Perrin had his gas-guzzling Ford Escort Wagon converted into a solar-powered electric car, and later wrote a book in 1991 called Solo; Life with an Electric Car. He used his car as a commuter vehicle to get him back and forth from his farm to his job as an Environmental Studies professor at Dartmouth University. This was perfect, since after about 50 miles, his car needed six to eight hours for recharging. He jokes that not only is an electric car better for the environment, but it gets you into a prime parking space on campus.
Although Perrin was born and grew up in New York, he had ties to North Carolina where he earned a Masters in English at Duke University in 1950. Soon after this Perrin served in the Army with a field artillery unit during the Korean war and was awarded a Bronze Star. Perrin taught literature three years (1956-59) at the Women's College of University of North Carolina, before moving to Vermont and beginning his career at Dartmouth.
In honor of Perrin’s birthday, I read one of his unique later publications, Giving Up the Gun; Japan's Reversion to the Sword 1543-1879. This is a relatively short book, only 136 pages with pictures of early Japanese prints. It tells the history of Japan's adoption of firearms introduced to these Asian islands by western civilization. Japanese swordsmiths began crafting firing devices modeled after those early muskets, but soon found in battle there were challenges with using them. There was a delayed response with the time it took to load and fire, keeping powder dry, and effective range when firing. Bullets often bounced off of heavy armor rather than penetrate their targets. And although efforts were made to improve the lethal power of guns, Samurai warriors preferred swords over guns. Guns were relegated to lower ranking soldiers. Traditional methods of swords, arrows, and spears, martial artistry and honor all played a part in giving up guns.
During Japan’s Edo Period, guns were mainly used as “farm implements to scare off animals.” Peace and prosperity reigned throughout Japan during those 250 years. I was impressed that court nobles in Kyoto prized literary glory over military glory.
“Interest in the arts ran high, too. Career military officers – that is to say, members of the bushi class - were expected to read the classics between battles, while in 1588 the senior military commander of the whole country gave a series of poem parties. A timely poem could sometimes even save a man’s life.”
Perrin’s book gives readers a good look at the historical evolution of gun power through the years in Japan. I also thought about our own country’s history with the weapon. Especially the alarming rise in mass shootings, and efforts of many to gain control over guns in America. There certainly is a long history, centuries old, but I reflected back to the 1970s, my high school years. It was common to see student pickup trucks with hunting rifles, mounted on a gun rack, in back cab windows. I grew up in rural eastern Virginia and we all went through a gun safety course in junior high. So much has changed since then. Recently I watched a Netflix documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, about the band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This southern rock group was everybody’s favorite jam band in those days. I even had an eight-track of their ‘Pronunciation’ album that I listened to in my Mustang. The documentary included an interview with Ronnie Van Zandt, the band’s leader, and touched on his feelings about guns. The lyrics from “Saturday Night Special,” were mentioned and I thought it was fitting to include a verse or two in my review of Giving Up the Gun.
Mr. Saturday Night Time Special
You got a barrel that's a-blue and cold
Ain't good for nothin'
But put a man six a-feet in a hole
Hand guns are made for killin'
Ain't no good for nothin' else
And if you like to drink your whiskey
You might even shoot yourself
So why don't we dump 'em people
To the bottom of the sea
Before some old fool come around here
And wanna shoot either you or me
Remembering that song and hearing Ronnie VanZandt say he didn’t own a gun got my attention. When you think about the way gun violence has escalated over the last several years, maybe this song and Perrin’s book can send a message in favor of regulating firearms. It would be so nice to live in ‘peace and prosperity,’ and consider guns as mainly a ‘farm tool.’
(Samuel Johnson is another notable author born on September 18.)