There are memories buried in the chipped and faded veneer of my grandfather’s shotgun, and there are stories in it that I can only invent, not discover buried in the slowly growing rust and caked oil of the barrel. It is a Springfield-Savage model 511 shotgun, at least twice my age. Like many other facts about the gun, its age is guesswork. From a cursory online search, I learned only that the Springfield-Savage name was removed from that model in 1948.
The gun must be at least 65; my grandfather would be 92 this year. I’d like to think that he acquired it at the age of 30, like I did. It is a comfort that our lives be tied together by more than bloodline and fading childhood memories. It is a comfort to be able to hold something that I knew my grandfather held.
My grandfather never told me much about the gun. After his hospitalization and then death, it remained in a torn, slightly oily leather case in the back of my father’s closet. The gun was left to me, but I was not told that until much later. My grandfather was a fisherman, raising his family in the Florida Panhandle, living a life that is quite opposite of what I have lived. I am a city-slicker, more or less, an academic and the son of an academic, but my present-day life is the direct result of 4 am wake-ups on the water and taking tourists to catch marlin 50 years in the past.
My grandfather took me fishing, and always promised that he would take me shooting when I got older. I got older, but diabetes kept my grandfather bed-ridden for the last years of his life; consequently, I learned how to shoot in rather poor fashion in haphazard manners. The stigma of an urban Mexican-American teenager becoming proficient in firearms in the 1990s was too much for my parents. My grandfather was the quintessential American sportsman in many ways, and he wanted me to learn of that pleasure, but I never did.
Every summer and spring break for the past 4 years, I have come to Oregon to slowly undo this, and thanks to my friend Dante “The Backwoods Blaxican” Zuniga-West, I am slightly less a creature of only urban comforts. I visited him for break yet again, but this time, it was something more. My father reminded me of the shotgun, idling away in his closet, and perhaps it was the newly found batch of pictures of my grandfather that stirred an intense feeling to hold something of these memories, to embrace metal and smell gunpowder. I took the shotgun, drove up from Los Angeles, stopped by Bi-Mart with a list from “Backwoods,” and headed to his home. There, I sanded down the stock, re-varnished and polished my grandfather’s gun. I took a toothbrush and WD40 to every millimeter of metal that I could. I oiled the break and repeated the motion a hundred times to clear at least two decades of neglect from the gun.
It is not the prettiest shotgun, but it is the most beautiful gun that I have ever seen. There are scratch marks from rust removal, the varnishing could have been a bit richer and the metal could be bluer, but it is mine. It kicks like a mule, but it shoots clean and accurately. It smells like sweet burning wood after it fires. When I felt the barrels, warm with use, I though of how long those barrels had been cold, and I would like to think that my grandfather is quite pleased with this.
What I feel, now that I have cleaned and fired my grandfather’s gun isn’t about the joy of owning one’s first firearm. It isn’t about participating in an activity that my grandfather enjoyed or the thought of taking the gun deeper into the field to test myself with it against something that has more survival instinct than a shooting clay. It is about the thought that this gun is the physical memory of a man, a good man who never got to teach me how to shoot it. That man will never take grouse, duck, or pheasant with that gun. We will never sit down and clean it together. But I will. He can never be the one to teach me how to shoot it, but maybe being taught is the best that I can manage, so that I can be the man who teaches my own grandchildren how to use it.
A guest article By Daniel Ruiz.