Thursday, August 31, 2006

Young hunter – part 1

by Tom Gaylord

In the picture you will see the two things that were my most prized possessions as a boy. My BB gun, which I always had with me and my dog, Jipper, who was really more of a friend than a possession, now that I think about it. Jipper and I would play hard all day long, going far out into the fields near my house to explore and discover whatever we could find.

I can't say as I remember the shirt or short pants I was wearing that day, but the hat was mine and seldom off my head. People wore hats in those days. In fact, if you went outside without one, you were looked at as strange. Mine was a broad-brimmed felt job that kept the sun out of my eyes, because we didn't have sunglasses out in the country. The city people were still wearing the dark blue glasses that had been popular a decade before, but no self-respecting man of the Nineties would be caught dead in a pair. They called you a dude if you wore something strange like that, and dude was nothing to be called, I can assure you.

I can remember being one of the few boys in town who had a BB gun at that time. Some had their father's hand-me-down .22 single shot rifle, but they weren't allowed to shoot it in town like I was. And that is what made owning a BB gun so fine.

On summer mornings when the squawking blue jays would get in the tree outside my bedroom and raise a ruckus, I could take my revenge out the window, if I removed the screen first. I had taken to unlatching it the evening before and just wedging it in place so the next morning I could silently remove it to take a shot at those noisy birds. I think I must have gotten three or four before my mother found out what was going on and stopped me. She didn't like them any more than I did, but she was disconcerted to find dead birds on the ground outside the back door to her kitchen. So, I had to invent another way to ambush them.

I soon learned they loved meat. In fact, any small dead animals like moles, gophers, mice or rats would bring on the jays like a magnet. So I expanded my hunting skills to include those, as well. I could find all the mice and moles I wanted in the kitchen garden which was conveniently located next to the back of our house. I could see them moving the plants around, but if I moved to see where they were they would always be gone by the time I got into position.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Values– part 3

Values - part 1
Values - part 2

by Tom Gaylord

I went back outside and thought about it for a while. If I traded with Todd, I would have the nicest new BB gun in the neighborhood, instead of one that had to be babied and coaxed. I would also have a truckload of other neat stuff, because he had continued to raise the offer. I reckoned I might even talk him out of a bicycle, along with his Daisy. Not his good bike, to be sure, but Todd had other bikes his folks had given him over the years, and any one of them was better than my current nothing. It was very tempting.

But then I figured Todd could have almost anything he wanted by just asking for it. The only reason he couldn't have a gun like mine was they didn't make them any more. Mine was the only one around, and that made it unique. And, if we did trade, his folks could just buy him another Daisy pump, so I wouldn't have anything special after that.

My aunt had said the rifle was mine to do with as I pleased, so what I was pleased to do in the end was to keep it. There was nothing Todd could do about it. Not with all his folks' money could he own the thing he coveted the most—a thing I had regarded as a hand-me-down until that time.

As you might expect, he fussed and fumed about the situation. Some of the other kids thought I was crazy for not giving in, but it made me very satisfied to know I had something Todd could never have.

My aunt and uncle never said another word to me about the incident, but soon after it happened I found myself being showered by little gifts like the uniform in the picture. I think Aunt Olive was secretly glad I hadn't given in, for some reason.

I got a bicycle not long after that. It was a used one, of course, but it worked well enough to propel me into the ranks of Those Who Rode, which was the difference between the haves and the have-nots in our neighborhood. I often rode it with my Columbian BB gun strapped across my back, just like a real cowboy.

Todd did ruin his BB gun, just as I predicted. But it didn't seem to bother him. He got something else to replace it. And when we were older, his folks bought him a Harley Davidson motorcycle. He was the first kid in our county to have a vehicle of his own. My aunt and uncle didn't even have a car until years later.

I lost track of him after we both turned twenty and began our grownup lives. I still thought about him, though, and knew wherever he was going, he was always going there first class.

Many, many years later, after I grew into manhood, I still had that old Columbian BB gun from my childhood. By then it was worth several times what a Daisy pump was. Daisys were common and the old Columbian was special. That's exactly how I always felt about it, too. I may never have had a first class ticket to anywhere, but I know the value of things, which I think is the better gift.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Values– part 2

Values - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

The torment extended to bicycles as well. I had none, while he had the latest model with balloon tires and an electric light. He rode it every day in the summer, while most of the rest of us made do on shank's mare. It always took us longer to go anywhere, so we made him the scout for the neighborhood. If we wanted to go swimming, we sent him on ahead to be sure the pond was open before hiking the mile to it. If there was a circus in town, he rode to where they were set up and reported back to us what attractions they had, when they would open and so on. He never tired of his assignments and it took a lot of pressure off the rest of us.

Except for one thing. He liked to play cowboys and he wanted to carry my gun while he rode. I loaned it to him once, but I was afraid that he would scratch it when he stopped his bike. Instead of coming to a straight stop, he used to jump off to the left side of the bike and stand on the pedal while leaning the bike way over to the right. It made the gravel fly and looked like a horseman dismounting while still at a full gallop, but sometimes he misjudged the ground and lost his balance doing it. He always had skinned up knees and elbows, and I was afraid he would scratch up my rifle, too.

Well, denying him what he wanted was the worst thing I could have done. It made him want my gun even more. He offered to trade me his gun for it, even though he knew my gun didn't repeat and his did. That was how crazy he was. I refused because I didn't really feel as though the gun was mine to deal with. The way it was given to me, I felt it could be taken back at any time, that I was just a temporary custodian.

But he still persisted. He raised the offer to include a nice pocketknife and a horseshoe puzzle I liked. I continued to say no.

Then one day, my Aunt Olive called me inside for a talk. She asked me what I was doing to Todd—that was the boy's name—to get him so riled up. Apparently, he had gone to his parents over the matter, and they brought it to the attention of my aunt! This was a serious breech of childhood etiquette. We all knew that whatever differences we might have, we kept them to ourselves. Adults were never called into the picture unless the customary warning, "Aww—I'm tellin'!" was issued first. That allowed the other kid time to get his story straight before things got serious.

