Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
How to begin to describe my father?
I could summarize by saying he was the finest man I ever knew. But there was a lot more to him than that. You can tell a lot about a man by his possessions: The kind of car or truck he drives, the way he dresses, and so on. But I’ve always said that, in the case of my father, you could tell quite a lot about his intensely practical, personally and financially conservative lifestyle by his guns – not only which guns he owned, but also by the fact that three guns served him for almost his entire ninety-four years of life.
This is the story of my Dad’s guns.
Like most of Dad’s generation, he was a World War II veteran, having served from early 1943 to early 1946. He was a second lieutenant in the US Army Air Corps and trained as a navigator. When the war ended the Army wasn’t quite ready to let Dad go yet. He had shipped to Victorville, CA to learn the new art of radar navigation, but on VJ Day there was suddenly much less need for qualified B-29 crew, so Dad was at odds until someone asked him if he’d like to help run the post skeet range.
In those days as in the rest of his life, Dad hated having nothing to do, so he said “sure,” and ended up working with the first lieutenant who ran the ranges. The skeet range, part of the overall qualification and training range complex, existed as a recreational opportunity for troops rotating back from the Pacific, but (perhaps understandably) most of those guys had done enough shooting to suit them for a while.
So, Dad and the other officer shot. A lot. As in, hundreds of rounds a day. Not just shotguns, either, as whenever the range received a shipment of ammo, the OICs were required to test a certain number of rounds from each shipment. So, in addition to hundreds of rounds on the skeet range, Dad and his partner shot M1 carbines and, to test the shipments of .45ACP, M1 Thompsons and M3 Grease Guns, because why would you shoot a pistol if you have submachine guns that use the same round?
Despite how much fun Dad was having shooting guns all day, when the Army finally got around to letting him go home, he grabbed the chance. Part of the deal was that the Army would ship, gratis, one issue wooden Army footlocker with whatever Dad chose to put in it.
Dad took a footlocker out to the range and filled it to the brim with 12-gauge shells. He took that in to be shipped, stuck his extra uniforms in a suitcase, and boarded a train for Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where my grandfather was waiting for him.
It so happened that, up in the town of Independence, Dad also had a girl waiting for him. In March of 1947 that girl became his wife and, some years later, my Mom, but that’s a story for another time.
Before the war Dad had been in the habit of borrowing his older brother’s ’97 Winchester when he wanted to go hunting, but with a footlocker full of 12-gauge shells and his demobilization pay in his pocket, he decided he needed his own shotgun, and so went forthwith into the pages of the Sears-Roebuck catalog where he ordered a Sears store-brand “J.C. Higgins 102.25” 12-gauge pump, which was a Stevens 520A in Sears trim. At some point, Dad sent the gun off to the original Waseca, Minnesota Herter’s shop for a Herter’s brand collet-type poly-choke, making the old gun even more versatile.
The 520A is a good, solid pump-gun. As are so many American sporting arms, this one was the product of the mind of John Browning, the DaVinci of firearms, and bears the characteristic Browning “humpback” on the steel receiver. During the war the Army bought quite a few of them in riot trim for MPs and such, and after that unpleasantness both Sears and Montgomery Wards sold them in store-brand trim. Dad now had a tool with which to put all his skeet-range experience to good use with, and when he took up a small farm near Independence in the fall of 1946, he put that skill to work bringing in rabbits and pheasants for the table.
As I’ve noted in a couple of previous articles, if you can have only one gun, a 12-gauge pump is the gun to have. Now you all know where I picked up that attitude originally, although I still adhere to that thinking after forty-plus years of shooting and collecting.
Dad married my Mom in March of 1947. For their third anniversary, Mom wanted to find Dad something enjoyable and practical for an anniversary present – and what could be more enjoyable and practical than a .22 rifle? Mom enjoyed plinking with a .22 rifle herself and figured that a good .22 would increase Dad’s efficiency at producing the prime ingredient of rabbit stews as well as dealing with the vermin that inevitably become a problem on a farm.
Mom knew as much about guns as your average 22-year old girl who had grown up on a farm during the Depression, which was more than most 22-year old girls today would. She figured that the Coast-to-Coast in Oelwein would have what she was looking for.
By this time the folks had moved to a larger farm near Fairbank, Iowa. Neither Fairbank nor the nearby town of Readlyn boasted a hardware store in those days, so Mom went off to Oelwein, a larger town about fifteen miles east of the farm. (As it happened, in 1961, Oelwein became the birthplace of one of eastern Iowa’s more notable former residents – me.)
In that year of 1950, Mossberg had introduced yet another variation of their standard .22LR semi-auto. These old guns fed via a tubular magazine not under the barrel but through the stock. The latest version in that year featured a long 24” barrel and an unadorned black walnut stock with a Schnabel fore-end. Mom kicked in the extra shekels for a long, skinny, steel-tubed 4X Mossberg scope and presented the rifle to Dad on the day of their third anniversary.
