By Michael Stephenson
There aren’t that many people I know in this world who can tell you more stories than Mr. Lee Smith. And trust me, I know plenty of story tellers. But unlike many tellers of “tall tales”, he has the papers, photos, and witnesses to prove it. Luckily for me, he’s my grandfather-in-law, so I get to hear them as often as I wish. Mr. Lee is a retired USMC Gunnery Sergeant who wore many hats during his time in the service. He did a stint in Force Recon, the training for which was designed with the sole purpose of making the standard USMC boot camp look easy. He did two tours of Vietnam as a Marine Corps Combat Photographer/Photojournalist. Since someone figured that gathering intelligence by taking pictures behind enemy lines and documenting dead Marines stacked like cordwood in the middle of the Tet Offensive was far too easy a job for a Leatherneck . . .
The Corps decided he also needed to serve as a media escort. Mr. Lee was tasked with taking members of the international press up to the front lines, all while doing everything he had to do, and then bringing them back in one piece. Though he got stuck on the wrong side of said front line on more than one occasion (fluid situations are called “fluid” for a reason), and a few were wounded (but none maimed or permanently injured), he never lost the lives of any he was responsible for.
Before the war, Mr. Lee was a regimental training instructor (where Marines go to after basic) and instructed soldiers on proper marksmanship of all rifles and carbines then in the Marine arsenal (M1 Garand, M14, M1 Carbine, Thompson submachine gun) and – his personal favorite – the 1911-A1. Outside of that, he spent time training officers and special operations units on close quarters small arms, knife, and hand-to-hand combat.
Though his stories about the Corps and Vietnam run the gamut from emotional tear jerkers to “you can’t make this stuff up” funny, there is one constant that runs through his stories of combat: The Colt 1911-A1.
Hearing Mr. Lee talk about the 1911 is like hearing your grandfather talk about his high school sweetheart. Not your grandmother, but that hot number that all the guys wanted and he had the pleasure of dating. You know, that “what if” of his glory days. A twinkle in his eye, warmth in his smile, and a mind full of fond memories. However, Mr. Lee’s feelings for Mr. Browning’s masterpiece aren’t aesthetic in nature, but those of trust and admiration bred in combat. The man can pour over one with the attention to detail, care, and knowledge a car aficionado would afford his prized chariot. Then again, when you’ve saved your life – and the lives of others – with a certain gun on more occasions than you’d care to mention, it’s to be expected.
We spend as much time as we can with Mr. Lee and his wife, though it has been less than I would like as of late. When we do get together as a family at his house, my wife and I usually end up staying longer than the others. One February evening in 2011, after we had finished celebrating his wife’s birthday and most of the family had left, Mr. Lee went on the front porch to smoke a cigarette. I went along to soak in the cool air (a rare thing in South Georgia) and hopefully catch a story or two.
As usual, the talk turned to firearms and the Corps. The 1911 inevitably came up. But this time things were different. Mr. Lee has not been in the best of health in recent years. Two strokes (which he has recovered from) and a progressive neuropathy caused by extensive Agent Orange exposure have taken their toll on his body. A then-recent operation to open a collapsed vein in his leg must have been weighing heavy upon his mind when he, then 75 years old and walking with a walker, looked at me with tears forming in his eyes and said, “I’d do anything to have a 1911 again before I die.”
To put this in context, I had seen this man cry four times at this point in my life. Once was at my wife and I’s wedding. The second was at his mother’s funeral. The third was a war story I’d rather not discuss. The fourth was this moment. There was a genuine pain in his voice. I knew that with medical and other bills, and his retirement being the only real income of the house, there was no way he could go out and buy one. This wasn’t some child begging for a toy. This was a grown man in the twilight of his life, who had risked said life serving our country in the hellhole that was Vietnam, making a request. It struck a nerve in me that words cannot begin to describe. I knew what had to be done, and I didn’t waste time doing it.
That night I emailed an acquaintance of mine (Matt of Patrick’s Uniforms and Gun Range, Garden City, GA) who manages a local indoor range/gun store, inquiring about the 1911s he had in stock, what the prices were and what/who the gun would be for. His response, sent to me on his day off work, was simple: “Call me as soon as you get this”. Little did I know that this was the first step that turned my quest to buy Mr. Lee a simple, A1 configuration 1911 into something much bigger.
By the time I had gotten up, had a cup of coffee, gotten a shower and checked my email the next morning, Matt had been busy reaching out to some contacts of his own. A local custom grip maker (SGM Grips) ended up donating a free set of cocobolo grips with the Marine Corps logo laser engraved on them. When I finally did get in touch with him, he had already looked over what he had in stock and what prices he could let them go at.
We spent some time discussing the options and the Remington R1 seemed to be the sweet spot of price and originality. It’s basically an A1 with larger, more visible sights. That’s perfect for an old Gunny with old eyes. I didn’t really have the money to be spending on a firearm (I was still in graduate school and working only part time), but I made an exception for Mr. Lee. His health had been going up and down. None of us knew how much longer he had. Matt, being the good man he is, sold it to me at almost cost.
But that wasn’t the end of Matt’s generosity. Out of the kindness of his heart, he donated supplies and time to customize the gun and make it a proper gift for an old Marine. He painted the engravings on the gun with Marine Corps Crimson and Gold, including the “45 AUTO” on the barrel. After installing a low profile magwell extension, he gave the gun a thorough waxing that made it look like a Bentley in a showroom. By the time it was all said and done, people had donated ammo, money for ammo, a denim button-up shirt from Patrick’s, a custom GI flap style leather holster from CB Leather Works, grips and range passes. Did I mention this all came together in a week? Good news travels fast…
Remember what I said about only seeing Mr. Lee cry four times? Well, that number has since reached five. He thought he was coming over for a cookout. Hamburgers, hotdogs, and family. When I surprised him with a present, and he unwrapped that big green Remington box, his face lit up like Christmas. Though there weren’t any tears coming down his face, it took everything he had to hold them back when he opened the lid. He spent the next several hours smiling and staring at the gun. He’d put it away, talk, and then pull it back out and find some other detail to examine. For a man who always has something to say, he was speechless.
I’ve bought, traded, and sold many firearms over the years. With a few exceptions (I’m looking at you Taurus and Diamondback), they’ve all brought me some level of joy. Rarely do they bring other people any sort of happiness. In fact, I usually incur the exact opposite from the missus whenever a new one finds its way into the house. However, they all pale in comparison to the happiness that giving this gun to Mr. Lee brought me. Mr. Lee is now 77. Though he’s still with us and his spirits are higher than they were, his health still isn’t the best. When his time does come, and I pray it isn’t anytime soon, I know that the Remington R1 I gave to him will come back my way. Though I’ll miss his stories, his company and the countless dirty jokes he tells that only an old Marine could pull off, I’ll always cherish the moments we had together with his favorite gun: the 1911 that made his last wish come true.