Trapped as I was by this unexpected turn of events, I became completely flustered and blurted out the truth. I told her about him wanting my BB gun and all the stuff he had offered for it. She asked if he was offering me a good deal. I said yes, but then I told her how I felt about my gun, that it wasn't really mine to trade. She laughed at that and said there had been some sort of misunderstanding. The gun was mine and I could do whatever I liked with it. If I wanted to trade it to Todd, I could.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Values– part 1

by Tom Gaylord

I looked like a Russian commissar in that picture, with my peasant cap, long field coat and canvas leggings. Actually, my aunt made that outfit for me, and she decorated it with insignia from old army field units. But she never quite got the look of the coat right, in my mind. I was supposed to be a cavalryman on a western outpost, but I guess she took that to mean the steppes of Siberia.

Everybody asks me who the dog is, but I can’t remember. He just came up as the picture was taken. I don’t remember him at all, but I suppose he lived close by.

I shouldn't complain about Aunt Olive, either, because in many ways she was like a mother to me. My real mother died shortly after I was born, so I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle until my father could take care of me. Apparently that never happened because I only saw him at holidays, and just for a little while then.

But life was good, nevertheless. My Uncle Don owned a farm in upstate New York, and I grew up among the salt of the earth. By the time I was ten, I could handle a team, bale hay all day and work alongside any full-grown man. Not that I had to, mind you. My aunt and uncle took good care of me, as though I was their own. They had a son who died in the Great War, and I think I sort of took his place when I came to live with them.

Aunt Olive was a strict disciplinarian who was feared by most of the kids in our neighborhood, but she was always soft on me for some reason. In fact, she made that tent I was playing in, and she used real heavy canvas material in it. It was waterproof in all but a downpour, and many a night I slept outside in it with just my dog, Harvey, to keep me company.

The BB gun was a hand-me-down from someone in the community. I never learned exactly who. There wasn't a lot of money in those days, and new Daisy or King BB guns cost several dollars apiece, which was money we didn't have. But someone had that old Columbian model M laying around and I guess they figured a young boy could put it to some good use. And that was the truth!

Although it was partly broken and would no longer feed BBs, it worked perfectly well when a single BB was dropped down the barrel. It shot hard and straight, and the nickel plate that was still on it was as bright as the day it was made. It out-shot the few Daisys in our neighborhood, except for a new pump gun that was its equal. The kid that owned that gun was from a rich family who gave him whatever he wanted, so there was no way of my keeping up with him. Except for one thing. He liked my gun—a lot. He thought it looked like a real western gun while his looked like a Winchester .22 from a shooting gallery. I tormented him about that whenever possible, of course.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Straight shooter – part 6

Straight shooter - part 1
Straight shooter - part 2
Straight shooter - part 3
Straight shooter - part 4
Straight shooter - part 5

by Tom Gaylord

The gun was so beautiful I couldn't believe I was getting it. It was long and sleek and looked almost exactly like a pump shotgun my dad owned. Instead of being nickel-plated like most BB guns in those days, it was beautifully blued. It fit me perfectly, although I will admit that the cocking really put a strain on my arm.

Back at home, I shot that gun during all my free time, until I knew where it was shooting without thinking about it. I used the sights, but they seemed to line up for me without much trying. My friends were all envious of my new gun, and I let them all shoot it, too, as they had actually helped me get it. In time, my arm must have gotten stronger because I can't remember that the cocking was that much of a chore for very long.

Within a week of bringing it home, I killed my first rat behind the chicken coop. It was almost too easy, because they weren't afraid of me or anything. My mom taught me how to pick them up with a stick and put them into a burlap feed sack, which had to be buried so the others couldn't get at it. Rats eat their dead, and I sure didn't want to be feeding the colony.

In all, I killed more than 50 of the disgusting things before they seemed to be gone. From time to time after that, if we saw signs of a new one mom would immediately deputize me until it was gone.

I was so happy to have my mom's blessings for that gun that the idea of causing trouble with it never entered my mind. Other boys often got in trouble with their guns, but I treated mine as a special tool I was privileged to own and use. I kept it oiled and clean and never once did it stay outside overnight, the way some guns did. As a result, I still have that BB gun today.

I once asked my mom about that time after I grew up and she said something that surprised me. She said, "Your dad and I always wanted to give you a BB gun, but you didn't seem responsible enough for one. Your dad took you down to the quarry to teach you how to shoot, but he said you were too interested in spraying bullets all over the place to hit anything. Then, he got the idea that if you had to work for your gun, you might pay attention to what he was trying to teach you, so he used that little fib about me to get you to think about what you were doing. It worked, too."

It sure did!

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Straight shooter – part 5

Straight shooter - part 1
Straight shooter - part 2
Straight shooter - part 3
Straight shooter - part 4

by Tom Gaylord

"Do you think a rabbit is as hard to kill as a rat?"

Mom allowed as how it probably was even harder to kill a rabbit than a rat—even a big one.

Dad got up from the table and went up to the attic, where we heard him bumping around for a few minutes. Neither me nor my mother knew what he was up to. When he returned, he had a box of old pictures. In it he found an old-time picture of a boy holding a BB gun and standing next to a large dead rabbit.

"That's a picture of me when I was eight years old. My mother bought me a Sentinel BB gun to help keep rabbits out of her vegetable garden one summer. She thought I would just sting them with it, but I soon learned my gun well enough to kill them dead with one shot to the head. She was so proud of me that she had this picture taken with my first kill. If it hadn't been in the summertime, I think we would have eaten that rabbit and all the others I shot, as well.

I was stunned! My dad had been the same kind of boy all my friends were and I never knew it. He had a gun that he learned as well as they all knew theirs and he used to take big rabbits with it. I knew he was a good shot from our time at the quarry, but I had no clue he was that good.

My mom must have been impressed, too, because she said yes to my getting a gun right away. In fact, she went along with me and dad when we went into town to buy it. We looked at lots of BB guns in several different stores and the one we settled on was a Daisy model 25 pump. According to the man at the store, Daisy had just made it easier to cock, and it already had a reputation as one of the hardest-shooting BB guns ever made.

