I changed out of my Sunday-school dress and was headed to the kitchen for one of the donuts we had picked up on our way home from church when Dad called out to me from his bedroom. “Want to help clean my guns today?” That chocolate cake donut popped right out of my mind and I made an about-face in the hallway. Dad had introduced us to guns right along with teaching us to tie our shoes and ride bicycles. Many times, he had hauled us out to the junkyard for target practice where I aimed at a busted-up refrigerator, television or paint can while he kneeled behind me with his hands wrapped around mine. Nestled against him, I would giggle with the anticipation and fear of that CRACK! as I squeezed the trigger, his finger right below mine. Now that I could hit all of our targets, Dad had promised to teach me how to care for his guns.
Skidding into their bedroom, I said, “Really? I can clean them today? Finally.”
“Sure. Help me take ‘em to the table.” Reaching into his lockbox, he removed his revolver and offered it to me. I hesitated, staring at it. It was all shiny, like a brand-new nickel. I had never shot that gun because it was too powerful, would knock me clean over Dad always said. He tipped his chin at it still in his outstretched hand with the wooden handle facing me. “Go on, it’s not loaded. Remember how to hold it.” The gun was heavier than I thought it would be as I wrapped both hands around it and carried it, barrel down, to the dining room table where he cleaned his guns.
Dad spread the usual towel on the table with his three guns, cleaning fluid, a stack of swabs, cleaning rods and brushes laid out in rows. Getting ready for surgery Mom called it.
“This one’s the PPK, right?” I said, pointing at the gun I always shot. It was his smallest gun, blocky and solid black, with a short barrel and a checkered, rubbery grip.
Picking it up, he rotated it around in his hand. “Yep. A Walther PPK. I wear it with the handle pointing toward my front, so I can grab it real fast if I’m chasin’ a crook.” He slid the pistol alongside his left hip where his holster usually hung then whipped it out in front of him so fast that I nearly missed it. “That also makes it hard for anyone to sneak up behind me and take it.” After placing the pistol back on the table, he lifted me onto his lap and pointed at the shiny nickel-colored gun. “Remember what this one’s called?”
“Hmm.” I glanced back and forth between that silver gun and the biggest gun: black, all squared angles and boxy, with a wooden grip screwed onto each side of the handle. Tapping the table in front of the big black one, I said, “I remember this one. It’s a Brownie.”
He tossed his head back and laughed. “That’s right. A Browning. It’s a Browning nine-millimeter. And this one’s a three-fifty-sevenMagnum.” He held the .357 in front of me, the cylinder popped out to the side. “With the barrel pointing away from you, always”—he looked me in the eyes, waiting until I nodded—“check those chambers and tell me if you see any bullets.”
I peeked into each of the six openings. They were all empty. “Nope. No bullets in any of the chambers.” My stomach tingled with excitement.
“Good. Now slide one of these cleaning cloths through the slot on this rod.” He picked both items up and held them up in front of us. “And squirt some oil on it.”
I didn’t need those instructions because I had watched him do this dozens of times, but I was surprised how hard it was to get the swatch through that hole. I pushed and pulled and wiggled it. “Like that?”
He gave the cloth a tug until it was wedged tight through the top of the cleaning rod. “Perfect.” He pointed to the Hoppe’s Gun Oil. I tipped and squeezed the tin, the liquid streaming onto the cloth. “Now shove the rod all the way through the barrel. That’s good, keep going ‘til it comes out the other end.” The swab squeaked as I pushed it through. “See how it comes out gray? That’s all the gunpowder from the last time I shot it. We have to get all that out, so pull that dirty swab off, put on a clean one, oil it and run it through again. Keep doin’ that until a swab comes out clean. Then do the same thing in each bullet chamber.”
Ready, I scooched off his lap and stood at the table to make it easier to hold the gun and shove the rod through. Beside me, Dad took apart his Browning, piece by piece, laying each part on the towel so he didn’t lose any: the slide, the barrel, the spring, all the pins and small bits.
When I finished the .357, I twisted around to show him how clean it was.
“Whoa there.” He pushed the barrel away from him, his face stern. “Remember, even when you know it’s not loaded, always keep it pointed away from you or anyone else. Unless you plan on shootin’ ‘em.”
My cheeks grew hot. “Sorry.” I swung the barrel away from us then angled the back of the gun toward him so he could peek through it.
Inspecting the gun, he whistled. “Cleaned like a pro. That might be the cleanest that gun has ever been.”
Something swelled inside me, like a huge smile starting in my belly, spreading to my chest then breaking out on my face. “Can I do another one?”
“Go on.” He pointed his finger back and forth between the Browning and PPK barrels. As the sweet metallic smell of gun oil enveloped us, I cleaned the insides of the barrels while he soaked and scrubbed the small parts. After he reassembled them, we polished the outsides of all three guns, holding each one with a clean rag so we wouldn’t leave a single fingerprint or smudge anywhere.