I’ll never forget the first time my dad took me to a dove field. I was in second grade, it was hot and smelled like cows, at moments I could listen to crickets. Needless to say excitement went to boredom, but I was happy to be with my dad. Then (once he had shot half a limit,) he pulled a bolt action .410 out of the car. It had a cut down blonde stock and a handful of scratches. We sat there for a bit watching the clouds and the tree line and he knocked down a few more birds. Then with some encouragement, I tried to hit one, then two, and we realized that maybe I wasn’t ready. So as the sky turning orange and the land was falling grey, he pitched a can out in front of me. I let the can have it- the dust swirled wild from a wide pattern of lead blasted dirt. Smoke swirled from the barrel. Like a good western, I puffed the barrel smoke away with pursed lips. Dad took my new gun and gave me a good ass-chewin. I’ll never forget that.
Nor will Dad ever forget his first shotgun.
Like many fine and coveted things, some firearms carry a pedigree. Some are pedigreed by the hand that made it, the shop that stamped its makers mark on it. Some are pedigreed by style, era or craftsmanship, while others are pedigree by the repute of their owners. Perhaps the gun won the West, was in the hands of a famous writer, or maybe politician. Pedigree with heirloom guns in families, well that’s different. A gun that can be widely regarded as average, but old arms can have a value in families that causes brothers to fight. They can evoke memories of events and of the owner that are warm, sorrowful , or exciting, always very real. Sometimes that priceless value can increase and diminish with unthought circumstances: How many children are there to vie for it? Does the family believe in primogeniture? Is it valuable to the new owner and does he respect its history? Is the object of desire given to a meek child that buries its value in a generation and perhaps forever?
Dad’s first gun had the makings of all those sentiments making it a pedigreed heirloom. An old Ithica Arms .410 side-by-side made in approximately 1920, it had no remarkable engravings. It was field grade, but a fine little gun. I’m not sure if my granddad got that shotgun from his father or not, likely (but as you’ll soon hear the legacy died and the story did a little too). My dad was given the gun when he was a little fellow. He remembers it just like I remember those early days when my dad invited me along. My granddad, Roy, would take Dad along to rabbit hunt. They would walk for quail coveys back before they all went away. They shot doves. It is well know that my granddad was one hell of a shot, my dad says he also could hit anything with that .410 side-by-side. See that’s the thing– the pedigree: my grandfather was a decorated WWII hero, Silver Star and a Bronze with a cluster and a Purple Heart too. He died the year I was born and I really only have a picture in my head of him from stories. They involve being a cowboy, taking his boys down to the farm, they are memories that smell like Hoppes #9 and burnt gun powder. Because those are my dad’s memories and he passed them to me. And that shotgun is one of those storied memories. Besides the sentimental pedigree of a father handing his son down a gun, that gun embodied the bold pedigree of person: Memories that machine of walnut and steel represents.
So my dad got that gun that his grandfather passed to his father and on to him. And they were all named Roy Kelly but went by some pet name off their middle name, as am I, all four of us in fact. This isn’t a story about my first gun. In fact, this might just be a story of why I could never give that gun to my first son; so named him something else.
My granddad’s favorite place to hunt was at an old dairy just outside of town. The farmer was regarded as a good friend and they spent plenty of time there pushing up rabbits and quail, he would also go there just to be outside if nothing was in season. The dairy farmer was a fine man, but he had a weak tolerance to the bottle. It wasn’t uncommon, and Dad recalls those times memorably sad, that the farmer had a field hand that would get him into a pint or two and roll him for the contents of his wallet. Perhaps my grand pop had a mission to serve. So one day, the farmer was down figuratively in some ditch. My granddad felt bad for his young son, my dad’s contemporary. And he gave him the gun “to use”.
My dad has spoken about that gun. He uses different tenses and speaks about it sometimes possessively and other times as if it were some foreign object. Sometimes when we ponder shotguns (which we do)– he longs for it. He talks about how he could hit anything with it, how it felt in his hands, and the pattern of the wood grain. I once made a cold call to that farm boy. I didn’t leave a message, in fact I hear he’s a crazy old drunk now.
On Christmas Day, Dad brandished a long package that he had wrapped for himself and put behind the tree. He saved it for last (think: The Christmas story). He had a look of wonderment as he opened it. The gun, model the same, was not his– he knew that because he bought it for himself. Then he did what men do, looked down the barrel into the light of the window, he rubbed the wood, he breached the receiver, he sighted it down the line where the ceiling met the wall, he smelled it, he wiped his finger prints off the metal with his shirt tail, he put it in the case, and he smiled over the memories.