I told him I wanted to shoot lead shot in it, and he turned to my dad and said, "Your boy here knows a lot about BB guns. This gun is made to shoot lead shot only, which is why it is so accurate and powerful. I think this is the gun you want."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Straight shooter – part 4

Straight shooter - part 1
Straight shooter - part 2
Straight shooter - part 3

by Tom Gaylord

Steve Sgouri had the most powerful gun of all, although it wasn't the most accurate. His dad bought him a Benjamin pneumatic gun for his ninth birthday. He pumped it on the ground with a long plunger in the nose of the gun, then dropped a lead BB down the barrel. His gun would go through one side of a tin can at close range—something the other boys' guns couldn't do. But Steve was lucky to hit a quarter-sized washer at 20 feet because that Benjamin had a trigger that had to be yanked instead of pulled easily. If you tried for a smooth shot it hissed and the air ran out without shooting the BB.

I tried all their guns, but the experience left me wondering what kind of gun I should get. None of them were as easy to shoot as my dad's .22, and I wasn't even good enough with that yet. So, would I ever be good enough to get a BB gun? I was starting to think I wouldn't.

We went out shooting the next Saturday, and I surprised both my dad and myself with how much better I had become. All that practice with those quirky BB guns of my buddies had made me appreciate what a real accurate gun could do. I began hitting the tomato paste can at 150 feet with regularity, and even as often as my father. So he said it was time to bring up the matter to my mom.

That evening, he got her started talking about the rats, and she went on for quite a while by herself. Four of her chicks were missing and she knew the rats were getting them. She sometimes heard the hens squawking and making a fuss, but whenever she got out to the coop, there was nothing to see. She did see the rats hanging around the compost pit where she threw her edible garbage, though, and since the pit was close to the coop, she was sure the rats were up to no good.

When dad brought up the subject of killing them with a gun, though, she said absolutely not. We lived in town and she didn't want to scare our neighbors with the noise. Besides, she said, a gun wasn't safe that close to town.

Dad agreed with her that a .22 wasn't the thing to use. But he suggested that if they got me a BB gun and I were appointed as the official rat killer, the problem might just be over. Mom said she didn't think a BB gun could kill a big rat, but dad told her it could. She said if it could kill them cleanly she wouldn't mind me having one, but she would have to be convinced that it could. Apparently, that was the moment dad had been waiting for.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Straight shooter – part 3

Straight shooter - part 1
Straight shooter - part 2

by Tom Gaylord

I worked harder that afternoon than I ever had before. I wasn't just shooting. I was shooting to earn my new BB gun. I had to hit the can to win it, and I had to learn to shoot in order to hit. If I had ever spent as much time learning arithmetic as I did learning to shoot that afternoon, I guess I would have made my living doing sums.

Finally, at the end of the day, I got to where I could hit the can three times out of five. I was pretty satisfied with myself, but dad wasn't through with me yet.

"Next Saturday, we'll try it from farther away. You're coming along well, Bobby. You should be able to hit your mark in a few more weeks."

A few more weeks! I had just made a series of near-impossible shots and now he wanted me to do even better! Who did he think I was—Annie Oakley?

I managed to conceal my disappointment only because the cause I was fighting for was such a worthy one. My friends took pity on me for some reason the next week and let me shoot their guns more than ever before. Because I had trained so hard at the gravel pit, I figured I could shoot their BB guns better than they could, but they all outshot me easily.

It turned out that each boy had learned how his gun worked so well that he knew where the BB was going even before he pulled the trigger. Jimmy Rutherford had a Daisy repeater that shot to the left. He had bent the front sight to correct it, but that gun still shot to the left. The farther away you shot, the more left it went, but Jimmy knew exactly where to aim to hit his target. He could hit the tips of kitchen matches at 15 feet, or dimes at 30 feet. I couldn't see how he did it, except that he really knew his gun.

Dale Swartz had an old King single shot that his dad had as a kid. It was all beat-up looking, but Dale could hit even better than Jimmy. He said the secret was in shooting lead shot instead of steel. He said steel went faster, but lead went straighter, and his old gun sure proved it! I saw him shoot a bottle cap off a log at 50 feet. Even Jimmy couldn't do that all the time, but Dale sure could.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Straight shooter – part 2

Straight shooter - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

I thought about the problem all the next week. I observed mom more closely than ever, trying to figure what made her tick. I knew we had to do it right the first time or we would ruin the chance of me ever getting a gun, because once she made up he mind about something there was no changing it.

There had to be some work that only a BB gun could do that mom would find invaluable. If there was something like that, she might be convinced to relent and let me have one. But what can a BB gun do that can't be done with a hundred other things? I thought about mice and how she hated them. They were forever getting into our dried food in the cellar and ruining things. Mom wasn't afraid of them the way they picture women in cartoons. She didn't jump on chairs or anything, she just hated the damage they did to our food. If she saw one in the cellar, she would get a broom and chase it until it either got away or she killed it. Then she got a cat to patrol the house, but he wasn't much of a mouser. I figured he was afraid of them, because he was always somewhere else whenever there was a problem.

Occasionally, we would get a black snake in the cellar, but that happened too infrequently to be of much help. Dad would have to catch it and take it outside, and I was eventually promoted to the job, after I started school. A snake could ruin an entire Saturday, because the darned things could slither out of sight at a moment's notice. I always got them in the end, but they just weren't the kind of nuisance I needed to justify my getting a gun.

The only other thing that was a possibility was rats. We kept chickens for the eggs and for an occasional roaster, and chickens bring on rats faster than anything I know of. Our coop was always in danger from them. They could kill a young hen in a minute, and the chicks had no chance at all.

Our cat was of no help against the rats, because he was more afraid of them than they were of him. I once saw one of them back him right up when he inadvertently cornered the animal outside the coop. He hissed and snarled, but the rat stood its ground and even advanced, until Mr. Kitty turned and ran away. If I could kill rats with a BB gun, mom would have to agree.

I told dad my idea the next time we were out shooting and he thought it was a great one. "We'll have to convince her that you're a good enough shot to do the job, though. She wouldn't say yes unless she thought you could kill them humanely. Let's see how good you are."

