It’s a long-standing tradition in this country, the passing along of an old rifle or shotgun, from one generation to another, and a couple of weeks ago it was my privilege to play a part in that tradition.
When my father was a young man, he loved the outdoors, camping, hunting and fishing, but the pressure of rearing four boys made him put most of that on hold for about 25 years. As the burdens of parenthood began to lessen, dad slowly started getting back into outdoor recreation. The end result was that I was the one who spent the most time hunting and fishing with him.
The gun in question is a Marlin 336 lever-action rifle chambered in .30-30 Winchester, that dad purchased new for about $98 when we lived in Louisiana back in the late 1970s. He and I both hunted with that rifle for a number of years until we moved back to Ohio, where we weren’t allowed to hunt with “high-powered” rifles. Since that time and dad’s passing in 1997 it remained under my care, kept in a gun cabinet or safe, only removed for the occasional cleaning.
Mom and dad had four boys, of which I am the youngest, and oddly enough there were no grandsons, only granddaughters, which presented a little challenge. That is because in our patrilineal society, a rifle is traditionally passed to the oldest son, and so on. However in this particular case we skipped a couple of generations and passed the rifle from the youngest son to a great-nephew who happens to be the oldest son of the oldest daughter of the oldest son – thereby restoring balance to the universe.
Another challenge is that this particular part of the family remained in Louisiana when we moved back north, and started its own regional roots, so we had to wait for the right opportunity – which came when my nieces and their husbands and children “came up” for my youngest daughter Victoria’s wedding on May 21.
The trip was an opportunity for that particular branch of the family to get in contact with its roots, and so we went to the small family cemetery over in Jackson County, W.Va. where we mowed and trimmed, and decorated the graves with flowers from the wedding and placed U.S. flags on the graves of the veterans.
A note about my great-nephews, otherwise known as “The Lee Boys,” they are very Southern and very polite, with manners strictly enforced by their parents, so when I called out “Come here” to Michael, he replied “Yes sir!” and came running, and there, literally in the shadow of my parents’ and grandparents’ graves, with the rest of the family watching on, we carried out this solemn rite of passage.
I told him to bring me what was over on the other side of a nearby tombstone, and he retrieved the cased rifle. I told him to open the case and take the rifle out – all the while making sure he kept it pointed in a safe direction – then instructed him on how to open the action and ensure it was clear.
As we stood there, I related how his great-grandfather bought that rifle brand new, and how he taught me that if you take good care of it, it should last forever. I told him that every single inevitable scratch or ding on a gun should have a story to go along with it. I told him the story of how I killed my first deer with that rifle many years ago in Alabama, and that the rifle was used for deer hunting right there on the farm where the cemetery now lies.
Finally, to make the surprise complete, I told him the rifle was now his, to do with as he pleased, but to always remember the tradition and heritage of that particular gun, then to seal the deal had him shake my hand like a man.
I have to admit, I got a little bit misty-eyed playing dad’s surrogate – and I assure you I was not the only one. To me it was a poignant moment, passing along dad’s old rifle was almost like giving away a part of myself, but it was the right thing to do.
As a side note, if certain politicians have their way, this personal family tradition will be outlawed – or only allowed to take place with a background check and the involvement of licensed firearms dealers and a Federal Firearms License transfer fee.
I just hope that as the years pass by, I get to hear many great stories involving Michael and his great-granddad’s old rifle.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org