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My Father's Gun

MY FATHER had a gun.

One handgun.

A German Luger. A souvenir from WWII.

We never talked about it. My dad didn’t say much about the war. He might have told a funny story on occasion, like the one about how he once fell so sound asleep in his foxhole that he didn’t realize the entire squadron had moved out until he felt the rumbling of German tanks overhead. Better to play dead than be dead, he reasoned.

But the more grotesque scenarios of combat he kept to himself. It was those memories that most haunted his dreams.

The Luger sat in a shoe box on the top shelf of my parents' bedroom closet. No ammo, just the revolver wrapped in an old towel.

And there it remained for, oh, about 45 years, until I came upon it while clearing out the family home after my mom passed away.

What to do with this?

I DECIDED TO GIVE it to a cousin who is a hunter, a responsible man who I knew would appreciate the Luger as a military keepsake. He made a shadow box for the gun and hung it on his home office wall, amid business citations and hunting trophies.

I had uncles and other cousins who were hunters, too. Every fall, my grandmother prepared a “game dinner” where the family would eat whatever bounty they brought home -- mostly deer, pheasant, and maybe a rabbit or two.

So guns were a part of my childhood. But I never gave them a second thought. I never feared them because real gun violence during that time was pretty much relegated to criminal activity like garden variety bank robberies and break-ins, and the occasional high-profile mob hit.

Mass killings were anomalous events. In 1949, paranoid schizophrenic Howard Unruh gunned down 13 people in his Camden neighborhood. But there wasn’t another mass murder in the U.S. until the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966.

When I was a kid, gun violence was mostly the stuff of “war TV” and westerns -- shows like “Combat” and “Gunsmoke.”

People weren’t randomly shot on a daily basis. Guys didn’t strap on AR-15s for a performative stroll through the local bargain store. Gunmen in full body armor didn’t storm schools and level entire classrooms full of kids in the span of a few minutes.

And nobody talked about the Second Amendment.


Yet, people owned guns. Used guns frequently. And Americans didn’t care. Why would they? We didn’t have 390 million guns, and counting, circulating through the general population. And the vast majority of weapons that did exist were not pointed at humans.

As the horror of the Uvalde massacre reminds us, we are trapped in a circle of gun-violence hell that kills more than 45,000 people a year in the U.S.. Sadder is the fact that no one seems capable -- make that willing -- to enact sensible laws that would curb the insanity.

I ONCE ASKED my father what was the worst thing he ever saw during the war. I didn’t expect him to answer. But, to my surprise, he quickly responded.

“I guess it would have been when I saw a man’s face from the inside out. Everything else had been blown away.”

As I think back on that horrific image now I realize the frightening full-circle we have traveled. The Uvalde 4th-graders were simply enjoying the Disney film “Lilo & Stitch" as a year-end treat when they, too, were suddenly “blown away” by a weapon of mass destruction. The bodies of these 19 innocents were so mutilated, their parents had to submit DNA samples for identification.

We are now waging war with ourselves.

Among the medals my dad wore on his Veterans of Foreign Wars uniform during special days of remembrance like today, Memorial Day, was a Purple Heart with three Oak Leaf Clusters. This means he was shot four times during his WWII service. The wounds left him with a limp from shrapnel in his legs and a long scar across the top of his head.

He also wore the Combat Infantry Badge (pictured above), awarded only to infantrymen involved in active ground combat and who fought under hostile fire.

Those who have experienced war -- soldiers who have borne witness to the madness of stalking violence – know all too well what military-grade hardware can do to human flesh.

Yes, my father came home from the war with a gun. But he never fired it, or any other weapon, ever again.

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