He put up a small tomato paste can on the hill we shot into, then we walked back about 100 feet away. I had never tried something that far away before. With his Winchester, you could just keep pulling the trigger until you eventually hit what you were shooting at. First shot hits were never my strong suit, and I suppose that is why my dad suggested it in the first place.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Straight shooter – part 1

by Tom Gaylord

When I was a boy, I wanted a BB gun in the worst way. Most of my friends had them and it was hard to go out in the neighborhood, unarmed as I was. Most kids figured my folks were poor, which we weren't. Mom just didn't see why her house should be an armed camp, and I think my old man went along with her to keep the peace. She had a formal living room that we kids weren't allowed to play in, and it was loaded with bric-a-brac and other breakable things. I got the impression that she thought I would start sniping at her stuff if I was armed.

My dad would take me down to the local quarry on weekends, where we would both shoot his .22 Winchester automatic. It was lots of fun, but the shells cost a bundle, so I think he resented having to pay so much all the time. One day, while we were out shooting he said, "Bobby, I think it's time we got you a BB gun. Don't you?"

Well, there was no thought required for that! I was for the idea even before he brought it up.

"But what about mom? You know how she feels."

"Yes I do. Your mother was raised in a different kind of family than ours, son. Her father was a minister, and her mother was a very formal lady. You've seen them when we visit, and they've become more open and friendly over the years."

I thought about that. My grandfather Amos was the sternest man I had ever known. I couldn't ever remember him smiling, and he sure wasn't the guy to be flip with. I even thought my dad was afraid of him.

"In their home, children were either doing their chores, studying their homework or else reading the bible. There was no time for the things you and your friends like to do."

"Geez, dad, I sure wouldn't have wanted to live like that."

"Your mother is still learning how to relax and have a good time, Bobby. She has a lot of fun in her soul, but her upbringing goes against it, so she doesn't always show her brighter side. I'll tell you what we need to do, you and I. We need to come up with a good reason for you to have a BB gun, one that your mother can agree with. If she could see the practical benefit to your having a gun, I don't think there would be a problem. Can you help me with that?"

I said I could, although I had absolutely no idea how to convince her. It wasn't that she disliked guns the way some mothers did, because she didn't. She just saw no redeeming value to a child's toy like a BB gun, and what couldn't be justified as having practical value in her mind wasn't right. That was a harder nut to crack than just not liking guns, because you didn't know where to begin.

By the book – part 7

By the book - part 1
By the book - part 2
By the book - part 3
By the book - part 4
By the book - part 5
By the book - part 6

by Tom Gaylord

I finished school in Oregon, thousands of miles from my Indiana beginnings, and millions of miles from my childhood. Never again was I able to shoot with the freedom I had known back then for such a short time, so when I moved out of the house, I immediately began buying firearms of all kinds. I immersed myself in shooting for about ten years, trying to make up for what I felt I had missed as a child. But it was all to no avail. Firearms are so different from the gentle airguns that they really don't serve as substitutes. I suppose they did get under my mother's skin, which was a pretty good side benefit, but the satisfaction I was seeking was not there. So eventually, I abandoned the shooting sports altogether and took up other hobbies.

Then one day in 1972, a neighbor of mine showed me a pellet rifle he had recently bought from some place back east. It was as heavy as a firearm but as silent as I remember my Daisy being. And the darned thing shot accurately, too. I asked him where he bought it and before the next month was out, I had one just like it.

Since then, I have rediscovered the world of airguns. I now have several old Daisys and other makes of BB guns. They don't shoot quite as well as I remembered, but then, neither do I anymore. I keep them for sentimental reasons.

But I have many accurate and powerful pellet rifles. Most are from Germany, but a few were made in England, and I even have a couple from the good old US of A. These I shoot constantly. They don't replace my lost childhood, but they do make my waning years more enjoyable.

My mother passed away in 1968. We never reconciled our differences, but I do understand her better now that I’m older. She was a product of her upbringing, and in many ways she was very afraid of the world she lived in. Her eccentricities were a defense against many fears.

I never found out what became of Carmen, but I like to think she is married with children (and now grandchildren) of her own and that she is the kind of mother I wish I had. I never married, so this branch of our family ends with me. If Carmen can build a better life for her family than the one I had, then maybe there is hope for the world.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

By the book – part 6

By the book - part 1
By the book - part 2
By the book - part 3
By the book - part 4
By the book - part 5

by Tom Gaylord

She invited me in to meet her mother and then we went out into her back yard to play. We played catch and quoits for awhile, but when she asked me if I wanted to shoot her BB gun, things really got interesting! Carmen - a girl - had a BB gun! Yes, she did! She said her father wanted her to learn how to shoot, so he gave her both a BB gun and a .22. She was allowed to shoot the BB gun in the yard, but for the .22 she had to wait until her father could take her someplace to shoot.

We shot all that morning and I was in heaven once again. Carmen taught me some shooting rules her dad had taught her and I followed them to the letter because I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of this girl who I was beginning to fall in love with. She was a much better shot than I, but she showed me how to shoot without lording it over me. The rest of that day was a blur, but I know I spent it with Carmen, along with every day after that.

About a week before school began again, my mother finally met Carmen—something I had been trying to avoid as long as possible. She didn't embarrass me in front of my friend, of course, but when my dad came home that night she lowered the boom. They talked about Carmen after I went to bed, but I was too interested not to sneak out into the hall and listen to what was said. My mother didn't like "that girl," and was afraid she was leading me astray. If she only knew Carmen had a BB gun! I managed to keep that part a secret, but it didn't change anything. In the end, mother had her way and I had to stop going over to Carmen's house altogether.

When school began again, I saw Carmen at lunch the first day. We talked for a bit, but I was too embarrassed to tell her what had happened, so I suppose I sounded foolish. Within a few days, she was hanging around with a different crowd of older kids, and all we saw of each other was when we passed in the hall.

I was in eighth grade that year and Carmen was a freshman in high school. All six grades were combined in one large building at our school, so I still saw her, but as the year progressed, the demarcation between high school and junior high rose up like a stone wall. It programmed all of us so indelibly that we carried it into our adult lives.

