First Person / Confessions of a gangster

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When I was a kid growing up in West Chester, 25 miles outside Philadelphia, I belonged to a gang. We were all armed.

We packed Daisy air rifles, and sometimes BB pistols. We spent almost all of our waking hours, when we weren't in school, cruising around our end of town on our one-speed bicycles, our BB guns strapped to our side. There were maybe a dozen of us. Our leader was Billy Hayes.

Tens of thousands of kids all over America owned Daisy air rifles in those days leading up to World War II. They still make them in Rogers, Ark., today (you can tour the museum) and you can pick up a Red Ryder special at your local Wal-Mart. I read somewhere the Daisy Corp. has sold 9 million of them.

The difference between then and now is that Daisys are basically harmless. Glocks are not.

Still, we loved nothing better than ambushing the dreaded Brinton gang, most of its members a year or two older than us, and blazing away at them with our lever-action BB guns. The only possible danger was to our eyes, so most of us wore BB goggles when we cycled into action. These ambushes became even more spirited when we discovered the Brinton boys were sometimes accompanied by girls.

One day, riding alone up Church Street, I found myself surrounded by several delighted members of the evil Brinton gang. They hauled me up on top of what remained of an old creamery, spread out and began blazing away with their Daisys. In those days, most of us wore corduroy knickers and jackets that were virtually impervious to BB fire, so I emerged physically unscathed. Nevertheless, it was a humiliating experience.

We were troublemakers on Mischief Night. Our goal was to shoot out as many street lights as we could before the cops arrived. One Halloween, we broke our record. We extinguished, if my memory serves, 20 street lights. The cops never caught us. We thought we were hot stuff.

My Daisy-packing career came to an ignominious end when I went one step too far. I decided one day to do some target shooting from our second-story deck. I chose to plink away at diapers hanging on a line in the Foxhalls' back yard next door. Mr. Foxhall, brighter than I would have thought, quickly figured out that I was the guilty marksman drilling holes in his little kids' diapers and came storming into our house to confiscate my Daisy.

Nobody in Billy Hayes's gang ever gave serious thought to acquiring a real weapon. This was fun. We would have been appalled if we had seriously hurt anyone. Diapers and street lights, though, were fair game.

But I would be mistaken if I didn't admit that guns -- old guns, especially -- fascinated us.

My cousin Tom and I both cherished our Bannerman catalogs. Published once a year, they cost a buck and ran to 300 or more pages.

Francis Bannerman began the business by buying up surplus equipment from the Civil War, everything from regimental buttons to six-pounder artillery pieces. He did the same thing after the Spanish-American War. In time, he accumulated enough stuff, from uniforms to rifles, to equip entire regiments. He had his own store at 501 Broadway in New York, where you could see a small sample of his vast collection of militaria. I forced my parents to let me visit it every time we were in town.

It's all gone now, except for the ruins of a castle he built on an island in the Hudson, 50 miles north of the city. He bought the island as a safe place to store his big guns and the tons of ammunition that went with them.

Tom scraped up enough money -- probably a dollar or so -- to buy a percussion-cap Civil War musket from Bannerman's. He also bought some black powder and a little box of copper percussion caps.

We took the musket and the powder and the caps out to a field behind Tom's house and tied the musket to the fence. We poured black powder down the barrel and attached the cap. Then Tom tied string to the trigger, cocked the hammer, and we moved a safe distance away, unraveling the string as we went.

Tom pulled the string and set off what we thought was a huge explosion. Black smoke billowed from the barrel. All in all, we agreed, it was a huge success.

We had no musket balls, which was probably just as well. We had no interest in harming anyone.

I bought a rusty old Civil War carbine from Bannerman's a few months later but never had the nerve to fire it. I just liked to look at it. To us, these old weapons were history. I have a coaching blunderbuss over my mantle even now, all these years later, and I sometimes wonder if it ever scared off any highwaymen 200 or so years ago.

I think our interest in guns was mostly healthy. It doesn't seem to be that way now.

opinion_commentary

James M. Perry is a retired chief political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who writes for the Post-Gazette on occasion.


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