The Bullet

The officer from the Flagstaff Police Department corrected my word choice when I reported what we’d found: “Not a bullet,” he said. Bullet means only the part that flies through the air, he clarified. “You mean a round, right?” But the bullet part is why I’m calling, I felt like saying. When the bullet separates from the casing as the round explodes, what can happen then is why I’m concerned. “Was there a note?,” he asked, through a yawn. “How often do people lose bullets? Sorry, rounds?,” I asked, registering that finding a 9 mm round in a high school theater was unremarkable to this officer. “It probably just fell out of a pocket,” he said, like a key, a matchbox car, or a marble, which is round, a little ball. “Round” sounds fun, like merry-go-round, or theater-in-the round, or musical round, ‘a round is a circle, a circle of sound’. “Round” doesn’t say “9mm Luger”, which is stamped on the back of the bullet.

The show was “The Producers”. I was the Assistant Music Director. You were in the audience. Cleaning up after the show, we found your bullet.

Raunchy humor in “The Producers” is about as subtle as bullets. The teen players reveled in the crude, like when the Broadway producer, Max, longs for his past successes: “I always had the biggest hits,… my showgirls had the biggest…”, etc. He hires Ulla — a blue-eyed blond Swede — for “many positions.” Max raises cash by selling himself to the elderly women of the upper east side, like “Lick Me, Bite Me,” the name of a character my daughter, Nona, played. I winced every time she delivered lines I won’t repeat here. What if the satire about sexism fails to rescue the art from its own sexism? One of our teen players left the cast, after reviewing the text. Another could barely whisper her punch line, “tits!” I winced again as we taught her to shout it out. We on the production team wondered, what will our Flagstaff audience think?

Growing up with dungeons, dragons, and Douglas fir trees near Seattle, my adolescent weaponry fantasies were not about bullets, which came up only in the real world. My dad’s 12-gauge shotgun was kept in the closet and used for pheasant and duck hunting. As kids, our lesson in shotgun was in the living room: aim out the window at the big-leaf maple tree in the back yard, and pull the trigger, once. The gun made a small click, then back into the closet it went. I never knew where the shells were, the shotgun bullets.

The second weekend of our run, after the Friday night show, we found the bullet, with two more shows to go on Saturday. Our choreographer wanted to inspect it. She owns guns and has a conceal carry permit and she wondered why the round was alone, since 9 mm rounds often come in magazines. (I didn’t know either of these things, and I wondered if she was carrying.) Maybe the dropped round was a special round, a token of gun essence, gun belonging, a gift from gun father to gun son, “keep this in your pocket, to remember” something, and it was just sloppy that it had been dropped. We decided we should tell the school that there had been a bullet in their theater, so I called and got voicemail. I went to the office later and explained, to no reaction. We decided not to tell the kids for fear of their fear.

Fear reminds me. You decided to bring your bullet to a theater. How do you decide whether to bring your gun, too? Coconino High is a public school in Flagstaff, so you are not allowed, technically, but theaters are filled with dangerous ideas, and this is Arizona. Did you get that the play was satire? I hope so, especially if you had your gun with you. Where do you fall on the satire-getting spectrum? Is that unfair to ask? All I have of you is that bullet, and my stereotype of bullet owners like you.

“The Producers” is loaded with severe stereotypes: gay and flamboyant thespians, boring and socially inept accountants, stingy and scheming Jews, horny and crude men. On the problem of stereotypes, one of our 14-year-old’s reflected: “They reduce a person to a simple idea, making it harder to see them as whole, and easier to dismiss them as less.” He really said these simple, brilliant words, a straight truth distillation. The teens grappled with how the play upends some stereotypes, like nymphomaniacal upper class elderly women? Jovial and smiling Nazis? Weren’t Nazis supposed to be serious and superior in their evil? “So we’re not stereotyping Nazis, just everyone else?” one teen wondered.

