THE little scoop scratched painfully at the hazy, lumpy surface. I leaned forward and stared at my television set. Again the tiny shovel more than two hundred and ninety thousand miles away gouged into the distant soil. The commentator's calm, Official voice described the technical aspects of the fantastic scientific marvel that was taking place. Lonely little Surveyor Three, like some tiny, solitary child on a deserted beach, dug in the sand while I watched, eyes popping, gripped by some strange subterranean, inexplicable fear. It lay deep within me like a minute, festering cyst. The film flickered. It :fluttered around the edges, hazy, indistinct, scary. After all, it had come to us through almost a. quarter of a Million miles of Space.
The little machine carefully de-,posited a scoopful of moon-rubble o. its little round foot. I adjusted the -contrast control. I touched the fine tuning and stared deep into my 19- inch screen. By God, there was a tiny glint up near the upper right-hand corner of the picture!
The scientist narrator droned on, intoning facts and figures about Surveyor Three. I rocked back in my ding chair as the newscast went on to less inflammatory subjects. Moodily I arose and wandered into the kitchen to draw another bourbon. Why this agitation? What was there about the moon and Surveyor Three and that little scoop of dirt, that tiny, almost invisible telltale glint of metal at somehow made the sweat start from my brow? I sipped the Jack Daniels and it all slowly began to come back, Good God, after all these years? Was my crime about to be discovered? Would I have to step forward and admit that my depraved Career as a Plinker had led me to the very brink?
There are those who believe, I suppose, that plinking is the most innocent of sports. Probably it is, for most. But then, they haven't really gone out after the truly big game in the Plinking world. A plinker is essentially a lonely man. His sport has no Official sanctions. There are no International rules, no All Star teams, no Olympic medals. Plinkers never appear on "The Wide World of Sport." Their trophies are humble. Few dedicated plinkers ever really take part in more formal forms of shooting. A few, yes, but they are not true plinkers. Occasionally a hunter in the off season will plink, but he is a hunter plinking. Target shooters will, on fretful days, condescend to plink, but few plinkers ever hunt, or peer down the barrel of a delicately-balanced target rifle. Their natural enemy is the empty Coke bottle, the contented Evaporated Milk can, the waving cattail. The weapons they use are mostly rudimentaty and cover a wide range of action: slingshots, hurled rocks, mail-order single-shot Sears Roebuck .22s, bow and arrows - anything capable of sending any sort of projectile through the air more or less in the direction aimed. It is an insidious vice.
I was 10, and at the very peak of my career as a plinker. I had hit the jackpot the previous Christmas and had ripped open a package under the Christmas tree that contained a Daisy Red Ryder lever-action 200- shot BB gun. In my neighborhood nobody ever called them air rifles. They were BB guns. They shot BBs.
For months before Christmas I had plotted and schemed, after haying seen the advertisements for this magnificent weapon with its sundial in the stock for telling the time, its compass, and its autograph by Red Ryder himself. According to the ads, it was a faithful copy of the trusty weapon that he had used so well to plug Badguys whenever things got rough _
Over the months since Christmas I had had my share of trouble with that BB gun, but that's another story. It had become as much a part of me as my fielders' mitt or my tennis shoes. Every night it stood silently, propped against the wall next to my bed in case the mice in the basement mounted an attack, or a burglar tried to get in.
Every day after school, especially in the fall, my buddies Flick, Schwartz, and Bruner and myself would range through the alleys, over the vacant lots, plinking as we went, laying waste to the countryside for miles.
The. northern Indiana terrain on the lower shore of Lake Michigan is not noted for its wildlife. An occasional gaunt, hollow-eyed rabbit would hop through the backyard on his way to wherever a rabbit who lives in a Steel town goes when he's working. Flocks of dusty sparrows, squawking noisily and swinging on the high tension wires, argued and hurled invectives at the world around them. They, like us, lived in the shadow of the Blast Furnace, the Open Hearth, and the . Tin Mill. I never could figure why they never went South the way regular birds did, to bask in the sun of Florida; why they hung around in the bitter cold, scratching like ordinary humans for the necessities of Life. Winter and summer, spring and fall they scurried among the garbage cans and fluttered under the eaves, muttering obscenely to each other all the while.
We called them "spatsies" and every Saturday Schwartz, Flick, Bruner and myself relentlessly pursued them with our Daisys. Over the months I had learned to shoot my Red Ryder somewhat it, had a nice comfortable feel, and when I would line it up on a milk bottle I could hear the needle in the compass swinging with a tiny scratchy sound in the stock next to my right ear. I bathed its imitation blue-steel barrel with 3-in-1 Oil, polishing its magazine with old rags. Its trigger pull was unpredictable and abrupt and when she went off, if the light was right, you could see the copper. BB flash away to the left and down sharply, in a peculiar corkscrew trajectory.
