I’m certain that I think about mortality more than your average twenty-something. I’m not sure why exactly, and maybe I should spend more time thinking about why I think about mortality than thinking about mortality. If I had to pin it down, it might have something to do with a life inclusive of a wife who spends her days as a nurse working in hospice care.
There’s nothing quite so humbling as your wife looking across the dinner table, tears in her eyes, and relaying the story of a dying child who said, “Mommy, you told me that only old people die to make room for babies. I’m not supposed to be dying because I’m not old.”
That starts to take a toll on a woman, and to some extent her man as well. The Kee house, you see, counts death as a nearly constant companion. A roommate if you will. And over the years, we’ve come to accept our roommate, embrace our roommate, and most importantly, live our lives with the understanding that our time here is finite. I’d hazard a guess that a good portion of our readers are more likely to set up a NFA trust than click the “add to cart” button for paperwork to set up advance directives. Our home got the latter first. Priorities man, you gotta have priorities.
Another reason mortality invades my thoughts regularly is that I’ve lost all but one of my grandparents in the span of the last three years. All of their deaths were sad, no two ways about it, but I take solace in the fact that all of them, to a person, lived full lives. They lived, they loved, they laughed, built homes, bought cars, sent kids to college, and generally made their mark, most of them positive, on my life and the lives of others.
I’ve got one left now. My maternal grandfather. He’s turning ninety soon, and has by all objective metrics checked every box along the way. He was married to a beautiful, happy, loving woman for 62 adventurous years. He earned his private and instrument pilot’s licenses. Ferried airplanes. Ran a small business. Served his country. And, most impactful to my life, he produced two wonderful daughters who went about producing three wonderful grandkids, and one opinionated Texan writer.
He’s a gem of an old man. Truly the last of a dying breed. At nearly ninety, he’s a bit more wobbly on his feet, but his mind is still sharp and he’s quick to cut a witty, sometimes dirty, joke. He and I have never lived close, but he’s always been a strong presence in my life, and each holiday since I got my first rifle, I could count on a brick of .22 LR under the tree. The Bushnell scope my Ruger American Rifle wears is from Christmas in Illinois the year I turned 12. Which brings me to the gun thing.
My grandpa owned a sum total of three guns in his life that I know of. The first, a 20 guage Ithaca pump shotgun with an engraving of a pheasant hunt on the receiver, passed to him from a distant aunt. The second, a Remington Model 11 that needed stout 12 gauge loads to cycle properly. It was a present for my grandmother, the year after she received a bowling ball, and the year before she got a shiny new push mower. Notice a trend?
I know a lot about both of those shotguns because both of them ended up in my possession as a teenager. And, in what I consider to be a top five greatest tragedy of my life, they’re gone. Unfortunately, neither of them functioned properly and on the advice of my gunsmith, who told me they weren’t worth the money to fix, I sold both of them to a pawnbroker for a pittance. This was a long, long time before I understood that even non-functioning firearms have a purpose.
But alas, there may be salvation for my gunny soul. I mentioned he owned three guns I know about. The last, a Colt Officer’s Model 1911, rounds out the trio. In the list of guns I’d buy for myself tomorrow, a chrome Officer’s Model 1911 is way, way, way down the list. I’m not a .45 guy. I’m definitely not a shiny gun guy. And I’m only marginally a 1911 guy. But gosh that gun might be the most important gun in the universe to me. More important than my first rifle. More important than the first gun I bought for myself. And definitely more important than the gun my mother bought to celebrate my graduation from college. So important that I’d pass on a bespoke H&H or all the lower receivers in the world to ensure that it ends up in my safe when he passes away.
The thing about a firearm, any firearm, but especially a metal and wood clad one, is that it is a very durable good. Photos yellow and curl. Quilts wither to rags, and furniture breaks down and turns to dust. But a well-maintained firearm, especially one well built as well as a 1911, that’s something that will last for generations. And for those looking to cement a legacy, I’d argue that not much is better at doing it than a firearm. One example springs to mind.
When my coworker’s father passed away, he left him a very large collection of guns. From recently acquired GLOCKs, to barely used Model 70s, along with several really cherry lever guns. His father was also quite a collector of Thompson Center Encore pistols for silhouette shooting. And, as the only child, they naturally went to my coworker when his father passed.
We’ve gone shooting a few times, and while my friend is certainly a competent shooter, he’s by no means a gun nut. And he’s certainly not to the level of “nuttery” that his father was. But put an old 10/22 in his hands, one from the early 70’s when his father first bought it, and my coworker’s eyes light up. Inevitably, I’ll soon hear a story about his old man. Something he did, a place they went, a gun he fawned over. It doesn’t matter which gun my coworker has in his hands at the time, as long as it is one from his father’s collection, I can be assured that we’ll take a walk down memory lane.
My wife tells me that for her, it’s old books. Even when someone has passed on, she can crack their favorite book open, and spend some time with them. For me, it’s guns. The photo at the top is of another 1911. One that my father bought in the early 80’s for self defense. Given my sister’s lack of enthusiasm for firearms, I’m reasonably certain that the guns go to me in the will. Likewise, I know that when my grandfather passes away, I’ll end up with his 1911. I don’t think anybody else in the family is interested it it. And like him, I’ll rarely shoot it.
For the most part, it will spend its days locked away in a dark, climate-controlled, carpeted environment free from abuse, neglect, and humid air. But every now and again, I’ll take it out to the range, and remember how my grandfather smelled, the way he called me “honey”, how his eyes seemed to get brighter when he heard a funny joke, or the way he used to caution me with the words “gentle now” when we did a project together.
We’ve never gotten to shoot that gun together, a situation that gets harder and harder to remedy every day. But I know that for the rest of my life, I’ll have an object he held, that sat in his bedside table, ready to be called to action in time of need. Something more durable than a photo. Warmer than any quilt. And certainly more interesting than a chest of drawers.
For those of you with kids or grandkids, know that your trips to the range are making an indelible mark on their soul. And know that long after you’re gone, they’ll pick up a gun that you both held together, think fondly about some memory they have of you, and remember you as clearly as if you were still standing next to them.