I was so brokenhearted throughout the final years of my primary school that I never again socialized with the other kids. When my family finally moved to another state, I used the move to reinvent myself and leave my old personality behind.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

By the book – part 5

By the book - part 1
By the book - part 2
By the book - part 3
By the book - part 4

by Tom Gaylord

The next morning at breakfast, however, everything changed in one moment. When I came down to breakfast, I could see that my mother had been crying and my father seemed very quiet, as well. After I ate, my dad took me into the living room and told me that Grandma Sims had passed away the evening before!

I couldn't believe it! She was dead? I had just been with her all the day before and nothing seemed wrong. In fact, she seemed in great health to me. Dad said it had been very sudden and unexpected. She simply collapsed at her dinner table and was pronounced dead when the doctor arrived. A neighbor had been sharing dinner with her and he called the ambulance, but her doctor got there first.

The funeral was held three days later. It was the first funeral I ever attended, and I really let myself go, I'm afraid. I loved that woman so much! There was some kind of reception held at our house, but I stayed in my room and cried.

Over the next few days the family decided what to do with Grandma's place. All of the families got to take whatever they wanted from the house, but that didn't include my bow and BB gun, of course. I mentioned it to my dad and even tried to reason with him, but he knew how strongly my mother felt and he wasn't willing to go against her.

I was completely demoralized by the passing of my grandmother. Not only did it mean the loss of my most recently acquired prized possessions, it meant I would never see the grand old lady ever again. That sort of news comes hard to a youngster.

Well, what to do? I couldn't continue to mope around all the time, so after a few days of mourning I began to put my young life back on track. It was the middle of summer, so school was still a safe month and a half away, so I sought out my friends as a means to heal the wounds.

One evening about a week later we were all playing tag on a vacant lot and I happened to meet a new girl whose family had just moved in. Her name was Carmen and she was about a year older than me. She played tag real well and was faster than most of the kids including me, so I immediately respected her. After the game was over and I started home, she asked me to come over to her house the next day. I said yes without thinking, but the next morning in the sunlight I really felt foolish knocking on a girl's front door!

Monday, August 14, 2006

By the book – part 4

By the book - part 1
By the book - part 2
By the book - part 3

by Tom Gaylord

Inside, I found a bow and four colorful arrows. It looked like a serious weapon, and Grandma said it had a 40 pound pull, but I could see that—it was written on the inside of the wood, just above the leather handle. She said, "Let's take it outside and see how you do."

We got a large cardboard box and filled it with newspapers, then leaned it against the base of a large tree in her back yard. She told me how to put the string on the bow, but she said I had to do it myself. She said that was the way to tell if I was big enough to use that bow. Well, don't you know I would have been able to string that bow if it had belonged to Hercules, himself, after a remark like that!

Then she talked me through the shooting routine. I was standing about 20 feet away from the box, and I hit it on the first try. Several more gave the same results. It seemed as though I was born to shoot a bow. Finally, she suggested we back up to about 40 feet, and I was still able to hit the box on every try. Somehow, I knew where the arrow was going before I let go of the bowstring. I can't explain it; I just knew.

Then I asked Grandma to try, and to my surprise, she welcomed the chance. Her first shot went through the box at the point in the center where all four flaps were folded over each other! Dead center!

When I asked her how she did it, she seemed embarrassed and muttered something I couldn't hear about practice. I later learned that most people practiced archery during the Victorian era when my Grandmother was younger, and that she had been something of a local champion.

We continued to shoot that afternoon, and I suppose she snapped that picture of me while we were at it. When the day was over she told me I could leave my BB gun and bow at her house and could use them whenever I came over. I was overjoyed because now I not only had the chance to shoot as much as I wanted, I even had a shooting partner in my Grandmother, who, as far as I was concerned, was my new best friend.

I went home that day refreshed, knowing that, from then on, my life was going to be much better, now that I had a safe haven to visit. I didn’t know until then that there was even such a thing as pressure, but it was sure obvious when it went away! Life got better by a large amount.

Friday, August 11, 2006

By the book – part 3

By the book - part 1
By the book - part 2

by Tom Gaylord

I showed my find to my grandmother and she seemed to recall that the gun had belonged to one of my older uncles. "I doubt if he even remembers having it," she said. "Why don't you keep it?"

She must have known how much I wanted that old BB gun, it being one of the few real guns I had ever seen outside a picture. I knew absolutely nothing about how a gun worked, but Grandma did! She unscrewed the barrel—what I now know to be the shot tube—and dropped several drops of oil down the outer tube with the gun standing upright on its butt. "They need to be oiled a lot. Don't forget that, or it won't shoot hard for you."

From another box in the basement, she produced several tubes of lead BBs. She told me these were the kind the guns used to shoot before the war, and that my gun would only work well with them. "I don't think they still sell lead BB shot, but I have a friend who owns a gun store, so we'll find more for you when these run out. As I recall, the newer steel BBs are too small and hard to work well in these older guns. Plus, they bounce back pretty severely and have been known to put a boy's eye out."

That was the first time anyone had ever explained to me the universal fear all mothers seemed to have about BB guns putting out eyes. I had always thought everyone was afraid kids would intentionally shoot each other in the eyes with their guns, but that was not the case—or at least that's not how it got started. It seems that before the 1920s, all BB guns shot lead shot that didn't ricochet much at all. Then, in about 1925 or so, the BB guns makers began selling steel shot, and that's when the trouble began. A generation of boys used to using lead shot were suddenly getting maimed by the bounceback of the newer steel shot.

Nobody explained this to the public at the time, of course, and before long the mothers of America had banded together in a grass roots movement to keep the dangerous guns out of their son's hands. After another generation had passed, the phrase, "You'll shoot your eye out" was ingrained in everyone's mind, while the actual cause for it had faded into obscurity. In a single moment, my Grandmother had made all this crystal clear to me, as well as reinforcing the point that lead shot was all I should shoot in my new-old gun.

But the surprises were just beginning. Next, she took me over to another dusty corner where she got a stool to climb up to reach a box on top of some window frames. She brought it down and handed it to me, saying, "Go ahead—open it!"

