Focus - Story Cut from "Growing Up Stupid"

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


This must be the tallest building I’ve seen in my life so far. It’s so high up I can’t see the top. How does it stay standing? I keep looking, trying to comprehend as I catch sight of the clouds passing over. Clouds don’t normally move this fast. I’ve never notice clouds even moving before. Do they move? Since I’m focused on the clouds, it looks to me as though the building is moving, like it’s going to fall down over me.

“The building’s falling!” I yell to my dad. I get scared. “The building’s falling!”

He glances up, sees what I see, and says, “It’s just the clouds moving.”

I look up again. I compare the building next to me to the building next to it and see that, in relation to each other, the buildings aren’t moving at all. It’s just the clouds. I guess clouds do move and I’m focusing on the wrong thing. I’m relieved, so I catch up with my dad and keep walking until I see a man wearing a bright red uniform standing in front of a shop. I stop and stare again.

“Now that’s a RCMP.”

“A what?”

“A Royal Canadian Mounted Police,” my dad says. “He’s just a policeman. Let’s go.”

“I like his uniform.”

It’s much nicer than my dad’s dark blue boring Air Force major’s uniform. It’s perfectly fitted, trim and without a wrinkle. There’s even a holster like I’ve seen in the civil war movies my dad watches, with a gun flap over his gun. Even his brown hat looks better than my dad’s double-pointed head-fitting cloth hat. I watch as some adults stop and ask him questions. Not only does he wear a uniform with a gun but what's more, he looks good. He doesn’t even seem to be cold. He looks like a super hero.

“You don’t want to be a policeman,” my dad says. As soon as he says that, I decide that’s exactly what I want to be.

“Yes, I do.”

“That’s a dangerous job.”

“Isn’t the military dangerous?”

“Not like policemen.”

I put that thought aside, knowing that at five years old, I’ve made my career choice. Now all I have to do is grow up. Before that happens, and before I figure out how make friends, I’m bored. There’s nothing worse than being a kid and being bored. What can you do? If I tell my mom I’m bored, she says, “Go do your homework.” If I tell my dad I don’t have anything to do, he says, “Go pull weeds out of the lawn.” What kind of suggestions are these? I don’t see them doing any of that.

I wander around by myself thinking of things to do. If I think of something, I’m supposed to ask permission. Asking permission is the only time my parents talk to me and the only thing they say is no. I don’t have friends because I’m shy and we move a lot so I ask my mom for permission to bring a kid I sit next to at school home to play. The only question she asks is, “What’s his name?”


“Garris?” she says. “What kind of a name is that? Is he colored?”


“You know you can’t bring him around here.”

I give up on having kids come over. George has kids come over, though. He does normal things other kids at school do, like have friends and go places with them. He has a lot of friends at school. At home, he’s the only one who talks but my parents say, “You don’t want to be like George.” They don’t say why I don’t want to be like him, and I’m not asking. They might criticize George more.

“Davey,” my dad says. “Come on to the store.”

He doesn’t ask George but I can tell George wants to go. Dad’s way of being a dad is to take me on errands. That’s the only thing he does with me. He doesn’t ever ask George, and he doesn’t ask this time, either. George looks at dad, like he’s waiting to be invited. He’s never around anyway because he has so many friends. It’s great he wants to spend a few minutes with us.

“George wants to come,” I say. Dad doesn’t answer.

I get in the passenger side and my dad gets in the driver’s side. He starts the car and backs out of the driveway when George comes out of the house. “Wait a minute,” I say. “George is coming.”

Dad keeps driving. I look behind and George runs out into the street, trying to catch us. He waves his hands to get our attention. Dad sees him and speeds up. I look back and see George start to cry. He slows down to a walk and keeps crying, even though he’s three years older than me, in sixth grade and too old to cry.

Now I’m outside where I can think about the opportunities available to me. There aren’t any kids around and Mesa is too hot to ride my bike to go find some. It was too cold in Newfoundland to ride for long and here it’s too hot. My thighs burn no matter where we live. All there is around here is everyone’s garbage cans set out at the curb, ready to be picked up. What’s in everyone’s trashcan? What do people around here throw away? Do they throw away any good things? I never thought about this before. What if they have good stuff but they just don’t want it anymore? Or what if someone threw someone else’s good junk away? I might find some perfectly good parts. I could get ideas for things I can take apart or put together.