The trick was to know your gun. All BB guns were that way. Some shot high and to the right. My gun threw sliders. Flick had a big 500-shot Daisy pump-action model with a chromium-plated barrel. His went off with an odd, chill K-THUNK, sending the BB almost vertically into the air, no matter where he pointed it. Schwartz, on the other hand, had a Benjamin which squirted its BBs out like a fat man spitting out watermelon seeds at a picnic; indiscriminately, in all. directions, weakly.
All day we had been sneaking up on our bellies through the vacant lots, among rusted bedsprings, over piles of ashes and clinkers, potting away at the spatsies. It was the same gang of birds that had been around the neighborhood since before we could remember. We had hunted them so long that we knew every one of them by sight. They knew us. ft was a game we played every night and especially on Saturdays. We played Hunter and they played Bird.
There was one big, blackish-gray spatsie with a spotted bill and a jaundiced eye that taunted me every time we got out on the trail. He knew my Daisy shot low and to the left. He also knew that I corrected for this by shooting high and to the right. He had developed the trick of feinting rapidly first to the left, then to the right, and then hopping into the air at a 45-degree angle, upward and away. He would vary this by occasionally diving low and to the right, and after each shot he would squawk raucously and peck at the ground arrogantly, knowing that while I was cocking the Daisy he was home free.
None of us ever actually hit a spatsie. That's not exactly true, I guess, because there was one time that became sort of a legend afterwards. A foreign bird from some other neighborhood made a mistake and innocently flew within range of Flick's 500-shotter. I'll never forget the excitement. Instantly we knew that there was a Rookie in the flock. The others, the old vets, bobbing and weaving with practiced footwork, were enjoying themselves. Flick sighted his Daisy, holding his breath as the Innocent took evasive action and did the only wrong thing he could have done in front of Flick's gun. He hurtled straight upward in an erratic, spiraling climb, which was exactly the way Flick's BBs always flew. Flick pulled the trigger, the bird yapped upward, there was a sudden outraged squawk, and two tail feathers fluttered in the fall breeze. The bird, now angry, buzzed Flick twice and disappeared in the direction of his old neighborhood. It was the sort of moment that drives Plinkers on.
Then, of course, there was the embarrassing incident of the orange box-kite. In every neighborhood that I ever heard of there is one kid who wears thick glasses, whose mother won't let him play Football or anything because he might get hurt, and who winds up taking accordion lessons, singing in the choir, and writing poems. We had Homer Neff. Now I wasn't really a rotten kid, basically, but there was just something about Homer that got me. He got everybody else, too, but in different ways. His father was always giving him things and making stuff for him. One day Homer and his old man were out in the vacant lot back of the garage, flying a box kite which Homer's father, of course, had made for Homer. Homer never made anything himself. Well, I was down in the basement and I could see that box kite flying up over the telephone wires and dancing around in the breeze, Homer never asked anybody to. come and fly his kites with him.
Well, I know I shouldn't have done it, but I aimed my BB gun out of the basement window and let fly at the box kite. It must have been maybe fifty or sixty feet in the air. I never expected to hit it. I just wanted to do it. Maybe a gesture or something. I popped away and just like that, the box kite folded up in the middle and came down faster than a fat lady sitting on a camp stool. I'll tell you I was scared. I hid in the coal bin for three hours after that one.
At the time I did not realize that I was preparing for the biggest game of all. Now, I must say at this point that I am not advocating guys going around plinking at kites or spatsies or telephone in-sulators, I'm just telling 'what happened. Sometimes it isn't easy to tell the truth, but there are times when you have to.
The day that it finally happened was somehow different. It was late summer, for one thing. The spectre of school and the end of Vacation hung over the land like a dark, somber curtain. All afternoon we had busted bottles and plunked at traffic signs. Little did I realize as I cocked and shot that that evening would bring a moment in my career as a plinker and a sinner that I would never be able to erase.
The afternoon had gone by slowly, indolently. It was a warm, muggy day, the kind that Indiana specializes in. At suppertime it was already well toward dusk. My father had come home from work a half hour before, roaring up the driveway in his Oldsmobile, and sat at the dinner table now, finishing his coffee. My kid brother was already out on the back porch, bouncing his golf ball maddeningly off the hack steps with a constant thunking beat which at times drove my mother wild. The Old Man went out to put the car in the garage. I got up from the table and went into my bedroom to look for my spyglass. The screen door slammed in the kitchen and the Old Man shouted out:
"HEY, EVERYBODY. COME OUT HERE AND TAKE A LOOK AT THIS. BOY, JUST TAKE A LOOK AT THIS!"
The door slammed again. I wandered through the dining room toward the back porch, figuring that an airplane was going over or there was a new Pontiac in the neighborhood. I could hear my mother's voice out in the backyard, murmuring. I went down the back steps and joined the group. My father stood in the gloom next to the sagging clothes-pole, looking off toward the horizon. My mother, in her spotted apron, stood next to him, and my kid brother swung on the fence.
"Ain't that sumpin'? That is really sumpin'. Just take a look at that moon!"