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

By the book – part 2

By the book - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

Well, as you might imagine, guns were never on any author's good list, at least not in the literature my mother subscribed to. She had testimonies from various women's groups and even from some milksop men, claiming that the association with guns was the first step to a life of crime. As a result, I wasn't allowed to have any guns as toys, nor was I allowed to associate with kids who did. If my mother caught one of my friends with so much as a cap gun in his possession, it was tantamount to disaster. The young miscreant was invited to go home immediately, while my mother got his mother on the phone and bent her ear for an hour on the horrors of guns in the hands of kids. I suppose she was the butt of many jokes for this, but of course adults never talk about such things openly in front of kids.

A funny thing I only learned much later in life was that many women's magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and, much later, Redbook, wholly supported kids learning how to use guns. They often spoke of teaching young boys to be "manly" men, something a mother was supposed to hope for, I guess. But my mother never read those articles, or if she did, their message went unheeded. Guns were evil in her eye, and she continued to convince herself even if it took the writings of characters with whom she would not normally associate.

But over at my grandmother's, there was a sanctuary waiting for me. All the accumulated flotsom and jetsom of eight healthy kids (six boys!) was tucked not-so-neatly into every nook and cranny of the basement, attic and garage of her huge Victorian house. There were things there that I never knew existed and have never seen others since. And there were the more mundane things. Things a boy of 13 could relate to.

For one thing, and I thought it to be the most important thing, all of Grandma's boys had been shooters. Not just casual shooters—real dyed-in-the-wool get-up-at-four-in-the-morning-and-stay-out-till-dark shooters. Their firearms weren't at her house, of course; they had taken them when they moved out, but the remnants were still visible. Shooting trophies, stuffed game animals, antique reloading tools and books on shooting abounded in that house. There were photographs of all the boys pursuing their favorite shooting sports. Some were of hunting scenes, but most were from the range, and were dated about thirty years earlier. I even found some pictures of my father, who had apparently been something of an offhand rifle shot in his day.

Then one day I found what I was looking for. I hadn't known that I had been looking for anything in particular, but when I found it I knew it was what I wanted all along. There, in a red felt bag, was an old Daisy BB gun! It had obviously seen better days, but it could still be cocked and I hoped that it shot as well.

By the book – part 1

by Tom Gaylord

If you asked me what kind of shooting I did as a kid, I would probably tell you that I didn't shoot a gun until I entered the Army. But this picture tells a different story. When I saw it again after all the years it brought back a flood of childhood memories I hadn't thought about for forty years and more. The first, and by far the most important recollection was of my grandmother's house, which is where this picture was taken.

My family lived in a small town in northern Indiana. It was a town that my father's people had settled more than 150 years before, but by the time I came along it was fully developed and the only recognition of our family was the large number of headstones that bore the same name in the cemetery. I had missed the golden age of our family by about 75 years, according to the dates on those graves.

I used to go to the graveyard often because it was so close to our house. In fact, us kids played in the vacant part of the cemetery much of the time because there was so much land that was open and flat. On summer nights we used to go over there to catch lightning bugs and tell ghost stories among the tombstones. We thought it was a neat place to be.

But my grandmother's house was the best of all. It was the one place where I could really let my hair down and do the things I wanted to do all the time, but was not permitted to. My own home was not so nice.

My mother was raising her family according to books she would get, and we had various restrictions imposed by the whim of authors whom we had never met. If someone wrote about the dangers of breathing the night air, all the windows in the house were locked shut at dusk—no matter how hot and stifling it was. If alfalfa pills were touted as being good for the liver, we took them every day. If cow's tongue was considered brain food, we ate it at least once a week. Whatever the writer was touting, we followed along in perfect lockstep, never questioning the pedigree of the advice.

The funny thing was, a lot of the time one author would write something contrary to what another had said, and then we would go and do just the opposite thing that we had been doing, to comply with this newfound wisdom. My mother had no problem switching gears to the latest quack who obviously had the latest word. I can remember one day going from taking castor oil every day to seeing the bottle disposed of because it was thought to be a dangerous poison to young systems! I happened to agree with that view, by the way.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Little Chief – part 4

Little Chief - part 1
Little Chief - part 2
Little Chief - part 3

by Tom Gaylord

He and I served all the way through the Pacific, until I got hit on Iwo Jima and evacuated to a hospital ship. That was the end of the war for me, but my friend, who everybody called "Chief," went on to fight a few more days. Then President Truman requested that he be returned to the United States immediately.

You have probably seen him but don't know it. He is the last man in the famous photo and statue, "The flag-raising on Iwo Jima." His name is Ira Hayes. He's the man with outstretched arms who has just let go of the flagpole, raising the flag of the land he fought for—the same land that took his ancestral grounds and scattered his people to the four winds.

Ira died an alcoholic in 1954 at the age of 33, afflicted with that dreaded sickness that seems to plague the American Indian. I have the disease, myself, although I have never allowed it to manifest itself fully.

As I sit here in my comfortable home looking back over all the years, I think of Ira and of my grandmother who taught me so many things. My life will soon be over, but I have managed to touch the lives of others who will live on long past me. And I have finally discovered the secret to life on earth. It doesn't matter who you are or where you come from. What matters is how you behave and what you do with what you have. You are here long enough to have a small impact on mankind, then your turn is over and you are whisked away to the infinite.

My being part Indian did not affect my life one small iota, because I pretended that it wasn't true. I could get away with the lie because I didn’t look like an Indian. Even though I admired the American Indian, I was too afraid I’d be embarrassed if anyone knew that I had their blood in me. Well, nobody ever knew.

Ira could not do the same. He lived the life he was given and became one of our country's most well-known heroes, even though most people never knew his name. They looked down on him both before and after his brave act, but he never stopped being himself. That’s what makes a true hero. I wish now that I had possessed the bravery to be a real Indian.

