Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy # 17

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." -
The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

One day my father bought a rifle. This was when my parents still lived in a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. My sister was a mere tot and I had yet to be born. He just came home with it one day, shocking my mother. He had never thought to discuss it with her.  She was unhappy about it, thinking Jews just aren't the kind of people who own guns. My father was thinking, if every Jew had a gun. . . . What happened in Germany wasn't about to happen to him.  He placated my mother by allowing her to buy a rug.

The war and the rise of fascism were still fresh in my parents experience during the late Forties.  And then Joe McCarthy took office. My father regarded the Senator from Wisconsin a danger.  He considered the House Committee on Un-American Activities a threat.  He feared the government might start rounding up those folks possessed of unusual political views. So while lots of conservative thinking individuals were arming themselves against the Communist, my father, regarding it his sincere Patriotic duty, armed himself against Senator McCarthy.

My father became a collector of firearms, swords and knives. The antiques decorated a wall in the living room of our suburban home.  He kept an arsenal of modern weapons in his bedroom closet. He became a Life Member of the N.R.A. [National Rifle Association] and adopted their cause as his own. If the N.R.A. knew my father better, they might not have wanted him for a member. During the sixties, believing that, like Jews, the Blacks should protect themselves from Fascist goons and a potentially despotic government, he sold semi-automatic pistols to the family members of our Black maid. He also sold handguns to a few hippie radicals.

It escaped my father's understanding why his young son didn't want real guns. I wanted toys to play with. "Why do you need toys when you have the real thing?" my father would reply. I'd whine that I couldn't play with real guns because I couldn't point them at people. And my father would say, "You shouldn't even point a toy gun at somebody." When I played battle games with friends, they always had to supply the make-believe weapons.

My father never locked his guns away. I could play with them when my friends were not around. I played with the antique flintlocks from the wall. They were fascinating pieces, deviously complex. One had a switchblade that would spring forward when the trigger guard was tugged back. Another had four barrels. When the top two were expended, you could clutch the barrels and revolve the unit for the next two. And I knew my way into the large, black carrying-case in my father's closet. It unfolded to reveal a row of modern weaponry, revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, and derringers. The case also contained boxes of bullets. Still I didn't even have to go to my father's closet to find guns. A 30-30 Winchester hung on the wall of my bedroom. A beautifully engraved Browning squirrel rifle rested in a case in my closet.

Only once did my father and I try hunting. We went in pursuit of pheasant with two other men. The pheasant is a colourful, long-tailed bird, far too exotic in appearance to seem a native of my country. The pheasant was, in fact, brought here from China by sportsmen interested in hunting and eating them. Often you don't see them until they suddenly eject themselves from the bush. I almost blew the head off one of my partners, sweeping the shotgun past his face while I followed the flight of an escaping fowl. It was a long day of traipsing up hill and down, and we succeeded in killing only one rabbit, and one poor puppy. The puppy, brought along with an older dog, was being introduced to birding. The elderly man leading our small pack of hunters had his shotgun fire off without warning, with the safety still on. The unfortunate puppy just happened to be there. A piece of the shotgun's stock blew off to wedge itself deep into the flesh between our guide’s index finger and thumb. He was insensitive to his own pain and the bleeding. He was weeping for the innocent young dog. My father and I lost our taste for hunting.

I am happy to say I deserved my father's trust, for the most part.  Before playing with any gun, I checked the magazine and chamber, I knew with certainty that the gun was completely empty. Having grown up in the company of firearms, I was trained and retrained to have a healthy respect for the damage they could do. And still -

Tony was a new friend, freckled, red-haired, and a bit reckless. He was quick to anger and seemed to enjoy a fight. He genuinely liked me, and since I liked being liked, I hung out with him. He was untypical of my other friends, but like me, he had a father who collected guns.

Once, just once, I went over to his home, which was in another section of Levittown. For me in my youth it was an adventure. The houses there were all alike, just like they were all alike in my neighbourhood, but even though his community was built of the same components, they were built in a different basic pattern. It was slightly eerie and not exotic, not as if I had ventured somewhere distant, but as if I had passed into an alternate dimension.

We went up to Tony's room and he showed me his rifle. He had an M-1 carbine from the Korean War. So did my father. And then he took from a box of shells a brass .30 caliber cartridge with a dark bullet mounted in its narrow neck. I was staring at live ammunition. There were no little hole drilled into the casing to remove the powder.  And as I watched he loaded it in front of me, making a very obvious show of it. The cartridge was in the chamber, pointing down the barrel. Tony smirked and started to point the barrel towards me.

I complained. I told him you must never point a gun at someone else, even as a joke. He laughed and told me the safety was on. Then he pulled back the bolt and the cartridge sprung free of the rifle. He put it in his pocket. I didn't like that. And then he wanted to go outside to play with the carbine.

Never, never, never had I taken guns out of the house to play. I don't mean the times I went with my father target shooting, or for trap or skeet shooting, but to just run around in a child's imitation of battle, this I could never do with a real gun. Tony said, why not? He did it all the time.So he gave me - what did he give me?, I no longer remember. It could have been a deer rifle, a handgun, even a toy. Whatever it was, I remember feeling unfairly disadvantaged. I went outside to play with him to show him my good faith. How bizarre, we went running about in the backyards between suburban homes playing at war, shooting at each other, and me secretly worrying about that real bullet and what had become of it.

It was the last time Tony and I played together. I was determined to avoid him after that.

Years past and one day I was a father with a son of my own. As a child, my son seemed unable to distinguish plaything from real weaponry. His obsession for weapons frightened me. I gave all my guns back to my father to sell. My son grew up and joined the Army, is still in the National Reserves, and last I heard was going out to buy a gun before the laws grew more restrictive. For myself, I have not seen fit to replace the guns I have given up.

In old age my father began selling most of his more valuable firearms and blades to pay his debts. But several he held on to, feeling them necessary for protection. He would not be separated from his loaded .25 Mauser, small enough to fit in a pocket, and this piece he carried everywhere he went, even out of the State.  I asked him to put it away, for the sake of the kids.  I was afraid he might accidentally shoot one of us in the middle of the night.  He was intractable and would not surrender his loaded gun. One afternoon he accidentally shot the gun off in the house.  This contributed to our decision that it wasn't safe having him live with the rest of my family.  Towards the end, while he was living alone in an apartment in Trenton, all his judgement lost to old age, his remaining handguns, and everything else of value, were stolen by the whores and petty crooks he invited up to his apartment. Every weapon he once owned is now in unknown hands.

For three years following his death, his monthly copy of "American Rifleman", the official journal of the National Rifle Association of America came to my home to be trashed.  My British wife saw this tactic as a way of costing the N.R.A. money.  Finally I called the N.R.A. and informed them that my father was no longer a life member.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the sixteenth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.