Perhaps it’s well that I try to stay a column or two ahead. Though I missed commenting on the Orlando tragedy immediately after it occurred, I can think before speaking. I wish some politicians would learn that running their mouths before they ascertain facts makes them sound stupid. But my own philosophy about gun control, and much else, largely takes the form of the George Santayana quote: those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. And so in that spirit, and because it’s still Father’s Day month, I would recount a few interrelated stories from my old man, set back in the so-called good old days at the Royal Collieries mining camp at Offutt.
In the coal camps a holstered pistol was often simply part of a man’s dress. Many men would even wear them to work, and boys would take them to basketball games up the creek at Meade Memorial. Dad could always make my downstate cousins laugh recounting this brief exchange he witnessed at the Offutt railroad station when he was ten or twelve years old: a self-proclaimed “bad man” stalked up to the ticket window, drew a big .45 hog-leg on the station agent, and barked, “Gimme a ticket to Paintsville!” Unfazed, the agent reached under the counter, pulled out his own .45, pointed it at his customer, and replied, “Ten cents, please.” The guy paid up and walked off with his revolver and his ticket.
Truth is stranger than fiction. This really happened. But even Dad would admit that it sounded funnier in the glow of memory than it did when it actually occurred. Weekends in 1920s Offutt almost always involved bullets from every direction around that old train station, to the point that my grandparents absolutely forbade their boys to venture near it on Saturday nights. Even so, Dad witnessed homicides there as a child, and once peeked through a window to watch the mortician John A. (“One-Ear”) Jones embalm one victim, a mine boss, so the body could be shipped back to Ohio on the train. For months afterward the favorite Offutt threat involved the promise of Mr. Jones’ return to the train station to take similar care of the threatened person.Another mine supervisor and an innocent schoolteacher both caught in crossfire almost shared the same fate but for the quick actions of old Dr. F. M. Picklesimer, the company physician, who happened to be there. This was how my father grew up in the days of the free, unfettered observance of the Second Amendment, and even as late as 1951, long after Royal Collieries left Offutt, two of Dad’s boyhood neighbors shot it out on the tracks right in front of my grandparents’ home. He had to transport one of the bodies to the coroner in Paintsville in the back seat of his car. The place was truly no country for old men. Or all too often, for young ones, either.
Most of my knowledge about firearms came from Dad, that is, when he could get Mom off his back long enough to teach me anything at all. But then again maybe her fear of firearms was understandable: she grew up in Offutt too, and herself lost an older brother in a gun fight. I never became the expert shot that Dad was, but I learned to aim with both eyes open like he did, and how to care for pistols and rifles. He told me that the saddest words ever said were “I didn’t know it was loaded,” and although I never pressed him about it I suspect that maxim came from his childhood experiences as well. And he wouldn’t carry a gun anywhere he didn’t intend to shoot, because he always said that, except for a peace officer, anybody who went around packing heat all the time both looked and acted like a fool.
The Offutt in which Sweet Tater and I raised our kids was a lot less hectic, and at least somewhat more peaceful. But I think I can guess what my old man would say about Orlando, especially since, but for distance and circumstance, one of his granddaugh-ters might have been among the casualties: good God. Will people ever show any common sense? How does the well-regulated militia of the Second Amendment equate to a completely unregulated mob? Do we really want to go back to the coal-camp days I knew growing up, when gun deaths were so common even little boys thought nothing of them?
Dad never forgot his past. But remember: those who do are doomed to repeat it.