By Randy in Indiana
It was a surprise meeting. The man in the red and black check coat and the Bavarian hat and the young whitetail buck crossed paths in an open meadow obscured by mist and the gray half-light of morning. In the manner of strangers in unplanned encounters they looked at each other blankly for a moment, frozen in a fog-shrouded tableau, waiting for one of them to move . . .
He was in the twilight of his days when I knew him; mainly retired from his working life as a machinist, toolmaker, butcher, and lay preacher. The smokehouse was converted to a toolshed, and he built Adirondack chairs and whirligigs in his meticulously neat woodshop beyond.
My Pappa Beck was a formidable man: once large and still powerful, with a booming voice. He was never shy with his opinions and uncompromising in his standards. He hugged me like a bear—growling like one as I tried valiantly to crush him back. He was always ready to tell me how I should behave or how I should do something, but equally ready with an exciting story or an explanation (informative, dubious, or humorous) to a childlike question. (I will never forget his description of carpal tunnel surgery as only a self-taught man and a butcher could tell it: gristle and silverskin and cutting it back to the good meat).
Pappa’s hands were gnarled and scarred, the nail of one index finger turned to a thick black pointed claw by some long-ago grinding wheel, but they had built much of the house and fashioned many of the objects within: knives and chairs, boxes and backscratchers.
Later in life I saw the Barbie clothes—a dozen tiny outfits—he had sewn for my mother rather than buying the expensive (“dear,” as he would say in his Pennsylvania Dutch vernacular) store-bought variety. Everything he made was both practical and durable, and somehow beautiful in its utilitarian simplicity. I can only imagine how he must have felt about the crazy designs I came up with for those pinewood derby cars we built, but he never complained. He taught me to work with my hands and to care for tools. He taught me to take pride in my work. He taught me that patience and sandpaper were all that I needed to make a piece of wood into something beautiful.
His house in York County, Pennsylvania, four hours’ drive from the rural homestead of my father’s extensive family in Northeastern Pennsylvania, was an occasional treat for my brother and me. We made the most of our visits by hunting for pyrite and milky quartz among the strangely gilded stones in the woods and fencerows, rolling down the steep grassy hill in the backyard, and exploring the secrets of the house.
That small, immaculate house was an endless fascination. It was filled with things we had never seen elsewhere, and everything had its place. Antique fire extinguishers still hung at the ready beside glass washboards that I suspect Grammy still used for stubborn stains. Rows of colorful cigar boxes beside the basement workbench held myriad small parts glistening with oil.
Upstairs was an attic and a porch where a cast iron frog held open the door to let the cool night breeze into the small bedroom we shared. At the end of a dark hallway on the ground floor, through a door of dark wood that blended into the shadows, was the spare bedroom where my parents slept.
Inside was another door with crackling varnish on its dark panels and a brass knob worn bright by patient hands over many years that opened with a precise well-oiled “snick.” Beyond was a closet that smelled of cedar and leather and tweed. In the twilight behind the hanging coats, lined up against the back wall, were Pappa’s long guns. The pistols were in a dresser drawer in his bedroom, out of my reach. The ammunition lived in a high cupboard over the basement stair. But this small armory was my secret discovery- like a cavern of pirate’s treasure for me.
My hands would run over the cold barrels until I found what I sought: The Remington .222, the Damascus barreled 16 gauge double, the long turkey gun, and there! …the 1936 Marlin. I was in love with Pappa’s deer rifle. It was unlike the bolt action Remington and Ruger rifles or the 12 gauge pumps at our house. It was more like the Winchester 94s that so many of the uncles and family friends who hunted deer with us carried: handy little carbines that I craved.
This was better, though; like a vintage Mercedes alongside shiny new pick-up trucks. The pistol-grip stock was perfectly proportioned and the lever curved alluringly to match it. The three-quarter magazine and the old-fashioned engraving with its crisp, precise italics (“special smokeless steel!”) declared its age, and the worn bluing around the muzzle attested to long use. Even its chambering, .32 Special, that exotic 8mm twin of the .30-30, was exciting.
It was a graceful rifle; well-balanced and handy in tight places, quick to mount and natural to point. The action was slick and tight. The hammer came back with a crunchy double click that was enormously satisfying. The fit of the darkened walnut and the faint remains of beautiful case-hardening seemed like ghostly remnants of a bygone age of craftsmanship. The rifle belonged with the man. It exuded a spirit of quality he sought to preserve.
This was the gun I always asked Pappa to show me. Though he must have known I visited the rifle on my own time, he would pull it out and show me how it worked. Sitting beside him on the spare bed I learned the responsibilities of an armed man: caution and awareness and readiness.
He taught me how to handle the rifle without endangering others, while always keeping it ready for action. I learned how to load and unload it safely, how to cock and decock the hammer, how to safely carry it ready with a loaded chamber (but only while I was standing or still hunting—never with the rifle slung or while crossing barriers or riding a vehicle). I knew the safety rules already and he made me recite them. The trigger was the lever we pressed when we had made a decision, when we had chosen, to take a life-an action that cannot be undone-and I should keep my finger clear until I was prepared to kill.
I practiced carrying the rifle slung at the ready, African style, with the butt upward over my weak shoulder. He had me practice the motion so that I wouldn’t snag the sling on my clothing or take my eyes off the target as I cycled the action (briskly, with authority) and tucked the butt into the pocket of my shoulder.
