Hanging on the wall of our hallway is one of my most prized possessions: a Winchester Model 37 single shot 410 shotgun. The trigger guard rattles from decades of wear and the wooden stock is now showing signs of cracking.
Though the thought of looking up the gun’s value has never once occurred to me, I have no doubt that if I were to look it up, I’d discover what I already know: The gun isn’t worth very much money. Though this may be true, there still isn’t enough gold in the world that would be enough for me to part with this aging firearm.
The gun was already showing signs of aging when it was presented to me by my father way back when I was in the first grade and its overall condition has gone from acceptable to poor over the past two-dozen plus years — like football and turkey, the 410 shotgun has come to personify the fall of the year and though my team has let me down more often than not, this gun has been a reliable friend through adolescence and into adulthood.
I’m well aware that the notion of giving a first grader a shotgun may sound absurd to someone from outside of Appalachia, but the truth is that for many a young mountain boys from my generation and back, being presented a first gun was a holy right of passage — signifying that you had proven yourself worthy of such a great responsibility.
“This was my dad’s gun and he gave it to me when I was just a boy — now I’m giving it to you,” whispered my father, as the two of us were seated alongside each other under a giant oak tree on our Virginia farm.
Back in those days, I would squint and jerk each time my tiny fingers would squeeze the trigger, bracing myself for a kick that my 6-year-old body could barely stand; however, as I grew older, the gun was replaced by more powerful shotguns and deer rifles — yet this simple single shot 410 shotgun remained my sentimental favorite.
It would be impossible to know how many hours of my childhood were logged under a large hickory tree as I scanned the autumn tree canopy overhead in hopes of spotting movement that would signal that a squirrel was somewhere nearby. The ones unlucky enough to connect with the end of the barrel would find their legs in my mother’s crockpot, while their brain would be delivered to Mr. Moore, our 80-year-old neighbor whose taste buds and stomach were a little more hardcore than ours!
Yes, for those not raised in the hills and hollers of home this may sound disgusting or even cruel, but from the time I was just a child these practices have simply been a way of life — no different than children in the African bush or Amazonian rainforest are taught by their fathers to hunt for small game near their homes. In the past, to be an Appalachian male meant being taught to hunt and generally the first animal children were taught to hunt were squirrel.
As the joys of elementary school gave way to the pressures of high school, I never once ever considered taking this gun to school and doing harm to anyone — I was raised to appreciate guns, but also to fear them, knowing that once that trigger is squeezed its effects are lasting and irreversible.
The world I knew back then has changed drastically. Sadly, many of these changes have not been for the better nor have they made us safer. The raging gun control debate has many elements and features a lot of well meaning people on all sides — I’m not interested in weighing in on this argument; however, I will unapologetically say that I pity a generation that has never known the simple delight of having their father take the time to present to them a family heirloom amid the sounds or rattling autumn leaves blanketed by a patchwork of rich fall colors.
Guns should neither be worshipped nor loathed, but seen for what they truly are: wood and metal intricately pieced together in such a manner that the person who holds it wields great power. I know this to be so, because each time I hold this gun, I am transported by its power to the time I was “knee high to a grasshopper” standing alongside my father who was excitedly whispering “Shoot it, son.”
These days, I often find myself passing up some of my more expensive hunting rifles and large gauged shotguns for the pleasure of walking alongside my daughters with that old 410 shotgun.
No longer do I see myself as the owner of granddaddy’s gun, but rather as its steward. I know that one day in the not too distant future, just as my grandfather was lowered into the ground, so will I. When this day comes, I want my daughters and grandchildren to cherish the same memories I have of my father and grandfather — memories of deep conversations about life while blanketed by the Appalachian forest, with granddaddy’s gun leaned against a tree trunk.
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