Sandusky, Ohio, 1973

Monday, August 07, 2006

Little Chief – part 3

Little Chief - part 1
Little Chief - part 2

by Tom Gaylord

One day while we were alone in the shop, I asked my grandmother about the Indians of Ohio. She always seemed to know a lot of history, and could tell you things that weren't to be found in any book. Well, this day, she told me something that I haven't told another soul in all my life! She told me I was part Indian!

That's right. I am one-sixteenth Indian. Here's how it happened. My grandmother was half French-Canadian by birth. Her grandmother had been pure Indian and her grandfather had been a French fur trapper, before Canada was even a country. That made my grandmother one-fourth Indian, which made my mother one-eighth and me one-sixteenth American Indian. I was thrilled at the thought.

My grandmother told me about the Algonquin tribe, which was a strange tribe of people, some of whom had blond hair and blue eyes. They mostly died off in the later 1700s from smallpox brought in by the European immigrants—especially the French, who intermarried with them. By 1920, there were no more pure-blooded Algonquins left, and it was rare to even find someone who had their blood. I wanted to know more, so she arranged a trip for us to Ohio State University. I got to see the museum where a large number of artifacts were stored.

A man in the museum told me a lot about the Algonquin tribe, and we found out later that he wrote books on the subject, but of course he didn't mention that to us. He wanted to know why a six-year-old boy was so interested in a lost tribe, but I had been sworn to secrecy by my grandmother, so I couldn't tell him the real reason. She had explained to me that other people viewed Indians differently than I did and that it wasn't a good idea to tell people that I was part Indian for fear of what people might think.

As a result, I carried the secret all my life, never telling anyone who and what I really was. When I entered the Marine Corps in World War II, I discovered that grandma had been right—people really did care about such things and they could make life very difficult for those who carried Indian blood in their veins. I met and even became friends with a full-blooded Pima Indian in the Corps. He had very few friends in the unit and was razzed constantly about being an Indian. He even looked like one. In contrast to my blond hair and fair skin, his was dark brown and stretched tight over his high cheekbones.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Little Chief – part 2

Little Chief - part 1

by Tom Gaylord

Another bit of fallout from her shop were the airguns that passed through. Since they looked like guns to the widows, they came along with the rest of the estate property. Grandma had a much harder time selling them, so I often got to play with them and even to keep them for a while. A good Daisy BB gun would fetch all of fifty cents or so, and we would wait a year or more for it to sell, so there was always a nice selection of BB guns for me to enjoy. Like I said, I had no idea at the time what a perfectly wonderful life I was enjoying.

As kids, we played lots of different games, buy I suppose the best of them had to be cowboys and Indians. Almost every kid wanted to be a cowboy, with most claiming to be Wyatt Earp or Wild Bill Hickock. I, on the other hand, preferred to be an Indian for some reason. I suppose my grandmother's shop had something to do with the choice.

While we rarely had anything cowboy-related, we were in Ohio, which has a very rich Indian tradition. There were always lots of Indian artifacts in the store. I got to see arrowheads, moccasins, tobacco pouches, bows and arrows and sometimes even ceremonial dress items. I couldn't explain why these things fascinated me, but they did. Whenever I would go to the cinema and watch the cowboy reels, I knew the fights with the Indians were fake. If cowboys were such good fighters, why did General Custer get wiped out at the Little Big Horn? That was something my friends could never tell me.

I even had an Indian outfit that my mother made for me. It’s the one on the picture The clothes were made of real buckskin which my grandmother donated from her shop and the headdress was made of turkey feathers with the tips dyed black to look like eagle feathers. I was so proud of that outfit because I looked more like an Indian chief than any of my friends looked like the cowboys they were trying to be. At best all they had was an old fedora hat that someone had remodeled to look like a western Stetson.

When we played, we carried toy guns or BB guns, if we had them, although there was a strict rule that all BB guns had to be unloaded and never cocked. That rule was sanctioned by the mothers who would not hesitate to break up the game if they saw an infraction. Supposedly a kid had caught a BB in the cheek years before, which lead to the strict enforcement of the rule.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Little Chief – part 1

by Tom Gaylord

You grow up as a kid thinking that the whole world is exactly the same. That all kids are just like you and every place is like the places you've seen. Slowly, this fantasy begins to break down as your experience grows. Sometimes the breakdown is painful; other times it's delightful and still other times it can be just plain strange.

When I was a boy in 1920, life was pretty good. Although I had no way of gauging things then, in retrospect I see that I was well provided for and very fortunate in selecting my parents. My mother was a former debutante and my father was a successful lawyer, who later entered politics. My maternal grandmother also lived with us for a long time, so I got to know her quite well, too. She ran an antique store in our town, which afforded me the opportunity of seeing the finest furnishings, housewares and art that were to be seen in a small Ohio town. After I matured to adulthood and had a family of my own, my taste in furnishings was impeccable as a result of this long association.

But there was another reason I enjoyed my grandmother's company. She was a gun enthusiast! Through her dealings in the trade, she came across scores of fine firearms, many of which she bought and sold through her store. And the prices were unbelievable. Often, when a man would die, grandmother would be called by the widow and asked to dispose of certain items of the estate. If the man kept guns, these would almost certainly be at the top of the list. Many of the widows would feign great fear and loathing for the evil thundersticks and would not even touch them. They wanted the house to be rid of their evil spirits, and the sooner the better.

My grandmother began teaching me about guns when she saw I had an interest at a very early age. My father couldn't be bothered with them, except that he did attend the local shooting matches on holidays, simply because that's where all his clients were. But at home, his interests ran to the garden and to his new automobiles. Guns were of no interest whatsoever, despite the fact that his only son was completely captivated by them.

But grandma made up for his lack in spades! Often, when there was nobody in the shop, she would let me hold some of her guns as she narrated their story. I got to see rare 18th century Kentucky long guns, European fowling pieces, fine Schuetzen rifles, military guns of long ago and one time she had a Winchester model 1873 marked "One of One Thousand!" She didn't have that gun long and I never found out what it sold for, but the day she sold it she took the whole family to a fine restaurant for a steak dinner with all the trimmings. That much I remember.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Long time coming - part 3

Long time coming part 1
Long time coming part 2

by Tom Gaylord

About that time, my mother discovered the double life I’d been leading. She and my dad were attempting to transfer some of their finances to my bank as a show of support when someone blurted out that I was the talk of the Walnut Hill crowd. This distressed her greatly. So much so that the transfer never happened, I’m afraid. For several months I was persona non grata at home, where I fortunately no longer resided.

