Notes of a Deranged Young Man

Last week, this reporter took a bus headed west of the Hudson and spent a few days living in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in east-central Pennsylvania, swaddled in the warm confines of Schuylkill County, and on the trail of the alleged National Conversation about this thing called the Gun Culture. City slickers like me are almost entirely alienated from firearms, and for most of my “cohort,” as it were, they’re alien to our sensibilities.

We may enjoy them as cinematic props or fear them as instruments of crime, and leave it to the cops to carry heat. Guns are not entirely foreign to this reporter, though, having grown up in a home where the security system was his father’s shotgun, and as a camper not too far away in the Poconos firing .22 rifles at targets with NRA insignia on them (and was a good shot).

My editor lives in a small simple home on a quiet little street in a quiet little hamlet adjacent to another small town and in driving range of other quiet and small villages surrounded by state game lands, rock edifices over which hung frozen waterfalls, cascading sheets of ice, and blue mountains over which the hawks hovered like drones.

The story is as unpretentious as the people who live there: the old traditions of gun-ownership, for protecting hearth and home and for hunting — subsistence and “sport” — got caught up in the national conversation, so to say, about the broader Gun Culture.

And now for some local history: the Molly Maguires and his crew of radical unionist miners fought the coal company and were as famous as Robin Hood and his merry band but were hunted down like dogs by what we’d now call a private security contractor, Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency. There’s a pub nearby called the Wooden Keg Tavern, and down the staircase is a piece of the Maguires’ old tunnels. Cold, slimy mold clung to the roof of the damp stone ceiling. The former state senator who hailed from the area visited another bar one night. He was chrome-domed and ebullient.

Took one of the extant Chinatown buses out of the city late last Friday. The driver looped back to the storefront hole in the wall from where we rolled off twice, for no apparent reason, and then filled up the tank with diesel as soon as we crossed into New Jersey. Since I’d gotten the e-ticket, felt no need to have anything printed. The other passengers carried their paper tickets, so when my turn came I read out the reservation number and a man wearing earbuds tore off a sheaf of white paper, scribbled some pictograms and numbers on it with an assigned seat number, and drew a line next to a small x. Signed my name and that was the ticket: $20 to Harrisburg, the most indebted town in the country, with a few stops at random gas stations to pick up more people.

A timid-sounding gentleman asked for light so he could read, but before he finished asking someone official near the bow barked back, “No lights!” On the way back to the city, after the driver dropped off passengers at Sunset Park and crossed the bridge to Chinatown, while fumbling with my stuff, one of the operators shouted inpatiently, “Okay let’s go.” It was about 2:30 in the morning. He probably had to do it all over again, far too soon.

The mists hung around the hilltops on the first day out, so shooting was out of the question. The foothills of the Appalachians, east-central Pennsylvania, surrounded. Hills sloped toward the “crick” amid bucolic row houses. The land was settled by Irish and German migrants in the 19th century.

My editor handed me the Feb. 22 edition of the Pottsville Republican, and on page four there was a news brief about VP Biden talking gun control in Danbury, Connecticut, not too far from Newtown: “America has changed on this issue,” Uncle Joe said. “There is a moral price to be paid for inaction.” The item added that the vice president “advocated a series of proposals, including universal background checks for gun owners, a ban on many military-style weapons and a limit on the size of magazines.” Above the fold, there was a piece about an al Qa’ida “tipsheet” that was discovered in Mali listing 22 “tips on how to avoid drones.”

Tar black ash fills some of the ridgetops where mines have been “reclaimed.” Fire orange sunset swoops down and around. The cold chill descends. Decided to call the police chief, Mark Kessler, in the morning. Want to ask about his “Second Amendment Preservation Ordinance.” Indeed, gun rights are being curtailed drastically. Just today, swarms of federal agents poured into Cabela’s today and took off with all the guns.

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