The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

On Pistols and Boyfriends

It is hard to imagine the power of inspiration that a crisp autumn morning can hold.  The kind that filters through the cobweb-covered windows of the dingiest of shops inspires curmudgeons like none other. It inspires them to do things – useful things. The most useful thing any curmudgeon worth his salt can do is clean his firearms. And so it was that I came to be sitting at my stool in front of my bench, basking in the wide panel of dirty, aged window panes filtering a panoramic view of a valley filled with pasture, contented dairy cows chewing various stages of grass, reflecting on my pride and joy: a reproduction .67 caliber Revolutionary War era flintlock pistol.

Its handle was the sort of deep brown walnut that speaks of ages upon ages of history. It was first polished with care at the family table years ago – but not this family table. It was assembled when I was a young lad myself, under the watchful eyes of my parents. My dad had bought three Black Powder kits – a Hawkins .57 cal rifle, and a Kentucky long-rifle, and this Thing of Beauty. We had sat amidst directions sheets, parts, chemicals of various sorts, and my wonderment at this device, whose thick barrel was tapered slightly in the style of a cannon. Indeed, at .67 caliber, it seemed like a hand-cannon. It hefted nicely in the hand, it imposed itself visually, its graceful curves and the innuendo of intimidating fire-power nestled well in the mind of a burgeoning young man. There’s something that speaks to the young man’s mind, the ability to control power.

A family friend of ours often went into the hills to practice, and she took us along to debut our freshly completed projects a few days later. Craftwork – the assembly, the blueing of the barrels, sanding and more sanding, and finally staining and polishing of the wood-work, was familiar work to me, but always seemed a little tedious. Now, though, now was the time for action. We had gone over the process for loading the proper charge, setting up the flash pan, aiming with the rudimentary sighting systems. I was pumped. I was primed.  And now was time to make some noise.

We chose as our victim an half-rotted stump that jutted out from the clearcut hillside several feet, deep in the Coastal mountains of Oregon. We tacked a paper target to the wood, and my dad fired his rifles first. To be honest, I hardly remember that part now. Every sense in my body was focused on this pistol, and I wanted desperately to be the one firing it. Wisdom prevailed however, and and our friend took on the responsibility of the commissioning firing.

We knew from reading that the effective range of the pistol was very short, and so she set herself up about 35 feet from the target. She set herself up, aimed, and pulled the trigger. Having listened to plenty of guns firing, I had in mind an idea of what I expected. What I heard…was a click.

And then another click

And then another click, followed by words I didn’t normally hear.

It seemed that the flint wasn’t adjusted properly, and so we adjusted the stone in its clamp, and tried again. Another click.

And then one more click, followed by, “aw, shoot, it just isn’t…” hssss-KaBOOOOM!

She had just started to pull the pistol back, when the flash-pan finally lit, and a lead ball the size of a large marble scribed an unseen arc over the clearcut hillside, never to be seen or heard again.

We all stood slightly dazed for a moment. No one had been ready for THAT. The delayed fire was unexpected, sure, but that BOOM! – it was unlike any other we had ever heard. Gerry stood, holding the pistol off to her side, the barrel still smoking, and we all looked at one another, stunned silence evolving into devilish smiles. That…was…awesome!

And so we adjusted some more, reloaded, and fired again. It took 5 or six shots, but finally we got to the point where the hand-cannon would fire regularly, and could hit the target. We all took a turn, Gerry first, then my dad, my mother (who was none too thrilled, but took her turn anyway) and finally, me. I will never forget that moment.

There are some things I learned about this gun. The reason this pistol is so inaccurate is because the ball comes out very slowly, by modern standards. It is a huge piece of lead, and only has a few inches to develop its speed and idea of direction. When you pull on the trigger from 25 yards, what you hear is: “Click..hssss..BOOOOM…thud.”

Yes, “thud”.  I could hear the ball hitting the target, distinct from the explosion of gunpowder. That firm, unyielding “THUD” served well to put the whole experience into perspective to my young teenage mind, the understanding that pulling that trigger would leave a mark in something.

Many a ball went downrange over the years to follow. It was, technically, my parents’ pistol, but eventually it became mine, and for a time I took it out as often as I could. Then it fell into some years of disuse.  The Navy shooting ranges didn’t seem to appreciate black powder.  I was able to take it up into the hills a couple times east of San Diego, but for the most part, it stayed in its box, wrapped in cloth, waiting.

But on this clear autumn morning, light streaming in through the window of my shop, I pulled it from its box, gently removed it from its oilcloth wrapping, and set about cleaning the barrel. I stood as I worked, wearing my heaviest Navy coat that had kept me warm through long January nights on the submarine pier in Groton, Ct.  It had warded off frosty air before, and today it was every bit as good a coat – and bulking agent – as it had ever been.  I caressed the stock with oil.  I took a brush to the barrel.  And I held the piece against me as I worked methodically, the tedium I had felt as a child replaced with a certain sense of meditation.

As fate would have it, unbeknownst to me my oldest daughter had met her first romance just a few days earlier.  She was an outgoing girl, to whom everyone was a friend, but finally the time had come to feel a little differently about someone. One of the groups she liked to hang out with were a couple of guys from her school, and I had made all the half-joking threats about her oncoming romantic interests I thought were possible. I knew these two boys, though, and knew that first of all, it was just friendship and second, they were good kids.  I stood, working my large-bore pistol, with the thought of my daughters blossoming romantic interests furthest from my mind, just focused on the revival of an old friend, when I heard my wife’s car returning from town. I knew it carried our four children, and began to extricate myself from my work, planning to set it aside for a while. But before I could quite finish, the door to the shop swept open behind me.

“Hi daddy”, came the ever-cheerful voice of my daughter. “I have a boyfriend, I want you to meet him”.

The words drove into my heart, and summoned something dark that I had never felt, from down in its depths. It struggled to take over my mind, as I struggled to remain at peace. I would win this round, its only effect was to raise my left eyebrow – strongly. With this countenance upon me, and pistol still held in my hands, I turned toward the group, smiled a wan smile of politeness, and took in the scene before me. Her two other friends, both 7th graders, were staring at me in a way that did not register for a second. All three boys huddled against the doorway they had just entered, subtly trying not to be the one I would talk to first. It finally dawned on me that what they saw was a 6’4” man in a military heavy camouflage jacket, with one eyebrow raised in consternation, holding a hand-cannon. All three boys stood stock-still, staring at my hands.

The import of that moment never registered with my daughter. Still looking at the new member of the gang, I asked my daughter for the lad’s name. She pulled along side of me, took me by the arm and innocently announced his name, her cheerful voice lilting in stark contrast with the expressions on the boys’ faces. Intentions to watch football were announced, and the crowd was gone.

And in the vacuum of the moment they piled gratefully out of the shop and back into the house, I realized what had just transpired.  Somewhere deep inside me a slow chuckle came to boil, and then laugh. I couldn’t have scripted a better introduction.

Many years have passed since this event, and the story has evolved into a family legend. It was perhaps 20-30 seconds, but every potential boyfriend of every daughter since then has endured the tale at some point. Boyfriends have been made and lost in that moment. Husbands have been married and welcomed to the family. All have been hazed through the various re-tellings, and the Ones Worth Keeping have stood the test. It’s odd that an implement designed for intimidation and destruction should have turned into a proving ground for boyfriends not by their courage, but for their sense of humor.

I still say I couldn’t have scripted it better if I had tried.


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