Monday, May 10, 2010

First Gun

It caught my eye, sitting there in the rack with the rest of the worn-out utility-grade junk that populates every pawn shop gun rack, each of them once a gleam in some long-gone owner’s eye but now just cast-aside testaments to desperation and loss. 

I asked to see it, but I knew it wasn’t going to be the one I was looking for. It never was. Probably never will be. But I keep looking. He handed it to me.  It wasn’t, of course, and the bored clerk put the old single-shot .410 back on the rack. For years I have done this, hoping to find something that, briefly, was the brightest gleam in a long-ago nine-year-old’s eye.

I'd like to say that it was a fine gun, but it wasn't. I'd like to say that by the time it reached me it had accumulated a long history of bird hunting memories, but it hadn't. There had never been a classic sporting bird-hunting tradition in my family. Just the dirt-poor migrant worker's tradition of potting whatever small-game they could in order to eat, and the gun reflected the harsh reality of that tradition beautifully.

It was a starkly plain break-barrel single-shot exposed-hammer .410 made by the Bridge Gun Company. No graceful lines, just purely functional American Gothic in firearms form. There wasn't even a real Bridge Gun Company. It was just one of the many cheaply-made "hardware store" brands produced and sold by Crescent Arms in the late 19th and on through the early years of the 20th centuries, and true-to-form this gun's countenance spoke not of gentrified easy living, but hardscrabble desperation; of spending precious pennies on a few loose shells so maybe -  if you were lucky -  you could eat rabbit one night instead of cornpone and beans.

My great-grandmother purchased the gun, almost certainly second-hand, in California's Imperial Valley sometime in the 1930s, soon after making the trek from Oklahoma, along with all those other okies, exodusters, tin-can tourists and Hooverville residents fleeing drought and depression. My people.

Years later, my great-grandmother told my father she bought the gun because on the way to California - on that endless, hot, dusty, heartbreak-littered 66 highway - she kept seeing jackrabbits off in the distance, just out of rock-chucking range, dancing away in the heat waves as the hunger knots in her stomach tightened. And she swore, standing lean and gaunt and bitter on the side of that road, that if they ever made it California she wasn't going hungry again.

She was a woman true to her word, and for the next 40 years or so that old .410 supplied various members of my clan with meat. I do not recall how or when it made its way to Oklahoma, but sometime in the late 1960s it was given to my father. And in 1980, my father pulled it out of the closet for me.

I remember thinking it was about the coolest damn thing I'd ever seen. Plain stock (probably birch, if I recall) with no checkering and the finish and blueing were long-gone, replaced by the patina of time and hard use. But it locked up tight and when you pulled the hammer back it clicked into position with a sound of finality.  I'd never shot a real gun before and I'd never been hunting with anything other than a BB gun. Then, as now, there's wasn't much leisure time for the lower working class, so when I roamed the woods it was usually alone while my dad was off under the hood of a truck or later, in the oilfield.

But I had a gun now, and with it the whispering promise of future days afield and who knows, maybe even a dog when I got a little older. I was voraciously consuming the big three hunting mags by this age and I dreamed more than anything of quail hunting behind dogs, a tradition of which my family was completely bereft.

But forces beyond my nine-year-old comprehension were at work, and as it turns out, I went hunting with that .410 exactly once, on a clear, cold December Saturday with my father as we stomped around the scrub oak along the back fence of our place, hoping to kick up the covey I knew hung out back there. I remember the rise, the whirring egg-beater sound of their wings. I remember lifting the gun to my shoulder, poking the barrel in the general vicinity of the covey and yanking back on the trigger, and then wondering why nothing was happening, why it wasn't shooting even as I heard my father's gun go off. I had, of course, forgotten to pull the hammer back. I wanted to cry, but didn't. There would be other times, other opportunities.

But, of course, there wouldn't be. As it turns out, it was the last time I would ever shoulder that gun. It would be my only contribution to its story. A few months later, my parents divorced and my father packed his things, fled to New Mexico. The gun went with him. It would, he said, be waiting for me when I was old enough to keep it on my own.

 He stored the gun at my grandparent's house in Albuquerque. Not long after, one of my cousins snuck into their house and stole it, pawned it for drug money. It was never recovered.

I have my own guns now, and with each year they're slowly etching their own stories so that hopefully when I give them to my sons I will be giving something of myself as well, but I often think about that gun, that first and only hunt with my father, the quail I missed. I think about all the people in my family who must have used that gun before me. And I think about a hungry woman on the side of a two-lane highway, staring at jackrabbits dancing in the heat.

I hope that someone like me wandered into whatever dirty little pawn shop my gun ended up in and saw it sitting in the rack. And I hope they recognized that it had a story, even if they couldn't possibly know what that story was.

I know I'll never find it. But I keep looking.


  1. Another nicely done and evocative post, Chad. But you probably knew that.

    My "first" gun shares a similar fate to yours... not separated by divorce, but by thievery. I don't remember the mark on the barrel, but it was a simple old, single-shot 20ga that taught at least three generations of boys to handle and shoot a "real" gun.

  2. Are we long, lost brothers? We are probably cousins.

    My Dad's family moved out from Oklahoma soon after the War started, and my Mom's just after it was over. My Dad's family were all oilfield workers, though the kids worked the fields when they could.

    My Dad gave me a single-shot Winchester 20 gauge, what he'd bought when he was younger for the same reasons you say here. It's a model 37, plain-Jane and the only thing I hunted with until I could finally get a Mossberg 500 pump gun when I got a bit older.

    I am very lucky to still have it, though it is beat up something bad. I've got to re-fashion a new firing pin one day, and I hope my children learn to shoot on it.

    Except, it kicks like a possessed mule.

  3. The stories you etch in those guns will mean more to your boys and their boys than you can imagine.

  4. One day I'm going to be able to write like you. You totally spook me with your storytelling.

  5. Thanks Phillip, nothing hurts worse than losing a gun that means something.

    Josh, we may indeed...much of my family tree took root in California and some of it is still there.

    Mark, you're absolutely right, but the problem with two is figuring out what to give whom...

    SBW, hell, you can write like that now, I'm anxiously awaiting your first roe deer story...BTW Saturday is our squirrel season opener and I'm thinking of going hunting with my "springer" (actually my son's) as a show of support for my British brethren...

  6. I just bought my first rifle. I am really excited about shooting it, and I'm really excited about passing it on someday. Its a beater HOWA 150 .270. It should last forever.

    Thanks for the post. I really enjoy your writing both on and off of F&S.

  7. Great story, Chad.

    My first gun was a very plain bolt-action .22 Remington. I let it go years ago, having giving up shooting, fishing, and all. When I came back to these pursuits, the first gun I bought was nearly identical to that old rifle.

  8. R. Hurd, thanks, and you're right, those Howas are very well-made guns. I've played around with a few.

    Thanks, Tovar. I'm not a terribly hard-core gun nut, but I do have a special fondness for old .22s, perhaps because so many of them have such stories in them.