Love them or hate them, chances are if you were raised in America someone in your family owned a gun. James Stafford tells his family tale of firearms, and of the event that holstered his forever.
I was raised in an era when two grandfathers was the norm, and they were known only as “Grandpa.” Context was everything: whose house we visited determined who was named Grandpa. They were men in a sense of the word that was fading quickly, each clinging to their cigarettes and their Coors from dawn to dusk, haunting fraternal lodges and fishing spots. Yes, and there in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, each man named Grandpa was well-armed, too, though only one owned the guns of dead soldiers.
It was the other Grandpa who was known as the expert marksman: a Marine rifle instructor during World War II who loved to talk guns and hunting. He built his own muzzleloaders from scratch, carving the stocks and bluing the steel. “You don’t shoot unless you have a clean shot,” he told me. “There’s no reason to make an animal suffer.” His house smelled of gun oil and loose tobacco.
There was no loose tobacco in the other Grandpa’s house, just cartons of unfiltered Raleighs kept behind his ornately carved Taiwanese bar. He kept an electric dispenser loaded with them on an end table just below a mounted deer head. “If you go outside, you can see the rest of the deer standing there,” he once told my sister. She did, and he laughed. The deep wrinkles on his face didn’t know what to do.
Next to the deer head, his gun rack was loaded with rifles. He never talked about them and never took them down. I was sure that one of those rifles shot the big buck sticking his head through the wall, but the matter was not up for discussion. “Why doesn’t Grandpa ever talk about his guns like Grandpa does?” I asked one Sunday as we drove back down the mountain.
“The war,” my father said, and that was that.
For my sixth Christmas Santa brought me my own rifle: a Daisy BB gun that resembled an old Winchester from a cowboy movie. I didn’t like cowboy movies—I liked Planet of the Apes and Evel Knievel and Happy Days. But I liked that my father seemed so happy that Santa gave me a gun, and even at that age I recognized the continuity across generations. This was supposed to connect me to Grandpa and Grandpa, to my father, and to manhood.
My father taught me how to handle my gun—how to clean and load it, how to carry it—and then the rules: “You never play with a gun; never point a gun at anyone; you always assume that a gun is loaded, and you only kill something if you’re going to eat it.”
I couldn’t wait for the obligatory Christmas-day drive up the mountain, station wagon packed with Santa loot to show the grandparents. “Look, Grandpa, I got a gun!”
“That’s a beaut,” Grandpa said, and he tilted his head back and ran his fingers along the barrel. “You be careful with that. It’s not a toy, it’s a firearm.” We drove over to my other grandfather’s house, but my new BB gun wasn’t an event. Grandpa sat in his chair beneath the deer head, silently drinking Coors and smoking Raleighs while we opened our gifts.
Shortly thereafter we left Colorado and my grandfathers, forever calcifying my notions of guns as tools for war, hunting, and generational bonding. The latter was the only real use in my childhood home, where my father’s father’s guns eventually ended up tucked in the back corner of my parents’ closet. They gathered dust there and told no stories. I don’t know where other Grandpa’s guns landed, but likely in the back of some other relative’s closet.
The real point here is that if you’re a parent the back of the closet is the worst place to hide something. I’d recommend avoiding under the bed and beneath the contents of the sock drawer, too, but it’s really your call. All I can tell you is that once the forbidden place is defined your kids will seek the grail until they find it.
I spent hours staring at my grandfather’s guns, wondering which ones killed soldiers and which killed the deer. They all were beautiful in their own way—the Enfield with its British elegance; the Springfield’s American efficiency—but only one terrified me. Its holder was molded from shiny, black leather that encased the weapon like a casket, the only adornment a metal buckle on the strap that held the lid closed. There it sat on the floor of the closet, a coiled snake.
