What is it:
This is my grandfather, Murray Anderson, in 1942 at age 17, pointing his gun directly at the photographer.
Why is it Awesome?
Okay, let’s get a closer look at this. You tell me, what’s interesting about this image? Is it the bit where you can see directly down the barrel of what is almost certainly a loaded firearm? I’ll admit, it makes for an interesting picture –especially once I was assured the photographer is not now dead and quietly buried in a shallow grave somewhere out in the forest– but what is the wider context? What can this photo tell us about the life and times of the generation that grew up during the Great Depression?
Let’s take a step back and remember what we’re talking about here. This is not a couple of teenagers horsing around with firearms. Well, okay, it is teenagers horsing around with firearms, but it’s also one of those things that disconnects the Greatest Generation from my own. Even the Baby Boomers can’t really wrap their head around the idea that in the Great Depression, you fed your family however you could. Everyone had a garden. If you lived near a lake or a river, you fished. If there were wood lots around you, you hunted. You didn’t do it because you were starving. You did it because it was something you could do to make things easier on the family budget. It wasn’t a question of desperation so much as independence.
My grandfather is the youngest of eight children, five boys, three girls. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Their family was fairly well off, as far as things went: His father was an engineer, and his grandfather was a fishing trawler captain, but that didn’t mean every penny wasn’t pinched. Look at the photo of my grandfather and two of his brothers about to go fishing. Who’s the best dressed? Who’s second? Who’s third? That’s based strictly on age. The eldest brother got the new clothes, because he outgrew his old stuff, which went to the next eldest, and the next, and so on down the line. Every photo I have of my grandfather before he joins the navy, the collars and sleeves of his sweaters are all stretched out and irregular. Hand-me-downs aren’t a completely foreign concept to my generation, but they certainly don’t extend into a boy’s late teens anymore. In his day and age it was viewed as perfectly normal, even for the middle class. It was just one more way of scrimping and saving and relying on your own family’s resources.
So what does this have to do with the Great Depression Generation’s view of gun safety? My grandfather and great uncles were expected to hunt and to fish to supplement the food their father’s salary put on the table. Again, that was absolutely normal, whereas today it would be considered very unusual outside of the most rustic areas. Everyone with access to a rod or reel helped out. Up in Muskoka, over four hundred kilometers away from the Anderson family down in Windsor, My grandmother’s brother Wilfred ‘Pip’ MacDonald was praised for his efforts to always shoot rabbits in the head, so the fur would be of some use after the little guys had been butchered. It was a lifestyle that held sway over vast stretches of North America: Frugality, but also a tangible sense of self-reliance.
Today, if I wanted to have a boat like the Anderson brothers had, I’d have to take a course on water safety, write an exam, and get my license. Do you know what those boys did? Their father took them out from the time they were old enough to stand, and when they were old enough to work a struggling pole to haul in a fish worth catching, he trusted them to go out on their own. It was just the same with firearms. There’s no doubt in my mind that my great-grandfather showed his sons how to load a rifle, unload it, work the safety and the sights. It never occurred to him to send them to an actual officiating body where they would learn the cardinal rule, “ALWAYS TREAT A GUN AS IF IT WERE LOADED.” I imagine the frugal Anderson clan’s cardinal rule about firearms was, ‘Don’t lose that gun. It’s expensive!’
My grandfather hasn’t held a rifle in years. I believe he gave it up shortly after almost shooting his wife. Sometime in the 50s (the story is hazy, as it is not often repeated), my grandmother was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor. My grandfather was cleaning his gun at the kitchen table. He neglected to check the breech because he was ‘Sure that it was empty.’ The gun went off, sending a bullet within a foot of my grandmother Serena’s head. There are no pictures of my grandfather holding a gun after that.
I asked him, “Didn’t they teach you gun safety in the Navy?” My own knowledge of firearm handling is largely through my time in the air cadets.
“Sure,” he said. “But I didn’t pay attention. There was a war on, you know!”
My grandmother leapt to her husband’s defense. “Our generation used guns all the time, growing up. Not like your generation. We never used our shotguns to shoot up a school.”
You can’t really overcome an argument like that. Her generation could be trusted with guns without lessons. Ours can’t even be trusted to hold them. That’s how far the zeitgeist has gone when it comes to kids and firearms. When I see that picture of my grandfather pointing his gun directly at the camera, I feel an electric shock run through me. He is only slightly embarrassed about the photo, and that’s because of an accident that would happen almost twenty years later. To my grandfather, the rifle was just a tool he needed to do a job. In many ways his youth was a simpler time, despite being a harder time. Our rules and education have made us safer, but they’ve also taken away some of the freedom of being young and trusted.
Anyway, the picture got me thinking, and as I have over a hundred of these old photos to put up on this blog sooner or later, I thought I’d start off with these ones.