Passing the Torch
I sat there, freezing and bundled in a thick coat, trying to endure the harsh wind of a cold Michigan winter day. The sound of competition buzzers and rounds connecting with steel targets rang down range, muffled, in my ears through my hearing protection. Only five more competitors, then it’s my turn. Then four more, then three, and so on.
I sat on a picnic table at the giant sand pit range with my grandfather at the tender young age of 10, waiting for him and the other men to complete their 3-Gun competition. When they finished competing, I would get my turn to shoot. My grandfather, whom I call Opa, gave me my first rifle for my 10th birthday. A Marlin “Little Buckaroo” in .22 is the gun on which I would learn to develop my shooting skills. Being a single-shot, bolt-action rifle, it was the perfect firearm to have when I was learning about gun safety. Open the bolt like this, insert the round like that, close the bolt just so, look at the chamber indicator, put the safety on, and so forth.
These are the essential foundation lessons I would learn from Opa with that gun.
A welder by trade, he spent his down time at the machine shop making me a reactive, swinging target out of scrap metal. I was so proud of having my own target to shoot at with my own rifle. Each time one of those little copper-plated bullets connected with the target and we heard that telltale ping, Opa and I would grin ear to ear, and he would grab my shoulder and comment on my good shooting.
It wasn’t that long ago when a brick of 500 rounds of .22 ammo was not only affordable, but also easy to find. I had made it my mission that day to shoot all 500 rounds before leaving. Mother Nature, however, had other plans. Even with the heartiest Carhartt jacket on, the cold began to bite and my fingers froze up while working the bolt. A 500-round day would have to wait for nicer weather. This is how it went for me, once a month, on the range with my Opa, learning to shoot after all of the guys finished their competition.
As I got older, my interest in firearms evolved and more and more interesting items came out of Opa’s safe for me to examine and shoot – and clean. We spent countless hours in the basement workshop, talking and cleaning guns together. I had always considered Opa to be the “Answer Man,” and he patiently answered all of my questions about guns. There was nothing he didn’t know.
When I got older, Opa had gotten me into trap shooting. I wanted a gun of my own to shoot with. He used to run a small lawn service each summer, so I joined him one year so that I could earn money for a shotgun. I’ll never forget one particularly hot day, mowing the grass of a business right on the edge of a busy street that runs through town, sweat pouring out from under my black-and-gold NRA ball cap (which I got when I started my Easy-Pay Life membership, also paid for by lawn money). It was hard work, but the gun was in sight. At the end of the summer, I had enough for the gun. Busting clays with my shotgun was the sweetest feeling ever. Somehow, they seemed to break more effortlessly with that gun. As the years went on, my interests changed and Opa and I shot less together. Then, I moved away to college and priorities shifted even more.
In January 2014, I got a phone call that would change my professional life and rekindle the flame of the shooting bond I had with Opa. I got a job as the Firearms Specialist for the NRA Museums. Now, I would get to work with one of the finest collections of firearms anywhere in the world – and share my experiences with Opa! Taking him on a personal tour of the facility was an amazing feeling. He had shared so much knowledge with me and now I was getting to share some with him.
Frequent phone calls on my commute home began with Opa saying, “What new and exciting guns did you handle today?” A year and a half later and the stories keep coming. Our conversations have gotten very technical and in-depth. In fact, he has now deemed me to be the “Answer Man” when it comes to guns. The torch has been passed and a bond cemented, and it all began with a single-shot, bolt-action rifle that was less than three feet long and weighed barely over four pounds. Who would have ever guessed that such a small gun would be the bedrock foundation of a career path, lifelong interest, and an unshakable relationship between an Opa and his grandson?