The Guns of My Heritage
The man who tried to kill my grandfather didn’t have a gun. He did have a good enough knowledge of how to place a tackle at the top of the courthouse stairs. They tumbled down one, maybe two flights, tangled together, while the man swung, kicked, and bit, screaming repeatedly, “I’m going to kill you! I’m going to kill you!” My mother, fresh out of law school, stood at the top of the stairwell, horrified; her brother, another attorney, ran down after them and had to be pulled off the attacker by police officers.
So it didn’t surprise me to learn that my grandfather kept a loaded pistol in the top drawer of his office desk.
* * *
I grew up in the presence of guns, but it wasn’t until I had one foot out the door of my childhood home that I finally realized this was only in part because my father had grown up around guns in the hunting culture of small-town Kentucky. He learned to hunt on and around farms, instructed by his grandfather and an uncle. This uncle died young, while walking to the dock on a fishing trip with his daughters. My father also died young, but his uncle’s shotgun was among his prized possessions—the gun of the man who taught him to hunt, a reminder, perhaps, of what American gun culture could and should be. My cousin Sam now has the shotgun that belonged to the grandfather he never knew. He’s the only one of us who still hunts.
* * *
If hunting and the respect for firearms it demanded was praised in the open, there was also a lingering fear in our home, hidden as best as my parents could. My father’s first job out of law school was in the County Attorney’s office, handling domestic abuse cases. He only lasted about three years, until shortly before I was born. I don’t know the details of the case that was finally too much for him—only a radiator, an infant—but his supervisors thought he was bluffing and offered a raise to stay in the same department. He took a pay cut and left.
The father I knew as an attorney was perennially unhappy with his profession, counseling divorcing couples that it was more expensive to hire him to mediate custody of the lamp neither of them especially liked but which had been a wedding present than it would be for them to buy another damn lamp. Or his brief time working criminal defense—until he was, once, more convinced than the jury that his client was guilty as hell. (The only times I heard about this incident were on vacations, after my mother and brother had gone to sleep, and we were sitting out on the balcony in a humid Florida night. He was about five beers deep and trying to blow smoke rings.) But even though it ended unhappily, with his recognition that he couldn’t do abuse cases as a father-to-be, that maybe he had only been barely able to do them as a young husband, I sometimes imagine that this was the portion of his career in which he felt like he was doing something worthwhile, like he was contributing to a community wider than the funding of his sons’ education.
He would have left the County Attorney’s office by the late 1980s. By the mid-1990s, he was keeping track of release dates for men he’d prosecuted. I don’t know why he chose to keep a phone number listed under his name. Maybe he preferred to know who had still kept him in mind, who still blamed him for the ruin of their lives, walking into the courtroom and playing up the small-town accent, that glare of his swinging onto the defendant like a stage light.
They probably only wanted to threaten him, anyway. Threaten us. They didn’t have a thing against my brother and me—probably didn’t even know that there really were two sons, just guessing that there would be children by now, leaving messages letting him and my mother know just what would happen to his kids. That was the goal, wasn’t it? To make him just a little bit scared?
It worked. Only after he died did I realize the reason my brother and I were absolutely not to attempt to touch or climb into the little attic crawlspace just outside of our bedroom doors was that he’d hidden a gun there. His hunting rifles were locked in the basement, but his uncle’s shotgun was kept high up on a shelf in my parents’ closet, a box of shells next to it.
* * *
I learned how to fire a rifle when I was seven or eight, a .22 caliber at Camp Piamingo with my brother lying beside me and my father sitting at the back of the range, watching us, though not exactly supervising. There was always one of the camp personnel there to do this, always with sunglasses and stentorian affect when announcing: “Lock. And Load.” (A pause.) “Fire.”
I wasn’t a great shot, but I was eight and a boy. It was fun. We went through archery sessions, too, but I was always too afraid that the nylon feathers at the end of the shaft would slice my fingers off to strike anywhere near the target. But lying and aiming the rifle at paper targets or the Coke cans strung up alongside—there was joy in that, and just the faintest memory of the butt kicking against a shoulder. This was what our father did, what he slipped off for a week a year with other fathers to go do.
All I remember now is the appearance of an unspent .22 caliber bullet.
* * *
His father-in-law should have had the sense not to leave a gun lying loaded in his office desk. He should have known well enough how to handle it, too—two years at an Air Force base during the mid-1950s should have taught him that much, I like to think—but he was also the man whose idea of a toolbox was a Philips head screwdriver at the back of the candy drawer, so it’s more likely that he simply got the damn thing put together and loaded and decided it would be too much trouble to unload it. Besides: unlike my father, who didn’t keep a pistol in his desk, probably fearing workplace safety laws my grandfather was confident he could schmooze his way out of, someone actually had, that once, tried to kill him.
