When Mother got a divorce, Pops got out the shotgun and set it at the front door. Just in case, he told neighbors. So he’d be ready. It’s difficult for me to imagine it: a 20-gauge shotgun and box of shells at the door beside the umbrella stand Nanny bought not long after they bought their house. The umbrellas were question marks, wondering when rainy days would arrive. The gun was an exclamation.
Mother has told me several times that her father was more severe back then than he is now. It was the ’70s. His temper was like the limbs on the dead pecan tree in the backyard: There was a danger of him snapping when storms rolled in. It’s a loose comparison. But it makes it easier to understand the way these limbs and Pops’ temper shared a potential to cause damage. Wiley Lewallen stands 5 feet 6 inches tall. His nose descends neatly from his forehead to a rounded point, giving him a slightly Irish look, and his deep, worn skin is just a few shades lighter than his Cherokee ancestors. He’s never looked threatening, but he’s always believed in protecting his own. The gun by the front door wasn’t symbolic. It was loaded, and Pops fully intended to pull the trigger on Sam Gaddy, the ex-husband, if the need arose. In my experience, the South is a place where people believe the gun is a central fixture in the household, as important and ordinary as the sugar dish or the cream pitcher for coffee in the mornings.
My grandparents lived in a shotgun house at the corner of Forest Avenue and Simpson Road in Union City, Ga., with Pops’ gun cabinet stationed right at the middle, in the trigger position. The dark shingle siding covering most of the outside even bore some resemblance to the deep wood color of a gun. It was a small house, and the trigger was still a part of the large front room. Pops wanted it to be central. Guns were heirlooms. They symbolized what was given to him and what he fully intended on bequeathing to my brother and to me when the time came.
The shotgun house was a part of a slightly larger complex, which included a small windmill, children’s play set, three-car garage and a workshop in the back of the property, where Pops worked on various side projects. There was enough space on the property to store a small army. Pops even had the guns to outfit it to send troops out and police the neighborhood. But he was never interested in policing the neighborhood. His small precinct extended only from his own complex to the house next door, where Mother lived alone with my brother, Judd, after Sam moved out. When Pops got the gun out of the cabinet and set it at the front door, it wasn’t an act of violence. It was a response. The way a middle-aged man of his upbringing reacts to these sorts of situations. It was his answer to the sleepless nights Mother passed alone in the house with a 13-year-old boy sleeping soundly in the basement — the only way he knew how to cope with the absence of a man in her house.
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After the Newtown massacre and the surge of anti-gun lobbying it spawned, the small town of Kennesaw, Ga., received some unwelcome attention. With a population of about 30,000 people, Kennesaw seems like any other small, suburban town in America: It’s located about 30 miles from a major city and is populated mostly by a string of subdivisions and strip-centers. There is a Main Street running through its center, whose key features include the town library, a chiropractor, the First Baptist Church and a small gift shop named the Painted Butterfly, specializing in moon faces and angels. The town’s main attraction, sometimes called the “Smithsonian in your Neighborhood,” is the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. But Kennesaw isn’t known for any of its small-town attractions, for its moon faces or local Smithsonian. What makes Kennesaw unique is that, unlike other small, suburban towns, it requires its residents to own a gun.
In 1982, after the town of Milton Grove, Ill., became the first town in America to ban the sale and possession of firearms, Kennesaw, Ga., became the only town in America to require it. City ordinance 34-21 states that all “heads of households residing in the city limits” must “maintain a firearm, together with ammunition,” so that they might always “protect the safety, security, and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants.” And even though there is no definitive proof that gun ownership has kept Kennesaw safer, just two years after the city passed the ordinance, the number of home burglaries decreased by over 80 percent, and in the 30 years since, there has been a 50 percent reduction in crime rate. In 2007, “Family Circle” magazine named Kennesaw one of the ten best towns in the nation for families.
