This blog post is hard for me to write. Not because it will be seen by some as controversial or depressing.
But because the subject is in the news every day. Presented to us as America’s unique and devastating problem.
In July of 1952, I was 14. Living in Phoenix and ready to attend high school. Feeling the intense heat of a desert summer, dwelling in a house with no air conditioning. Only evaporative (swamp) coolers.
But I was excited about the pending visit of my grandfather and step grandmother from New York State. They had lived in Phoenix for two years. Now returning for a visit.
Grandpa was an impressive guy. Handsome with a full head of graying hair he cut himself. Muscular with a rich tan. An analytical way of thinking that revealed a high degree of intelligence.
Everything he did or thought about was meticulously done. Even his handwriting looked like ancient calligraphy. One of his favorite pastimes was studying the dictionary.
He was a Mason and could recite pages of Masonic ritual. He loved practical mathematics like geometry, highly regarded in Masonry.
His self-discipline seemed impeccable. He occasionally smoked a pipe but would set it aside for months. He would eat what he needed, then stop when he thought he should. Upsetting my mother when so much food was left on his plate.
His mode of dress in Arizona was “western.” Because he loved the cowboy mystique of early day Phoenix. His attire was always impeccable. He took fastidious care of his 1949 Cadillac and the property surrounding the house he bought in 1950. Sold it two years later to return to New York.
They left Arizona, because my step grandmother hated the heat and life in a growing desert metropolis.
During the 1952 visit, Grandpa wanted to explore the possibility of returning to Arizona. My step grandmother loved Upstate New York. She had been raised by her father, a prominent merchant and community leader. She had inherited property and money. Grandpa accumulated only modest holdings from farming and a retail business.
In the first day of their visit, Grandpa gave me an ancient single shot 25-caliber rifle. He owned it when he was a boy. I was elated. Placed it in the closet of the bedroom my brother and I shared.
The next morning, the rifle was missing. My brother said he had not taken it. So I went to the kitchen. Mother and my step grandmother were chatting. My father had already left for his job. Grandpa was not in the house.
I went out the back door to see if Grandpa had gone to our workshop we called the “shed.” As I approached the shed, I saw my Grandpa lying in a pool of blood.
He had clamped the rifle into a bench vice and used it to shoot himself in the head.
No note was left. Just a diary in which he said he was depressed about turning 65. He didn’t want to face the inevitable aging deterioration. He dreaded leaving Arizona for the cold and gloomy New York winter.
My Grandpa’s suicide made me both angry and depressed. This was an era in which guns were glamorized in movies. Western fantasies about gun fights were prevalent. How could this gun, this gift, actually kill?
As I looked into my Grandpa’s open casket, I could not find the bullet hole in his head. The mortician arranged his abundant hair so no wound could be seen.
The police kept my rifle. I did not want it.
Over the years I realized Grandpa suffered from a psychological condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD diagnoses have existed for centuries. But only recently have they been classified as a medical dysfunction.
My relationship with real guns—with real bullets that can kill—started with my Grandpa’s suicide. With the rifle he gave me. In a shed where my father, brother and I spent many happy hours building and fixing things.
After that summer I enrolled in Phoenix Union High School. A large campus in the middle of the city. In those days Junior ROTC was a required program for freshman and sophomore boys. Each of us were given modified M-1 Garand rifles for training and drilling. The 1936 rifle was the model most used by the U.S. in World War II.
I was taught to disassemble and assemble the M-1 blindfolded. How to clean it thoroughly. I occasionally fired it in an indoor range. We were shown Army training films that explicitly told us how to use the rifle to kill the enemy.
Although I was still deeply affected by Grandpa’s suicide, I accepted my early military training. That was the way the world worked. Even with somewhat weak eyes, I became a good shot. Proud of my ability to participate in the manual of arms drill. Learned to be a good young soldier. Given the rank of Cadet 1st Lieutenant in my senior year.
A week after high school graduation I joined the Army and attended basic training in California. A special program called the “Reserve Forces Act.” After six months of active-duty training, I became a part-time soldier in a quartermaster unit based in Phoenix.
My parents encouraged me to follow that path to avoid the draft.
After the six months of active duty, I attended a local community college and participated in weekly army drills. I disliked the drills. They seemed like meaningless busywork. The same was true with summer camps.
I transferred to Arizona State University where a friend talked me into enrolling in Advanced ROTC. Completing that program would give me an officer’s commission in the Army. It seemed a good career move.
It was a good career move. But upon graduation I was assigned to armor. Tanks. Machines designed to intimidate and kill with considerable efficiency.
I was trained to be a tank unit commander and performed my duty to the best of my ability. Although I disliked the duty, I tried my best to be a good military leader. I was good at it. In tactics, weaponry, and leadership.
To serve my country as expected.
But the longer I served the more disgusted I grew with the idea and practice of war. How obscene the machinery of war became.
Even after receiving awards for my proficiency with tank weapons. Recognized for my skill at tactics. Even after becoming a captain and company commander.
Every day I served, Grandpa’s suicide haunted me. It still does.
Guns are just killing machines. The public’s fascination with guns is destroying the country I offered my life to serve. School children and other victims. Killed by military style assault weapons available on the open market. Killed by handguns owned by millions.
I despise our fascination with the weapons that kill us. And I accept that declaration as a form of service. To pass gun laws that make sense. To work to save the lives of our fellow Americans.
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