Television was never more exciting than when, in the mid-’50s, Seattle’s KIRO-TV started broadcasting. Now we had three channels to choose from! I loved westerns–who didn’t? I even had props to make me feel I was part of the show; a silver cap revolver with a white plastic handle for The Lone Ranger, a cowboy hat whose brim Mom trimmed with a strip of blue curtain-balls for the Cisco Kid, and a cap flintlock musket for Davy Crockett. What a sight I must have been, in that hat, wearing glasses, and armed to the teeth–some of which were missing.
I especially liked a Cisco Kid episode in which the heroes tricked the robbers into thinking a large posse was after them by throwing a handful of bullets in the campfire. What a smart move, I thought–until somebody pointed out that the exploding bullets could randomly hit and kill friend and foe. I’d thought a gun was a kind of remote control that switched off bad guys. The bullets, I now saw, were the real agent of death. They were such little things; how did they do that? I don’t remember what questions I asked or what explanations I got. But I thought about guns differently after that.
One day, I was alone in the playroom where, unlike the living room, my wood-block towers were permitted to continue to exist. Some grown-up furniture stood near the door. On this day, I was exploring Mom’s sewing machine cabinet. It was a massive old console made of glossy dark wood, trimmed in a streamlined ’40s style, with some drawers on one side. Here I found pins, spools, scraps of cloth and patterns. And, in the bottom drawer, I found a pistol.
I took it out by the handle. It was a revolver like my cap pistol, but a lot heavier. Next to it, I found a red cardboard box that held rows of metal cylinders. It dawned on me; This is a real gun. Frightened, I put the things back in the drawer. I never told my parents what I’d found.
When I was older, Mom told me stories about her past. Her father, whose parents had emigrated from Germany, had been a plastering contractor in Chicago. This was before Sheetrock was invented; in those days, to finish an interior wall, wet plaster was applied to a screen attached to the studs. Chicago was a tough city during the Great Depression. The working-class neighborhoods of Germans, Poles and other nationalities weren’t especially friendly to one another.
When a couple failed to pay for a plastered ceiling, Grandpa went into their house with a length of pipe. He said he’d knock the ceiling down.
“Give him a check with legs,” the wife told her husband in Polish–a check that would bounce.
But the Polish and German words for “legs” are the same. “If you do that,” Grandpa said, “I’ll come right back here with this pipe.”
Each payday, Grandpa would call his men into the room one at a time, and pay their wages in cash. He put a gun on the table to keep everyone polite.
Grandpa didn’t approve of his daughter’s beau, a bank clerk; nor, apparently, did Grandma. “When you meet a man,” she lectured her daughter, “Look at his hands. If he doesn’t have calluses, stay away!” Because that man was not an honest laborer. I doubt that Dad passed the callus test. Yet my parents married. When Dad came home after the war, I was born, and they announced they would move to Seattle. Faced with the prospect of his daughter living in Indian country, Grandpa gave Dad a gun to protect his family. And I know where it is, I thought.
Life in Indian country was good. Dad worked for a Seattle bank, specializing in foreign trade. My folks had another son, and they put us both through college. Dad managed the bank’s first overseas branch. He made Vice President and retired. Then things started going downhill.
Dad was plagued with dengue fever, which he’d caught in India during World War II. He had a bout with skin cancer and nearly lost a leg. He had prostate cancer; by the late ’90s, it had metastasized, and he was racked with pain. Dementia clouded his fine mind. He had heart trouble too, and unexplained attacks during which he fell and was temporarily paralyzed. Once Mom asked me to come and help her pick up Dad. We couldn’t lift him. So we had to call the Fire Department to pick him up and take him to ER.
Now Mom tearfully told me another story. “He’s asked me to help him die. I told him I couldn’t do it.” Someone from the Hemlock Society came to talk to them. There were thought to be ways to end one’s life with a minimum of suffering; but they were risky and complicated. “He said that Dad would have to do it himself.”
I could understand why Dad wanted to die. And I thought it was his right to choose to stop the suffering. But not with that antique pistol. The risk of a shot going awry and causing even more grief was too great.
I reminded Mom about Grandpa’s gun, and asked her if it was in the house. She made a vague reply; looking back on it now, I think she’d already begun to worry about it. I asked if I could look for it and take it away. She said okay.
Although they’d moved several times, the sewing machine cabinet had moved with them. Its bottom drawer was just as I remembered it. Here was the payroll guard, the Indian killer, the Lone Ranger’s trusty iron, with enough bullets to throw in a campfire and simulate quite a large posse. Mom didn’t think to ask how I’d found it so fast.
I didn’t know how to tell whether the gun was loaded, nor whether the safety switch was on. Just handling the gun to try to figure out if it was safe felt too freaking dangerous. So I put it in a paper bag with the box of bullets and carried them over to the firehouse.
“There’s a gun in this bag,” I told the officer who let me in. “I want to get rid of it.” He didn’t act surprised. Like parishioners in confession, people must often show up in firehouses with rumpled bags of nasty things with which they can no longer bear to live. He took the bag. I thanked him and left.
The firemen came to Mom and Dad’s place a lot after that; and Dad went to the hospital a lot; and he hurt. Mom said he pulled the sheet over his face to hide his pain. In 2001, following a loving visit with Mom, my brother, me and my wife and children, Dad passed away in his sleep. He was 92.