John Frank's Guns in the Family captured my attention at every turn with a momentum that kept building toward its gratifying ending. The writing was snappy, the concept riveting. This is literary nonfiction at its most compelling. - Julia Scheeres
Guns in the Family
By John Frank
First, my father and his friend Ray took my mother's gun away. Then, my mother and my brother took my gun away. Then, my mother took Ray's gun away. Finally, I took my brother's gun away and threw it in Lake Michigan. The only one of us who has been consistently armed is my father, who takes medicine for schizophrenia.
The .22 caliber handgun came into the picture on Valentine's Day, 1985, when my father gave it to my mother as a present. So taken with the gift, my mother spent every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday evening for three months at a nearby firing range blowing tiny holes in the black outlines of a man with concentric circles around his heart and brain. Each week her personal best hung on our refrigerator.
But like organ playing and stained glass, the gun hobby waned. When it ended, the .22 shared a nightstand drawer with mom's reading glasses. Its presence created a triangle of weaponry in my parent's bedroom. Leaning in the corner of my father's side of the closet was a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun. Strategically closer to his bedside position in his nightstand drawer was a Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic. Suffice it to say, if someone did actually break into our house one day, there was little question they'd be shot. Or at least shot at.
Three years later, I was away at college when my mother was put on bedrest after complications from a minor surgery. My father and Ray noticed her mounting depression and decided it was best to remove the .22 from her nightstand drawer as a precaution. She hadn't mentioned anything specifically about killing herself, but an odd silence about her seemed to communicate that the time for talking might be over.
I went out to my parent's house for a visit. My dad and Ray sat at the kitchen table, drinking. Mom was upstairs in bed, with her constant companion of AM radio hissing quietly next to her.
"So you took the .22 away, right?" I asked.
"Yep," my Dad said.
"What about the shotgun and the Glock?"
They exchanged looks. Apparently the two other deadly weapons in the room hadn't come up in their conversations yet.
I never inquired again about the other guns. But I don't think they ever moved them. I sensed this was along the line of what my Dad and Ray were thinking: The depression was keeping her bedridden, and as long as she was in bed she wasn't going to be snooping around for any my dad's guns. When she finally got up, it would most likely be because she was better again.
In the following weeks I took my finals at school and figured out what to do on break. I called home periodically to check on my mother. At first, her voice on the other end was weak and thin, just barely there, but gradually it got stronger. Soon afterward, she was up and around again, cooking dinner and going to work three days a week. And the .22, of course, went back to its position in the nightstand drawer, at her request.
Come Christmas Day, 1993, like half of the country it seemed, I was undergoing treatment for major depression. However, unlike, perhaps, my fellow depression sufferers, I received as a gift from my father a 30-OT-6 hunting rifle.
I took the heavy rifle from him tentatively, as my mother and brother, Chris, looked on. Even I could tell through the fog of prescription drugs that the timing seemed peculiar. It didn't seem to be a planned gift, either. It wasn't wrapped. He just took it out of the closet and handed it to me.
"Walt? What in the hell is wrong with you?" My father looked back at my mother blankly. He had no idea what she was talking about. He'd lived his entire adult life with a mental condition, taking neuroleptic drugs, and nobody had ever restricted his access to guns. To him, I imagine, gun ownership guidelines for the episodically insane were to be interpreted much like the warnings on the side of his prescription bottles. Don't drink alcohol or operate heavy machinery. Don't drink or drive a car? How in the hell are you supposed to get anywhere?
Later, when it was time to go back home, I spotted the gun in the closet as I was getting my coat. Not exactly sure why, I grabbed it and shut the closet door. There was something about it that I wanted. Some quality. The weight, perhaps. The craftsmanship, unique to only few remaining industries in our throw-away culture. The fact that it could blow a hole through a refrigerator.
The gun was intercepted by my brother, who noticed it sticking out of the bottom of my coat when we said our goodbyes. I took the train back to my apartment unarmed.
My father's friend Ray was a healthy guy. He was 71 years old but could pass for 10 years younger. Then, one day, he fell off a horse. I was there when it happened. I heard the crunching of his ankle.
Ray came down with a staph infection from his hospital visit, which left him bedridden. At my mother's insistence, he took to the same bed my mother had recovered in, displacing my parents for two months.
During this time, he requested that his weapon be present.
Ray lived just a few miles away in a small, first floor, one-bedroom apartment. The kind of place where you could literally open the window in your TV room and set a drink on the hood of your car. Still, to defend his humble home, Ray opted for nothing less than a .357 magnum.
