Colt (n.): young male horse; a youthful or inexperienced person.
The M1911 is a single-action, semi-automatic, magazine-fed, recoil-operated pistol chambered for the .45 ACP cartridge, which served as the standard-issue sidearm for the United States armed forces from 1911 to 1985. It was widely used in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The M1911 is still carried by some U.S. forces.
[Patented April 20, 1897, September 9, 1902, December 8, 1905, February 14, 1911, August 19, 1913, Colt’s Pt. F.A. Mfg Co, Hartford, CT, USA, United State Property No. 1138164, M1911 A1 U.S. Army]
The man-boy is slope-shouldered and a very long way from central Illinois. He walks the battlefield with a gait that would be considered leisurely if he were barefoot on a beach or even sneaker-shod on his suburban block back home, strolling to a cheerful country store for this or that staple. But the slow scissoring of his legs now navigates him through trenches, disappearing his sodden boots in muck and gore. He moves across charred ground, between and over corpses in some cases still smoking from the heat of their end.
These are Germans—Krauts—and he is American—brave and righteous—but I imagine that he glimpses the features of other human boys fading like the cordite clouds wafting around him. I imagine that he has drawn the 1911 and grips it like one might the bar of a roller coaster or the armrest of the seat on a turbulence-tossed jetliner. I imagine that he spools through his marksmanship training in his head, sees pumpkins on some Midwestern range, orange planets burst against the horizon by his rounds and tries to take comfort from that. I imagine that at least once a body not fully finished with the grisly kinetics of this world jerks and that the boy fires an unnecessary round into a thigh or shoulder or face. I imagine that there is something of both unveiling and of disguising in the macabre work he begins to do: plucking two-pound steel swastikas from around the necks of the gone boys in the mud, tugging away helmets that despite his gentleness retain a lock of bristly hair, the more familiar and mechanical unholstering of Luger pistols that he then slips into his belt on either side of where the 1911 will ride when he can afford to release it from his ready grip.
I imagine that taking these things is, for a soldier, bittersweet vengeance and ritual, but that in this removal of Nazi symbols, he is also returning these boys to boyhood, hiding them in the mass grave for innocence he and his generation were digging faithfully. I imagine that this disrobing of the accoutrements of war is, to him, a counterpoint to what he has done, does, will perhaps have to do, with his 1911.
I imagine that this is what my father imagined of his own father; it’s what I remember seeing in my mind, more or less, as a result of the words my father spoke about this. But my father is dead and gone now, and my aunt chops down my version with a brief email correction even as I type the last line:
My father was first commissioned into the army as an officer. He was transferred to the Navy as Lt. JG and serviced on the ship the Normandy. He was assigned to the ship’s store, and as far I know, he remained in that capacity until the end of European invasion in 1943 (?). He reached the rank of Lt. Commander.
Your version would make a better story, but his war memorabilia was acquired through his shipping connections.
He was quite a collector. I think it was his curiosity and the love of documentation taught by a beloved aunt.
He was a Delta Kappa Epsilon with its incumbent appreciation of aromatic spirits of the beverage variety.
I must have imagined the traumatic traipse of another man across some savaged dirt of France. Perhaps my own father did, too. Maybe I’ve written pure fiction about the original journey of the M1911 Colt—then again, given the truth of that memorabilia in my basement, how pure could it be?
My father drives a Subaru XLT this year—a runty, angular little number pitched at his strata: single, middle-aged dads. It has enough contour to suggest sports car somewhere in its DNA, but the price tag is right and the gas consumption low, and safety ratings are supposedly high (our dog will later beg to quibble on this last, as she systematically removes and destroys the mostly-Styrofoam bumper). Dad’s left the woman he married eleven months earlier, to no one’s surprise (besides hers) and to the relief of my younger brother and me. For a few weeks, Dad is just a scratchy voice on pay phones with tractor trailers and the Velcro of rain and tires in the background, calling to transmit his love from outposts of the American road, and though I can hear the anger and hurt in him, too, I am mostly glad for his angst-fueled spiral through the nation in his XLT because I know he needs to cleanse—we all do.
When Dad reappears and moves into some strip-mall office building, sleeping on an old chaise as he rebuilds his life and business, he has more of an edge to his mood than I remember. On a day of unlikely and brilliant winter sun, Dad loads me into his XLT and whips it through suburban roads and jerks to a stop at what turns out to be a gun range. I follow him, breathless with nerves and excitement, through the front door, him carrying a locked briefcase and wearing dark shades. The lack of inspection or verification we receive at the front desk feels at the time like evidence that my father is somehow newly connected; only later will I realize that it’s par for the course in Washington. Dad unlocks his briefcase with something of a flourish, and a black pistol I’ve only heard rumor of slides around on disturbed financial papers; bullets like fat brass candies roll in similar disarray.
