Gun Guys

I’m not really a gun guy.

If you’re in my garage and I smile kinda crooked at you and ask if you want to see my “gun collection,” that most likely means I’m about to pull out the bottom drawer of my rollaway and gesture vaguely at the bladed beauties inside. My big honeys lurk down there: a Bailey fore plane, a Marples jack, a Chinese rosewood smoother, Stanley scraper with good wood, Ulmia short jointer with a white beech sole, scrubby and iron jointer from Lie-Nielsen.

Then I might yank out another drawer or two, and show off the shoulder planes, trimmers, spokeshaves, block planes, #4, low angle jack, drawknives, small and large routers, beader, box of Disston scrapers and York pitch smoother… the list is long and variable. Many of them are pretty – some might say too pretty to use – but it’s a working collection. There aren’t any duplicates; every piece has a unique function.

Spade mashies and pitching niblicks are for wankers. Real men make a mess with their toys, and I have an enviable “gun collection.” I’m fairly good with it, it tickles my sense of apocalyptic possibility (when the balloon goes up, I plan to make chairs), and I love to show it off. Enough, in fact, that about half my tools are hung on the wall. If we had a fireplace instead of a woodstove that actually heats the house, I’d hang my misery whip over the mantel.

But if you ask enough times, and I’m in the mood, and you’re not “that kind” of person, I might show you what’s inside the safe. Those details aren’t available here; suffice it to say that no normally talented thief will get that box open on short notice, and our insurance company has all the serial numbers.

Inside the safe are two thoroughly interleaved but non-overlapping sets. Grandpa’s deer rifle shares space with the .30-30 lever gun I learned to hunt with, my old .22LR High Standard, duck-duck-goose scatterguns and a couple of other errata. Scrambled up with my family’s field history of firearms is an obsessive-compulsive collection that came fully formed to Pretty Wife via inheritance. Less a collection of shooters than a history of modern firearms, it features stair-stepped, same-branded revolvers, multi-barreled kit guns and historical weapons.

As with the wood butchering weaponry, some (from either collection) may be ornate but none of them ever existed purely for purposes of looking fancy in a box.

Except one.

Buried under a tangle of gun leather and cleaning supplies on the back of the top shelf is a neatly mitered wooden case. French-fitted and glass-fronted, it contains a glittering objet that is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a Texas barbecue gun. It’s also taking up the space where my real .45 should rest, but that’s a dead letter now.

In a long-ago Idaho horse trade, I swapped an expensive and unique weapon (that cost two bucks a round to shoot) for a pair of practical pistols and cash to buy food for my kid. One of those pistols was a Star PD. The Star was a compact, aluminum-framed knockoff of John Moses Browning’s ineffably wonderful mansmasher, the Colt Model 1911.

Their life spans exceed those of dragonflies and pop stars, but they’re no Ruger Blackhawks (the other bit of trade fodder that moved in alongside the PD), so I never shot the Star much. Still, it was smoothed and nicely upgraded with a trigger job. That made it a great carry piece, aka “an excuse to go draw a CCP.”

During the time when I put up 52,000 miles a year for work, my Star rode around in the driver door caddy of my company truck (originally for reasons relating to a particular three-patch “Motorcycle Club,” but I’ve since let that grudge go… mostly… and won’t intentionally run any of their members into a bridge abutment… probably).

We were running a site survey when Dad became aware of the Star.

“Have you got a gun in the truck?”

“Sure,” I answered. “Why?”

You need to understand that no one has the situational awareness of my father, an ex-fighter pilot who will – and did – smoke all four tires in a cloud of brake dust and molten rubber in order to jump-shoot a chukar that he spotted huddled down in a hedge row, 46 yards off the road. From 82 miles per hour. On an overcast day.

Nearsighted clear through my skull, I never saw that damned chukar until after Dad jumped out, shot it (with an Ithaca Mag-10 the length of a junior high schooler because when you have Thor’s Hammer in your hand, every little chukar apparently looks like a railroad spike and the prime directive is to bend its head over – or in carpenter’s parlance, “kill it dead as a door nail”), stomped over to its tiny, disintegrated carcass, pointed at the impact crater next to his old Danner boot and yelled, “D’ya see it NOW?”

