A Girl with a Gun by Devin McGrew

Devin was born in Charleston, West Virginia. She was raised in a farm house in a little town called Liberty.  At the age of eleven years, she moved to Sarasota, Florida, with her mother and stepfather.  A decade passed before she returned to her hometown in West Virginia.

Devin has decided to attend Marshall University to obtain her Regent’s Bachelor of Arts degree and then further that with an MBA.  She works with her father in his business, Don’s Plumbing, Heating & Air. She is a single mother to a beautiful daughter named Lauren. They live in a small town in rural West Virginia with their two dogs, Foxy and Molly.

In her essay, Devin explores how her life in Liberty influenced her lifelong passion for shooting guns.  I especially am grateful to Devin for her willingness to write openly about something many people outside of West Virginia do not understand:  A cultural significance to firearms that is both family-oriented and in many ways nonviolent.  There are different takes on the role of guns in society, and Devin’s honest evaluation of the strength, family history, and parental connection she inherited from having guns in her childhood will be an eye-opener for many.

A Girl with a Gun


My ears are ringing; the smell of gunpowder lingers in the air. It’s a beautiful fall day and there’s a nice chill in the air. I anxiously await the results of my shot. Dad trudges up the hill to the giant log we use to line the cans up for target practice. “Nice shot!” he says in his slow, deep voice. A smile spreads across my face. I notice he’s smiling as well on his walk back to the porch. He climbs the porch steps with ease using his long legs from his six-foot frame. His huge hand comes down to gently pat my back for a job well done.

I have Dad’s approval and that is all my little childhood self needs.

We must have been a sight on that porch, Dad standing tall, towering over me, and me gazing up towards the sky to look into his big brown eyes.  I often had trouble keeping up with him when we were walking together.  My little legs would be at a dead run to keep up the pace.  When holding hands, his hand would engulf my tiny one, and most of the time I would simply hold onto his fingers.  Dad is part Native American and definitely looks the part. He has dark brown hair, dark brown eyes and is somewhat dark skinned. I inherited the dark brown hair and olive skin from him and I often wore my hair in pigtail braids (a.k.a. Indian braids) as a child.

I was introduced to guns literally the day I was brought home from the hospital.  Dad took a picture of me lying on a bed next to a pair of binoculars and a rifle.  This photograph is now in a small frame on my bookshelf.  I realize now that this image might be quite scary to some people, this small infant girl lying near a firearm.  It was definitely normal in our household, however, and guns were not anything to fear.  They were simply an extension of who we were and part of how we lived, almost like family.

We used guns for both pleasure and survival.  We enjoyed shooting guns for target practice and to set-up contests to see who could make the best shots . We used guns to go out into our property to hunt animals so that we would have food on the table during both good and bad times.  There was no question about whether I would learn how to use a firearm when I was born.  Whether I was a girl or boy, it was happening. Dad definitely wanted a boy.  I mean what father doesn’t want a son?  Right from the start, I had a lot of proving myself to do for Dad.  Thankfully, I didn’t mind becoming a tomboy.

By five years old, I’d become quite the marksman.  My trusty .22 rifle didn’t have much of a kick to it, which is how I was able to fire off a precise shot.  The fact that we spent  most evenings on the front porch practicing also helped.  One of the joys of living on ninety-plus acres is that you don’t have to worry about your neighbors complaining.  The only ones bothered by our gunshots were the animals in the woods wondering if the shots were intended for them.

Liberty is located in Putnam County, West Virginia, and definitely is considered rural.  We lived on nearly one hundred acres of which about two were cleared off for the house seat. The rest of the property was woods.  The old farm house, where grandfather grew up, was located on the right side of the cleared property.  On the left side, he built a new house for his wife and kids upon moving them back here from Manassas, Virginia.  The old rutted driveway split the property.  We moved into the house after Grandpa died and Grandma moved away.  The road to our house was a gravel road barely big enough for one car.  Our nearest neighbor was about a mile down the road.

