by Rod Johnson
First off, let me say this story is not some sort of political viewpoint concerning guns in our midst. I do memoirs as I recall them and this story struck me — as times have changed in so many ways in very few years. Perhaps that has always been the way of things, but in thinking about this gun story and looking back 56 years, the changes are dramatic.
Yes, we lived in Maine, so we were not exactly mainstream America but certainly on the fringes. We live in a less populated state than many in the USA, and we have a history of hunting, trapping, being independent, and so on. Even our state's economy had some to do with the hunting seasons, which offered cabins to stay in along with promises of bagging a deer or some grouse during the months of October and November. This, coupled with spring and summer fishing seasons, helped bolster the shoulder seasons for Mom and Pop small business. All of this, along with the paper industries, gave the Maine folks a chance to make a living while continuing some of the ways of our forefathers.
At very young ages, the kids who were interested in going hunting with their fathers got to do so. This often happened at the ages of perhaps 8 or 10 years. The fathers saw it as a chance to teach and share, almost like on the job training. Most of the boys in my town of Belgrade were part of that scene, and to this day I think many still are. The dad's first responsibility was to tell us that you never ever point a gun at anyone, only a target or wild game you intend to kill. Often, target shooting took place in a gravel pit, where those rules applied and were constantly reinforced.
By the time we were 12 or 14, many of us had been on real hunts and some of had shot deer, or at least shot at deer. Grouse (partridge), pheasant, or woodcock were also seasonal targets. Usually, young boys learned to shoot a 22 caliber first, then a light shotgun such as a 20 gauge, and eventually a powerful long reaching deer rifle such as a 30-30 Winchester. Some of our fathers still had old rifles used in earlier wars such as the 30-40 Krag, Carbines, British 303, 38-40, and more. That was the case at my house and the "trapping room" had at least a dozen guns of varying types for various uses, Grampa's old 10 gauge scatter gun included. Use of these weapons was not only allowed, but condoned with proper caution, as well as the responsibility to care for them. A gun left uncleaned was an offense most fathers would not tolerate and we had to remedy that quickly.
A couple of stories that drive home the picture of kids using guns during this era come to mind and here they are. Let's back up in time to the mid-1950's when my older brother was a senior at Belgrade High School. The new young teacher that came to Belgrade that year was a young man from Portland named John Caminiti. Throughout his life, John loved to tell stories of his indoctrination into country living during his first few months at Belgrade High.
John had homeroom for the seniors and the room overlooked Depot Road and the ridge up behind Reggie and Phronie Hammond's house. One of the boys in the room yelled "DEER!" and pointed to the ridge across the road. An uproar ensued and a half dozen or so of the boys got up and ran out the door. Some of the names remembered are Buster Hammond, Dick Johnson, Mel Pray and Tom Sawyer. They ran to their cars and got their rifles, then headed across the street to chase the deer. John was somewhat flabbergasted but ultimately came to love Belgrade, married Murner Pray and became a local character himself. He and Murner lived on Woodland Camp Road for many years until his recent passing. John is sadly missed by all.
The above true story illustrates that it was not abnormal at all for teenagers to bring their rifles with them to school during hunting season. Often, boys hunted early in the morning before school and again after school until dusk.
Back in the '60's friends Rick, Howard and I would come home from school, get off the bus, run home to change clothes and get our guns. During the fall months we would often set a place to regroup with our 22 caliber rifles and head off to hunt squirrels over on Dry Point Drive, where my wife and I now live. The camps were all empty and the owners had returned home by late September. We had the place to ourselves. Mother's only words when I went out the door were: be careful and be home by 5 o'clock. Father's only words were: keep those guns pointed at the ground and no shooting insulators off the telephone poles.
Hearing gunshots in the fall was so commonplace that no one thought much about it. Most of the shots were guys shooting at targets, honing their skills, and certainly no one had thoughts that anything wrong was going on. How things have changed in 50 to 60 years, some for the better and some not!
Rod Johnson was born and raised in the Belgrade Lakes in the 1950s and '60s.