Another Sort of Wood and Steel

January, 2016

I talk a lot about guitars here on the site but I’d like to talk to you about another kind of wood and steel. Now, I have hesitated to post this story because I am sensitive to a dislike for “all things firearm” that is abroad these days, but perhaps I can be forgiven because the of ancient nature of the item in question, because it is a family heirloom, and because it was the favorite choice of movie cowboys and even SINGING cowboys. So bear with me and perhaps you will be rewarded by a tale of longing and fulfilled dreams.

To begin with, I suppose I should explain that my father was my best friend as I grew up - he even served as my best man at my wedding. I learned many excellent life lessons from him as I grew up. But he wasn't just my best friend, he was my mentor. He modeled for me what a man should be: independent, capable, intelligent, skilled, patient, knowledgeable, honest, strong, loving, fair, honorable, kind, even-tempered, and at peace with himself and with his God. I can only hope that some of these traits rubbed off on me. He taught me how to hold a tool, how to treat a lady, how to drive a car, how to rebuild an engine, how to pitch a tent, how to handle a rifle.

Our family home was a honeymoon cottage that we expanded and converted over many years. My bedroom was a cozy, converted pine-paneled study with a fireplace and a bay window. Over the fireplace in my bedroom hung my dad's Winchester 1892 rifle. Now, for those who don't know, the Winchester model 1892 is a classic lever-action rifle that was seen in thousands of western movies. Chuck Connors carried a modified carbine version as The Rifleman. John Wayne carried one in True Grit, Red River, Hondo, and dozens of other movies. Interestingly, in that context the rifle was an anachronism: the “wild west” period portrayed in the movies was all but over by 1892 when the rifle’s manufacture began. The model 1892 was chosen for the movie role because it was robust, lightweight, well balanced, looked like the rifles of a decade earlier, and could easily handle inexpensive blanks. It was an elegant rifle designed for Winchester by famed arms designer John Moses Browning, who designed many of the popular rifles of the period. Basically, Winchester asked Browning to scale down his much larger previous design, the Model 1886, so that it could take pistol caliber cartridges and would be better suited for saddle use. Its use in all those western movies earned it the lighthearted sobriquet, “The Gun That Won the Western.” In all, more than a million of these rifles were built over five and a half decades, with volume manufacturing ending in 1941 and custom orders ceasing in 1947.

My dad’s example was a “sporting model rifle” dating from the turn of the century with a factory upgrade octagonal barrel. The walnut stocks of this rifle had darkened nicely with age and use and the blued metal parts had aged to an attractive dark brown as well. Though I grew up in the South around guns we never hunted, mostly because my dad was too softhearted about animals. As a WWII veteran he had scored Sharpshooter in basic training so we went out in the woods by our home and plinked at reactive targets like bottles and cans to sharpen our skills. Over time the Winchester rifle that hung silently over the fireplace came to represent my father himself to me: his manliness, his rugged independence, and his quiet strength. It was his possession that I wanted the most when he died. Once I married and set up housekeeping, I dreamed of hanging the Winchester over my fireplace. Every time we moved into a new house, I looked at the hearth and imagined what it would look like with the rifle over it.

As he approached the end of his eighties, my father’s health deteriorated. He lost his ability to speak, became unsteady on his feet, and took some falls. Eventually the family ended up moving him into a nursing home in my hometown, twelve hours away from where I live. My older brother is a physician's assistant with a practice near my parents and was able to help my mom manage his care. My younger brother is a successful restaurateur who owns several franchises. He cheerfully picked up the expensive medical payments every month for the years that my dad was in the nursing home, giving my mother the absolute peace of mind that they'd be able to obtain the best care possible for my dad and wouldn't be financially ruined by the situation. I, on the other hand, was held at arm’s length by both geography and circumstances.

After my dad left the family home my mom decided to get most of the firearms out of the house. My older brother took home my dad's classic .44 Magnum Ruger Blackhawk "Original Model" western-style revolver. Dad had named that one "Sweet Lips," a comically garbled quotation from Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Tale of the Miller’s Daughter” from the Canterbury Tales. Those who have read the Tale and have shot a .44 magnum pistol will understand the correlation. A few months later during a visit, my younger brother saw the Winchester rifle hanging over the fireplace in my old room and asked my mom, "Hey, could I have that?" She said, “Sure.” I found out a while later and was utterly crushed, but I couldn't feel the least bit bad about my brother having it. Nevertheless, it left a little hole in my heart and a dream unfulfilled.

So, fast-forward a few years to last December when the family gathered for my father's funeral. My father died peacefully, surrounded by his family. The funeral ceremony was a celebration of a life well-lived and a man well-loved by those around him. I told humorous stories about him to the crowd. After the ceremony, my younger brother and I were standing around in the family home with our hands in our pockets, idly chatting and staring off into the swirl of activity as friends and family looked after us all. It was typical brotherly conversation: we’d talk a bit and then run out of steam, talk a little more and go back to silently staring and reflecting on our life with dad. Interestingly, we talked about guitars, because we both play. In the middle of this my brother suddenly asked, "Do have any idea what happened to "Sweet Lips?" Of course he meant the Ruger pistol mentioned above that we all loved. I told him that our older brother had taken it home. He said, "That's great," and we stared off for a bit.

Then he asked, "You do know I ended up with the Winchester, right?" I said, "Yeah, that's great." He said, "I took it to a gunsmith and had it cleaned up and checked out. It is in great shape but isn't worth a whole lot." I said, "You ought to hang it over your fireplace." He replied, "Well, you know, we use our fireplace quite a bit so it shouldn't hang there. I'm afraid of what the heat would do to it." I repeated, "It really is a beautiful, classic rifle. You ought to put it on display somewhere." He said, "To tell the truth, it doesn't mean anything to me. It is just sitting in a closet.” He turned and asked, “Do you want it?" My teeth just about fell out of my mouth. Shocked and hesitant, I said, "I would love to have it, but I don't in the slightest want to take it from you.” He said, “You know, I'd prefer for it to be with someone who cares for it. Do you want it?” I repeated that, yes, I wanted it badly but didn’t want to take it from him in the least. He said, simply, “Let’s find a way to ship it to you.”

So a month, a bunch of corporate paperwork, two federal forms, four forms of I.D., and a federal firearms background check later, we managed to arrange a legal transfer through two federally-licensed firearms dealers, one at his end and one at mine. I followed the package to my dealer on the UPS app with the anticipation guitarist track the shipment of a new guitar. And a few days ago the rifle that meant so much came home with me. After holding it and looking at it for a while I sat down with my dad’s wire nippers and pliers and a couple of coat hangars and fashioned a set of temporary mounts for it very much like the ones my dad made fifty-three years ago. I’m thrilled and blessed. It is a dream realized after many long years. Every day as I sit in my easy chair I’ll be reminded of my father and the man he was. And now, for that matter, I’ll be reminded of my brother in the same way as well.

Thanks, Scott. Thanks, Dad.