Like the men who called my father, the attacker had been on the losing end of a courtroom scene—but was just an angry husband, some shlub of a man in his forties or fifties whose biggest advantage was the intersection of surprise and a stairwell. Mostly, they’d just hire my grandfather when the second marriage fell apart in a few years. Sometimes, they’d say something starting with “If I…” or “If you ever…” but quickly trailing off, only partially meaning the threat.
* * *
For a while after my grandfather’s death, my father was furious with him—how he’d ignored the shooting pains in his left arm all week; how he’d pop a few more Tylenol and go back to work, treating his health like, in all honestly, he had for too much of his life; how he then dropped dead on our back porch on a Sunday afternoon, surrounded a little too closely by his children and grandchildren for any of our memories to be comfortable with.
He was furious, too, not when he found the gun, but when he had inspected it and held it up to the light and either polished it or imagined himself doing so, then transferred it to his own desk for temporary safe keeping, and, not knowing it was loaded, closed the drawer a little too sharply. It fired, blowing a hole in the wood and lodging a bullet in the office wall. For the next week, he’d mutter about the loaded gun, then the ignored chest pains, and circle back to the gun, because who leaves a gun like that lying loaded in their desk drawer?
What he ignored—but what was there, always, at the center of it—was the thought of my parents’ offices directly across the hall from one another, their doors open, desks facing, out of an old arrangement to always have a witness—whether it was a witness against some charge of impropriety or a word spoken with the wrong intonation, or against the arrival of someone in a fury over his alimony, or his foreclosed home, or the decade he’d lost in prison. A couple inches in the wrong direction, that is—a different haphazard angle in the drawer—and my grandfather’s pistol might have blown a hole through his daughter’s desk, as well.
* * *
One of my dearest friends—we’ll call her K.—thoroughly Left Coast, her dorm room window sporting anti-war posters, came up to me late in our senior year of college and told me she’d learned how to fire a pistol. It was at the recommendation of the security hired for her and her classmates as they went to conduct interviews through some genuinely dangerous parts of the South Side, a bunch of well-meaning J-School students trying to get someone off death row and wandering into worlds decidedly not their own. They hid tape recorders on their bodies; he hid a Glock.
She went to the firing range; she’d done well; she was, it turned out, a decent shot for a beginner. I remember she told me, surprised perhaps as much by the thought as by her comfort with it, that she had enjoyed it.
At this point the memory fades into something generic—dark Chicago street in the winter outside my apartment and eventually into my roommates and I digging my car out of snow, jumping the battery, and moving it before the plows and tow trucks trundled through. But in between, there’s the recognition that what she described, this feel of a pistol grip in one’s hands, goggles and covered ears in a sterile room, had nothing in common with what I knew of guns, of warm Kentucky summers and beer can targets and cigarette smoke always hovering somewhere in the background.
Even more alien: the thought of wandering the South Side with a tape recorder, a Glock, and a mission of mercy.
* * *
My grandfather’s pistol was still sitting in my father’s desk on the night a group of “thugs”—this, I think, was the phrase employed by at least one of my parents—broke in and ransacked the place. They didn’t have any interest in the law encyclopedia that took up three bookcases on the first floor, or the elaborate, Byzantine system of notecard filing I’d designed at $5.15 an hour in the summer after fifth grade, or (if they were still there) the cash register from my great-grandparents’ store and the vintage train set my grandfather had played with as a child. They took stamps, I think—but the pistol as well, leaving my father feeling like a fool for having it in so insecure a place as an unlocked desk drawer.
After reporting it as stolen, he walked with the dread that this gun which was not quite his own would someday be implicated in a robbery, a murder, or something even worse—something with a child and a radiator and the domestic abuse division of the County Attorney’s office.
* * *
In eight months I’ll be married and the same age my father was when he, newlywed, set out on his brief career fighting the bad guys, older already than my grandfather at the end of the military service that trained him to fire at the Reds who, in the fields of our proxy wars, bore a striking resemblance to “the little yellow men” his grandfather was conscripted to shoot at, once upon a time, and from whom he claimed he ran all the way back to Poland when they surprised him by shooting back.
Sometimes I wonder what portion of my birthright in firearms I’ll be able to pass on to any children of my own. The knowledge my father tried to pass on to me, I took, but the heritage he treasured has slipped away. It went, with his uncle’s shotgun, to Sam. I have no need for a hunting rifle: I’m a vegetarian and kashrut-observant. My mess of pottage, perhaps.
I worry that the only knowledge of firearms I’m capable of passing on is a knowledge I inherited from my grandfather—what K. learned and trained with at the firing range: the loaded one, the toy gun, the one we hold to make ourselves feel more secure, to purchase some semblance of a feeling, the one that lies loaded in a desk drawer or hidden in the attic crawlspace until it decides one day to discharge out of boredom, the one that I will be able to approach with the trepidation and awe my father instructed me in, but never that great respect for its power or role in life—only with the very fear and trembling horror it placates by feeding on.