In the 1920s and 30s, my great-grandfather, Chief, used a .410 caliber pistol to shoot birds so people could study them, carefully, at Cheney Normal School and Washington State University, where one of his birds is still part of the collection. Chief was a biologist, like me, though he was a real field biologist, the kind that shoots birds and knows what species they are. I didn’t know why he used a pistol, and not Loud Lucy, another 12-gauge in the family, until I learned that a .410 pistol stops birds with birdshot, just like a shotgun. People now buy this kind of pistol as “the Manstopper” for home defense, with the idea that they won’t have to aim as much (which isn’t true, turns out). Loud Lucy is a double barreled Damascus twist steel shotgun, loud because of the sound and Lucy because of alliteration and some guns get girl names. I’ve never used a gun as a biologist. But biologists do, and not just like Chief for collecting animals. Botanists collect leaves with shotguns, more practical than climbing up, and if you shoot down a whole branch, some of the leaves don’t get shot up. You can’t just wait for the leaves to fall, no more than you can wait for the bird to die, when you’re a biologist eager to study.

Did you leave your bullet there on purpose? To show your disapproval, of the play, of us? Or as a joke on us or whatever likely liberals who would find it and freak out? (that obviously worked). Or?

We understood the risk was minuscule, no need to cancel. When I called the police, I didn’t expect them to do anything, but thought they should know about a lost or left bullet in a high school theater, and important to have a record of them knowing. Dismissed after the phone call, I extra-multitasked the two remaining shows, operating the soundtrack, watching the score, the stage, and the audience, cultivating the illusion that I could do something if anything happened. I thought about my compound bow, or if I were a superhero.

The play within the play in “The Producers” is “Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf in Berchtesgaden,” written by Franz Liebkind, fawning fan of the Führer. The producers, Max and Leo, choose “Springtime” because it is sure to offend and to crash, part of their scheme to abscond with the cash. But Franz’s straight fun Nazi adulation gets twisted into satire, with German soldiers in leather boots, whips on their hips, dancing through France in very tight pants, and Hitler is recast with celebratory and satirical sexuality. From distasteful flop to outrageous satire, “Springtime” is a direct hit.

I was 14 when I shot the woodrat with a pellet, not a bullet, but same idea. The rat had made its home under one of the beds in the old cabin, the one at Canoe Point in Priest Lake, Idaho, where my cousin Rick’s family was staying that summer. They knew I had the air gun so they’d ask me to come shoot the rat. Less messy than the .410, and quieter than Loud Lucy. At the Beaver Creek cabin across the lake, I’d been shooting and shooting BBs at leaves, trees, birds, the water — at anything I was curious to hear the sound when the BB struck. My favorite weapon was my compound bow, which I had to practice in order to master the 40-pound draw and achieve wonderful sounds, the string “twang” and arrow “thunk”, just like Legolas’, I imagined. My cousin and I shot a Fool Hen (probably a Ruffed Grouse, Bonassa umbellus) with the bow. It was up in a tree right in front of the old cabin, a beautiful bird, unafraid of people. We each tried, and the misses flew into the woods or onto the beach where we’d find the arrows later. The bird was maybe 40 feet up in the tree. Uncle Rich made clear: “You kill it, you eat it”, which seemed fair. So Rick and I cleaned and plucked, and campfire roasted the bird, spicing it with salt, pepper, and oregano, feeling very authentic. Later, Mom pointed out that we should have had a license. A wrist rocket was another summer weapon, a slingshot with a stabilizer on the wrist. I shot at birds with it too and hit one in the head with a marble. The sound of impact was soft as the bird died, marble implanted in skull. The old Canoe Point cabin had tiny little windows, so Rick held a flashlight. From a distance of about 3 feet, the air gun was louder than the sound of the pellet hitting the rat in the head. I recall thinking this was the one time I’d used a weapon for anything arguably useful.

We found the expected trash after every show: the snickers wrappers, plastic water bottles, used coffee cups, the trash you find anywhere that tells a small story. We found some things that were obviously lost, some change, a pen, a set of keys, a phone — some items we could try to return to their owners. But sometimes what’s left is neither trash nor lost, it’s meant to be found as symbol, like the swastikas painted in the vandalized synagogue just a few weeks after we found the bullet. The bullet was not trash. I know, most likely, in all probabilities, it was just was dropped, unintentionally, fell out of a pocket, like a marble. But still I wonder, was it lost or left.