Evaline, Washington isn’t renowned for its chukar hunting, but no place in Lewis County is short on mule deer, aka “indigenous woods rat of Western Washington.” Two blocks over, between the clapboard houses, Pop had spotted one snacking on softened windfall apples.

Outside hunting season.

Inside someone’s front yard.

“Drive over there.”

Given that Dad was both CEO and principal stockholder, the four-by Dodge Ram was technically his truck. I idled through the gravel boulevards. We were just off Schoolhouse Road when I pulled up in front of the yard. The buck glanced up carelessly. His neck was a white-flashed blaze of winter fat. Even leaving out the massive, four-point rack (do the math, Easterners – it’s what y’all like to call a “ten-point”), he must have gone 450 lbs. on the hoof. With the apple he was holding in his mouth, that buck resembled a life study by a particularly hungry taxidermist.

Dad’s gaze was as intent as the buck’s was sleepy. Both knew deer weren’t yet in season, but only one of them cared.

“Shoot it,” Dad murmured.

“Yeah, right.” Don’t ask me why I hadn’t yet figured out that we weren’t just looking at a pretty deer. It ain’t like I haven’t known this man all my life. “Not getting a Fish and Game ticket today, thanks anyway.”

“You’re not gonna shoot it?”

I smiled patiently. “No, Dad, I’m not gonna shoot it.”

“Hand me your gun, then.”

“Hunh?” I scowled at him. “Be serious.”

“I’m gonna nail that deer. He’s a beauty.”


“Daggone it, Jack, I want that gun.”

“It’s a pistol, Dad.” Like an idiot, I hoisted it out of its compartment, brushed the dust off against my jeans and showed him. He snatched at it, but I was enough younger to have real reflexes then.

“Is that a forty-five?”


“That has plenty of poop. Hand it over.” If I didn’t know him better, I’d have believed his neck was actually swelling. I looked.

It was.

“Ooh,” Dad moaned. “He’s a beauty. A beauty!

“Jack, you need to give me that gun.”

His face solidified into his famous “you’re making a bad career move” look, but I’d already been canned enough times that both of us knew the southern systems would go, um…. “South” if he didn’t keep me around to bubblegum them together.

“Dad, I am not going to let you shoot across my face with my own gun, from inside a running truck, at a deer that’s out of season, while it’s standing in someone’s front yard.”

“Aa-ah!” He slumped back into his bucket seat and folded his arms like a foiled teenager. Apparently, I was no fun. He sure took a shine to that pistol, though. A few weeks later, he borrowed it to stash aboard his Gold Wing motorcycle for a trip to…

“Canada, seriously? You took my gun across the border into Canada?

“Well, it’s not like you could get in trouble for that.”

“No, o’ course not – except for that part about me being the registered purchaser. You know they confiscate weapons when they find ‘em, right?”

“Not so far.”

His eyes glinted (my Dad doesn’t “twinkle” – that sad sack avuncularity is for non-fighter pilot types), and I had to admit he was right, for all the wrongness that was in it. In 62 years of repeated forays into our northern neighbor, he’d probably taken some kind of weapon at least… let’s see, carry the two… uh, every single time.

“Fine. Glad you’re back. Got my pistol in the car?”

“I, uh… I left it at home today.”

“You never leave your driveway without a gun in the car. Go get it.”

“I brought the, uh… the uh… I brought the .25.”

“You traded off the .25 last year.”

“I did? For what?”

“For that stupid little Savage rifle/shotgun, Drilling-type thing.”

“Oh.” He considered this for a moment, then looked up smiling. “I like that gun.”

“And my pistol?”

“I’ll bring it in tomorrow. Maybe next week.”

Several weeks later, I tried again.

“Dad, are you planning to give back my Star anytime soon?”

“You still want that thing?”

“You know how you like having a .45 around?,” I asked rhetorically. “Well, I do, too.”

“Ah, come on,” he cajoled. “It’s not like you were using it.

