Wednesday, March 28, 2007
I was shocked when I first saw it. A long day filled with the sounds of crinkling, crackling plastic-wrapped uniforms and the smell of mothballs had been fairly boring so far, pulling outfit after outfit, airing them out on the clothesline and folding them back up. I don't know what had precipitated the event; perhaps the basement had leaked and Mom needed to check the damage in the trunks, or perhaps this was just a regular maintenance on family heirlooms. In any case, Mom and I were cleaning out the trunks, shaking out the old clothes, washing them carefully and hanging them out on the line to air out in the sun. Changing the old mothballs for new ones. It was a stinky, boring chore.
Finally things got interesting. The glass eye. The souvenirs from the Columbia Exposition. World War two medals. And then; The Gun. My memories have since proven to be inaccurate, but this is what I recall of the event: Buried deep in the trunk, under everything else, a khaki bag. Inside, old greasy khaki socks. An inside them, gun parts. There were more parts than I as a child could understand. But what they would form was unmistakable. There was a grip. A barrel. Something that looked like a trigger.
Dad & Mom had never mentioned anything like it. In fact, I can't remember Dad talking about the war more than one or two times. The scene in McHale's Navy with Washboard Charlie once made him laugh; he said he remembered seeing the lone Japanese plane himself. Other than that, he always declined to discuss the war.
It reminded me of the time, many years later, when I asked him about why he never spoke of the war. He paused, then told me a story about one bright, sunlit morning on a beautiful Pacific island. He was taking an early morning run along the beach when he saw hundreds of dead bodies coming in through the surf. It was one of the most amazing things he had ever seen. Apparently, a ship had been torpedoed offshore during the night. He said he could still smell the stench of when they had washed ashore and later, when he and his men had to bury them. He said he had lots of memories like this one and there wasn't much point in going over them.
It reminded me of the time, during one of our rambling late-night talks, I lamented how I wished that my memory was better & how the perfect memory would be one that remembered everything I had ever seen. He completely turned me around when he said he thought that the perfect memory would be where you could completely forget the memories you chose to let go.
Why then had he kept the gun? Mom said it had been illegal not to turn it in at the end of the war. What did it mean to him? I would never be able to ask him.
So, more than anything, the gun represented a part of Dad that I had never seen, to which I had never been given access.
How could I hope to understand something he had kept hidden?
When my parents finally left, my siblings and I gathered at their house. He left no will, and Mom wanted us to work things out among ourselves. As discussions finally opened up, I realized I only wanted one thing. The gun.
My siblings did not feel the same way. In fact, they were concerned and counseled turning the guns into the authorities. Guns were dangerous, they said, and I had teenage children in the house. But, something compelled me. It wasn't a gun we were talking about, it was a unknowable part of my father's life. I couldn't let it go. In the end, they gave in and we allocated to me that gun and another one we also found among the basement trunks. The second pistol was a Smith & Wesson top break .38, once owned by my mother's Uncle Jim. Dead long before any of us came along, we only new him through pictures. Tall, handsome and Irish, he was apparently a dashing figure in my Mother's youth.
I returned home, bought a safe, trigger locks, a cleaning kit, and cases. I took the weapons to a gunsmith for maintenance. He pronounced them in good shape and taught me how to care for them. But, it's dangerous to have guns in the house without training, so I set out to learn how to handle them. And, my kids learned gun safety along with me.
I enlisted the aid of a co-worker who had two traits I thought important in a gun instructor. 1) He was an enthusiast. He had lots of hand guns and practiced with them all the time. He loaded his own rounds. He was a range instructor and a former gunsmith. 2) He was one of the most kind, considerate, and balanced people I have ever met. His name was Jerry Cleveland. He's gone now, tragically, but he touched my life and hundreds of others with his kindness. I though he would be perfect to teach me a balanced approach to gun safety.
He took me to a local range and we began our lessons. Starting small, with one of his twenty-two's, he taught me technique, stance, and mental attitude. We worked our way up through .38's to a .44 magnum he used for varmint hunting. Along the way, he taught me about my new guns.
