpy. I soon learned that he has two-hundred guns at home, in room engineered exclusively for gun storage. He speaks with charisma and charm, but he was obviously an avid smoker since he communicates through an electrolarynx. He is the president of the club, and I soon learned that Stumpy is the secretary.
I assume that Stumpy’s gun is shorter than Prez’s and he was not unlike Donald Trump in defending the size of his hands, and something else, to Marco Rubio this March. Stumpy soon waddled away with a look of derision and confusion, while Prez stuck around.
Prez, in his robo-raspy voice, said, “I don’t give a fuck of how many of ya shoot, just hide if he comes back out.”
As Prez left to attend the children archery competition, Westen began to explain to me the precise anatomy of a gun, “There are two parts to any gun– the muzzle, the butt end, and the barrel, where the bullets come out. Don’t get them confused, and you’ll live.”
For the next three hours, I shot three kinds of guns: a .22-caliber rifle with no sight, an AR-15—that looked like something out of a James Bond film—and the 20-gauge shotgun.
I shot a few rounds of each, having difficulty actually hitting the target and holding the gun in the correct position. Westen, more than once, said, “The gun is an extension of you.” Like a fifth-grader, I giggled remembering Tracy Morgan’s remarks on guns, explaining their appeal to Liz Lemon, from 30 Rock: “Cause they’re metal penises.”
Once I embraced the idea that of a gun extending out from me, I was able to hit the paper with the sightless .22-caliber rifle. Shooting this was rather boring and required a lot of focus. The magnitude was like throwing a dart. The shotgun, on the other hand, was power, and the force leaving the gun was marvelous.
All-in-all, I really only shot four or five rounds, with, shockingly, no causalities. And now, I can kind of see why men love guns and, according to my father, I have accomplished manhood. We helped Westen put the guns away, making sure that they were clean. The two men never came back. And, as we got into our car, Westen tapped on our window and said, “Don’t forget to vote Republican.”
As I ventured out of the boondocks of Ravena, I considered what I had just witnessed. I was just met four very different kinds of men: the first, Stumpy, who over compensates for something by establishing bogus hierarchies. The second, Prez, basking in all eternal masculine glory, with trademark DILLIGAF confidence. Neil Westen, the third, a renaissance macho-man, who knows his shit. And, my dad, who can navigate through each of these.
Masculinity is fluid, I concluded: a negotiation between the love of the comrade, embracing the masculine (and metallic) body, and the distance of such love. I concluded that what brings these men together is their love for metal penises.