“For crap sake,” he said, putting the twist on it, “it’s the sleeves out of your vest!”

“Y’know, I’d still like—”

The phone rang. He whipped up his hand in a “stop” gesture, took the call and turned away, smiling brightly across the æther at a distant friend or better, an impending deal.

After a few months went by, I wrapped up a nearly empty box and went to the command performance of his birthday dinner at the Rainier Club. Over tiramisu, Dad shook the box vigorously.

“Careful,” I said languidly. I’d been dipping into their magnificent champagne like a man possessed – by champagne. “It might go off.”

Inside the box was a hand-penciled certificate for one Star PD, caliber .45, accurized with barrel bushing upgrade and a Novak combat sight. Dad’s face fell, happy avarice sliding to the floor.

“But I already have one of these!”

“Yeah. Now you don’t have to feel guilty about it. It’s officially yours.”

The look he shot me admitted of no guilty feelings. Exhibiting a sense of shame carefully calibrated to the reigning level, I let him pick up the tab.

The white cardboard box that showed up on my own birthday was considerably weightier, on account of the nicely mitered walnut case inside. I hacked it open in front of the Fedex guy, whose eyes got wide just about the time mine started rolling.

“Oh. My. God.”

The righteous 1911 Colt in the case is a pure homage to John Moses, stamped out by the Auto Ordnance company to be “issued” by the American Historical Foundation.

Auto Ordnance is to firearms what the Franklin Mint is to collectible crockery. AHF’s commemorative-issue .45s sell for two grand and up new, then — almost uniquely among firearms — exhibit the depreciation curve of Cadillac Escalade beach cars. Vintage but unfired, in as-new condition with the original walnut-toned case, they go used for maybe twelve hundred bucks.

The slabsided weapon, blue mouse fur-padded and robo-fitted into its display case, is lavishly electroplated with 24-karat gold over the trigger, hammer, slide lock and safety. The grips are made of some substance that was chemically engineered to resemble white elephant ivory and adorned with the seal of the Air Force. The slide is embellished with the little winged stars of that service – which is, curiously enough, not the service in which I enlisted all those years ago – and the nomenclature “United States Air Force Commemorative M1911 .45.”

It’s the kind of piece that would naturally complement a fat flash roll and silver spoon pendant.

It has a grey and blue-ticked lanyard (now discontinued, according to the AHF’s website, so I guess you missed your chance), and a pair of white inspection gloves tucked in next to the engraved identification plaque. On the slide, near the motto “TO FLY AND TO FIGHT,” is engraved “COL John C. Lewis, SR.” and his dates of service. Dad gave himself a little promotion there, which is totally understandable. “Lieutenant Colonel” requires more letters, and engraving costs money.

Carefully, I unfastened the bubble wrap, opened the glass case and pulled the autoloader out under the lamp, where the reflected twilight’s last gleaming nearly blinded me. Moving carefully and keeping the muzzle pointed at the floor, I dropped the magazine into my open hand before I jacked the slide. A hardball cartridge flipped out and landed on the sofa with a 230-grain plonk.

Seven in the box and one in the tube, cocked and locked. That’s Dad for ya: keep your weapons ready always, even on the delivery truck in the hands of an untrained stranger. As he always says, “What the heck good is an unloaded gun?”

Turning white, the FedEx guy scuttled back to his truck. We haven’t seen him since. I shook my head slowly over the glittering weapon in my hand.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

Pretty Wife had a suggestion. “Sell it?”

“I think I’d be embarrassed.”

“Because your dad would find out?”

“Because someone would see me with the damned thing.”

I’m not always classy. She puts up with me anyway, but she frowned a little then.

“It’s your dad. That’s how he is, kind of flashy and…”

“And what, exactly?”

“And he gives you presents that are more about him than you.”