The funny thing is that I don’t really know what I was afraid of. I was already an awful kid for sneaking into my parents’ closet, but unsnapping that pistol holster felt like a tipping point. Looking at them was fine, or at least justifiable, in my child mind, but touching one could be construed as playing, and that violated my father’s commandments. That wasn’t all, though. No, to undo that strap was to violate my grandfather’s privacy. It didn’t matter that he was 2,000 miles away now, nor did it matter that the gun was now my father’s. I knew that inside that shiny black case lurked a war relic, and to peek inside was to open a wound that my grandfather couldn’t get to heal, no matter how much Coors he drank.
But if hiding his guns in the closet made temptation too great for me, hiding one from sight was overwhelming. Eventually I cracked, and I opened the holster. The gun inside was all black, with Bakelite grips that outshone the leather case. Stamped into the metal was the Reichsadler, the eagle and swastika emblem of Nazi Germany. The pistol looked like one from an old black-and-white movie—the kind of thing that the bad guy with the funny accent points at the good guy wearing the trench coat.
My grandfather’s war spilled out of the holster, too. Since we moved away I’d heard bits and pieces: the night he crept into a quiet barn to sleep but instead surprised two sleeping German officers; his time on a half-track, providing cover for the allied air forces; the liberation of Mauthausen.
This last story was the one my father told most often, and with the pride that only a son can conjure. “Your grandfather was one of the first through the gates to liberate that camp,” he’d tell me, and in my mind’s eye the whole thing was a war movie: tidy, sound tracked, patriotic. Maybe he said something like, “Put down your guns, Jerry! America is here!” and the camp guards cowered while my granddad pointed his Springfield and chewed on one of the matches he used to light his unfiltered Raleighs.
Staring at the German pistol, though, I knew it wasn’t like that. At that moment, new story formed in my mind, one where my grandfather was tired and hungry, and he stumbled upon the gates of a forgotten place. Inside, emaciated bodies lay in piles, and skeletons in striped pajamas stared from hollow sockets. In this version of the story, my granddad slapped the pompous hat from a Nazi officer’s head, and then with silent disgust disarmed him. In my new movie my grandfather never said a word, but the officer knew that he was being dared to do something about it. It was all real now, and I understood why one man named Grandpa could talk about his guns and admire their beauty, but the other man named Grandpa could not.
In the right hands, guns defended the innocent from evil. My Daisy rifle was more than just a BB gun, more than a thread connecting me to the world of men. No, it was a tool for justice. I patrolled the woods behind my parents’ house, on the lookout for evildoers. As is usually the case when chasing evildoers, imagination and exaggeration are a must. I came upon a couple of dead, baby birds at the foot of a tree, heard the familiar squawking of a blue jay overhead—a fresh crime scene.
“You won’t get away with this,” I yelled.
“Squawk,” said the blue jay. He was hiding in the nest he’d just invaded. I moved several feet away and found an old log to sit on. I waited until the nasty little genocidal maniac popped his head out of the nest, and then I planted the Daisy’s stock against my shoulder. I lined its metal sights up with the bird’s breast and squeezed the trigger. Poink.
The blue jay startled and beat his wings, but he was too late. He tumbled to the ground. I’d never hit anything but paper targets and tin cans, but the maniacal bird that pushed babies to their deaths just because they didn’t share the same markings now stumbled around in a circle on the forest’s floor, squawking. I was elated.
My marksmanship was poor. I missed the center mass, instead catching the bird through its wing. I ran to the spot and watched him circle the dead wing, his little black eye filled with pain and fear. He wasn’t evil: he was just a blue jay doing what instinct told him to do, and with the squeeze of a trigger, I took that away.
I lost all interest in guns after that, even as heirlooms. When I pulled the trigger, lives unalterably changed, and not just those physically wounded, but my own. Something inside of both of us fluttered out of the trees and swirled upon the ground until its light inevitably dimmed, and that’s more power than I ever want at my fingertips again.
—originally published in Hippocampus Magazine
—photo courtesy of the author