“A gun is never empty” my dad told me.
He was looking straight at me.
He was looking into my eyes.
He had never done that before.
That I could recall any way.
“A gun is always loaded” he repeated, changing the words slightly but not the meaning.
It was the mid 1970’s. We were at the Olde Towne Mall, a turn-of-the-century themed indoor shopping and entertainment destination, waiting in-line to take a turn at the shooting gallery. We had about ½ hour to kill before our movie started at the Mann 4 Cinemas. We went to the mall that day to see the movie “Westworld”, a sci-fi film about robots gone astray at a futuristic amusement park.
“A gun is always loaded” he repeated.
I thought for a moment, and then said “bu…bu…but in Adam-12 the guns stop firing after they have shot all the bullets…”
“No!” He said firmly.
He rarely shouted. Instead he emphasized particular words by gritting his teeth as he said them.
“You DON’T understand. A gun is NEVER empty. A gun is ALWAYS loaded. Do you understand me?”
I nodded my head. I turned and looked at my brother. He nodded his head too. We pretended to understand. This was obviously an important idea my dad was trying to impart on us.
When we got to the front of the line, my dad took two quarters out of his pocket, and placed them on the counter next to the the shooting gallery rifle. He put one quarter in the coin slot, and his gun sprang to life. He picked up the rifle, pointed it towards the targets, laid the stock on his shoulder, leaned his head over, closed one eye, and squinted the other so he could see clearly through the cross hairs. He aimed for the infrared target attached to a beer can at the side of the gallery. He squeezed the trigger. From somewhere under the counter, a speaker reported the sound of a rifle shot. The can reacted immediately, jumping up three feet in the air on wire track.
My dad’s success did not change the serious expression on his face. “If this was a real gun” he said, “my arm would have been thrown back by the force of the shot. It’s called recoil.”
My brother and I looked directly at him, as if he was imparting the most important information in the world.
“In a movie, you can tell if an actor has ever fired a real gun or not by how he moves when he takes a shot. If there is no recoil, he’s a phony.”
My dad did not like things that were “phony”. He pointed them out to us at regular intervals. He was an actor, or at least, “was” an actor. He studied method-acting with Paul Mann in New York, and he felt he was an expert on actors “acting” genuine in movies. He appeared in several episodes of TV shows in the 50’s, but when the jobs dried up he went to work as a draftsman for an Aerospace company near Los Angeles.
The California Dream deferred.
My dad took the rest of his shots. He hit almost all, if not all of his targets. When he was finished, he put another quarter in the coin slot, and handed the gun to me. It was my turn.
My father felt it was his duty to teach me to shoot guns. Even though we lived in the heart of suburbia, he was certain that the skill of handling and firing a gun was one of the most important skills he could teach his young sons. However, I had some kind of mental block about them. By age six, we had gone into our garage at least a dozen times to practice shooting at targets attached to old phone books. In back of our property, with the garage door closed, firing a small calibre pistol sounded too similar to the “pop” of firecrackers popping for any one of the neighbors to pay attention to the sound. Kids lit-off firecrackers all the time in our neighborhood. It was no big deal. Still, the practice with a real gun made me very nervous. I only ever wanted it to end as soon as possible. This affected my ability to shoot straight. I’m sure, for my father, even those dozen times were not enough gun practice for him, so the shooting gallery at Old Towne Mall was a reasonable, but probably “panty-waist” (another favorite term of his) in his eyes, substitution.
The shooting gallery rifle felt much lighter than I expected, but it was long and unwieldy. It was connected to the counter via short black cord. I tried to put the stock on my shoulder just like my dad, but being 6 years old meant my arms were too short. I had to choke-up on the rifle, holding the barrel with one hand, the trigger with the other. I leaned my head over, squinted, and tried to see through the cross hairs. I could not see a thing. My dad and brother were waiting, so I pulled the trigger, hoping that my random shot would hit one of the many targets scattered around the gallery.
A shot sound boomed out of the counter that the cord was attached to, but none of the targets in the general direction in which I fired made any kind of movement.
“Come on Steve!” my dad said in his angered, but annoyed, but disappointed voice. The same voice I can hear in my head right now, as I write this. The same voice I heard my entire life after I did something that did not make him happy.
I fired 6 more shots, all with the same results. I then handed the gun to my brother so he could finish the game. Even though we were twins, and nearly the same size, his stature was much better than mine. He held the rifle as if he had been holding rifles his entire life. My brother emptied the gun, hitting at least three of the targets he aimed at.
“You are could be a Marksman” my dad told him, as my brother put down the gun and smiled.
We started to walk towards the movie theater.
“What’s a Marksman?” my brother asked.
