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       My grandmother’s gun

        Two strands run together in my childhood memories:  my parents’ dislike of toy guns, and the way my parents broke the news to us children that there were problems in the world.  I recall some early explanations of the notion that one had to learn to distinguish between the problems one could and should try to fix, and the problems we  would somehow have to learn to tolerate.  

     When I was four or five, my parents went to some length trying to convince me that I did not need a cap gun to have clothing that adequately resembled my movie hero, the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy.   When I was somewhat older, I did learn something about guns in the Boy Scouts.  But so far as I know, only one member of our extended family owned a gun, or, perhaps I should say, something that looked like a gun.

      Among the things that didn’t look like a gun was an object  my father had brought back from World War Two. He probably got it by exchange, as he’d been a communications officer on the battleship USS New York.  It was a tiny “Maus”, a key chain ornament about the length of my thumb. It fired tiny blank cartridges.  In my high school years I did a magic act for school talent shows and children’s parties, and my father occasionally let me fire the “Maus” on stage.  Its flash and bang were unexpectedly large for its size and it was a convincing addition to a young amateur magician’s act.

       While I now have friends and relatives who hunt in season and enjoy the venison, we didn’t when I was a child.  We were Jewish, and notwithstanding the Biblical story of Esau the huntsman, animals shot in the field are not kosher and Jews don’t traditionally hunt.  But one grandmother owned a handgun.

          From the time her husband had passed on in 1945 until it was demolished in slum clearance in the late 1970's,  my grandmother Elizabeth Sisson was the sole proprietor of a small retail liquor store, People's Liquors,  on Dover Street  (now East Berkeley Street).  It was almost in the shadow of the huge elevated railway station that was then high over Washington Street two stops from the center of Boston.   We grandchildren adored visiting the store, in a neighborhood so very different from our home suburb near Washington, D.C.  We loved the noise and vibration of the passing elevated trains, being able to walk into the large display refrigerator,  and the chance to ride the trains between Grandmother’s house and the store.  

        Elizabeth was often alone in the store. As the neighborhood declined petty crime increased somewhat, and once or twice a year she was robbed, sometimes at gunpoint.  She kept at most a half day’s cash in the register, and felt this was simply a part (however  unpleasant) of doing business in the old  neighborhood.  She said the robbers were mainly polite and gave clear instructions.  She gave them what was in the cash register, waited for them to leave, and called the police and the insurance man to assure them she was OK.  

       But then, one day, she was held up by one of the neighborhood drunks.  This, she said, was not OK.  He didn’t know what he was doing, didn’t give clear instructions, and was obviously scared and uncertain.  His gun, she was afraid,  might go off.

    She talked with the police and insurance man.  She went to a gunsmith and selected a handgun. She then had essential internal parts removed and welded so that the gun looked fine, but could not fire and could not be repaired so that it would fire. She wasn’t going to hurt anybody, and she wasn’t going to have the gun stolen and used to hurt anybody.  She brought the gun back to the store, and had her son,  my uncle Ralph,  show it now and then  to some of the neighborhood drunks.

     She reported that it had the desired deterrent effect. She never again was held up by any of the neighborhood drunks.  It didn’t stop the professionals, she said:  they still came by once or twice a year and emptied the register.  They took the money, went away peacefully, and dealing with them she knew that no one was going to get hurt.   She could tolerate, she said, dealing with professionals.

Edward Ordman (c) 2005

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