It is Sunday evening and the day’s duties and goings are finished.
Ruvonna and I are relaxing in the Gun Room; she is reading and I am lounging on the couch waiting to watch The Walking Dead with the boys. An image appears spontaneously in my mind of an iron sight picture: a hooded bead front nestled in a U-notch rear, an image once familiar but which I have not seen for a very long time.
I rise and open a vault, shift one front row rifle aside and remove a hefty, long-barrel bolt action .22 Rimfire from its place. I put it to my shoulder and aim at the white, brightly lighted ceiling. The imaginary sight image becomes real, and through my reading glasses, as clear and crisp as when my young 20/12 eyes could impose it sharply on a groundhog or squirrel head.
The old rifle is over 50 and carries the name Western Field, M820A. It is an icon that came from icons: a First Gun Daddy had bought for me for Christmas 1957 at the old Montgomery Ward retail and catalog store once on Second Street in downtown Maysville.
Its maker, O.F. Mossberg & Sons, unlike Ward’s and the vibrant Maysville downtown of that day, is still a part of our world as the oldest family-owned American gun maker, enduring as a purveyor of solid value, blue collar firearms. Those were the times when in addition to Ward’s there were a J.C. Penney, and Merz Brothers department stores, an A & P, grocery, Woolworth’s and GC Murphy “10-cent stores,” three drug store soda fountains, and a host of local-owned small businesses where you could buy anything from comic books to new cars of all three major auto makers right there in downtown.
Second Street and the shops were always full of folks back then, milling in and out, and standing on the street chatting; walk around long enough on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon and you could see and greet just about anyone. O vanished days!
I once did an Internet search of the model number and found the corresponding Mossberg name rifle. I learned that this model, offered in several variations, has a serious following of devotees and collectors, but that my chain store piece—though a scion of the blood—like a child of his Lordship’s outside philandering, has a lowlier place in the Mossberg family.
My first rifle has aged well. Of solid metal and cured hardwood parts, it has thrived on only sporadic attention and careful storage, oblivious to any scheme of destruction short of catastrophe, unlike fathers and businesses and the downtowns of small cities.
I remove the spectacles and the sight image becomes a haze, causing me to remember a remarkable shot I made with the rifle along the railroad just east of Shanty Hollow. I was young and inexperienced, with much to learn about the nuances of shooting and it had puzzled me why I couldn’t see the sights while aiming at a young groundhog posed next to a den in the deep woods shadows at the foot of the River Hill bluff while I stood in the full sun glare of the tracks. But I had centered the animal in the hood and shot it dead through a fog as obstructive as the one that now plagues my diminished eyes.
I time-surf as I hold the old rifle, not in linear time, but back and forth to episodes and places. It was here at Owl Hollow on Christmas Day that I first fired it. Daddy gave me a gun and took me shooting, but he did not teach me to shoot. That I learned on my own through long trial and error.
Nor did the Western Field and I become instant prodigies as game slayers. It was four years before we achieved a seminal moment of bloodletting on a large groundhog that was raiding Mamaw Lutie Bette’s garden up the road where the old chimney still stands, and it was a year later before we got the next one in the same place.
By then I had holed enough tin cans and shot enough water snakes from the sycamore roots above our Water Hole in Owl Hollow to have learned something about precision bullet placement, and I head-busted a young groundhog from some distance like a seasoned killer as it peered from a den along the foot of the Ross Hill bluff.
I can’t recall exactly when it happened because it came as an unfolding process, not an instant event, but at some point in the next few years I became a rifleman. The Western Field and I grew up together. It may seem strange to non-gun folks to personify an inanimate object like this, but I think true gun fanciers who hunt can empathize with the notion. We form bonds with our guns by carrying them into fine wild places, by contact with game animals, and—I will not hedge around the stark truth—by killing with them, and the longer we adventure and the wider our experience grows with a particular firearm, the gun itself seems to develop what some cultures would call “medicine.”
It becomes more likely that opportunities occur when we are out with a favored gun that has such “medicine”—“power” might be a less esoteric term—and we come to believe that the weapon we are toting is more than just a technically well-made, sound-performing piece of equipment. We sense an abstract virtue in such a gun that can help make good things happen and when the critical time arrives, we and the gun will fuse wills to bring a successful conclusion.
There was another maturity burgeoning along with the rifle and me. In 1963 I got a black-and-tan part-hound puppy, which I named Junior. By age two, he was catching and treeing groundhogs and treeing squirrels. It was in the fall of ’65 that Junior helped bring on another seminal event for the Western Field and me when he treed a large fox squirrel at the end of the Otto Ridge Point on the backside slope.
(To reach this spot we entered the woods at a gap at the top of Ben Otto’s upland meadow just outside Springdale and climbed the dug road up to a bench with a trail that looped around the point. Today, there is a mine entrance at the foot of the point just across from the Carmeuse office building. Again, O vanished days!)
The squirrel began running through the treetops as I approached, and as it paused to jump to another limb, the bead settled on its head and I nailed it as smoothly as if I had been making such shots over a long shooting career.
The rifle and I were acquiring “medicine.”
But First Guns are like First Loves, sweet but mutable, and we move on. On Christmas Day of 1967 I acquired another .22 rifle, a slick Remington pump, and the Western Field slipped from my prime affections. From the perspective of my current mass of years, it seems that the five during which I used it with some competence—only three of which were adult years—is a pitifully transient span. It didn’t lose its “medicine,” however, and had a renaissance: in the latter days of the ’83 season, I stuck a scope in its tip-off grooves and shot 30 groundhogs with it. In my 30s, I learned to use an optical sight with that boyhood rifle. That Christmas, Ruvonna put the Remington “S” in my hand, and the pump -- the Frank Garrett Rifle -- also entered emeritus status as a primary rifle.
The following year I shot a bench rest group with the Western Field and the scope, putting five rounds into a hole little larger than an aspirin at 25 yards, thus discovering for the first time its true excellence.
Returning the antique to the vault, I remark: “I’ve roamed far in time and distance in these last few minutes, revisited times and places lost.” My eyes are damp.
Such are the powers of imagination and memory, which can bring sparkling moments to a humdrum day.