My latest edition of the Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines Utopia as an imaginary place, society, or situation where everything is perfect. Notice the imaginary part that seems to signify there is no such place, society, or situation. However, it seems half the population is searching for such while the other half stands ready to destroy it should we actually find it.
As I look back, my first Utopian experience was growing up in the 1950s. This Utopian era was nestled in between World War II and the soon to arrive Vietnam/Drug Culture of the 1960s. It was a wonderful oasis that we would’ve enjoyed even more had we known how unique it was.
I entered the sixth grade in 1949. We were poor but not disadvantaged. No one ever told us how poor we were so we got along just fine. My WWII vet and former POW stepdad rode the bus to work, walked when they were on strike, we went to the grocery store pulling a wagon, and managed to get along just fine without food stamps or welfare neither one of which my parents would ever have accepted. We always had a clean dry house, plenty to eat, and popcorn popped over the stove along with a glass of Kool-Aid on Saturday night. How much more Heavenly could life be?
My high school days were exceptionally pleasant, I don’t recall any kid ever getting in trouble in class, and the only thing the assistant principal had to worry about were those who “peeled” out of the parking lot after school. In my senior year we even won the city championship in football. I just turned 17 about 2 weeks before graduation so I was not emotionally ready for college and the finances were not there anyhow. So I went to work and in doing so found another Utopia.
I went to work as an order boy for a large hardware and supply company catering to the building and construction trade. The 3-story building plus basement, the truck docks out front, and the railroad spur in the back covered more than a city block. It was there that I met another kid also named John who introduced me to gun shows and all the gun stores in the area. We worked 5-1/2 days per week and then Saturday afternoon was reserved for shooting. How much better could it be?
I had been there only a short while when the headman asked me to be foreman of the unloading crew. Now remember I’m barely 17 and I’m to be in charge of a crew of black fellows the youngest of which was 32. “You don’t have to do any of the work. Simply stand there with a clipboard and check sheet and make sure we get everything on the manifest.” So I was to stand there while these fellows unloaded truck trailers, boxcars, and flat cars of everything and anything needed in the construction business? Now being so young I was not exactly the smartest guy around but even at my young age I thought to myself these guys are not going to work for me especially if I don’t expend any energy myself.
So I made the decision to not only check everything in but also to work right alongside them. It turned out to be the smart thing to do for several reasons. First, I gained their respect and they worked for me as they had never worked for anyone before. Also, by handling 100-pound bars of pig lead, 200-pound kegs of nails, and wrestling with 500-pound drums of roof coating I bulked up pretty quickly and became as strong as the proverbial ox. Utopia was mine.
I truly loved my job working 10 hours a day, plus 6 hours on Saturday, and still shooting on Saturday afternoon, casting bullets, reloading, and spending time at gun stores and gun shows, however there was one thing missing. I did not date during high school and only a couple of times over the next few years. Then in late 1958, I met the girl who would become later known as Diamond Dot and we were married 4 months later. Utopia had become Heaven.
However, within a few months reality set in, the reality being as much as I enjoyed my job, (I still remember the names and faces of all those fellows who worked for me even though it’s been more than 55 years ago) there was no way I could raise a family on what I was earning. It was time to find other work. I was successful finding a job paying three times as much, however in the process my Utopia disappeared totally.
My new job was working six nights a week in a tire factory and except for a couple of minutes when the pay wagon came around during our Thursday shift I hated every minute of it; my joy in going to work was replaced by dread. By this time I was old enough to realize there are just some things in this life we have to do simply because we have to do them. However, I soon found a hidden benefit. Our first baby was on the way in 1960 and I was stuck on the night shift, which meant I could either waste my days or do something constructive with them. I chose the latter and enrolled at the State University 30 miles away. I was always tired, didn’t always remember driving to school, and for the next 4-1/2 years I was as far away as I could be from Utopia except for time with the family which had grown to three kids by the time I graduated.
During those years there was very little time for shooting but I did find solace in magazines such as GUNS and the writings of Elmer Keith. I learned a lot from him about sixguns and also the fact Idaho sounded much like Utopia. I grew up in Ohio and it was a wonderful place, however now as I looked at where my kids would eventually go to school and what had happened to the area I knew it was time to move. We attached a U-Haul to the Ford station wagon and headed for Idaho.
As soon as I crossed the border into Idaho I knew Utopia still existed. I was headed for the largest city in the state and upon arrival I found horse pastures where strip malls had existed in Ohio, the only traffic lights were on Main Street and there was not a stop sign to be seen. The school I was to teach at was nestled in a small valley and you could look to the north to the top of the mountains 16 miles away. Double Utopia.
I soon found 16 different places to shoot after school all within 20 minutes driving distance or less. Some were south to the sagebrush; others were north to the foothills or mountains. The camaraderie at the school was also utopian making it a most enjoyable place to teach. Excellent hunting and fishing opportunities were afforded and even though times were tough financially (I took a 40-percent pay cut to go into teaching) I knew we had found the perfect place for our kids to grow up. If only it could stay this way.
Of course, it didn’t. It didn’t take long for the three “Ps” which work against our utopian situations to place their roadblocks. Progress, Politicians, and Political Correctness all went to work. When I arrived in 1966 there were two TV stations and three movie theaters downtown. I just looked in the paper and counted 110 different places I could go, if so inclined which I’m not, to see a movie. Of course, in the late 1970s cable TV arrived and then in the 1980s we were discovered and the building boom began. I used to be able to travel from one end of town to the other in 7 minutes. That was when we didn’t have stop signs or traffic lights. Now we have an infinite number of both and the same trip takes nearly 30 minutes. All the places I had to shoot are now golf courses, or subdivisions, or reopened gravel pits, and even my great jackrabbit hunting area now houses the Idaho State Penitentiary.
Fortunately, I still have a wonderful place to shoot. There are also areas still existing in the sagebrush, however, they are about to disappear as a local paper just featured an article on all the trash shooters and others leave behind. Add a fourth “P” to the list, that of Personal Responsibility and the lack thereof which is going to cause these areas to be fenced off and posted. Progress is something we simply can’t hold back but there ought be something we could do about Politicians, Political Correctness, and Personal Responsibility. If we don’t there’ll not be any more Utopias real or imagined to be found.
Sometimes Utopia is relative. I just met a young fellow at the local Smith & Wesson Collectors Meeting who moved up here from Southern California. He had visited here 2 years ago and compared to what he was experiencing in California he had the same feelings I had when I arrived here almost 50 years ago. He has found his Utopia at least for now. Two other friends have recently moved from Southern California, one to Joplin, Mo. and the other to Sparks, Nev. They have both found Utopia. May they enjoy it for many years before Progress, Politicians, and Political Correctness destroy it.
By John Taffin