All She Wrote: Guns N’ Roses

The author firing an MP5 with Sheriff Gerald Hege in thew 1990s.

Anderson Cooper: On Sunday, June 11, a gunman opened fire in an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. The gunman was killed in police crossfire.

Me (commenting): Wow, that’s about the total number of people in my entire high school.

When I was in the 7th grade it was determined that I was to go to private school. It was more me than my mom and dad. They were of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” parenting school and since my grades were excellent and I tested well, it never occurred to them that I wasn’t getting much of an education.

Stating my case, I showed them the contents of my book bag. It consisted of Judy Blume novels, a few bodice rippers and a couple of Tom Wolfe New Journalism epiphanies that I had gotten for Christmas. “It takes 10 minutes to do my homework,” I cried, after witnessing the motherlode of work my friends at Forsyth Country Day, Salem and Westchester Academy were carting around.

Don’t even get me started on the advanced classes my friends at far-flung prep schools were jabbering about during long, languishing summers lakeside. And after what seemed like countless years of attending basketball camp at my father’s alma mater, Davidson College, it occurred to me that despite being a legacy and my kick-ass jump shot, I might not get in.

In retrospect, I’m sure it had more to do with keeping up with the junior Joneses than education, but it made me push harder for private school than an octomom during vaginal birth. With the help of a few commiserate junior high teachers, my parents were convinced.

The hunt began locally at Westchester and Forsyth Country Day. After a summer session of ghastly commutes, my parents determined that I would have to board somewhere quasi-locally, so I could still spend time at home — at least until I got my driver’s license. My mother was inconsolable. The arts program at Forsyth was nonpareil in her mind’s eye.

With an eye toward dance, I was keen on the North Carolina School of the Arts. I had visions of bouquets of roses cradled in my arms as I bowed gracefully after standing ovations. Sadly, my bum knee from a basketball injury precluded much of a chance of any real ballet career. Salem Academy proved to be a disappointment when my interviewers seemed more keen on my MRS degree intentions than academics.

So, on a whim and a tip that they were now enrolling girls, we went to Oak Ridge Academy — nee Oak Ridge Military Academy.

I considered the interview an indulgence for my father who had always wanted to attend the school and who was curious about the culture there. I took the tour, met the brass and took a few tests. And then something remarkable happened. Betty Hobbs, head of the English Department, cornered me in the hall and started quizzing me and chatting with me enthusiastically about literature and writers. She handed me a reading list and said, “I will see you in the fall.”

She was right on. I entered Oak Ridge that fall a peon with no knowledge of the military other than what I had seen in movies like Taps and on the 6 o’clock news. All I did know was that I could take Latin from a Yalie, English from a PhD and there were more AP classes than I had time to enroll in. It was a golden era at Oak Ridge, academically — but I learned a lot more than the books had to offer.

Stripped of my Calvin Klein jeans and grosgrain headbands and put into a standard issue gray and black Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps uniform, I learned the meaning of esprit de corps and teamwork. The ranking system taught me leadership and standard operational procedure taught me discipline. I learned how to rappel down towers, break down an M-1903 bolt-action, magazine-fed, breech-loading shoulder weapon and find my way out of the woods without a compass. I wore a marksman badge on my chest from the school range and was a member of the Dixie Belles — the women’s drill team.

When I turned 16 and it came time for me to pack up my uniform and head to Forsyth, I said no way. I was a lifer (well, at least until graduation.) So I graduated Oak Ridge a captain and member of the battalion staff with a healthy respect for guns and weaponry of all kinds. Medals on my breast replaced the aforementioned roses as accolades.

In the ensuing years my appreciation of guns continued. I fired AK-47s outside of the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam for a story for Details magazine. I wrote about a local sheriff’s predilection for Heckler & Koch MP5s and went shooting with him. I frequented ranges with friends and even bought myself a tidy little Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum for target shooting.

It was a lot easier, cheaper and faster buying that gun than getting a driver’s license and operating a vehicle. About six months in my tenure as a handgun owner, I realized the same thing about guns that my driver’s ed teacher warned about driving: You can be the best driver in the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone else on the road is. The realization that just having that weapon in my possession — no matter how securely locked up — meant that someone without my training could get their hands on it was enough for me to rid my hands of it. I decided then and there that getting rid of one weapon in the world was the least that I could do.

I chose roses over guns — at last.