In the soft purple twilight just over the rim of the horizon, to the left of the dark, snaggle-toothed, glowing mountain range of the Steel Mills hung a smoky, blood-orange moon, almost as wide as the sky, a classic Indiana moon, the kind that drove songwriters to the outer limits of banality, that has maddened Indiana folk poets for generations, the kind that paints the placid flat surface of the Wabash with thin, moving sheets of fragile gold.
I stood near the edge of the porch and looked up at the mysterious moon. Next door in their yard, the Bruners had gathered. Mr. Bruner, the neighborhood drunk, was blearily humming a sentimental Indiana-type tune as his little brood gazed into the face of Lunar beauty. Everywhere mosquitoes hummed. Somewhere the last spatsie to drop off to sleep chirped softly.
At 10 we, especially the Male child, are caught in whirlpools of passion and desire that knock us about like pieces of earls on. The ocean; meaningless, subtle, sublime and evil. I stood for a long moment in the darkness, gripped in a vise of nameless emotions, so tangled, so complex that even Freud himself would have been at a loss to explain them, but then, Freud was never a 10-year-old kid in Indiana, huddled under a blood moon in the gloaming.
The moon rose perceptibly, its topmost edge flattening, its color more flamelike. Smoke drifted across its face. I turned and stealthily, on my Ked tennis shoes that allowed me to walk like an Indian on the trail, silently slunk back into the house, through the darkened rooms and into my bedroom.
Why? I don't know. I still don't know. I just had to, I felt along the wall in a cold sweat of excitement and anticipation. Ah! My hand fell on the friendly, dangerous barrel of my old Daisy. In the dark I smelled the faint, sweetish-- sourish smell of 3-in-1. That made me even more excited. I quietly cocked it, bracing its stock against my knee as I worked the lever. The spring in the barrel thrummed malevolently, with
contained violent power, Back out to, the kitchen and into the yard.
"Ain't that sumpin'? I never seen a moon, ever, like that! That is really -a
My father rarely used that tone of voice unless he was describing a Used Car that he was about 'to be taken by. My mother stood silent in the gloom, the faint reflected glow of the moon sparkl-ing on her aluminum ha ire urle rs. Bruner hummed on drunkenly.
I crept through the yard and around the back of the garage, into the alley. A steadfast calm had come over me. I knew what I had to do, and I was going to do it. There was no turning back I lay the barrel of the Daisy over the top of the fence behind the garage and carefully lined up the heart-shaped sight. The moon lay across the muzzle of my Red Ryder and seemed almost to be perched on the front sight itself.
From somewhere far off in the direction of the Steel Mills, near the swamp that lay between us and the fiery furnaces, a dog howled, a long, quavering wail, The moon had got him, too. Carefully, I corrected for the slider. I calculated the distance. It would be a long shot, that I knew. Steady as a rock I carefully squeezed the trigger.
The barrel leaped convulsively on the fence board. The stock thumped against my cheek. A brief, golden flash of reflected moonglow as I saw the BB hurtle upward at the hanging disc. It was gone. On its way. Forever. To wing through mile after mile of yawning Space. I had done it.
I crouched down next to the fence. A strange peace fell over me. Carefully, practically on hands and knees, scurried back into the house and in the dark bedroom shoved my Daisy 200-shot Red Ryder BB gun under the bed. Far under the bed, back among the tangled nest of deflated footballs, taped hockey sticks, lumpy baseballs, and God knows what else,
Then it hit me. My God!, I've shot the moon! It's going to go out, and come down, just like Homer's orange box kite. What have I done!? There'll never be a moon again. I've killed it! The beautiful moon that Mr. Bruner loves!
I crouched next to the bed, a criminal, a rotten depraved criminal. I heard the kitchen door slam.
"Boy, that sure is some moon. That is really pretty. What d'y say we take a ride and get some ice cream?"
This was the Old Man's greatest tribute that he could make to the excitement of living.
"Let's go. All out into the car."
I was afraid to go out, afraid that by the time we got out in the backyard the /noon would be gone.
"Hey, c'mon. Let's go. On the double!"
Reluctantly, with sick heart and lead feet, I followed my mother and father and kid brother out of the house. A soft silver glow lay on the garage roof, glinted on the telephone wires. The wounded moon bravely carried on. Nervously I crawled into the back, seat of the Oldsmobile. We drove toward the Igloo Ice Cream Parlor for our treats.
Later, as I spooned in the pistachio nut and the moon rode higher in the heavens my mother asked:
"What's the matter?. Aren't you having a good time?"
"Well, you're acting kind of funny. Are you coming down with a cold?" 'I didn't answer. I was not worthy to sit with my innocent family any longer. I had sinned. I had shot the moon, and to this day I don't know why.
I dread the moment when the Space scientists announce that Surveyor Three has unearthed a tiny copper-covered steel pellet which proves conclusively that there is Life on the moon, as well as BB guns. It will all come out then. Plinkers are men Driven.