A bolt action .22 rifle

We learned to shoot in high school.

It was the 1980s, and as an alternative to gym class, any student could, with minimal instruction, be blasting away with a .22 bolt-action rifle in the basement.

Once the rules were read, and some initial range-safety demonstrations given, we were off and shooting within a week. And, for the next few weeks after that. We shot so many rounds, in fact, that teenagers grew bored of it — bored of shooting (real) guns, having grown up shooting imaginary Russians with sticks.

Many of us became excellent shots by the time it was over — some even shooting bull’s-eyes from the hip when the instructor wasn’t looking.

It still seems ludicrous. I’ve often wondered about it as I recount this high school memory to a generation more familiar with metal detectors than the sounds of a platoon of fellow students blasting away.

Perhaps this odd class was to interest boys — and the class was comprised almost entirely of males — in joining the post-Vietnam military?

Our New-Deal-era high school also was a designated fallout shelter, and the signs alerting us to that fact — and scaring everyone to death, lest we forget — were everywhere. Maybe we were learning to shoot straight to protect the stored food and supplies in case things got real, as in real nuclear?

Another idea: We were just getting a head start on the next war. Smart commanders, military tacticians say, view every trooper in their area of operations as a rifleman. (Yet it’s a lesson the Army seems to have to re-learn every war — as was the case with Jessica lynch and her ill-fated transportation unit in Iraq.)

Kids today kill each other — and innocents — with abandon in “first-person shooter” games; and increasingly, alarmingly, on the streets.

Were we different then? Better kids? More responsible? Or did the class merely remove the mystery of guns, thus rendering us less likely to investigate them ourselves?

Decades later, I still don’t know the answer. I do know that, given the chance, none of us pointed our loaded rifles at each other, or took off with a school-issue gun seeking human targets.

We turned in our guns and went to Algebra.

Gary Mays is a veteran freelance writer, editor and investigative reporter who has worked for The Chicago Tribune, The Wisconsin (Madison) State Journal, and other, smaller but no-less- important publications.

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