Tuesday, October 18, 2011
My Father's Gun
I have little in the way of personal effects by which to remember my father. Such items are, for the most part, unnecessary as I see his face each morning in the bathroom mirror. I do, however, possess one item that speaks clearly of him. I have my father’s gun.
The nine-shot, nickel and steel, wood-handled twenty-two caliber Harrington and Richardson revolver had a previous owner, as evidenced by the H. Smith crudely branded into its snug brown leather holster. The pistol was acquired, I expect, in barter for some service – the shingling of a roof, the repair of a transmission, the breaking of a horse. Whatever the task, you can be pretty sure that Mr. Smith received the better of the bargain.
My first memory of the gun occurs at my maternal grandparents’ weekend cottage where it was used to “fish” for the large, bronze-backed carp navigating the creek that flowed just beyond the back door. I recall the pistol’s report echoing into the wooded distance, the sizzle of the hot slugs as they dove into the cool water, and the startled reaction of the shimmering fish as they fled from the searing columns of bubbles. Only four, I was terrified by the commotion – but oddly excited as well.
A short while later I encountered the pistol again, this time at our family’s – my father’s family’s – small farm. There, among many things, we raised cattle. The herd was small, just enough for our clan and an occasional sale to the neighbors, and I became acquainted with the cows as I played among them on their flinty, hardscrabble pastureland. I witnessed, that day, the gun, with a single shot to the head, begin the rending of a young butterscotch-colored bull that I had named Bosco.
This, I came to learn, was the primary role of the revolver – the quick dispatch of cows for beef or the occasional coup de grâce of a deer harvested during hunting season. The pistol was never used for sport – episodic carp fishing notwithstanding – but as a tool for the difficult business of putting food on the table.
The gun was an instrument of calculated, instant extinction, yet discharged dispassionately and without malice, our welfare its sole purpose - contradictory death for life, impossible for a child to reconcile. The gun held profound power, stirring in me a maelstrom of emotions – an irresolvable mixture of terror, exhilaration, gratitude, sorrow, and wonder. The gun was adulthood – the cold-steel manifestation of life’s complexity, hard choices, and untidy demands. The gun was my father.
I have never fired the revolver and have no desire to do so. But then I’ve had no need to barter for necessities or to slaughter to put food on my family’s table. I have never fired the revolver because it still holds within its chambers the power and the complexity that overwhelmed me as a child. It’s lethal past continues to haunt me and probably always will. But mostly, I have never fired the revolver because it’s my father’s gun, not mine, despite the face in the mirror.
Note: Do not be tempted to interpret this piece as second amendment commentary or animal rights discourse. It is neither. The gun, though real, is simply a metaphor used in one man's attempt to reconcile the ever complex relationship of father and son and the uneasy bequeathment of the realities of adulthood. It is nothing more. That, for now, seems quite enough.