“It’s the first rank you attain when learning to shoot in the Army. The next rank up is Sharpshooter, and the next, Expert Sharpshooter” my dad replied.
“Did you get a rank when you were in World War II?” I asked.
“I was a Sharpshooter” my dad replied.
We left the shooting gallery and walked towards the movie theater.
It was almost show time.
Released in 1973,“Westworld” was a movie about humanity struggling with technology it had created, but couldn’t fully comprehend or control. It starred James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as vacationers at a futuristic amusement park named Delos. The park was filled with androids that acted like the characters from a chosen time period. In the movie, the pair choose the “old west”, but other time periods, like ancient Rome and Middle Ages, were also available.
As soon as the pair arrived at the park and made their decision, they were thrust into what amounted to, an alternate universe: a virtual “virtual reality” of sorts. The visitors were immersed in the world of gambling, fighting, and even sexual encounters. It was all good clean fun until something went horribly wrong.
When the movie started, I sat and watched it, hoping for an epic adventure. I wanted to see something “big”, and something amazing. Every year the movie “The Wizard Of Oz” was shown on TV. Even though it was a musical made in the 30’s, there was something amazing about it. It was a grand adventure. The characters traveled places, and overcame obstacles. There were sweeping vistas, and magical places. When I went to the movies I wanted every film to be like The Wizard of Oz, and to make me feel like I felt when I watched it.
With a name like “West World”, I hoped for the best, but what I saw was not unlike the other sci-fi movies and TV shows I had seen in my six years on the planet: Big ideas, shoved into cramped spaces. The universe of West Word was interesting, but the story told in the universe seemed small to me. It all boiled down to two “good” guys running from one “bad” guy. In the vast world of Delos, this seemed like a small, claustrophobic story. Still, the action was good, and the underlying idea of an amusement park filled with robots was really cool.
And the coolest thing about West World was the android played by Yul Brynner. Along with the other androids, he became sentient and tried to kill the humans at the park. Brynner had an icy stare, and palpable sense of committed digital dread about him. He was like a combination of the Terminator and Darth Vader, but those characters would not be invented for years to come.
Walking out of a movie theater with my dad always made for a difficult few minutes. While I liked Westworld for what it was, I really wanted to know how he felt about it. It was very important to me to have his validation on my feelings for movies. I could tell by looking at his face, that he was not totally impressed by it.
“What did you think daddy?”
He was silent for a few seconds. We were walking back through the mall, towards the shooting gallery. We passed by the comic book store, and I stared at the covers of the publications in the window.
“It was pretty good” my dad suddenly said. “The guns didn’t recoil exactly right, and the old western town buildings looked phony, but it was pretty good”
I was relieved.
It was okay for me to like the movie.
We walked past the silk screen t-shirt shop, the carousel, and the the flying bee ride. I took a good long look as we passed the cookie shop, a place I always wanted to visit, but my dad, a self prescribed “health food nut”, would never take us there.
We passed the dark ride, the stamp collecting store, and the 9 hole indoor miniature golf course, and come up towards the juice shop. My dad stopped there and got in line. Juice was good for us, and my dad approved of its consumption. When we got to the front of the line, I, as always, ordered a strawberry juice. My brother ordered the same. My dad got carrot and cucumber.
We found a small table, and sat down to finish our drinks.
“Daddy” I asked, “can we go through the arcade on the way out?”
The arcade was at the far end of the mall near the food court, the opposite side from the movie theater. We hardly ever made it down to that end of the mall, usually stopping at the shooting gallery, or at the Paul Frieler’s Historical Model shop before we got there. In my 6 years, I had only ever walked by arcades. I had seen the pinball machines lined up against the walls, and newer looking video games standing up in the middle, with teenagers behind them, using the controls. I’d heard all the amazing sounds emanating from within, but I’d never actually seen any of the games working. However, the movie “Westworld” had inspired me. Even though it featured what I imagined to be “living video game characters” striking back against their human players, I was suddenly fascinated by the idea of electronic games, what they were, and how they were played. I’d only seen them from a far, and I’d never played one.
My dad did not answer my question, but as we emptied our cups and got up to leave, he started towards the arcade. When we reached the large, open store front crammed with video game cabinets and teenagers, my dad turned on his heels and entered the establishment.
The minute we entered, it was like visiting an alternate universe. The air was filled with a cacophony of bells and slaps from pinball and electro-mechanical machines, and grumbling digital tones from the video games. Like the androids in Westworld who came to life once the visitors played $1000 a day for the privilege of visiting their world, these electronic games begged for the change in our pockets, so they could come to life and let us enjoy the amusement they held inside. The lights were dimmed, but it was not dark inside. Every corner of the room was lit by flashing beacons.