My parents tried to explain to Ray the various weapons at his disposal while he stayed at their home in order to avoid having to go and get his big Dirty Harry special. But the Glock was too complicated, and the .22 drew a look of disgust that suggested he'd feel safer had they offered him a pair of nunchucks. My Dad even offered to get his .38 snubnose out of the basement to satisfy Ray's tastes for a high caliber, manually operated weapon, but nothing would do. He had to have his baby.
So, my mom stopped by his apartment on her way home from work and picked up the .357. Since it literally wouldn't fit in the nightstand drawer, it sat atop the clock radio for the duration of his convalescence. Pointed at the wall, of course. For safety.
Finally, when Ray was ready to go back home, he marched triumphantly out the door with his gun and drove the 5 minute trip to his apartment. He called my parents when he arrived and thanked them for everything they'd done.
Two weeks later Ray's apartment was burglarized. Through a hole in the window screen, someone had reached in and stolen Ray's wallet off his table. At the time, he had three thousand dollars in it. Ray liked to be prepared.
Expecting an outcry about the lost money, I was surprised to learn that the real issue was that the table his wallet was stolen off of was also the table upon which his gun usually rested. It was an end table, just next to his easy chair in which he sat and watched TV. The chair also faced the door, a door that Ray was always ready for someone to burst through and get the surprise of their life. But on this particular night, it just so happened that Ray was cleaning the .357 at the kitchen table and had fallen asleep before finishing.
When he awoke to the midnight air cooling his tiny apartment, he got up from the kitchen table to go to bed. It was then he realized his wallet had been stolen. And also then that he realized how chillingly close he'd come to having his gun stolen. It stood to reason that whoever had lifted his wallet had probably seen the gun on the table previously and had come for it, opting for the wallet in it's absence.
It was a real wake up call.
"He could have been shot with his OWN GUN," my mother explained to me on the phone. She went on to say that in order to protect him from something like this happening again, she and my father had decided to take Ray's gun away from him.
"He's at our place all the time anyway," she explained, "Plus, he's been getting pretty spacey lately. I don't think he'll even notice so much."
In a way, she was right. Ray's spaciness worsened rapidly and my mother was able to take his gun and my parents were continually able to confuse him as to its whereabouts. Ray would think of his gun and ask my father about it, and my father would just change the subject, or ask Ray if he wanted some ice cream.
Six months later, Ray was diagnosed with, and very soon after dead from, Alzheimer's. I don't know what happened to the .357. Ray's last words to me were, of course, "Who the hell are you?" And then: "I have a gun, you know. But I don't know where it is."
A few years later, my brother Chris developed an interest in the outdoors. I was pleased to learn that we'd have something in common. Or so I'd thought.
Sleeping in tents and roasting marshmallows was not what Chris had in mind. Chris's interest in the wilderness involved being able to enter it naked and survive.
Though Chris lived in an apartment with all of the usual amenities of modern life, he began conducting himself as though he was living in the woods, or as if he was planning on doing so very soon. As there are no washing machines in the woods, he stopped washing his clothes. As there are no barbers in the woods, he took to cutting his own hair. As there are no optometrists, he went without corrective eyewear as often as he could, attempting to strengthen his eyesight with a battery of rapid eye movement exercises that he did constantly. It was difficult to have a conversation with him because I'd keep trying to figure out what he was looking at.
During dinner at my parents house one Sunday afternoon, my brother asked about the .22-caliber rifle propped up in their kitchen closet next to a mop and a broom. "That old thing?" we all thought. Sure, take it.
Summer came, and Chris and I went on a camping trip with two close friends. Not once on the four-day trip did I see my brother smile. No, the woods were not for fun. The woods were serious. And Chris seemed to be getting more and more serious with every breath.
I built the campfire one night. I fanned the flames and added handfulls of pine needles to get it roaring. The sky was gradiated from a bright orange to indigo. I feel our group's mood improving after what was a tedious day of continually stopping our canoe for Chris to examine animal scat or eat some plant. Then Chris appeared beside me and said this:
"White man build big fire, sit far away. Native build small fire, sit close." He darted nimbly and silently into the trees that surrounded us.
Neither of our friends were interested in what Chris was talking about. They were on my side, the marshmallow side. We didn't chase after him.
I decided not to camp with my brother anymore and took to visiting him at his apartment to listen to his insights about technology, industry, human entropy and the imminent destruction of the earth.
