Billy the Kid, so they say, shot his first man when he was 12 years old. I must have been more precocious than Billy, because I potted my first victim in a back alley on a frosty Christmas morning when I was only 6. His name was Mr. Gene Ellard, and he was a genial, well-upholstered man who parted his hair in the middle and drove a Marmon roadster that had a horn that tooted How Dry I Am. I admired Mr. Ellard, and I've never been quite certain why I shot him. Maybe it was because I was delirious with joy and pride and would have done anything to call attention to my brand-new nickel-plated rifle that smelled of neat's-foot oil and rattled with 350 shots. It may simply have been that I had an unripe sense of humor and found Mr. Ellard's rotund rear an irresistible target when I came stalking up the alley and saw him bending over, burning trash. Anyway, on a sudden impulse, I let him have it.
Men must have had tougher hides back in those tranquil days; maybe they just weren't so jumpy. Mr. Ellard didn't flinch, cry out or even seem particularly startled. He straightened up slowly, looked me over musingly and, ignoring my grin, which was getting weaker all the time, walked over and held out his hand for my rifle. When I handed it over he cocked it, backed up a few feet, took casual aim and shot me in the right leg a little above the knee. Then, while I jumped up and down on one leg and made hiccuping noises as I tried to catch my breath, he handed me back my rifle and said pleasantly, "O.K., buddy, now watch where you go pointing that thing."
It was the only lesson in gun handling I ever had as a boy, and for a long time afterward I felt hot around the ears when I recalled that I needed it. In those days, when the world was in order and everybody knew his place in it, it was taken for granted that by the time a boy was given his first Daisy air rifle he had enough sense not to shoot people, songbirds, fruit on the vine or the two lazy mules belonging to Louie the iceman. Neither was there any nonsense about teaching a boy to shoot. He was handed the long, narrow box with the familiar Daisy target on it and usually told nothing except, "Don't shoot toward the house." A Daisy was a simple puzzle a normal boy was supposed to figure out for himself. It also was believed to have a salubrious effect on his character. As Jack Holt said, as he looked out level-eyed from the Daisy ads in The Youth's Companion, "The boy who aims straight usually hits the target, not only in the field, but in everything he undertakes in life."
Owning a Daisy became terribly important to a boy at about the time he was learning to keep his shirttail in. Writers often recall with tender amusement the thrill of a boy's first kiss or his first pair of long pants. In the quiet part of the country where I grew up, most boys usually found one of these things disappointing and the other embarrassing. A real, memorable, intoxicating thrill of boyhood was aiming a Daisy for the first time and actually hitting something. Tin cans and sycamore balls were good targets for beginners, and so were sparrows if you could find one that was too preoccupied or dumb to duck. A boy usually was acknowledged an expert shot after he bagged his first redheaded woodpecker, which we called peckerwoods. Peckerwoods were the ibex and chamois of the bird kingdom. Not only did they prefer to forage in the tops of tall trees, out of BB-shot range, they also seemed to be all feathers and whit-leather. Sometimes when a peckerwood was peppered with BBs he merely ruffled his feathers and kept on circling a tree, pecking away.
The champion peckerwood-stalker in my section of town was a pale, skinny, towhaired little boy with faded blue eyes and white eyelashes named Alvin Pinson. Alvin didn't have much social standing, because he lived down by the creek, wore overalls and had a single-shot Daisy, which he got as a premium for selling Cloverine salve. But when he lifted his Daisy, planted his feet firmly and stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth for balance, Alvin could hit almost anything he could see. We all knew the secret of Alvin's long shots—he lobbed BBs like mortar shells, sometimes aiming a foot or so high. But none of us had his gift.
The most unforgettable shot I've ever seen was made by Alvin. one spring day when a bunch of us were playing baseball in the field behind the Methodist Church. Alvin always kept his Daisy handy, and he must have slept with BBs in his mouth. When he saw a peckerwood approach in loping flight and land in a tall oak on the edge of the field, he halted the game. Since the bird was a good 50 yards away, we kicked dirt impatiently and told Alvin not to be a sap. But he spit a BB in the end of his Daisy and carefully lobbed off a shot. He hit the peckerwood, all right—and obviously he hit it in the head. At that distance the effect was about the same as if somebody walked up behind a big strong man and gave him a sharp addling crack on the skull with a ball peen hammer.
The peckerwood lost its foothold, fluttered groggily and, suddenly, like a rocket with a haywire gyroscope, took off in mad, twisting flight for the sun. While we gaped with openmouthed wonder, it somersaulted into a nose dive and, finally, only a few feet above the ground, leveled off in a series of corkscrew turns. Then, though skeptical friends and my own lengthening years almost have convinced me it couldn't happen, it flipped over and flew upside down the width of the field and cracked up against the church. Under the circumstances, we numbly agreed with the grinning Alvin that it was some shot.
Millions of Americans, some in their 70s and 80s, can tell of some wondrous feats performed by Daisys: how at the proper distance they could be coaxed to shoot around tree trunks, or how with a little practice only an ordinary good shooter could blast aspirin tablets tossed in the air. Few other boyhood possessions have left such an accumulation of bizarre, happy and poignant memories as the Daisy.
Times have changed, of course. Shopping centers and houses with picture windows have overrun the woods and fields where once a wandering boy with a Daisy could plink away at all 360 points in the compass. A prim society that prides itself on having the world's cleanest hydrogen bombs often looks with disfavor on small boys who take potshots at peckerwoods. Any little boy who collected bird claws like Comanche braves collected scalps would run the risk of being dragged off to talk to an owlish man about his latent hostilities.
Because the world does seem to grow more cramped all the time, it is pleasant and wonderfully reassuring to know that after 75 years the Daisy Manufacturing Company is flourishing, stronger than ever. At its spacious plant outside Rogers, Ark., in the Ozark country, it produces 1.5 million of its famous BB guns every year. On each working day the plant also pours out a golden flood of 35 million BBs—enough to stretch 100 miles if they were laid in a straight line.