I open up some lids and they’re so stinky I close them before I have a chance to see what’s in there. People sure throw away a lot of junk. Some cans are only half full so I poke around to look for interesting stuff. If a can has food garbage, I go to the next one. Sometimes people set extra trash next to their cans, things you wouldn’t normally put in the can, like old lawnmowers and mattress springs, old coolers and broken garden utensils – metal stuff like rakes and shovels. It’s fun to look at but it’s too big to carry home and save in my dad’s garage.

People throw away old radios, broken blenders, hand-held mixers with two beaters - I find a lot of those, broken toasters, old shoes, regular food garbage, bicycle tubes and crumpled notes. There’s a lot of watermelon rinds, chicken bones, pieces of crappy bread, and tons of tomato sauce-covered spaghetti. Our family has never eaten spaghetti, only spaghetti-O’s out of a can.

I’m getting bored so I turn around and start heading home, lifting lids as I go. That’s how I found, right on top of my neighbor’s trash, this perfect piece of pipe. It’s chrome, almost an inch in diameter, a foot long, and I really like it. What did it come off of? A car? A bike? It looks strong. What I can do with it?

If I can close up one end, this could make a great cannon. It looks the same size as one of my mom’s sewing thimbles. I’ve watched her sew and I like the way she presses the needle with the thimble, and goes on to the next stitch. She’s really quick with that thimble. It must be pretty tough. If I ask to use it, she’d want to know why and I’d have to explain I’m building a cannon so that’s out. Instead, I dig up her sewing kit and pick out the best, shiniest newest one, and thought it will work perfectly. It’s tapered just right. I run out to the garage, push it into one end of the pipe and it fits. It gets jammed and blocks that end. Any force from an explosion will only make the seal tighter. This is meant to be.

I search out my dad’s drill from the garage. I saw it once when I was bored and it looked like fun so I drilled some holes in my dad’s workbench to figure out how to make it work. Now I know how to use it so I make a hole on the side of the pipe. Next I go under my bed where I have a secret stash of firecrackers I stole from Fourth of July. Explosions are exciting to me, more than to most people. I already figured that out pretty quickly since I’m the only one who ever seems to talk about firecrackers and explosions. I drop a firecracker fuse-first into the pipe toward the thimble-blocked end. I get a toothpick, stick it in the hole, and carefully fish the fuse out through the hole. This is the hardest part. It’s a small hole and the fuse didn’t land exactly where I drilled the hole. I have to really work at it. Usually when things are this hard, I give up.

I’ve watched people load muskets on TV, so I know you’re supposed to put gunpowder in before the bullet and tamp it down with a rod. The firecracker is like the gunpowder so I decide to use gravel from the driveway as the bullets. I find ten really nice round pieces of gravel and stick them in the pipe in front of the firecracker.

This might work! This might be a cannon!

Mom will find out about her thimble if I light this off in my garage so I walk over to my neighbor’s house. Everyone works during the day so I know he’s not home. I set the pipe down on a block of wood on his driveway, facing the house across the street. With just one firecracker, I figure I’m not going to be in danger of shooting very far. The gravel will only spit out of the pipe a couple of feet and roll down the driveway.

I look around to make sure no one’s watching. I light the firecracker. The fuse burns down into the hole of the pipe. The firecracker goes off. A window breaks at the house across the street, the same house the pipe faces. The house has a picture window and it’s broken now. How did that happen? It’s strange the window broke at the same time the firecracker went off.

Oh wait. I did that.

I’m shocked the gravel traveled that far. I grab the pipe and the block of wood and run back to my house. I hide the pipe in the garage and go straight to my room, pick up a schoolbook and pretend to read. Mom walks by my room and notices me. Now I have a witness. “Are you reading?” she says. I’m doing something good, so no one will suspect me.

The gravel in the neighbor’s living room and the gravel in our driveway are an exact match. We have the only gravel driveway in the neighborhood. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out what happened but it doesn’t matter.