Ranson’s General Store was on the corner of the street by the post office.  Mom and I often walked down to the store during the day to visit with Mr. & Mrs. Ranson and to pick up any necessities . It was a small store similar to the ones you see in older movies. They sold the basics such as bread, milk and canned goods.  I can still hear the ringing of the bell over the old wooden door with the glass panels when you would enter.  Every time we went in to pick up something, I came out of the store with some sort of candy.  Naturally, I loved visiting that little general store!  There was an elementary school at the top of the hill off the main road. I attended school there briefly for first grade. The school was so small, they combined the classes there.  Kindergarten was on its own, first and second grade were together, and third, fourth, and fifth grade were combined.  Dad used to drop me off there around 6:00 AM on his way to work.  The cooks would unlock the doors for us and allow me to help them prepare breakfast in the kitchen before school started.  There was nothing else in Liberty except beautiful hills, friendly people, and the smell of fresh air.  It truly resembled Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show, or even some places from Little House on the Prairie.

I spent most days playing outside from morning until dark. I had a swingset, a loyal dog named Ginger, and not much more but wide open space and a wild imagination.  Ginger was my sidekick.  My aunt Libby found her abandoned behind a 7-11 store.  She knew we had plenty of room for her to roam, so she gave Ginger to us.  We found out that Ginger was part German Shepherd and part wolf.  She was an interesting mix of animal for sure! I would sit up late at night and watch her howl at the moon from my window.  Most of the time she stayed near my window at night to guard me.  I truly believe she felt I was one of her cubs from the pack.  She never let me out of her sight and even made sure I stayed within my boundaries while playing in the yard.  When we took walks in the woods together, she would gently pull on my clothes to put me back on track when I wondered off the trail.

Our yard was so big to my childhood eyes that when I stood at the edge of the woods, the house seemed miles away.  Mom would often pack sandwiches, Kool-Aid, and snacks in my blue Tupperware picnic set and send me out for the day.  I would spread out my food under the big tree and share my lunch with Ginger, and then we would set off on an adventure created in my mind.  One day we were hunting giant deer, the next we were spies.  I kept myself occupied in my imaginary world until Dad got home from work.

Then it was time for guns!

I became fascinated with guns at an early age.  Dad had TONS of them!  There was an entire room filled with them in our house.  I was never allowed to go in that room or to touch a firearm unless he was there.  Of course, I always wanted to sneak in that room to marvel at all the beautiful guns. There were so many different types of guns and each one was beautiful in its own way.  There was the .22 rifle which was one of my favorites.  It had a sleek, single, black barrel and the wooden butt of the gun was worn from many years of use.  It seemed to fit like a glove when pulling it up to aim.  I was always responsible with guns.  Gun safety was crucial.   Every time we handled a gun, Dad spoke of safety and showed me how it’s done.  If there was ever a time I was unsafe with a gun, I knew there would be consequences, the most severe being that I would no longer be allowed to handle the guns.

Dad had quite the collection of guns, which combined the newest models with old ones that had been handed down through the generations.  There’s a story behind each and every one of those guns and he’s happy to tell you those stories.  Some are funny, some are bittersweet.  I love to listen to them time and time again.  One of my favorites is the .357 pistol which was handed down to him from his father. That gun was one of Grandpa’s favorites and he often carried it for protection when they lived in Manassas, Virginia. They lived in the inner city there and often dealt with people that weren’t the best.  I’m sure there have been many times that gun gave him a feeling of safety like nothing anyone can imagine.  Dad has it now and I’m sure every time he looks at it, he is reminded of Grandpa and how he would do anything to protect his family, just like Dad has always done anything needed to protect his own family.  That collection has grown over the years and he still loves to tell those stories.  Every time we are together, we always seem to make our way back to those guns.

These days I don’t have much time to spend with guns.  Other things always seem to get in the way.  However, my love for shooting has never faltered.  To me, there is nothing better than holding that cold metal in your hands and feeling the power released by pulling the trigger.  The sound, the smell, the end result of seeing your bullet hit the target is all so amazingly beautiful.  Each and every time I am able to go out and shoot, I am reminded of my childhood days.  The memories come rushing back to me:  I can smell the sweet mountain air of Liberty, West Virginia.  I can see Ginger lying on the porch watching us.  I feel the happiness of childhood.

Once again, I’m that little girl standing on the wooden porch at the house in Liberty waiting for Dad’s approval on my shot.

