How to Lose a Potato Gun

Lipscomb was a dry campus and had a strict no-drinking policy even for upper classmen who lived off-campus. This policy was the cause of most critiques and criticisms of Lipscomb that I heard, but in retrospect, I almost appreciate the rule because it meant we had to be more creative in how we had fun.

One night in early fall I was invited along on one such non-alcoholic adventure.

As a way of introducing me to their culture, my Gamma Xi friends helped me into the back of a Toyota pick-up, and we sped away from campus, south on Hillsboro Road, out into the neighborhoods and pastures that make up Williamson County.

****

Green rolling hills and gorgeous fields flanked by hardwoods and creeks are the reason I loved growing up in Brentwood. Drive five minutes in any direction, and you find yourself breathing in fresh air and watching whitetail deer graze in the same fields alongside cows and horses. If you drive towards Franklin on Franklin Pike, you might see goats and chickens on a rocky hill and a Sonic half a mile down the road.

For now, the unincorporated communities scattered in and around still have more grass and trees than glass and pavement, and Walgreen’s and Starbucks are sequestered in Brentwood, Cool Springs, and Franklin, though I know the slow, sad encroachment of urbanization and sloppy development will soon replace the Brahma bulls and hay.

****

We turned off Hillsboro Road onto a backroad called North Beech Road. The tree branches form arches over the narrow road.

The truck I was riding in skidded to a stop, and we all hopped out. As with most endeavors involving young men with too much time on their hands and resources to waste, no one seemed to have a clear understanding of why exactly we were here.

Someone had constructed a potato gun out of a length of PVC pipe, a canister of hairspray, and super glue. Brandon had brought his shotgun. What he planned to do with it, I don’t know. If you’re a guest, it’s polite not to ask questions, though I guess that’s how you end up at the wrong place at the wrong time, as I did.

Things like war, genocide, and corruption in the government get started because people don’t ask important questions. Or because they do. That, however, is a rabbit trail for another time.

After a brief discussion on the part of the unofficial leaders, who were carrying the guns, it seemed that I had been invited along to witness the maiden shooting of the potato gun.

Apparently, the potato gun wanted company, so the shotgun obliged. The shotgun might also be helpful in destroying God’s creatures for no reason whatsoever, except to remind the shooter that he can still hit something. That, however, is a rabbit trail for another time.

We’d parked in front of a pasture enclosed by a slat fence. A yellow bulldozer and backhoe sat out in the middle of the field. I put my hands on top of the metal gate, preparing to climb over. It fell over with a crash that bounced around in the quiet. That was easy, I thought.

We all started walking toward the closest bulldozer, as good a destination as any, but when we’d gotten about halfway, something like a bark came out of the darkness.

I turned around.

It wasn’t a bark, it was a yell. The origin of the noise was holding a rifle. The barrel caught moonlight.

I took a few steps back to better hear what he was saying. I looked to my right and left, and the other guys were just as confused as I was. We hadn’t done anything wrong, unless you count pushing over a gate that was leaning against the fence. At the same time, we weren’t supposed to be there and looked guilty simply because a group of college boys must be up to no good.

Typically, someone in the stranger’s position would wait long enough to see if we were up to no good, call the cops, and wait for the proper authorities to catch us red-handed.

PA koww! PA koww!

The stranger fired the rifle twice. He wasn’t waiting for no cops.

“Get the f*** over here now! You’re trespassing on private property.”

Oh crap. This guy was a loony tune. This was how middle-class college boys in their late teens get raped, eaten, or killed—Deliverance; Pulp Fiction; any variety of prison movies.

A handful of the guys, maybe three or four, took off running to my right.

Even from where I was and in the darkness, I could see the veins pop out in the man’s forehead and neck as he described all the terrible things that would happen if the runners didn’t come back.

Those of us who chose to obey his orders walked back the way we’d come and soon found ourselves standing in front of a pudgy man with a shaved head. His pale scalp was shining. Standing with him was another man.

“All of you sons of b****** get in a line. Now! I said, Get in a line!”

He was standing maybe five feet away when he squeezed off another round. PA koww! The report ricocheted inside my head.

[Think, Austin, think. What would Steven Segal do? Have you learned nothing from fifteen years of bad action movies? Okay, but where was I going to find coconut paste, a thermos, parachute pants, and a chimp fluent in Russian? All was lost.]

The older man said, “Now, son, just calm down. Why don’t we just call the police and let them sort this whole thing out?”

[Great. We got the father-son dream team here. The older man cool and level-headed. His son obviously frustrated by his hair loss and lack of authority in any social arena. Quick, somebody give him a hearty plug of Beechnut.]

“The police ain’t gonna do nothing. They’re not going to protect our property.”

“So this is your land?” Brandon asked.

The older man, the father, answered him: “No, we just work here. We live in that trailer over there and keep an eye on things.”

“Well, we haven’t done anything wrong,” Brandon replied. He was empty-handed. He must have left the shotgun out in the field.

“Shut up!” the son screeched. “We saw you carrying something, and if you weren’t up to no good, then why are you here in the first place?”

I now realized that this man was having his moment in the limelight. He’d probably never been a hero in his life, and right now at this very moment, he choosing his own adventure. His friends would be so impressed. His boss was going to promote him. Denise would finally let him spend the night. He wasn’t about to let some rich kids outfox him.

Russ chimed in: “We were going to shoot a potato gun we made. We’ll go get it and show it to you, if you want.”

“Stay where are and no more talking. I’m the one who’s going to be asking the questions.”

I bit my tongue before I said, “No one asked you a question,” but I decided that being a smart aleck might not be the best idea when you’re dealing with a vigilante construction worker who had already fired his weapon three times and obviously believed that he was Clint Eastwood or John Wayne in a spaghetti Western. All he needed was a Backwoods cigar, a wool poncho, and a name like Butch or Rosco.

I wonder if a car had driven by, what would the driver have thought?

Five guys standing about two feet apart with their backs to a field. A skinny, somewhat bow-legged man in his early fifties and a younger man pacing in front of them with a rifle in his hands who would have resembled a starving tiger were his belly not spilling over his jeans.

At this point, father and son got in an argument about the proper course of action. The son was losing ground, and with it, his newfound glory. The older man finally turned to us and said, “Ya’ll get outta here and don’t come back. If we see you, we’ll call the cops.”

His son looked like he was passing a kidney stone. Yet again, his father had prevented him from saving the day. He could have been William Wallace in Braveheart but in carpenter jeans and a wife-beater.

We walked back to the truck and took off. No reason to press our luck.

This experience was much better motivation for graduating than anything my parents, high school teachers, or mentors might have said. I certainly didn’t want to be Mr. Clean with a bad diet and inferiority complex.

I do wonder how the story would have ended if we’d all been about six deep in the Natty and feeling invincible. Somebody might have gotten shot, which would have been awesome.

Comments Closed

One Comment

  1. benjijones
    Posted July 21, 2009 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    A friend turned me on to an internet video examining goth culture recently that I believe may shine a little light on this too.

    The goth study suggests that many young people embrace the morbid aspects of goth culture out of wanting to somehow connect with older people or to see themselves as older. Look at dying, now there’s an adult activity.

    The urge to connect with death is irresistible. Some of us reach out to it via adventurous mischief, others commit suicide a bottle or a cigarette at a time, still others silence the cries of their souls.

    Disallowing alcohol and tobacco on campus never taught me to avoid seeking death. I had to look him in the eye a couple different times before decided to postpone scheduling our future meetings. We still bump into each other occasionally, but now we can give each other a passing nod without entering into conversation.