“Yeah.” I sighed, standing there in our living room, holding a big, shiny pistol and feeling vaguely ridiculous. I was pretty sure that he’d bought the thing to pin up in his office, next to his bachelors degree, second lieutenant’s commission, air speed record certificate and his huge, fake Claymore sword sporting an elvish king’s engraving and the keenly whetted edge of that old, rounded-off screwdriver you keep around for opening paint. Then he remembered my birthday, and punted it along through the mail, rubber-stamped with his trademark red cartoon F-86 and the friendly legend “DROP DEAD.”

“I’ll go lock it up in the safe.”

“Don’t worry.” She grinned. “We can hang it up when he comes over for dinner.”

I called Dad, told him thanks and that was the last I thought of my .45 for a while. There were shelves to build, doors to hang, wood to split, the bathroom to finish and windows to replace. We keep fairly busy around the home place.

Couple years later, a friend invited me out to a new pistol range up north.

“Sure!,” I said. It had been a while since I got out the shooting irons for anything but cleaning and lubing. “I’ve got a couple of .22s in the safe, and Pretty Wife’s Glock…”

Short pause on his end. “It’s a, uh, forty-five event.”

“No worries. I’ve got a… augh!

Mid-gibber, I remembered the fate of my Star PD, ignominiously consigned to the glovebox of a red, 1984 convertible Cadillac Biarritz.

“An idea,” I finished my sentence. The light was sputtering on. “I’ve got an idea, I think.

“Call ya back, man.”

The pitch I wound up for Dad was perfect, because my idea made perfect sense. Pop loves shiny things like a magpie loves buttons, and I like guns that shoot when I pull the trigger and hit what I point them at (which last explains why Pretty Wife owns the Glock now: she hits better with it than I do).

The solution was obvious.

“Hey, Dad,” I started in. “How ya doin’?”

“Fine, Jack,” he said, following this salutation with a 22-minute medical litany that would gag a Civil War surgeon.

“…and how are you?”

“I’m doin’ okay. Hey, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

“Oh, yeah?” I could literally hear his ears prick over the phone. It sounded like typical Verizon static, but I was not fooled. While I suck at horse trading (see “expensive and unique weapon,” above), Dad loves nothing better than striking a deal. He sees every palaver as another chance to win.

“What do you have in mind, Jack?”

“Well, do you remember that fancy forty-five you gave me a couple of years ago for my birthday?”

“Yeah!” He sounded expansive, then worried. “Have you still got it?”

“Well… yeah,” I stammered, suddenly off-balance. “Of course!”

“You can shoot that one, you know.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, “somehow I don’t think that would help its collector value.”

“Heck, you could hang it on the wall and leave it loaded. If anyone breaks in…”

“Pop, we have a dog the size of a Shetland pony.”

“Well, that’s not gonna stop anyone.”

In 80 years of life, Dad’s been burgled precisely zero times. In his view, this makes him a subject matter expert on home defense. While this opinion is certainly defensible on the merits, I was convinced that a loaded, large-caliber pistol and a teenage male should never coexist under my roof. I had been kind of counting on the dog to drive the lad out, but it was a waiting game.

“Right… well, do you also remember that plain-Jane littleforty-five Star that I gave you for your birthday?”

“Sure. You gave it to me, then you tried to take it back. Then you decided it was my birthday present.”

My dad is a magnificent revisionist. I should know better than to take issue with his custom-built facts.

“No, I loaned it to… look, never mind.”

“Indian giver.” His was the voice of solemn judgment. Ignoring it took effort, but I managed.

“So here’s my proposal, okay? You know I’m not big on flashy things. Also, I was in the army, not the air force and… well, that’s an Air Force commemorative.”

“Yeah! It’s got the lanyard on it!”

Once the bugler for his Aviation Cadets class, Dad apparently never shook his enthusiasm for lanyards. To me, lanyarded pistols smack of prissy Staff Duty Officers and the MPs who busted your head with batons downrange in Korea – on second thought, never mind all that. Let’s just stipulate that I’m no great fan of lanyards.

“Did you know you can’t get ‘em like that anymore?”

Thank G-D for small favors…

“Hey, y’know what else?,” I said, surfing his wave of enthusiasm. “It already has your name on it! And didn’t you shoot Expert with the air force .45?”

“You bet I did.”

