Traditions We Share

Like Santas who shoot carbines and a play that guts the Lord but good

It's a warm, clear December morning, and Christmas is in the air. Outside the storefront quaintly named Guns & Things, a Christmas seal dressed in silver tinsel and a black wet suit shuffles up to join half a dozen of her scruffy-suited Santa friends. There is Santa Savalas, in a red velvet smoking jacket and sequin-rimmed sunglasses; Satana, a puckish Claus with devil horns growing from her hat and a slender tail sneaking from under her coat; Santabomber, wearing a hooded sweat shirt and impenetrable shades; Humpy Clause, a slender white-trash hood in a red-and-white-checkered western shirt and drooping Union Jack suit; Argon the Elf From Beyond, who passes out subversive literature about St. Nick; and Santarilla, an elegant lass in a velvet bodysuit wrapped in white fleece, and furry wine-colored gladiator boots. They greet each other with limp, pre-noon "Ho hos" and take stock of their collective firearm cache -- one .22 revolver, one .45 semiautomatic, one .30-06, one modified .30 carbine rifle, one .38. Amid talk of ammunition and firing order, the Santas wave at a carload of smiling children and shout, "Ho ho ho!" Then, crushing out their cigarettes, they ring the Guns & Things doorbell.

Except for a large stuffed crow overlooking a handwritten warning about possible fines and imprisonment for folks allowing children to misuse loaded firearms, there are few "things" in the store other than guns. But, this being the season for giving, the tiny shop is crowded with customers. The man behind the counter blithely regards the Santa crew and tries to fill their order.

"I only have one box of 30-caliber rifle cartridges and one of the .30-06 Springfields left, and I'm all out of earplugs," says the man apologetically. "It's strange. There's been a rush on these. Holidays, I guess." The Santas buy what they can, loading up on alternates, and head north.

It's easy for a city kid in a Santa suit to get lost, even just a few short miles from home. Eight miles can seem like 20 when familiar markers like corner bars, thrift stores, and legible street signs give way to unvarying green hills, dozing dairy cows, and the occasional llama.

We had been up and down the same narrow stretch of winding road six times, and the desired address, which should have existed somewhere between the cobweb-covered 1500 and the subsequent gate irrationally marked 2360, had eluded both logic and technology. Finally, spotting a dairy farmer in knee-high rubber boots and overalls, we obtain the only answer possible: "You can't miss it: Just go a little ways and, at the top of the hill, turn right."

Up a tree-lined road, not corresponding with the street address given us earlier, we come upon a small shed built under a large wooden sunshade. The constant rumbling report of gunfire echoes off the surrounding green hills, making the air vibrate and my neck twitch involuntarily. The shooting range (which chooses to remain nameless out of fear of overcrowding) offers 20 shooting benches with six banks of targets (at distances of 25 to 300 yards) and a trap range for shotguns. Already, barrel-chested shooters with cigars clenched in their teeth occupy most of the benches, and their children, more interested in range etiquette and firing accuracy, hardly give our merry band of armed St. Nicks a second glance. The range master, a 17-year veteran of this firing range with a Glock strapped to his hip, allows himself one good-natured smirk before taking our money and turning his attention to the other shooters, most of whom know his name. He's slightly more impressed when more carloads of Santas arrive, including the highly spangled Santa Deluxeand the jolly bearded Santa Rob, swelling our numbers to 15. Some of the regular shooters step back from their benches to eye us through the smoke of their smoldering cigars as more authoritative Santas offer novices firearm instruction. Humpy Claus and Santa Savalas make it look easy -- feet apart, grip loose, head cocked, shoulders straight -- effortlessly hitting their targets. On the rifle range, at 100 yards, I can barely make out which target is mine, much less tell if my bullets are coming close to hitting the page. The range master chuckles as I watch one of his regular shooters nailing clay pigeons that look like orange match heads at 300 yards.

"We don't let you shoot at 200 or 300 yards unless you can sight in at 100 yards," says the range master, holding up a target with bullet holes less than an inch apart. I smile and nod from under my overlarge, shiny red hat.

I feel more confident on the handgun range, enjoying the genteel pluck of a .22 six-shooter, but the recoil from the .45 finishes me off. Santarilla shows me a scar left by a hot casing that flew down her shirt the last time she tried to shoot a semiautomatic weapon. Humpy Claus talks about repacking his own ammo. The range master calls a cease-fire, and the owner's kid hurries down the firing line to check that the guns are unloaded and the actions are open. I watch the other Santas proficiently handling their weapons, looking like holiday vigilantes at a pop-art boot camp. I'm glad they're on my side. By the time I leave, the locals are lending us equipment and posing for pictures.

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