On the one-week anniversary of the Newtown massacre, the city of Kennesaw ordered its churches to toll their bells 26 times to honor the 26 tragically killed on Dec. 14, 2012. But as the bells tolled, as one small town mourned the losses of another small town, Kennesaw and its residents did not begin making plans to revise their gun law. The city police lieutenant has said, “There’s sort of a Wild West image of us. It’s just not true.” To them, gun ownership is so woven into the fabric of their daily culture that changing their gun policy means changing the way they think about themselves as free Americans. But, of course, they’re not really free. They don’t have the right to bear arms; they have the obligation. As so many Americans push for a country free from guns, the town of Kennesaw refuses to listen.
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From information I’ve gleaned from old photographs and family stories, Mother’s ex-husband, Sam, had looks and manners that best resembled the characteristics of a helium balloon: He was red and light-headed, volatile when set on fire and often floated away, for days at a time. He married Mother when she was 19 and just out of high school. She knew no other love. But even then, Pops thought he was shady. That’s a word he’d use: shady. And he’d elongate the “a” sound in a slow drawl so it would last for about five or six syllables, as if the length of the word were somehow related to its truth. By drawing it out, Pops was making damn sure everyone understood how serious he was.
There’s a lot of family lore surrounding Mother’s divorce from Sam Gaddy. Some of it suggests that Pops’ precautions weren’t without cause. In one story, a good friend called Mother and told her she should fear for her life. It seems ridiculous, but I didn’t know Sam. Since I first heard the story, I often try to imagine such a conversation.
The friend calls in the middle of the night because there is no other time to make such a phone call. Mother picks up, half asleep.
Joan? The friend whispers over the phone line.
Yes? She says back, uncertainly, because of the whispering.
Joan, do you know what you’re doing?
What do you mean what am I doing?
He’s going to put a price on your head. If you divorce him. The friend raises his voice, but only slightly.
I’m telling you, if you divorce him. He’s going to put a price on you. Don’t you understand what that means?
Mother hangs up before anyone can say more. Maybe she thanks this friend months later after the divorce is settled, and she’s still alive. And no longer too frightened to confront what might have been real danger.
When I imagine this conversation, I often think Pops was right for getting out the shotgun and setting it by the door. Other times, I wonder if it would’ve done any good. If there had been a problem, Pops would’ve grabbed the gun and ran all the way across his own yard, through the small patch of woods that divided the houses. It would’ve taken about a minute and 45 seconds. In that time someone could have entered Mother’s house and shot her three times in the head before Pops had time to get out the door. So if the gun at the door had no practical use, then why did he move it there? He comes from the same culture as the people of Kennesaw. For them and him, it is the mere existence of the gun in the household that makes it safer. It is a line of defense which, for them, makes the need for defense itself less likely.
My grandparents sold their house about 10 years ago. The gun cabinet went with the house, but Pops insisted that my brother, Judd, inherit the collection itself. Judd had just graduated from college and lived in a small one-bedroom apartment. So, the eight shotguns that once belonged to Pops moved to the attic at my parents’ house, until Judd finally moved to a place where he could store them all. The attic where we kept the guns was through a door at the back of my bedroom closet. Sometimes, I went in there and saw them in a long line on the floor, covered with grey bath towels. I could’ve learned to shoot one. My father would’ve been only too happy to teach me. But I wasn’t interested. And I never learned. Judd is now married and has three children. When I was home for Christmas break, Pops told me Judd is giving the guns back. His wife doesn’t want them in the house. Like me, my three young nephews are part of a generation growing up without the gun cabinet at the trigger position. It’s no longer an obligation.
When Mother got a divorce, Pops got out the shotgun. It wasn’t a symbolic gesture. By moving it across the room, from the cabinet to the door, he was acting out a ritual. Setting it at the door. So everyone would know what kind of man he was. And what kind of father he was to Mother. So Sam Gaddy would know if he came around, he might leave with two bullet holes in his chest and a lot of blood spilled across the kitchen floor. This is a violent image. Pops isn’t a violent man. Maybe he’s wrong to put the gun at the door, but maybe he knows no other way.