The .38 is a wiggly, inaccurate little gun. It has a small grip. I read somewhere that it was a gun designed for a waistcoat, a belt, or a pocket, very similar to the gun that was used to assassinate President McKinley. It jumps and bucks in your hand, far too inaccurate for anything other than close-in engagements. Why was it chosen by Uncle Jim? What did he want with such a weapon? Again, I would never know.
I only fired it on three occasions. The first time, my friend was instructing me on his nice, accurate, modern revolvers. When I tried the S&W, I was amazed at how hard it was to control. After a few shots, I put it away. My friend and my sons all had the same reaction. We agreed that it was to difficult to grip and, frankly, not much fun to shoot. You couldn't make it punch nice little patterns of holes in the paper. I've taken it home, cleaned it, coated it with preservative, and locked it away in the safe. I don't intend to ever shoot it again.
My father's gun, a Colt-built M1911A1, was another matter. Where the .38 was pretty, all chrome and graceful lines, the .45 was a brutal machine. Built loose to provide reliable loading action in rough and dirty conditions, it wasn't very accurate either, although it was much more so that the .38 S&W. At 25 ft, I could keep it to a small pattern of holes a few inches across; with the .38 I was lucky to hit an 8x11 inch target at that range. However, with a modern .45, like a Glock 21, I could place the rounds within an inch of each other. Moreover, I could feel the slide and all the other parts moving as the gun cycled. Not exactly rattling, the gun was not machined to close tolerances and the parts did not slide silently. Nor was it designed to be a precision instrument. It was designed to tolerate sand and dirt in the works without jamming.
The sound in a gun range is frightening and oppressive. The experience of firing a gun at an indoor range is scary and noisy. The first shot was a shock. As I got used to the sound, my aim improved and my groups tightened; the sound was distant as my attention focused. Towards the end of the session, as my accuracy went down as my arm grew tired, the banging from the other lanes became tedious, almost painful.
Shooting a gun is nothing like in the movies or on TV. It is an intense moment, not done casually or with a daring pose. And, with a big gun like Dad's .45, it is a miniature battle for control, both within my head to work the aiming picture, and with the grip of the gun as it fires and cycles, jumping in my hand, cartridge shells flying out into my face. The experience always leaves me subdued and tired, not exhilarated or pumped up. The concentration is intense, holding a balance between a strong grip in a steady stance and a too-tight, shaking grip in a tense posture.
Worse, the implications of what a gun is for becomes clear and immediate as it roars & spits. After doing a quick set of several rounds into a target, my friend took the punctured target off the rack and held it against his chest. "Now you can see what that type of gun is good for. It won't win any trophies, but it will do a perfect job of stopping and killing a man." He was pleased with my handling of the weapon, but I suddenly was very tired as I understood why the Navy handed these out to officers. This machine was a weapon of close quarters, of last resort, when your men couldn't help you and you had to make sure the other guy was dead.
Again, like so many times before, I wondered, had Dad ever used the gun in battle? I doubted it. He never said anything to my siblings or me that indicated he had seen close-quarters fighting. The gun itself was in great shape, barely used, and he probably had practiced just enough to stay current, just keeping it in the holster the rest of the time. Still, had he faced the possibility on having to use it? Was he afraid of the possibility, or confident and ready? From everything I knew of him, I couldn't imagine my father enjoying the experience of firing the thing, but his pictures from the war, hat cocked at a jaunty angle, Ronald Colman pencil-thin mustache, hint at another side, very different from the father & career man I grew up with.
In the end, I don't think that the gun help me understand anything more about my dad other than his life had been deep and complex, far deeper than he had ever let on, and that in some sense we can never know our parents. To this moment, I miss him and wish I still had the opportunity to know him better.
As for the gun, I was beginning to understand my siblings' point. Guns were obviously not playthings, I had known that for years. But once you are properly trained, you know that actually firing a gun carries so much more baggage with it. It is one of those acts that affects you on many levels. Even when you handle an unloaded gun, not intending to fire it, your senses are on alert and you are on your guard. You have so much power and responsibility in your hands, it's nearly overwhelming.
Perhaps if I continue to practice with them and continue to get comfortable with them, maybe I'll get over that feeling. I hope not.