I think this can’t possibly be the WWII 1911—“grandpa’s service revolver,” as Dad has proudly said. It looks like it was manufactured yesterday, as gun as the sleek guns that are aimed through my TV screen on every late-night drama. Dad makes a show of a safety lesson, which mostly consists of telling me never to point the gun at anyone. He scores his thumb trying to get the seventh round loaded in the clip and curses. He takes what looks like a technical stance and fires slowly, each report hitting my eleven-year-old forehead like a sonic smack, cordite and an entirely new emotion braiding in my brain.
When he passes it over to me, the adrenaline sabotages my plotted cool, and I snap seven wild rounds into the walls of the range in as many seconds. Dad seems more relaxed when he locks the briefcase, slides on the shades and strides out into the dying day.
Given that Dad is living in his strip-mall office space on the east side, it’s odd that he would have been driving me to school during this era, but there the memory is, singed vividly by the drama:
It’s a rainy winter predawn sob of a morning, and I’m sunk into the passenger seat picking at acne. Dad is in a foul mood, though I have given up on knowing why—as long as the ex-stepmother is afoot I can assume intermittent irritation. But it’s not irritation that causes Dad to smash the horn for a long five seconds when he’s cut off by a Buick two blocks from my school, not irritation that causes him to curse and savage the steering wheel and fishtail to follow the car first down a residential street, then into an alley. It’s not mere irritation that causes Dad to jump out of the car and come face to face in the drizzle with a calm, large black man who emerges from the passenger seat of the Buick. I can make out through a crack in the tinted glass that the offending driver is a woman—middle aged, pretty, and wide-eyed with fear. If my crescent of eye glances off hers, I can’t say. I can say, though, that while Dad hollers irrationalities (such as his own address) at the calm stranger, my eye does glance off the locked briefcase in the backseat and for a moment the purity of the mortification that is melting my face eases off to make way for a bracing wash of icy terror.
Dad has resuscitated his life: he’s in shape, single, living in a real house (though tiny and split level and located on frat row) and is slowly taking back his video rental business from his ex-wife, who only snatched it in the divorce out of expedience and spite. So he’s well, I think at the time, though perhaps that has as much to do with the unmitigated glee my brother and I feel at being free of the horridly clichéd stepmother and living again as a ramshackle bachelor mini-clan with our father and complicated, sleek dog. Dad is more likely to give us free reign over any number of activities than mom: junk food, television and movies, bedtime, video games, unsupervised hours in the house.
One day he’s shoving off for a meeting or a date in the black Mazda MPV minivan that mercifully replaced the Subaru XLT. He’s leaving me alone with my best friend, Asa, a soulful punk and fiercely loyal partner but no less prone to mischief than I am. I can’t recall if the idea burst in my head before Dad reversed the van or only after he hung himself half out the window, pushed his shades down his nose and told me, “Eli. The gun is in my bedroom. There are bullets in there, too. I don’t need to worry about you guys, do I?”
Instantly desperate to defuse his concern and get my hands on the gun, I scoff. “Dad! I’m not going to, like, shoot Asa,” I reply with twelve-year-old aplomb. He gives me a look that says it all and drives away.
Five minutes later in the dim and sparse bedroom Asa hefts and levels the 1911, sighting himself in the mirror for a beat, then dropping his arm, shaking his spiked hair. “It’s like…too much power or something, man,” he mutters, gazing down at the black steel tugging his narrow shoulder toward the earth.
Two and half years earlier, Dad plummeted ninety feet from a cliff in Costa Rica. His heroic and laudable struggle through eight major surgeries and more than a dozen attending physicians who both killed him with negligence and predicted he’d never walk again has faded. Because while he does walk, it’s with a cane and while he is alive, it’s with a three-thousand-pound monkey called Oxycontin on his shoulder and a Samson rope noose called severe depression half-taut around his neck. It’s winter again, and he is recovering from his last major surgery, this time to remove the steel bolted to his spine to hold it together. Though there is the whisper of a wish that we might celebrate the hopeful end to medical procedures, it is overlaid by the roar of irritation and fear that occurs in the heads of people who love addicts.
The harried doc has put me, a twenty-two-year-old stoner, in charge of Dad’s medication management. It’s a post I hold for a very short hour or two before Dad takes the bottle away and begins his neurotic phone search for his necessary cushion of dope. When some small mishap occurs with his complex entertainment system, I use it as a chance to snap, and to spill, and to unfairly unload in a torrent all the shaming I can manage—how he is incoherent half the time, how all his friends know he’s a junkie, how he’s killing himself.
Dad is only partly blindsided by this and, contrary to his nature, soon grows quiet. He tells me that I’m loving him conditionally, like everyone else; that if I really knew how bad things were, I’d be glad there was still a full clip in the 1911. It doesn’t end with convalescent tears and renewed pledges of familial fealty that night. I leave him there with the pistol within reach to go drown it all out in a bar loud enough to cloak a gunshot.