A bullet in a school, swastikas in a synagogue. These are symbolic. It’s so easy to put your bullet together with The Producers’ swastikas and wonder what you meant.

Nazis’ symbols of hate are swastikas and heils, evoking deserved stereotypes about serious evil. But the Nazis in “The Producers” are exuberantly jovial, silly and light. They seem more plausible, more relatable, more human — Homo sapiens, our species — so we never forget. The overt homosexualization of Hitler is strangely uncomfortable relief in the upended stereotype — still fabulously inappropriate, but somehow not as much — making fun of gays and Jews in a play obliquely about the people who killed them. This tension of evil and human and satire made for challenging rehearsals. It came naturally to the teens playing Max and Leo to flip off Franz the happy Nazi while taking the Hitler loyalty oath, but how should Franz pass out the swastikas afterwards? Like very special candy? We goose-stepped with crisp enthusiasm and smiled while we sieg heiled. Narrow focus made the learning easier: just hold your arms and legs at 90 degrees and pulse, back and forth, and before you realize what’s happened, it’s the swastika happy dance. Like “wax on, wax off”, or shooting guns before you’re old enough to know what bullets do to bodies, or not thinking about exactly why you have to make people take off their wedding rings before sending them into that room.

A few years ago, I saw bullets in the garage at Marc’s house in Flagstaff where he was cooking crayfish, or crawdads as he would say, Louisiana style, a big pot of them for the crowd of professors and students he’d invited over. Marc is a colleague and friend, an expert in economics; we enjoy our eco-connection. At that party, he invited me shooting. I did not want to go and I did want to go, curious about this friend of mine who owns all kinds of guns, a second amendment superpower of possessing and making a bullet fly as fast as a speeding bullet. The invite was general, not for any particular time. I never followed up. Now he lives closer to the cabins at Priest Lake. Maybe I’ll give him a call.

Did you notice your bullet was missing after the show? My stereotype is fuzzy here. There is the responsible gun owner, always aware and thinking about those lessons in firearm and bullet safety. But forgetting your live round in a school theater doesn’t work with the responsible image. A single left bullet is enough to blow that label. This isn’t a three strikes deal.

“Producers” has a gun scene, when Franz, the Hitler-loving pigeon keeper and author of “Springtime”, concludes that Max and Leo have made a farce of his Führer and so must die, breakers of the sacred Siegfried oath. Rosie, player of Franz, raced in, gun drawn, and waved it about wildly. Her aim never settled on the audience, sound theater practice: you don’t want your audience triggered, especially not an armed audience that might trigger you right back. This year, protesters disrupted “The Producers” at a community theater in New York, arguing that any and all Hitler humor is off limits. The content is uncomfortable. Some days our kids would sit out from goose-stepping, or could offer only limp sieg heils. Our choreographer, blonde and blue-eyed, imagined images of her demonstrating the proper salute going viral. So no photos during rehearsal, nothing posted online without clearing first, and we did catch a few with great viral potential.

The Producers is an alternate universe where friendly and gay Nazis won the war, theatrical aikido that absorbs and redirects Nazi inhumanity into a vernal celebration of blistering satire. But it’s hard to pull off, to watch. Add to this a left or lost metallic death device, and I’m befuddled by questions that might not make sense. How can the extreme and the satirical coincide in the same mind? Can satire help the gun-toting in the audience to keep their firearms concealed?

***

8 March 2019, Flagstaff, Arizona. Lost round found, under the seat, first row stage right, mini-auditorium, Coconino High School, “9 mm Luger” stamped on back. You’ll remember the show, “The Producers”, satire about Nazis. Your bullet was there afterwards, coppery and shiny on the floor. I still have it, safely sealed in paper envelope in my kitchen drawer. Bullet owner, if you want your round back, please write or call. I’m easy to find. Tell me what happened. Let’s talk about what it means.

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