“Dad, that should be your pistol,” I rattled on in my own enthusiasm. “I’m not worthy of it.

“What do you say we swap our forty-fives? I’ll take the little plain grey one back, and you can display your ‘ewe-sawf’ gun with pride.”

Degenerating straight into the kind of biz-babble pseudo-speech of a thousand self-help “books,” I put on my most mellifluous tone to deliver the clincher.

“It’s a win-win!” Hey, at least I avoided reference to envelopes and the long-required shoving and rupturing thereof.

There was a long, long, long silence, during which I got a little worried. Had the excitement of this deal been too much for him?


His voice came quietly back. “Are you sure, Jack?”

So there it was. He didn’t want to trade my combat-effective carry piece for the buyer’s remorse of some overwrought display toy. Who could blame him, I thought bitterly, then launched back into my golden-toned pitch voice (suitable for used cars, new vacuums and vegetable slicers; not valid where felonious; may cause cortical leakage; incompatible with functional conscience; see disclaimer for rights under state law [=NONE]).

“I think it’d work out beautifully for both of us,” I inveigled. “C’mon, Dad!

“Whaddya say?”

“Well… okay, Jack.”

He’s guilting me pretty hard, here, I thought, listening silently. Dad taught me long ago about that crucial moment in any negotiation where “the next guy to talk… loses.” I wiled away the next few moments surfing the net and happily diverting myself with thoughts of my little Star.

After three minutes that I can only speculate would have been terribly uncomfortable for any decent man, Dad blinked.

“If that’s what you want.”

Because my smirking grimace of joy and triumphant fist pump were not transmissible via cell tower, they are not a matter of record. I’d recover my workmanlike piece, Pop would get another shiny for his “I Love Me” wall, and the world would balance aright. Whistling lightly, I hung up in his ear and bopped out to the shop to unearth my soon-to-be-ex-pistol.

Blowing the dust off the glass, I opened the display case and took my first careful look at the thing. Picking it up, I worked the slide and grinned at how much more friction it had than my sweetly deburred PD.

Schadenfreude:  it’s not just for breakfast anymore!

I put a drop or two of light oil on the frame rails, then turned it over in my hands, checking for miscellaneous crud. The right side of the slide was not identical to the left. Squinting through the bottom of my trifocals, I still couldn’t quite make out the letters in the dim light of my shop.

Presbyopia: it’s not just for… ah, never mind.

I snapped on the desk lamp over my bench, lowered my glasses out of the way and leaned in close. In tiny golden capitals, the slide was engraved:


“You dirty stinker!”

I often talk to Dad in his own patois. It’s the only way to get through to him, especially on the phone. “You’re never getting it back, you know.”

“What do you mean, Jack?” Behind his carefully solicitous tone, I could hear him smiling into the phone. It’s another sales trick he tried to impart Back When. To this day, Dad picks up the phone with “This is Smilin’ Jack!” and if you can’t hear that practiced grin shine down the network, you’re deafer than either my fighter pilot dad or his artillery sergeant offspring.

Goddamn, he loves to win. I rounded off a molar or two before I got my voice under control enough to growl down the line.

“Never. Getting. It back.”

“You know what, Jack?”

I sighed. “What is it, Pop?”

“I love you, too, son.”

Turns out that useless damned frilly-pants Auto Ordnance actually looks pretty good over my desk, and it’s not like it really cost me anything – only a walnut display case for the Star that he’s keeping, carefully made with my “gun collection.”

Sleeves out of my vest, really.


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  1. hi jack,i’ve talked to you a couple of times when you’ve been out w/your three-legged Dane. i’m one of the local walkers & sometimes talk w/steve & his danes ,& say hi to denise & her dane.
    I just finished “nothing in reserve” which I picked up from the wonderful free,little library on 180th. I didn’t realize who you were until after I finished the book & saw your website.
    I liked your book! the dry humor & desperate reality of your time in Iraq rivals heller’s “catch-22”.
    I hope somebody truthful will buy the movie rights.

    take care,

  2. Nice stuff. Didn’t know you had a little collection. And Star does make a nice gun.

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