My brother and I are grieving—the general circumstance is Dad’s sudden death in a Quito rooming house over two years earlier. The immediate circumstances are pretty rote: too much wine, sloppy four-way discord with our girlfriends. We light candles on my father’s shrine and shoot more booze on our knees, watching our father’s gaze grow soupy in the photos’ gloss and guttering flames, playing our way recklessly through albums that are bound to help us excavate some of the grief that still sits like toxic sludge in our chests. I let myself feel it, then speak it for perhaps the first time: “He wanted to live so badly, finally! He did, and he was cut down right at the beginning.”
It seems appropriate—necessary, even—to suddenly stomp into the bedroom where our girlfriends glower and cower and remove the 1911 from the bedside table where it’s lived since Dad died.
“What the fuck are you doing?” my girlfriend asks, and maybe she says it with more anger than fear, or maybe I’m just in the mood for war.
“I’m putting the fucking gun on his shrine,” I slur at her. “The fucking gun he just barely didn’t use to kill himself.”
My best friend is missing. By her own volition or by someone else’s choice or by the foul hand of fate, we still don’t know. We have filled our pockets with cash and small weapons and photos of her, donned hooded sweatshirts and pushed our way through gritty downtown streets in the dead of winter, shouldering through alleys like men far tougher than we are, lit from within by a frightened rage that we hope makes the shadows around our faces metastasize, our frames loom up bulkier, like minor superheroes. We approach dealers with palms up and ask questions; we corner junkies and float photos past jaundiced eyes. Sooner than we expect, we get a call from a woman who accepted a photo and our phone number, removing what seemed like genuine tears from under her eyes with a heavily lacquered nail. She now knows where my friend is, she says. Her boyfriend has seen her, we have to meet her at a gas station up the hill.
We punish the pickup through its gears and burst through a fog bank under the sodium vapor lights of the Shell station like a comic book truck full-o-toughs, but before I’m even out of the truck, the verdict is easing down from the rafters of my mind like a stealth guillotine: Bullshit. She is there, tapping her nails on the hood of a Jeep Cherokee, which is packed with torsos much bulkier than ours. Cherries grow and shrink, and a bass line thunders, and many sets of eyes evaluate us for victimhood, and I’m gripping a knife under my sweatshirt and stepping close the woman whose eyes—to her credit—wild only for seconds before she regains her theater.
“Where the fuck is she?” I demand. I can still see the spit flying from my teeth in the sick light. “Go get her and bring her here and I’ll make you rich, I’m not a fucking sucker, you know that.” There is the briefest of hesitations—like an old car trying to catch a gear on a steep hill—before the woman commits to her act, narrows her eyes, steps closer to me.
“You know your girl is down there fucking smoking crack? You know that shit? Do you care about her? Do you love her?” And if the Cherokee didn’t rumble to life and slide away in that moment, leaving the woman alone in her fruitless and soulless hustle, I still fear what my hands might have done, and I remember still, in that moment, the lick of gratitude I felt—to my lingering sense, to my survival instinct, to the same fate that had swallowed up my best friend or a different one—that my hand had only hovered over the 1911 earlier than night. That my fingers had not curled around too much power and carried it into the agony of powerlessness.
I’ve carried the 1911 around the North Cascades on my hip. At first I used a holster as vintage as the gun, a tawny leather U.S. Navy number that also belonged to my grandfather, until a friend told me I ought not be wearing an antique hiking. I’ve done the momentary progressive pro-gun-control guy waffling before going out to the same range my father drove me to nineteen years earlier and getting some training. I’ve fired hundreds of rounds into dead logs the size of cars, full cans of cheap beer, imperturbable mountain slopes of red dirt. I’ve watched friends smarter than I take it apart and put it back together two or three times, a mystery so profound to my right brain that it is akin to surgery.
Finally, the same friend who suggested I not wear the vintage holster to death sighs and tells me that if I’m going to be shooting the antique 1911, I should at least get it smithed and checked out. The three-hundred-pound lost-philosopher gunsmith returns it to me with a paper ticket dangling from the trigger guard and an appreciative shrug. “It’s like that thing ain’t even ever been shot,” he says. “Wasn’t nothing much to do to her.”
I want to know if it’s okay to keep using the 1911 for target practice, for the “casual use” of which my friend has accused me.
The gunsmith wobbles his large head. “Well,” he says, “like I said, she looks like new. Still, I were you? I’d probably mostly let her sleep.”
Listen to Eli read his essay:
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First image by Flickr user Steve Z.
Second image by Flickr user neotsn.
Third image by Flickr user Doug88888.
Fourth image by Flickr user bk1bennett.