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The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches: A story about reality and guns

Posted 1/22/13

By Terry Burger

Press and Journal staff


On the morning of Jan. 17, 1989, a loser named Patrick Purdy attacked Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. He fired more than 100 rounds from a Chinese assault rifle, killing five …

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The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches: A story about reality and guns


Last month, Adam Lanza, using an American-made assault rifle not significantly different from the weapon used by Purdy, killed 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Ct. Authorities say he fired about 100 rounds. Then he shot himself in the head.

Four months after the Stockton shooting, I wrote a column with a title similar to the one on this piece. It ran in several newspapers. The hate mail was interesting, and included death threats.

I offer the column again, with a few rewrites to update some references that might not be familiar to younger readers. I did not change all that much, because not all that much has changed.

The imagination is a curious thing.

Individuals are never really just one person. There are all sorts of different editions of each one of us; who one is at the job, at the bar (a.) with one’s mate and (b.) without; the person one is in front of one’s children and, of course, the one who lies in bed on sleepless nights, haunted by facing specters, disappointments and dreams that have grown shabby with time and neglect.

We live in our imaginations.

The existence that most of us lead is hardly what one would call daring or adventurous. It is a reality at total odds with the stuff we watch in our millions on TV, where the heroes on the assorted CSI and NCIS shows blast their way through the sleazoids, and any number of improbably fit and sexy actors and actresses sizzle and plot in the perpetual California of prime-time.

We get up from watching the tube, shuffle around, put out the dog, floss our teeth and go to bed, to rise in the morning and go to our jobs as secretaries, parts clerks, fast-food managers and, I suppose, reporters.

On two occasions in recent months, I wrote items on the issue of gun control. Every day in this and every other newspaper in the country there are stories concerning questions that are every bit as important to the future of the collective citizenry of the U.S. as is the subject of gun control.

Yet nothing cranks up the letters to the editor faster than any perceived effort to control the access by ordinary citizens to firepower equal to the cinematic baloney of Sylvester Stallone and his ilk.

If the average American were so careful a watchdog over other issues as he or she is of matters concerning gun control, then this country would be a much better place.

Sadly, this is not the case.

When we in this profession write about birth control, abortion, drugs, congressional scandal, organized crime or the environment, we often feel that we are throwing our stories down an empty well, for all the response we get.

However, when we report that some source has suggested that maybe magazines that hold upwards of 100 rounds rounds, a portion of gun owners heap ashes on their heads and bewail the loss of their rights under the Second Amendment of the Constitution.


Imagination is the answer.

This is America, and guns have a lot to do with our national identity and our fantasies.

I know this from an incident that had nothing at all to do with guns.

During the heyday of the CB radio craze, I had a job that involved driving a truck all over the southeast, delivering custom accessories for four-wheel-drive trucks. Naturally, my truck had a CB radio in it, partly for entertainment and partly as a sort of surveillance device, the ordinary citizen’s version of a spy satellite to keep watch for cops on the highway.

One sultry summer night, I had been enjoying the repartee between two folks, one male, one female, whose respective “handles” were The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches.

The conversation was too racy to be recounted here; if radio waves were visible, these would have been purple.

Ghost was quite the stud, all baritone and swagger. I pulled into an all-night convenience store for a snack and coffee and kicked back to listen to the pair carry on. They were coming in loud, clear and shameless.

After a while, I knew why.

Across the parking lot was a not-very-new station wagon, a little beat up. I remember walking by it on the way in and out of the store and noting that the back seat bore unmistakable evidence that the family had several small children.

A man sat in the car alone, lit by the glare from the store. He was small and pale, in a Polo shirt and cardigan sweater. He was bald, middle-aged, and drinking a diet soft drink.

He was also talking on his CB.

The figure in the station wagon raised the mike just before The Gray Ghost’s confident baritone boomed out of the speaker, and lowered it just after the Ghost stopped speaking.

That’s when it hit me. I knew in a flash that somewhere out there a woman, perhaps a harried homemaker sitting in a housecoat, her head festooned with curlers, heated up the airwaves with the throaty, teasing words of the doubtless beautiful and slightly dangerous Sugar Britches.

The man in the battered station wagon had a harried look. The Gray Ghost was above all that.

That is the key, of course. We have created a wonderful thing with our electronics, from the CB radios of several decades ago to the role-playing computer games and social media, reality can take a back seat and balance the checkbook, fret over the kids’ report cards, worry about the job.

The Gray Ghost and Sugar Britches, meanwhile, stride through the world, above it all.

There is History and there is what we like to think happened. In America, it is impossible to separate gun lore from our image of whom and what we are. “Guns Made America Great!” said a recent bumper sticker.

The statement will not hold water.

What made and makes America great are its ideals and its system of laws.

Those ideals and laws have made possible the peaceful if noisy transitions of power in national and local elections for more than 200 years.

On the other hand, look at the places in the world where men and women armed with assault rifles and other tools of mayhem wander the streets freely. The picture is ugly, deadly, and has provided nothing in the way of order.

I read recently that “Half of all the mass shootings in the history of the U.S. have occurred since the assault gun ban expired in 2005.’’ The author is a journalist and friend who does not post things he has not researched, so I buy it.

“Guns don’t kill people . . . people kill people.” We hear that a lot.

Wrong. People with guns kill people. People with baseball bats and knives kill people, too. I have seen a number of people refer to an attack at a school in China where a deranged man stabbed 22 children and an adult or two.

What the references fail to mention is that nobody died.

I could be wrong, but I think that is an important point.

On the day that Vice President Biden and representatives from the National Rifle Association sat down to begin talking about these issues, there was another school shooting. Fortunately, the shooter wounded one other student before being talked into surrendering.

God help me, I almost wrote, “Wounded only one.” In our world, a single victim seems almost reasonable.

Decades ago, state and federal governments thought it was a good idea to close mental health facilities and instead use pharmaceuticals to control the former inmates’ symptoms.

The idea was to save money.

Not to be insensitive, but what we have inherited is a percentage of our population consisting of mentally unbalanced people under the influence of various drugs afloat in an environment where weapons of awesome killing power are relatively easy to obtain.

Bad idea. Well, a good idea for pharmaceutical companies.

Do I think banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines will solve the problem? Hardly. There are an awful lot of those weapons out there, most legally obtained, I imagine. Unhinged people will still be able to get them.

Continuing to make it easy, however, is hardly a responsible approach.

Besides, the argument is not about whether or not to control guns. The argument is where to draw the line. I grew up around firearms, and have owned a number of them. Many of my friends own guns. I am not afraid of them walking into a crowded building and taking out a dozen or so people.

If I had a neighbor who felt he or she really needed an assault rifle in order to sleep well . . . that’s a different matter. I wonder what fantasies drive them?

In any case, we have to do something. If the two sides would stop screaming at one another and start talking about sensible, real-world solutions, progress will be possible, but not before.

Terry W. Burger is a freelance writer living in Gettysburg and the author of “Burger to Go,’’ which can be found on Facebook.