Essays on Childhood: The 2011 Writers, Part One

We know something is going right when we have too many outstanding essayists to announce all at once!  The Essays on Childhood project is pleased to introduce you to the first 6 of 11 writers for 2011.

The entire collective is multi-talented, courageous, and impressive.  We hope you will spend some time “getting to know” these fine people and anticipating the pleasure of reading their essays.  As editor, I have read some early drafts and can promise you an experience with these stories and reflections that will open your eyes and stir your heart with new ways of thinking about childhood experience.

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2012.  She is also author of AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ‘autism’.  WHAT YOU LONG FOR is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com.  Anne’s essay will examine issues of racial and ethnic prejudice towards the Melungeon population; Melungeons represent a “tri-racial isolate group” mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of Central Appalachia.

Helen Adelia Slaughter Basham

Helen was born in Dunbar, West Virginia, on April 26, 1928.  She laughs at newspaperman Jim Dent’s description of “a fate worse than Dunbar.”  Her elementary through high school education all took place in a single block and only three blocks away from her home.  After Helen worked a year in an office in Charleston, “hating every minute,”  her youngest brother came out of the Navy with an engineering degree and  helped send Helen  to West Virginia University, where she majored in social work. From 1950 until 1966, Helen worked in several states (sometimes part-time during child rearing years) as a social worker or as an administrator of programs for children and families.  She describes her five children as the most important people in her life — sustaining, inspiring, and sheltering her with their love.  After retirement, Helen returned to live in a little house decorated with sage siding and purple shutters and doors, just down the street from the big box of a house where she was born.  Unbeknownst to her at the time, Helen’s 50 year old son died the day before she wrote her essay which “just poured out” of her.  Her essay describes her experiences as a fairy maker artist and her journey into creative thinking and doing after retirement.

Julian Martin

Julian is the eighth generation of his family born on Big Coal River.  He is a graduate of St. Albans High School where he was an all-conference football player. He has a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU) and worked two years in the chemical industry. After one month training to make sidewinder missiles he joined the Peace Corps as West Virginia’s first volunteer and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, he has also worked in urban outreach, organic farming, environmental education, and conservation.  He loves his wife and several children, step-children, grandchildren and step grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  Julian’s essay is tentatively titled, “Homeplace,” and is a colorful reflection on his growing up experiences on his grandparents’ farm.  He admits though, “I called it Grandma’s house and farm ever since Grandpa threw a rake at me.”

Melanie Foster Taylor

Melanie claims she is “not a real writer’s writer, except for trying it now.”   She is a classical pianist, and piano teacher who has been inspired to write her childhood story by her former piano student, Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher. Forced into really early retirement by the economic crash in 2008-9, this former college music professor now has plenty of time to reflect and write. Oh what a blessing. Melanie is presently trapped in South Carolina, but visits the family in Charleston, West Virginia two or three times a year. She breathes anew whenever she sees the mountains again.  Her essay, “Going to the Farm,” recounts memories of trips to the jointly-held family vacation farm in Monroe County, West Virginia, from Charleston. Model-T’s, grand pianos, and wildlife ensue.

Jean Hanna Davis

Jean is an accomplished singer, guitar player, and sometime songwriter.  She has been performing since the age of 12, in all settings, ranging from concert halls to bars to churches to festivals.  Her family relocated to Charleston, West Virginia from New Jersey when she was 7, and as many times as she has tried to leave, something keeps pulling her back.  Jean and her family live in Princeton, West Virginia.  Her essay will explore her experience moving to West Virginia from New Jersey during her early years, and some of the places she began to find herself accepted in a strange new land.

Devin McGrew

Devin was born in Charleston, West Virginia. She was raised in a farm house in a little town called Liberty. At the age of 11, she moved to Sarasota, Florida, with her mother and stepfather. She lived in Florida for 10 years before returning to her hometown in West Virginia. Devin is attending college at American Public University working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies. She currently works in the oil and gas industry as a paralegal. She is a single mother to a beautiful daughter named Lauren. They live in a small town in rural West Virginia with their two dogs, Foxy and Molly.  In her essay, Devin plans to explore how her life in Liberty influenced her lifelong passion for shooting guns.