We inched through the room, looking at the array of games on display. An 8-player auto racing game sat in the middle of the room, next to a section of Pong and Pong style games. There many machines with steering wheels and rifles attached.
On the south wall, next to a bank of Skee Ball machines was one of the most interesting things I had ever seen. It was an enormous machine, that was at least 8 feet high, 8 feet wide, and 10 feet long. It had a counter in the front with a 6-shooter and holster attached, and a giant 8 foot screen in the back. It was named “Wild Gunman”, and it was amazing.
Nintendo released Wild Gunman in 1974. It was not exactly a video game, but instead, it used a projector to display film clips of actual “cowboys” itching for a gun fight. The machine included a bank of 5 stars on the front. they would light up as a reward if you were successful when battling the armed bandits.
The player would put on the gun belt, and keep the 6-shooter holstered until it was time for a fight. When the game started, it would choose one of four film sequences (A,B,C,D) with five scenes each.
The player would watch a filmed scene start, and then wait for the on-screen bandit’s eye’s to flash. At that point, it was the player’s job to quick draw and fire before the bandit could fire back.
The game would either show a scene of the cowboy firing back at you (“You Lost”), or the cowboy falling to his death “(You Won”). After the 5 scenes played out, you would know your score by how many stars were lit-up on the front of the console.
“Wow, look at that!” my dad said.
He pulled some change from his pocket, and headed towards the machine. My brother and I followed. My dad put on the gun belt, inserted his quarters, holstered the gun, and waited for the action to start.
The words came up on the screen:
“After the eyes flash on the screen, shoot!”
“Put your pistol in the holster and prepare to draw”
In the first scene, a cowboy was skulking in the doorway of some old west buildings. He moved through two of them, then his eyes flashed. My dad did not draw quick enough, firing just a bit late. The cowboy shot back.
The words “You Lost” appeared on screen.
My dad looked flustered.
The words “Replace the pistol in your holster and prepare to draw” flash on the screen.
He holstered the gun, and got ready for the next bandit.
A cowboy walked onto the screen carrying a saddle. He put it down, and suddenly, he noticed my father. His eyes flashed, and he drew his gun. Before he had a chance to shoot, my dad raised his 6-shooter and and fired. The cowboy slumped over. A star lit-up on the console.
At once, it clicked in with me what I was seeing. My dad was successful, and the machine responded. It was like the shooting gallery, where the cans flew over wires when they were hit, but so much better. Actions were not solitary and unrelated. They connected to one another so a story could be told. The machine reacted to my dad’s actions, like a robot might respond. It could see what he was doing, and the realistic characters responded in kind.
My dad shot the third bandit, and missed the fourth. This set-up the final showdown. With two wins and two losses, the confrontation would settle the score.
“Replace the pistol in your holster and prepare to draw” flashed on the screen.
The screen changed. A door opened, and the final bandit strode confidently towards my father.
His arm was arched at his side, his fingers itching to pull the gun from the holster and take-down the final bad guy. The on-screen bandit’s eyes flashed, and he pulled his gun and fired. He was too quick. There was not enough time to react. My dad drew his pistol and fired but he was not fast enough.
He tried to fire again, but nothing happened. The trigger clicked, but the game did not respond.
He motioned the gun towards the screen, as if he could push a bullet out and win the duel by sheer force.
His gun was empty.
The projection on the screen showed the result.
My dad put the gun back into the holster, took off the gun belt, and walked away from the machine.
My brother and I followed him.
As we walked out of the door of the darkened arcade and into the sunlight, one word came out of his mouth.
But I was not so sure.
As we drove home, a feeling washed over me. It felt like I was living in a new age. An age that not only imagined robotic, electronic amusement parks in movies, but one that was just on the cusp of creating them for real. An age where interactive amusements were just creeping out of their digital hiding places to find a place in the sun, their eyes blinking, ready for a fight. For a moment, it felt like I was looking at a window, straight into Delos. My mind was racing back and forth, connecting the electronic worlds I had just visited in Westworld, to the one behind the movie screen in Wild Gunman. It was a moment of discovery that I have never forgotten. A fleeting, yet very real moment of transcendence, where, for just a few seconds, I felt like I understood my place in the world, my place in time, and where the future might take me.
Then as suddenly as the feeling appeared, it evaporated
And there I was sitting next to my dad in the cab of the big white pick-up, my brother seated behind us, as we traveled to our small suburban home, back in the real world.
(Note: This story was written and published many months before the new West World TV show aired, and is in no way related to that property. At the time of publication, West World was not really a significant part of pop culture. This story was never written as a way to capitalize on the popularity of West World, but instead to highlight an nearly forgotten but significant day in the life of kid from the 70’s).