Recently I advocated for the use of a bolt gun for a homestead’s .22 rifle, but the semi-auto from Mossberg proved accurate and reliable, although limited to .22 LR ammo. On one winter afternoon, when a flock of geese landed in a plowed field to glean corn, the Mossberg proved accurate enough to hit one squarely in the head at a bit over 100 yards, which was as close as Dad could get working his way down the fencerow. Corn-fed roast goose makes a pretty fair Sunday dinner.
The last piece was the only one purchased purely for recreation. Neither Mom nor Dad remembered later exactly what the year was, but at some point, in the early Sixties they decided it would be fun to have a handgun for a little recreational plinking.
As it happens, a few years earlier Bill Ruger had introduced his rugged, reliable little Standard Auto in .22LR. And this being in the pre-1968 GCA world, the folks were able to mail-order their new 6” barreled Standard and have it sent to the house. Amazingly, nobody died – imagine that.
My Mom was quite fond of plinking with Ruger’s little pistol and got to be quite an accomplished shot. I remember her shooting bottle caps at 10-15 yards, and she would regularly shoot spent shotgun shells off the tops of fenceposts. Dad was a pretty fair shot, but when it came to the handgun, I honestly think Mom had him beat.
These were the three guns my Dad used through his career – these, and no others. Consider the three pieces described: There are prettier guns, fancier guns, with nicer wood and shinier finishes. But the three guns here were all solid, utilitarian pieces, utterly dependable – like Dad.
As I Grew
Dad started teaching me to shoot when I was five or six years old.
I started out with a simple BB gun borrowed from an uncle, probably a Daisy lever-action; at this distance in time, I really can’t remember. When I was about ten, I was gifted my first in a series of Crosman pump-up Model 760 bb/pellet guns, of which I wore out several between the ages of about ten and sixteen.
At twelve or so I had moved on to shooting Dad’s .22 rifle and pistol, at first under his direct supervision until he was satisfied I could handle them safely. Around that time, I received a Mossberg 20-gauge pump as a birthday present, the handling and maintenance of which Dad also instructed me in.
No Army drill sergeant ever hammered anyone harder on gun safety. I was drilled on muzzle control, on keeping my finger off the trigger until actually ready to shoot, on opening the action and clearing the chamber every time I picked up the gun even if I had just set it down moments before. Dad always pointed out that a gun, like so many other tools found around a country place, were potentially dangerous instruments, and that a moment’s inattention could cause a serious injury or death. He taught me how to shoot his guns and guns I later got for myself, how to maintain them, how to hit what I was aiming at and to do so responsibly. When hunting, he taught me the importance of sportsmanship, of showing respect for the game, of being mindful that the birds and animals weren’t just targets, but that I was taking a life – and how that life and mine fit in with the greater scheme of things.
His lessons are still with me today. It is because of those lessons that I am still extremely discriminating on who I will go hunting or shooting with.
But more than that, Dad taught me what the guns were to be used for. We hunted pheasants and grouse, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, all the small game Iowa had to offer. Dad had more or less quit hunting deer by the time I was big enough to give that a go but was always pleased at my proficiency in bringing big corn-fed Iowa whitetails to bag.
Over the years I increasingly went on solo adventures, or out with my friends. But I never got tired of watching Dad shoot a shotgun. He had an uncanny knack for knowing where an evasive ruffed grouse might dodge through our timber and was adept at arranging for an ounce of # 7 ½ shot to be placed at a predetermined location that coincided with the bird’s arrival.
I see a little bit of Dad whenever I look in the mirror. And not just because I share the characteristic Clark nose and Dad’s shaggy eyebrows.
I can hear Dad’s precautionary voice every time I pick up a firearm. Sometimes I take his old Stevens out to shoot a round of trap, and I usually draw a comment or two from our gun club regulars who are used to seeing me with my Citori or one of my Model 12s; but when I explain that this was my Dad’s gun, they almost always nod knowingly. They get it.
His old Mossberg .22 is still a tack-driver. I killed a small mountain of squirrels and rabbits with it back in the day, and it still shoots as well as it did then. Ditto for the .22 Ruger; only a year or so back I killed a dinner’s worth of Colorado mountain grouse with it.
And as time went by, I taught my own kids and now my grandkids how to safely and responsibly handle firearms. The lessons Dad passed on to me have been repeated, over and over. They are as important now as they were then. And now, today, Dad’s guns stand in my own gun rack, still cleaned, lightly oiled and ready.
How It Stands Today
Dad’s been gone about a year and a half now. He was 94, and my four siblings and I are in our fifties (only me, now) sixties and seventies. When Dad left us, it was like a light went out in Mom. After losing her husband of seventy-one years, she clearly had little interest in going on alone and followed him after only eight months. Now my siblings and I look at each other and realize that now we’re the seniors; we are the Grandmas and Grandpas.
We go through life knowing that one day our parents will be gone. We had ours for a good long time, and they had each other for a good long time. I miss them both still. I miss my Dad, every single day. It took me a while to get used to that empty place in my life where a giant once strode. But everything I am, everything I know about being a man, a husband, a father and a grandfather is because of him, and one tangible reminder I have of that I have described here: His guns. Nothing fancy or ostentatious, just good solid utility, scrupulously maintained, practical and tough, always standing ready for whatever might happen.
Not a bad way to be remembered.