Day 2 Thursday Aug 28th. Tucson to Tombstone: The Prologue and first encounters
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
The world press picked up on the story of a shooting accident that took place on Monday at the Bullets and Burgers gun range in White Hills Arizona, a popular tourist attraction only 60 miles from Las Vegas. A nine-year-old girl who was being instructed in the use of an Uzi sub-machine gun (make of that what you will) lost control of it when it was inadvertently switched from single-shot mode to automatic. As it bucked in her hands, a bullet struck her instructor (who was leaning over at her shoulder) in the head. He died in the air transport that was taking him to hospital. The minimum age for having a go with the gun is 8 years old. The parents were recording the daughter’s experience on video. (* See footnote)
There is still a lot of subsequent coverage in the Arizona papers – Today’s edition of the Arizona Republic has a balance of sorts with one columnist’s article headed “Why is a child allowed to fire an automatic weapon?” and an editorial “Don’t turn this tragedy into a political gun debate.” No chance of the latter getting his way, as he carefully closes the door of the empty stable…
It is an inescapable background to my day trip to Tombstone. I’m writing about a historical subject: but to set foot in the real location of the story is to be confronted also with the legacy of the past.
The reader needs to know that I approach Tombstone in the wake of a historical interest that spans nearly 10 years and must now be regarded as something close to an obsession. It has generated two plays to date: Tombstone Tales and Boothill Balladsand The True History of the Gunfight (near) the OK Corral. I have been asked, and have asked myself, how this obsession came to be and I don’t yet have an easy answer. I am of a generation that watched The Lone Ranger, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Bonanza, Gunsmoke etc. etc. on TV and consumed the Hollywood repertoire of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. ‘Cowboys and Indians’ was the principal playground game of my formative years, and I left behind a trail of imagined bodies and survived a host of non-fatal imaginary flesh wounds. I was the proud owner of a number of cap guns, quick on the draw, intoxicated by the whiff of cordite. In my other role as ‘painted savage’ I was also the possessor of a bow and rubber-tipped arrows, one of which got me into trouble when a neighbour complained to my parents after it had stuck to the side of their moving horseless wagon. Decades later as a teacher of A-Level Media Studies I had an opportunity to teach the Western as a film genre and it required me to reevaluate my earlier consumption of the Hollywood Wild West myths. In the process, I was drawn to the much more complex and interesting history as I discovered just how constructed those myths were. I have an American mother, so that extent I can claim that this history is my history – though my mother’s family never got further west than Albany, New York.
It is perhaps appropriate that the road into Tombstone first leads past the notorious bone orchard, Boot Hill Graveyard, so named because most of its residents died with their boots on, i.e.violently.
August seems to be a relatively quiet season for Tombstone’s tourist trade. Temperatures persist at an uncomfortable 100 degrees plus. The tattooed biker parties, perhaps the most conspicuous visitors, tend to stay in the saloons and have little interest in the stagecoach rides or the three-times-daily OK Corral gunfight reenactments touted by the costumed characters that patrol the boardwalks. My first contact is with one of the latter: Tim Fattig, who, while being a respected authority on the real events, allows himself to compromise his higher academic principles as a very dashing Virgil Earp in the crowd-pleasing version.
Tim graciously took a few minutes out from his publicity role to share a few useful thoughts on Goodfellow. I knew of the good doctor’s interest in the bullet-resistant properties of silk – discovered through a number of postmortems, and subsequently described in an article for a medical journal; I had not known that he had plans to market protective clothing based on his discovery. There were further welcome insights into Goodfellow’s relationships with his rivals – there were 12 doctors in the Tombstone of 1881, though Goodfellow was one of only three who had proper medical training.
My next conversation was with another Tim, playing the role of Tom McLaury, one of the victims of the original shoot-out.
The clash of history and popular myth came to the fore again. The historical Earps were acknowledged ‘pimps and gamblers’ ; ‘there was good and evil on both sides’; the whole episode can be viewed as a street fight between two rival gangs. However, the show, which I witnessed later in the day, encouraged us to boo the ‘cowboy element’ as villains and cheer the law-enforcing Earps as heroes. On the topic of guns: “I’ve carried a gun since I was 13 – it’s just part of my daily routine.” He believes that, in the presence of one crazy with a gun, the streets are safer for the presence of 10 armed non-crazies. However he does believe there should be more stringent ownership tests – although that could be the start of a slippery slope towards a governmental disarming of the public. Ironically, the laws in Tombstone are more lenient today than in 1881, when there was a town ordinance limiting the carrying of arms exclusively to officers of the law.
Tim corrected me on the mistaken common notion of the safety of ‘blanks’. He has been hurt on more than one occasion by a careless re-enactment co-performer, and cites an example of a Hollywood actor who put a pistol to his forehead in a fit of mock bravado – “Hey folks look at this!” He died instantly. The combination of the air pressure and the fragments of “what they use to pack the powder down with” means that ‘blank’ at ‘point blank’ can be fatal.
I booked my ticket for the third performance of the day and moved on.
Next interviewee: Jesse, a visitor from North Michigan. He was forthcoming in his views on gun control – there shouldn’t be any. It’s all about education and “the trouble is that a lot of parents don’t bring up their kids properly”.
Do you have kids?
And what age do you let them use a gun?
I’ve got a kid who’s three and I was showing her how to shoot a gun only a few days ago.
I’ve seen a video on the internet claiming that Obama wants to take people’s guns away so that he can set up a dictatorship.
But isn’t he going to be out of office in two years’ time?
Yes, but it’s people of that ilk. They have a long game plan. They don’t mind. They can wait 100 years if they have to. The Second Amendment protects all the others.
Allegedly, the Japanese didn’t invade America by land because of the Japanese emperor’s belief that “they have a gun behind every blade of grass”. Jesse’s main moral point was that “It’s what’s in your heart that matters. If you’re going to kill it could be with a hammer or a knife. It’s what’s in your heart.” Fair point. I politely declined his genial offer of a beer.
If the shops in Tombstone are anything to go by, the cap and t-shirt mottoes incline more towards Jesse’s point of view.
(*) PS. By a spooky coincidence, my son and adult two daughters and a partner were in a separate car, travelling from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon on the day of the shooting. The
‘Bullets and Burgers’ sign caught their eye and they stopped off for lunch. When they enquired about having a go on the shooting range they were met with “some strange looks” and evasive words. They only discovered a few days later, when they caught up with the news, that they must have been at the site of the shooting only a couple of hours after it had taken place.