I have only one memory of my grandfather. He died when I was very young, from a heart attack, and is interred in a military graveyard inside the borders of the great state of Minnesota.
During World War II, Howard Nyquist served in the Third Army during a campaign in Austria. By all measures and weights, he was a brave man.
Listen: my grandfather, Howard, was entrusted to run communications lines between his unit and another unit, across a battlefield. This he did; it was an act of heroism worthy of a Silver Star.
Let us be very clear as to what “running communications lines” meant.
When two units were separated on a battlefield, if a series of copper wires could be connected between the two, voice communication could exist. No power was needed, of course: military phones at that time were powered by the vibration of a speaker’s voice alone. So only the wire needed to be passed.
This meant that some people – two soldiers, nearly always – would grab a spool of copper wire and run with it across the battlefield towards the distant unit.
Until they were killed.
At this point, two more soldiers were sent to run out, grab the spool, and continue the death march. Until they, too, were broken with bullets. At which time another pair would be sent.
And so forth.
Howard made it across.
In my life there have been men who I trusted who have called me “courageous” and yet I do not believe that I can stand in my grandfather’s shadow.
These things – these elements of war, the brutal truths of it – they are not spoken of. Did Howard kill men? Probably. Did he talk of this, boast of it?
No. He did not.
My only solid memory of Howard was when I was four years old. My mother, brother, and I had gone north to pay a visit to the family. Howard had suffered a heart attack in previous months; he was unwell.
I played at cowboys and indians. I had a small, toy “cowboy” gun, made of tin, with plastic handgrips and a faux-leather holster. I’d burnt the caps the instant they were loaded, but that meant nothing: I could still lay out imaginary Indian Braves.
Howard, my grandfather, his voice, rumbling: “Hello, little cowboy. Come with me a moment. I want to teach you something,” and he ushered me into his study.
Howard was a gun collector. Us children, my cousins and I – we were never allowed into the Study: that room was for the Guns and for the Model Airplanes. He collected antiques. For many years after his death, his friends would hold memorial powder shoots in his honor.
(When he died, I inherited a couple of his unbuilt model kits. Today, I regret my pathetic fumblings at their assembly.)
I had never been let into the Study. It smelled of wood and smoke and varnish. Old things, things to be respected. Its walls were decorated with rifles and the plastic ghosts of Japanese Zero planes.
“I see you have a cowboy gun,” he said. “Do you know how to twirl it?”
“No,” I said. Dim references of what had to be John Wayne and Gary Cooper filled my head.
“Well. I’ll show you.”
Howard produced a gun from somewhere. Today, my mind recognizes it as a Walker Colt. It was a dark, ominous thing, dirty and yet clean at the same time.
His deft hand twirled it around and around. Backwards, now forwards, like a coin dancing over a juggler’s knuckles. Fast, so very, very, fast.
And I couldn’t.
After my initial failures, he helped me to hold my little tin gun, showed my how to spin it around my finger. How to use the weight of the barrel to force the grip to spin, and vice versa. He showed me how to draw and twirl. How to twirl and holster.
“Son, listen to me,” he said. “This, this twirling? This is theatricality.
“It is not a gun. Guns are violence, and violence should never done for enjoyment.”
He cracked open the chamber of his Walker Colt, checking it to make sure it was empty. Satisfied, he closed it with a flick of his wrist, and spun the weapon so that the handle was facing me.
“Go on,” he said. “Take it.”
I fumbled a moment, holstering my Roy Rogers “weapon,” and then grasped the Colt. The handle was too big for one of my four-year-old hands so I grabbed it with two. When he let go of the barrel, its weight bore me down: a thunk sound as it immediately hit the carpet.
The gun weighed near as much as I did. I could barely hold the handle up.
“Go on,” he said. “Twirl it.”
It was a weight greater than any I’d ever known. I struggled for a bit, simply trying to lift the damned thing before I gave up, saying, “I can’t. It’s too heavy.”
“Good,” he said. “Violence should always be too heavy to carry.
“You remember that.”