I learned to keep the gun tight to my shoulder and my eyes forward as I levered in the follow-up shot. Then he would tell me again, with a gleam in his eye, about his surprise meeting with the buck in the pre-dawn fog; swinging the rifle through the presentation in slow motion as he recounted how the deer had paused in stately surprise for that one critical moment as the sights had risen to cover the shoulder and the sling had tightened around his forearm and the trigger had broken.
I remember my mother’s voice from down the corridor asking “Where’s Randy?” and Grammy’s voice answering from the kitchen, “Oh, the boys are looking at guns again.” Pappa smiled and winked at me. They might not understand, but we did. We were sharing a rite of boyhood, passing down family lore…and whatever incidental mentoring was occurring, the boys were seizing the opportunity to look at guns again.
Later I was old enough to shoot the Marlin. I was eager to count out the cartridges from the old Western boxes with the cardboard dividers and set up the cans for targets. I reveled in the noise and the smoke, and laughed at my Father’s fanciful excuses for why his shooting wasn’t really the best. I soaked up the sharp tang of the cleaning fluid and the rich sweetness of the oil. Mostly, I loved being one of the boys; being part of the stories we would recount over my Grammy’s fresh sausage and fried potatoes. I fell asleep in our garret dreaming of deer in the fog.
The last time I saw Pappa I was seventeen and he was anticipating his last birthday from a hospital bed. That last day there was no bear hug. For the first time, he shook my hand (his was weak, but firm), looked me in the eye, and said “I’ll see you soon, brother.” In that look was an unspoken message: that the next time we met, in a very different place, we would, indeed, be brothers and that man-to-man we could admit what my mother and my little brother were not ready to see. When I turned away my eyes were dry, like my father’s which met their gaze with that same look of understanding. It was, truly, the first time I felt the weight of manhood, and I was surprised to find the mantel fit so well.
I was leaving for college when the Marlin came to me along with Pappa’s old Sunday school lessons. My uncle James thought these the fitting inheritance for the Bible student and the gun nut. I viewed the rifle with new eyes now, appraising it as a new possession. I realized it was a true 1936; the long tang placing it in the first year of production. I found that most of the slotted screws had been damaged in recent years by shaking hands that still longed to work, and I hoped that his dim eyes had failed to notice. He would have hated those screw heads. But I left them as they were. I pulled off the 4x Weaver, a concession to an older man’s vision, and used up most of the old Silvertips sighting in the original Williams receiver sight before deciding I preferred to use the plain v-notch rear blade.
It isn’t perfect. Accuracy is adequate, though unimpressive. The low-visibility sights, fairly heavy trigger, the limited effective range of the caliber make it a short range weapon (and the round-nosed bullets don’t really “bust brush”). Then there’s the lack of ammo (though if you can find Hornady’s LeverEvolution, it produces results they could not have imagined in North Haven in 1936).
Unloading and reloading is tedious. Tedious is putting it nicely. This thing was meant to be loaded and left that way. If I’m in and out of the truck often with this gun, I get to dig my live ammo out of the snow and mud often. In the old days, I guess, real men unloaded by pumping the slugs into a bear that was chewing on their leg.
The lever stroke is heavier than similar rifles—heavier than it needs to be. Not that you really notice when a bear is chewing on you, but it gets tiring on the range. The action makes me choose between lowering the hammer on a live round (not something to be attempted indoors) or a slow and loud presentation from condition-three. So, it isn’t my choice for a bedside carbine.
But I found the old rifle to be just as charming and lethal as I remembered it. It may be old tech, but it is still agile and well-balanced, quick and natural to point, and smooth and crisp in all its moving parts (better, I imagine, than it was in 1936 when a young man around my age took it home for the first time).
Its value, though, was more than the sum of its attributes. As I held it in my hands I could smell that familiar closet and hear that familiar voice. The simple straight-grained walnut stock and foregrip have graceful palm swells now worn smooth. Strong hands have patiently replaced the factory finish with a patina that only time can produce; revealing fire in the wood grain that was dulled by the clear lacquer. I found that my hands, which once thought the rifle so large, fit perfectly in these ancestral palm prints, and I knew that the gun was now my own.
That December I snapped the Marlin to my shoulder from the crook of my cold, stiff elbow on a blustery Pennsylvania Doe Day and brought the ivory bead up to a shaggy gray deer. She jumped into, but never out of, the frozen creek bed I was covering alongside a young cousin who had waited for the drivers with me in stoic silence, despite the chill. So, my story finds its natural climax in one moment of noise and smoke and blood.
I am looking at the antlers of the Fog Buck as I write this. (They are mounted on a plaque Pappa made from an old table top, much as we mounted the horse shoe I found on a walk to a plaque we fashioned from hundred year old oak.) I have found the tear mastered as a teenager as I consider the rifle across my knees and what it means—what I learned by that cold creek.
As the hammer clicked back and my finger paused for a decision on its way to the trigger I understood what my mother and grandmother didn’t know and what the uninitiated must find incredible. A firearm can be more than a weapon, more than a tool, more than a work of art, more than a treasured possession. It can possess something like a soul. It can be imbued with the lessons and responsibilities of manhood. It can bear the fingerprints of a man who helped shape the man I would become. It can carry the tradition and pride of a family through generations.
My thoughts were broken by the awed whisper, loud in the surreal silence that followed the report, of my cousin, still too young for his own license: “Nice shot!” (It wasn’t, really, but it did the job.) “Can I see your rifle?”
“Sure,” I said, “I’ll show you how to unload it. Then, I think you’re old enough to help me dress this deer.”