02 June 2022

My father's guns


My father, Harald Maurer, died on Thursday, March 9, 1995. I was in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, when I got the news the next day. A few days later, I was in Zion, Illinois, visiting the funeral directors chosen by my mother from the Yellow Pages, and learned that she had directed them to bury my father without ceremony in a cemetery about ten miles away. There was a Veterans Administration-associated cemetery only five miles away, but my mother did not want his grave to be that close.

(More about my father in last week's post.)

I had no chance to influence these arrangements, or I might have been able to correct the information on his death certificate and the marker on his grave. His name was Harald, not Harold. The "Korea" on his marker might refer to the "police action" that was going on at the time of his service, but he was in U.S. military intelligence in Germany during his service, not in Korea. He was born in Ullensvang, Norway, not in Bergen. Well, at least the dates are correct.

When I collected my father's effects from the Decedent Affairs Office at the VA hospital where he lived his last year, and then died, and the few remaining items of his at my mother's apartment, I realized that these things would be my sole inheritance from him. He loved electronic gadgets, apparently; I brought home a collection of calculators, a pocket-sized shortwave radio, a digital dictionary, a shirt-pocket cassette recorder, and even a pocket-sized television. After my mother died, I also inherited her father's collection of Japanese art, but I have no idea what happened to the Japanese swords that enchanted me when I was a child. Were they sold for liquor? I never found out what happened to the family trust from which I had been disinherited when I left home.

There is one more item of my father's that I haven't mentioned—the jewel of my father's miniature treasures, his .25 caliber Beretta. I had never seen this handgun before, and actually I had never seen any handgun that was such a beautiful piece of machinery.

I was actually fascinated and a bit disturbed by my own admiration for this thing that was intended to fire lethal projectiles. The first thing I did was to walk over to the Zion police department and ask whether there was any program for collecting loose handguns from the public. The officer at the desk laughed and said no, and suggested that if I didn't want the gun, I should sell it. Just like that.

The gun came with a box of ammunition, and Judy decreed, reasonably, that if I kept the Beretta, I had to store it far away from the ammunition. I hid the gun at home, and the ammunition in a closet at my office. I told a colleague at work about the gun, and he offered me $175 for it. Without doing any research, I accepted the proposed amount and said goodbye to this beautiful and troubling souvenir of my father.

There is one ritual I now wish I had done before selling the gun, but at the time I didn't really want to display it to my children. We had never had to deal with the issue of toy weapons in our home, and I didn't want to give an occasion for gun culture to enter in. But the regret is real, and it links to some of my favorite memories of my father.

In my growing-up years, my father owned two semi-automatic pistols. One was an old Luger that he had brought home from Germany after his military service there. I don't remember the other one, even though I've spent too much of today looking at pictures of handguns, and videos of handgun maintenance, hoping I'd recognize it. In any case, my memories concern his annual practice of disassembling,  cleaning, and lubricating the guns.

Ellen and I were welcome to sit and watch him do this. The scene looked somewhat like this picture, although the picture here shows us assembling a science kit. Step by step, he removed the magazines, disengaged the various catches and removed the actions, carefully cleaned the barrels and the individual parts with soft cloth and solvents and lubricants that smelled divine to me—these remain the scents that I most strongly associate with my father. I remember how carefully he laid out the parts of the guns on a special tablecloth only used for this purpose, and I can still recall the sharp snapping sounds when the pieces fit together again correctly. 

While doing this annual ritual, he spoke to us about never pointing a gun at anyone, even as a joke, even an unloaded gun, even a toy gun. The only other category of object he and my mother ever talked about with such reverence was books. Interestingly, our house was totally filled with books, but I never discovered where my father stored his guns.

My father never told us why he was so adamant about gun safety, but there's something I remember about both of my grandfathers. Both of them were in direct contact with war; both refused to romanticize it. My father's father was a lieutenant in the Norwegian resistance, but there he sometimes found himself talking young Norwegian hotheads out of anti-Nazi terrorism because of the awful consequences for innocent civilians. My mother's family was on the receiving end of U.S. bombs, in Kobe and Osaka, Japan.

One of the most distressing aspects of our polarized, lie-filled political culture is the charge that people like me want to take guns away from the gun zealots. I asked my own dear Trump-supporting relative whether she realized that her political heroes told lies about me: "If the Dems win, they'll take away your guns." I have absolutely no desire to infringe the right to keep and bear arms; I've even advocated giving guns to citizens! I just want to reduce to an absolute minimum any chance that they will be pointed at human beings. My gun-owning father's warnings still echo in my mind.

If free speech hits its limit if someone yells "fire" in a crowded theater, then gun freedom has a limit as well: it should prevent someone going into a church or school or hospital or grocery store with a lethal weapon and a deadly chip on their shoulder. And when that does happen again, as it will, I want to see a chain of registrations from manufacturer, to seller, to buyer, that gives law enforcement a chance to find out where the safeguards broke down. I want to infringe the rights of gun worshippers to normalize gun exhibitionism as a political signal.

Extremists usually have an advantage in any political struggle—they are ready to devote maximum effort to their passion, with minimum regard for fairness, while moderates just want to get along. It's time for those who cherish fairness to show some passion, too. Here's what is happening to me: I'm tired of being lied about.

How do Friends relate to military veterans, and to the varied effects of war? (Personal note: World War II killed 52 million people ... and formed my family across enemy lines.) (Thanks to Jim Fussell/Facebook for the link.)

Alisa Ruddell and the missing Mother of God (fascinating review of Beth Allison Barr's The Making of Biblical Womanhood).

Claire Flourish looks at Britain Yearly Meeting 2022, and her own participation. It's a tender description that doesn't require any comment from me.

Derek Lamson updates his Web site ... and note the free download!

Maggie Bell and Albert Collins, "Stormy Monday."

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