I was never forgiven my indiscretion, but things were patched back up on the surface, so I could return home at holidays and for short visits. Meanwhile, my success at the bank continued right up to the market crash in 1929, where so many investors were wiped out. Although my bank fared better than most, the depression was so universal that it soon locked up all commerce regardless of who had money. In fact, in those days it wasn’t safe to let folks know you had money, so we all just hunkered down and tried to wait it out.

But the depression finished off Walnut Hill for me. The Great War had tainted everything that had a German name attached to it, and of course our shooting was fairly riddled with them, so it became unpopular to talk about it in polite company. Then the depression took away most of the wealth, and the thing finally died on its own. Oh, the ranges were still there and you would see a few cranks out there from time to time, but gentlemen seemed to forget the halcyon days of the Election Day matches and the great shooters of the past. Fine offhand rifles by Schalk and Pope were bored out and remodeled into varmint rifles shooting bullets at 3,000 feet per second, and nobody wanted to shoot just one shot at a time at targets any more.

I retired after the Second World War and settled down to a life of relative leisure for the first time in my life, except it wasn’t a life I really wanted to live. The luster and grandness remembered from my youth had been replaced by the hustle and bustle of a world trying to rebuild itself again. There was little room for a man who wanted to spend a day at the range shooting a front-loading single shot cartridge target rifle. I could find no one to talk to who recalled the same glorious days I did. I was very lonely.

Then one day my mother passed away and I inherited her house and furnishings. It took several weeks to sort through the items I wanted to keep, and that’s when this picture was discovered again. It had hung in our parlor for many years, but after our great rift over Walnut Hill, it was consigned to a musty trunk in the attic.

When I saw myself holding that little Quackenbush again, all the desires and longings of my youth poured over me in a flood. Only I realized that now I was of an age and had the means to do something about it. So I set about seeking and acquiring the airguns and BB guns that had been denied to me as a boy. I am quite sure my mother was turning over in her grave at my actions but the time had come for the little boy to get his wishes fulfilled.

Over the next 12 years I acquired a collection of American airguns that was unrivaled, as far as I knew. There were Quackenbushes, Daisys, Kings and Markhams, as well as a hundred other makes of airguns less well known, but just as desirable to me. I traveled to Philadelphia in search of robust Columbian guns; to upstate New York to find the gorgeous nickeled Quackenbushes; to Michigan to find the greatest assortment of BB gun brands ever made; to St. Louis to scout out both the St. Louis airguns and the plethora of Benjamins that followed; and to many other cities to look in junk stores, gun stores and antique shops. My card is on file with more than 200 antique dealers today. Although I am never exactly certain, my collection numbers something over 4,000 of the diminutive shooters.

Today, I spend my time playing with my guns as I should have at the turn of the century. Although I own single shot rifles by Pope that will put five bullets inside an inch at 200 yards on a good day, my greatest thrills are holding and shooting guns that can’t do as well at 20 feet. That these little wonders can function at all using just plain air astonishes me, as does the genius that went into their construction.

Most of the airgun manufacturers are now gone, as are many of the people who actually made the guns. There has never been a book about any one of them, to my knowledge, so I have to fill my thirst by owning and admiring the guns, themselves.

Perhaps someday people will realize that nothing man makes is either good or bad. The thing is not what makes the good or the bad, it is the intent of the person using it. I lost a childhood from the mistaken belief that all guns are bad, and that, by not associating with them, one can be cleansed from the desire to shoot. In fact, that attitude is probably what gave force to the all-consuming desire I have today. If you are ever a parent or in a position of influence, you might consider my story before condemning an entire class of objects based on fear, alone.

San Francisco, 1959

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Long time coming – part 2

Long time coming part 1

by Tom Gaylord

My prep school was located in Massachusetts, in the hills overlooking Boston. It was supposed to be one of the top prep schools for Harvard, which is why I got to go, but what my mother never knew was that it was also allied with the most famous America rifle range of all—Walnut Hill.

By the time I got there, the range had been in operation for a long, long time. Some of the most famous offhand matches had been shot there, and the list of names of those who had graced the grounds was legendary. Even with her prejudice against guns, my mother had no doubt heard of the likes of Captain Hill, G.H. Wentworth, Mr. W. Lowe, Charles Hinman, Ross, and the great Harry Pope! They were the stars of the day, as famous as heavyweight prize-fighters and baseball players have become today. Their names were in all the prominent newspapers; indeed, the Boston Globe was one of their strongest backers and even fielded a team of women sharpshooters. Quite a progressive notion for the early part of this century.

As a student, I was offered a job pulling targets in the pits at Walnut Hill, which I accepted, of course. Through the low offices of that position, I met and associated with some of America’s finest shooters, as well as no limit of local gun cranks who also used the facility. Doctors, lawyers, and bankers were all a part of the great American pageant of rifle shooting at that time, and Walnut Hill became the place where they met to socialize and to conduct their business, as well.

In time, I was adopted in spirit by several wealthy gentlemen and my association with firearms began in earnest. They loaned me their second guns with the equipment I needed to make bullets and to load them. I bought the powder and primers from my earnings in the pits, and the lead was free for the taking—one of the advantages of being in the pits. I even cast lead pigs from some of the surplus and sold it to the members to get money for more powder and primers.

By the time I was accepted to Harvard, I was in solid with the group at Walnut Hill and could return at any time to shoot with them. At college, I joined the rifle team, where I was afforded the opportunity to continue my surreptitious studies without a break. My studies were in finance, but my time at the range proved to be as valuable as any three classes, from the contacts and associations I made.

After school I accepted a position with a Boston bank, where I was in the department that handles trusts. Through my connections at Walnut Hill, I quickly came to the attention of the Managing Director, who, though not a shooter himself, recognized that his clients all knew me by my first name and were most willing to see me professionally, despite my youth.