He gave me my first gun, and as fate would have it, his last gun at the end of things. It might just be my last one, as well. Who could want for more?
Ed. Note: Tom Cappell is a veteran shooter, hunter and writer from Missouri whose views on the outdoors and the outdoors industry are thought-provoking and always responsible. His columns have previously appeared on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
There was a package that came last week, bundled in brown paper over a sturdy cardboard box. It was no surprise.
With trembling hands I took it from my local gunsmith, excited, but sad as well to receive my Uncle Mel’s shotgun, in my opinion the crown jewel of his modest estate. He passed away in May and his dying wish was that his Winchester Model 12 pump gun would stay in the family, and remain with someone who understood that a gun like that is to be hunted with, not adored, or worse yet, sold.
A lot of people have uncles. Some even have uncles with whom they’re particularly close. But my Uncle Mel was better than most, I swear, for the amount of time and commitment he shared to teach me he beauty and values of the outdoors and our natural resources.
He never had a lot of money. He worked for years as a machinist and he farmed a little on his 52 acres outside Amlin. He grew up with my dad, scouring the creeks and fields for anything that croaked, swam, or flew. They were boys in the richest sense. Anything goes, and anything was worth trying at least once.
I was 13 when my dad passed away, and very much a boy, and Uncle Mel, my mom’s oldest brother, realized the need to fill a very important void in my life. He became my surrogate dad, even though he lived almost three hours away. There were frequent calls, a month spent down on the farm with him during school vacations in the summer and always a trip to bird country in western Missouri in the fall.
It was on one of those summer forays to the farm that he presented me with my first gun, a wonderful Remington .22 on my 16th birthday that he’d bought at a farm auction. I remember telling him, “It’s just what I’ve always wanted,” or some kind of corny thank-you. He taught me how to shoot — tin cans, frogs in the creek, squirrels in the fall, and always, always, always … respect for the privilege and responsibility of owning and discharging a gun.
When bird season came he loved to carry a very special Winchester pump gun that he’d saved to buy for years, a dollar here, and five more there, mostly from small machining jobs he’d do for neighbors. He called it the “perfect repeater”, a 12 gauge Model 12 that he special ordered from a sporting goods dealer in Joplin; special wood, special dimensions and choked to handle everything from quail to pheasants to ducks over decoys along Crawford’s Creek.
The “perfect repeater” turned out to be a marketing term used by Winchester, not something of Uncle Mel’s own choosing, but I never learned that until years later. I still smile when I think of how he convinced me.
Lord, how he prized that gun. He paid $187.50 for it in 1960 when $187.50 was a lot — and I mean a lot — of money. He carried it cradled in his arms, always avoiding briars and barbed wire, and at the end of each day’s hunting he meticulously rubbed it down with Hoppe’s oil, whether he’d fired a shot or not.
He was an OK shot, but nothing great. He killed his share of ducks and birds, but he was just as prone to enjoy the aroma of spent gunpowder from the end of the muzzle when he missed. He simply reveled in the experience, the flush and the shot, whether he connected or not.
He was 80 when he carried it for the last time in the field. I was with him and remember his satisfaction with killing an actual limit of Bobwhite quail, something he’d rarely done.
The following February he slipped on some ice in his driveway and broke his hip, requiring surgery. Not as steady as he’d once been, nor as strong to walk for long stints, he put the Model 12 in the cabinet and left it there, except for the ritualistic cleaning.
We stayed close all those years and even the few after he got beyond the point of hunting. He became content to hear of my own hunts — where, what, and how many. I was hunting with a light Italian autoloader that he always scoffed at, always reminding that aluminum was no match for cold hard American steel.
“What are you going to do with your Winchester?” I asked on one of the last times we were together, about a month before he had to move from his daughter’s house to the nursing home.
“You’ll have it,” he declared. “Because I know you’ll take care of it. I know you’ll appreciate where it’s been and what we’ve seen together with it. Besides, if I leave it to my daughter’s kids they’ll just sell it for beer money.”
As I unwrapped it I remembered his words … and his laugh. The Winchester, 65 years old, still looked like it did the last day he carried it — in collectible condition and with a lot of character.
I took it home, took it apart and ran an oily Rig Rag along the receiver and barrel. That’s when I found the note poked in the muzzle.
“Thanks for taking care of my perfect repeater,” he’d written. “Have a beer and enjoy it for the rest of your life. Think of me.”
When I was finished I cracked one open and did just that. I drank to Uncle Mel, his Model 12, and to the tear in my eye and the tear in my heart. I flashed back to that day when I turned 16 and realized. It’s just what I’d always wanted!
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