I don’t know why Tin decided to take the children shooting. He said something about teaching us to respect guns but I’m not sure we learned that. Or much of anything else.
Tin had been some sort of bikie, apparently. Not a dog-pack “individualist” with the brittle dress code that runs all the way to a beard-redacted face, more your Stone bikie, a shiftless denim longhair on a big Kawasaki.
In 1978 he’d rolled into Arcadia chasing a rumour of construction work. The school fast turned him into a Seeker After Truth. They always did. He’d sometimes proudly tell us how he’d put his last cigarette out right there, slept on the farmhouse floor with the rest of them and spent two years labouring for nothing but shared lentils. He’d helped build the circle of decreasingly polygonal timber classrooms, to perform the rituals and lay the artifacts into the foundations. He’d get angry if you asked too many questions about it though.
When he announced we were going to spend the morning learning to shoot I asked why. It wasn’t received well. “It’s important to know how to respect guns,” he said, as if it would make more sense the second time. He threw the Meaningful Look the other teachers reserved for discussing esoteric knowledge, the one that said “If you’re spiritual enough this will be obvious, so if it’s not obvious then you’re intrinsically defective.”
I shut up and got in the van.
The van had two seats. Tin was in one of them. The other held an ancient single-shot bolt action .22, a cheap K-Mart .410 shotgun and a couple of boxes of ammunition. The kids got to ride in the back.
The back of a 1970s Kombi panel van is short on handholds. It’s a lightless steel box with nothing in it but a corrugated floor.
With the door open we could see it was painted the same slick baby-shit brown as the outside. With the door shut it was the inside of a tumble drier. We shrieked and tried to brave-face glee at the zero gravity moments when Tin hammered over rises in the road but a gut-deep sense of threat sharpened the edges of our laughter.
We were ten years old. Eight or nine of us in the class. We were told we were going to a rifle range. It looked like a desolate bush clearing designed for fly-tippers. It might have been in the backblocks of Maroota or Maraylya.
Clay, asbestos and old TV sets had been bulldozed into stubby berms. Tin propped both volumes of last year’s Yellow Pages against the nearest, one in front of the other. I felt like I was about to witness an execution.
He picked up a bit of what might have once been a Venetian blind and drew a long line in the dirt. “Nobody past here until I tell you,” he said. There was a ferocious look in his eye. That and the presence of of actual death-sticks – heavy and somehow far more intrinsically nasty than they had ever seemed as toys or television – kept us in a sort of shocked and silent obedience.
He set the weapons and ammunition on the bare dirt and lay down beside them. He was about ten yards away from the phone books. It didn’t seem very far. I remember looking at the rocks in the clay and wondering what would happen if we missed.
He loaded the rifle in complete silence and fired it once into the centre of the books. I’d expected a louder sound than its little cough. He repeated the procedure with the shotgun. It made a more worrying but still not very convincingly gun-like sound.
He picked us one by one and made us lie in the dirt while he stood behind. He’d load the rifle and hand it to us. If we missed our one shot we’d be dismissed. Those who hit the phone books were allowed to fire the shotgun.
I was picked toward the end, missed and was dismissed. The somewhat ragged phone books were packed away with the guns and remaining ammunition.
Tin seemed darkly disappointed. We rode back to school in a subdued mood, scrabbling for purchase on the steel floor in relative quiet.
The incident was never spoken of again.
*Names are changed regularly for historical reasons