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The title is strange, even difficult, for me to write. “My Father’s Guns.” No phrase could misrepresent my father more than “gun owner.” To associate my father with guns is an act of mental violence — it feels like I have to force my mind to twist the truth of things. To associate my father with guns, even within the bounds of a single sentence, is to state the impossible, the paradoxical.
This is a true statement: My father didn’t own guns, and he had no interest in shooting them. This is another true statement: He handled guns, wore one against his body throughout much of his adult life, though I have never seen him so much as lay a finger on one.
This is a true statement: I didn’t grow up with guns in my house. This is another true statement: There were two guns in my house all along, even if I couldn’t see them.
I. The Gun That I Never Saw
My father served as an active member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 27 years, retiring from The Force at age 50.
To tell you that my father, as a police officer, regularly carried (and fired) guns tells you absolutely nothing about him. To begin to know my father is to know that he carried a gun home with him every working day of his life, and I grew up with absolutely no idea that this was so. I couldn’t even tell you its approximate size or shape, let alone the model. He hid it in his briefcase, I think. I can picture the briefcase quite vividly, light brown, a hard exterior, with its enchanted three-digit combination locks on each side. As a child, I assumed the locks on the briefcase were to protect important police documents, maybe some photographs or secret interviews with witnesses or even criminals. I can see the briefcase in his hand when he enters through the door after work. But that’s it. I don’t have memories of the briefcase anywhere else in the house. It’s only there, in his hand, when he walks in the door.
Growing up, I took tremendous pride in my father’s job. When I was very young it was a powerful card to play when schoolyard bragging rights were being sorted out: My dad’s a policeman. What more needed to be said? I knew the images that policeman conjured in the minds of my peers. I grew up in the bright lights and shadows of Lethal Weapon, Death Wish, Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard, RoboCop — the list is endless. Cops were tireless, seemingly immortal heroes, and the bigger their gun, the more impressive they were. This was empty bravado on my part, though, because in truth I did not think of my father as occupying a world that had anything to do with gunfire and bullets. Even then, the markers of my father’s career that existed in my mind had nothing to do with guns. There’s the briefcase, though I suppose this made him no different from a lot of professional fathers. I also remember the thrill of the red beacon that sat on the floor of the passenger’s seat of the car he sometimes drove to work. He dropped me off for kindergarten one morning and stuck the light to the roof and let it flash a few times as we pulled up. I couldn’t recall for you a single event that happened to me in all my weeks and months in kindergarten, but I remember that red light, flashing overhead, however briefly, flashing in time with my surging heart. And I remember our family owned a decommissioned police car for a while, which meant the back doors did not open from the inside, the rear windows only rolled down an inch or two, and you could see holes running across the inside of the roof where wire mesh once separated the back from the front. More bragging rights.
Think about that: My father was a police officer for my entire adolescence, and I never associated him — or his job — with guns. My father, for what it’s worth, loved “Columbo,” and I remember watching this show with him. Columbo, the homicide detective who confronted the murderer, usually alone, at the end of every episode, and never drew a gun or fired a shot. Did he even carry one? I suppose so, but the character’s unique energy on screen was generated, at least in part, by the fact that a gun was completely alien to who he was and what he needed to do. “Columbo” was my favorite too.
Picturing my father holding a gun is hard for me to do, though I know he did. Did he ever have to draw his weapon while on duty? Did he ever pull the trigger? I’ve never found the courage to ask these questions. He has never spoken to me of such things, never uttered the merest hint or whisper. What does it cost you to pick up a gun, not in anger or in the name of ideology, but in the service and defense of a community? Again, I lack his courage and have never asked. The only evidence I have that he ever fired a gun is his hearing loss, eardrums ravaged in his youth by unprotected hours, year after year, training at the firing range.
He had every excuse and a lifetime of opportunity to champion guns, to argue that they were a vital tool of civilized society, to boast of his familiarity with them, to describe in glorious, manly detail the way they feel in your hand, what the recoil of a gunshot feels like in your shoulder and chest, how the acrid smoke might burn in your eyes and nose and mouth. He never did. Never once.