Now that I’ve done something exciting, I have something to think about. I think about how to focus an explosion in a controlled direction. What’s better for exploding specific things in a controlled direction than guns? Guns seem like fun. I ask my dad for a rifle. I ask him again. I don’t have anything to do and I’m bored, so I keep asking. If I have a rifle, I figure, I won’t be bored. I can learn to aim and blow up only the things I want to blow up. Dad has other things to think about so he doesn’t answer. I don’t have anything else to think about so that’s all I think about.

Dad takes me to do errands again. His first stop is the hardware store. He won’t let me go in so I sit in the car by myself and I wait. At least I’m not sitting at home by myself, waiting, but how long do I have to sit here? Dad comes out with a cardboard box. He stands at the window, not getting back in the car. “I got something here,” he says. He opens the box and shows me a rifle. “It’s for you.” He shoves the rifle box through the window. “I have to do some more shopping,” he says. “You stay here with the rifle and I’ll be right back.”

This is the best day of my life so far. I open up the box but it’s too big to look at in the front seat so I bring it with me in the back. I look at it, hug it, look at it, pick it up and play with it. The new gun smell smells like gun oil and solvent, a manly smell. Dad uses gun oil in the garage. I own this and it smells like a man. It’s not my dad’s, it’s not my brother’s, it’s mine. We’re in a parking lot so people walk by while I’m working the bolt back and forth, cocking it and aiming toward the front of the car. “Isn’t that cute,” someone says. “Look at the kid with the rifle.” When you live near a military base, everybody loves a kid with a gun.

Dad comes back to the car, gets in, and starts driving. I stay in the back with the rifle. “Where’s the bullets?”

“I’m not going to give them to you now. You’ll be shooting everything.”

“Okay,” I say. “Take me to shoot it. Take me to shoot it right now.” I say this all the way home while hugging and playing with the rifle. “When are we going out so I can shoot it?” I have a new thing to keep asking my dad about now.

“Be patient,” he says.

“What can I shoot?” There’s no other reason to talk to him, so that’s what I say when I see him. “What can I shoot? Take me to shoot.”

“The NRA puts on shooting matches for kids,” he says, after about a week.

“Can you take me?”

“I’ll check into it. See if you’re too young.”

Another week goes by. “You can do a shooting match but you have to go through a safety course,” my dad says.

“That sounds neat,” I say. Ever since my cannon went off and I realized you could propel objects from an explosion, blowing stuff up is all I think about.

Specifically, guns are all I think about, now that I have one I haven’t used. They don’t talk about guns or explosions at school and it’s so dull I can’t pay attention. I think how fascinating it is that you could shoot a bullet from a gun and get precise with where it goes. I’m excited about learning how to aim.

The shooting safety course is a four hour-long class with a ten-question test at the end of it. I easily paid more attention in that class than I ever had in any class in my life. I got every test question correct. I couldn’t wait for my first rifle match.

When you hold a rifle, just the slightest breath before squeezing the trigger can affect your accuracy. If you breathe hard, it moves your body and at the same time moves the barrel and makes you inaccurate. The fascinating thing about shooting is that you have to line up your sites, control your breathing, squeeze the trigger gently, have a stable platform in your stance, and you have to do all these things precisely when the bullet leaves the barrel. If you don’t, you’ll be off.

Naturally you have to focus on all these elements all at the same time and it’s a challenge for me to do that. It’s an escape from reality. You have to focus on all these elements so hard that everything else is blocked out. You’re lost in your own world where nothing else around you matters. You can’t pay attention to anything else. You can only focus on your shooting.

The NRA holds these shooting matches for kids at an indoor shooting range and you can show up without registering first. I’m a beginner and they make the beginners shoot in the prone position. The targets are about thirty yards away and really, really small. I’m nervous about this being my first time I’ve ever shot so I have trouble focusing. All we ever did in class was classroom work. As nervous as I am, I end up coming in second out of thirty kids with real training, experience and unlimited course time. I can see I’m pretty good at this. The concepts of shooting came to me easily, and now, so does the shooting.

My dad acts surprised. “Wow,” he says. “You did great.” He seems like he is proud of me but no matter how much I ask and beg he doesn’t take me again. That is the end of that. I ask him and ask him if I can go again. “It’s too expensive,” he says.

“We’ll do it next time,” he says, but we never do. It’s okay. I found myself a focus.