That winter, Chris spent two weeks at a survivalist camp in New Jersey. The second of the two weeks he lived in the woods alone, clothed in nothing but a swimsuit and equipped with only a knife.
"Wow. You only had a knife?" I asked, amazed.
"Next time I have to do it without the knife," he said.
Shortly after Chris was back from New Jersey, news reports began airing about a highway sniper in Chicago's far south suburbs. First, two incidents were linked. Then a string of them appeared to fit the same M.O. The profile of the sniper was the usual deal: white male, 25-40, loner, probably a bad track record with women and a spotty employment history due to difficulty in dealing with authority figures.
The sniper was firing at random cars from a forest preserve, just 30 miles south of where my brother lived. Five miles south of where my brother worked. The sniper used the same weapon each time, the specifications of which the police were withholding to weed out bogus confessions. Normally, a family member in my position would be concerned for the safety of their loved one. In my case, I was just hoping my brother wasn't the sniper.
"Hey Chris, what do you think about this whole sniper thing?" I asked over the phone, trying to feel him out.
"Well, if he's trying to make a point about America's selfish fixation with the automobile, I think he's doing a great job." Chris rode his bike wherever he could. His truck was reserved for out-of-town trips only. He claimed to spend less on gasoline in a year than the average person spends in two weeks.
"You don't think it's pointless? Cruel? Frightening?" I asked.
"If you think about it in human terms. But I don't drive on that road, so I'm not worried. For the people who do, brother, they have to assume the risks for being slaves to their cars."
Chris knew what I was getting at and clearly wasn't interested in assuring me that he wasn't the sniper. Still, I was fairly certain that he wasn't. Sure, his interests and general demeanor had been getting gradually more severe and antisocial for as long as I could remember, and he fit the FBI profile on nearly every point. But I felt confident pegging him as being at least 2 to 3 years out from actually shooting randomly at people from the side of the expressway, if in fact he was capable of such a thing at all. However:
"Sometimes, John, people are riding along and they just sort of get a big karmic slap in the face," Chris added colorfully.
That was it. I changed the subject and scheduled our next get-together at his apartment.
It wasn't easy sneaking the rifle out, but I managed. On my way home, I stopped by a deserted stretch of docks on Chicago's industrial East Side. Scanning the area around my car for any signs of life at all, I opened my trunk and pulled out the gun. It was a sad little gun, a broom-closet gun. A part of me felt really sorry for it.
Nonetheless, I walked to the end of a pier and pitched it as far as I could out into the water. There. Stupid gun.
Driving home, I imagined someone finding it. Turning it over to the police. An evidence expert delicately and scientifically stripping off the moss and applying luminol to it or whatever. A gun thrown into a body of water? It had to be involved in a crime, right?
A few years ago, I moved in with my now wife, Jean.
"What's that?" she said as I unpacked my things. The item in question was a 12-gauge shotgun in a black leather case. I proudly unzipped the case to show her.
"Uh-uh," she said, "No way."
To fill the void left by having no gun, I hoarded other weapons. I made trips to Chinatown to purchase hand-to-hand combat items that I had no idea how to use. I collected mace and red pepper spray, buying several different brands before finally settling on a special formula I found at a camping outfitter store that came in a can the size of a 1 liter soda bottle and was intended for repelling bears. I tried to think of any other alternatives that would better match the ease-of-use of the gun as well as its dramatic impact. But there's a reason why you don't have to register yourself when you buy a bow and arrow, and there's also a reason why police don't carry throwing stars.
Gradually, though, I got used to being unarmed. It wasn't like the world had gotten any safer, but I tried to stop imagining scenarios in which our safety was threatened and I responded by blowing the threat out the front door and down the steps.
My wife maintains a strong position on not having a gun in our home. She knows she has to give me the choices of it's-me-or the-weapon, love versus war, the progressive versus the paranoid, or else like a recovered alcoholic I'll be motivated to revert to my instincts. She understands that as strongly as her upbringing inspires her to appreciate mission-style furniture and art glass, mine drives me to fortify our home in fear of a complete societal meltdown.
During one period of such relapse, I asked my wife to allow me to have a shotgun, as long as I promised to only load it with rock salt. She reasoned with me calmly. She thanked me for my thoughtfulness and smiled as she gave me credit for proposing a creative solution to our problem. Then she told me that if she allowed me one gun, within ten years I'd have several more, and would be hooking them up to trip-wires at the basement windows. I laughed. Those are, after all, weak points.