When I picture him holding anything in my memory, it is most often a book or the newspaper. These are the items I saw him wielding on a daily basis, and I know it is not entirely coincidental that books have become the tool central to my own life’s work.
II. The Gun That Was Always There
In 1973, Winchester Canada produced a commemorative rifle in honour of the one hundredth anniversary of the RCMP. Fewer than 10,000 of these rifles were available for purchase. Another set of these guns — just over 5000 of them — were made available exclusively for members of The Force. In addition to a gold medallion embedded in the stock, these guns had gold plating on the barrel, the stock, the butt plate, and the forearm cap. My father bought one of these rifles. It hung in our house for as long as I lived there. It hangs there still.
I didn’t know, growing up, that it was a Winchester. I could see the gold plating, obviously, glinting as I passed or catching light from the window, but terms like butt plate and forearm cap would have meant nothing to me — these terms mean very little to me even now. I had to look up the history of this gun and its specifications as I started writing this essay. We didn’t talk about this rifle hanging in our house. There didn’t seem to be any need to. It was just there, like a piece of furniture, no different than a lamp, the coffee table, the familiar spines of books staring out from their place on the shelf. It was not there to be a topic of conversation when guests or family were over. I don’t recall my father talking about this gun with anyone when I was around, though I’m sure he must have been asked to explain its story a time or two.
I imagine my father bought the gun because he was proud of his job, proud to serve, proud to be a part of histories and traditions larger than himself. The gun certainly made me proud. I would catch myself staring at it from time to time. It symbolized for me everything that I idolized about my father as a policeman: his courage, his sacrifice, his honour. And yet the strange part is that in staring at it, I somehow didn’t think of it as a gun. I realize that might not make sense. I’m not sure I completely understand it, especially given how viscerally I have come to loathe and fear the presence of guns in our world. Instead, the rifle was a signpost or map pointing the way to who he was outside our home, of which he did not speak. The rifle’s symbolic power — its existence in my mind as an object, a relic, a trophy, and not a weapon — is, I think, due to the fact that I could not imagine my father ever wielding or firing the rifle or anything like it. The gun on the mantle epitomized in my burgeoning mind who I understood my father to be: an honest man trying to make the world a better place, or at least stop it from getting worse for just another day, and this endless, largely thankless, task had nothing to do with pulling a trigger.
I often wonder if the omnipresence of my countless books works in the minds of my own children like this rifle worked in mine, that they see my books but don’t see my books, that they are a vital means by which my children understand who I am, part of the skin I wear, invisible in plain sight.
This commemorative Winchester is the only gun I have ever held. Home alone, age thirteen or so, I stood in front of the hearth of the cold fireplace, reached up, and lifted it from its place on the wall. I stepped down, holding it in one hand, then in both. I felt the weight of it pulling on my thin arms, ran my hand across the dark, grainy whorls of the wooden stock. I lifted it to my shoulder, wrapped my finger to the trigger. Pressed it tight to my shoulder. Felt the way my body shaped itself around the gun. I looked down the barrel. I was old enough to feel, for just a brief red flash, the repulsive thrill of existing within a long lineage of men holding guns. Opposite our fireplace was a small nook paneled with mirrored squares. I turned to the mirrors, body still taut with aiming, and saw fragmented pieces of myself looking down the gun, into my own eyes. I saw myself, disembodied, posing with the gun. I did not pose for very long. I put the gun back. I never touched it again.
My father’s gifts continue to reveal themselves to me, even now, when I am a man fully grown, separated from him by time and space. I wish I would have recognized and appreciated many of them when I was younger. These last two sentences are true statements, and together they are also, impossibly, paradoxically, one of his enduring gifts to me, given thoughtfully, silently, compassionately, privately, courageously: My father’s guns were somewhere within arm’s reach my entire life. My father’s guns did not exist.