Posted on March 11, 2013


By now you have read and heard more about guns than you probably ever wanted to know. Maybe you haven’t, especially if you love and use guns for hunting, shooting for sport, or are in the military and guns are part of your life, and are of great assistance in preserving and extending your life, not to speak of winning anything you happen to be engaged in.

Guns have never been part of my life, but a twist of fate put me in the middle of guns, testimony to the extraordinary circumstances that drive our lives. Or, if you are a Christian, the providential hand of God on your life.

I suppose we should say “weapons” instead of guns, but that’s more of a police-military word. It sounds better and more professional. It is more inclusive. But guns has a ring to it we can all relate to.

Guns, as you know, come in all sizes and all kinds. Did you know that in the past the U. S. Navy put sixteen inch guns on battleships? That’s sixteen inches in bore, or diameter of the barrel. And in the Navy, it was a 16 inch “gun,” not a cannon, or howitzer or some other Army designation.

In my home, we have a .38” caliber pistol. That’s a very small gun. But it’s still a gun.

My gun story begins with shooting a bird with a BB gun sometime when I was seven or eight years old, under the proper supervision of an older, experienced person of course, in my case my cousin Bob Herndon who was only four years older but knew about guns. He lived in South Carolinas near the mountains, was an outside person, and I idolized him.

So I shot the bird far up in the tree, and for some reason, hit him, and she fluttered down to the ground, wounded and slowly dying, flopping around from the pain and shock of the BB pellet.

I watched in horror at what I had done. I forget the rest of the scene, but I hung up my hunting genes then and there.

I grew up largely in cities, when I wasn’t visiting the countryside of South Carolina where my dad had grown up and we still had family. I could scoot around the suburbs of Lima, Peru with the best of them, and then living in New Jersey, close to “the” city, I learned to find my way around Manhattan, the buses, the trains, Times Square, the Village, it all became familiar to me.

I guess I thought I had forgotten about the bird I killed with the BB gun but obviously I didn’t because there she is in this story. And, as for guns, I loved westerns and war movies and flying and so watched guns in all sorts of scenes, but I didn’t want to shoot any more birds.

Now, before you hunters sound off, I appreciate your sport and understand it, kind of, and have no desire to squelch or condemn it. I know it forms a niche in our culture—even as modern as we think we are—and you form a link in the long relationship between man and nature that has often nurtured and sustained humankind.

So it was a bit of surprise to me when my name was called over the loudspeaker as I waited to board a jet in the summer of 1964 on my way to the Mediterranean.

“Ensign Clayton, please report to counter blah blah.”

I was at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, getting ready to fly to the Med to meet my ship, the USS Donner (LSD 20), and report aboard for duty, my first as a shiny new Naval officer.

“You are designated a courier on this flight,” they guy at the counter was telling me as I looked at the packet and the gun, a .45 caliber automatic pistol with a separate magazine, or clip, by the side.

I just stared at it while the guy droned on, “you’ll carry this courier packet on your person at all times, and you will be issued this pistol and…” and he paused, and looked at me.

“You know how to handle one of these?” he asked pointing to the .45

“Uh,” but before I could go further, he continued, “Well, this the way you load it,” and he shoved the magazine into the stock, “this is safety, and,” as he looked at me, removing the clip, “I would keep them separate and don’t use this weapon unless it’s an emergency.”

And I was off on my way, a courier, for all I knew carrying Top Secret NATO orders to the admiral to defeat a Russian attack on the U. S. Naval Base at Rota, Spain, but the more I learned about the Navy, maybe I was just carrying his ironed shirts and underwear sent by his wife.

Given my background, within a month or two of reporting aboard the Donner at Malta, I was made—you guessed it—the Gunnery Officer, or, in the more up-to-date language, the Weapons Officer.

Lucky for me, I had some good gunner’s mates who took care of me and the guns on our old amphibious ship.

We carried old WWII style 40 mm anti-aircraft guns, the famous pom poms of many Victory at Sea documentaries I had seen, and they worked pretty well.

Except on one occasion when the Filipino stewards assigned to the guns during General Quarters drills got excited and tried to jam a clip of four shells in backwards.

This caused a considerable stir on the Bridge and the old man asked me “what the h… is going on Larry,” and the gunners mates quickly jump in and get things squared away, chewing out the Filipinos in good Navy English while the Filipinos responded indignantly in their own language, hot and railed as they were.

Once my gunners mates took me to the fantail to shoot our Thompson submachine guns. I’m not quite sure why we carried them, other than to repel boarders and occasional pirates, but I thought these looked neat, like the famous machine guns carried by G-Men and so went aft with my gunners and took aim at a 55 gallon drum we had thrown overboard.

The machine gun just arched up in my arms and I missed the ocean altogether, not to speak of the target.
The guys had me turn the machine gun 90 degrees and when I pulled the trigger, the barrel came zooming around toward the deck and I noticed everyone was in fact hitting the deck. I stopped the firing and they said that was great “Mr. Clayton, we’ll take up another lesson another time.” I noticed they were a little pale faced but I had a fun time.

My experience with guns ended when I finished my two year tour of duty assaulting beaches and bars across the Caribbean and Mediterranean. By the time I left, I could almost hit the barrel and never came close to raking the deck again, although most of the gunners stood behind me when practice shooting.

After the tragedy in Connecticut, it seems the entire country is going to arms, and my twenty-one year old pilot son is no exception. He’s carrying arms for protection and I can understand that. He also thinks I should be better armed at home while he is busy flying here and there in his piloting so he left me his shotgun, to supplement the .38 caliber revolver.

He showed me the shotgun, which can fire three bullets without reloading, although you have to chamber each bullet by a sliding action.

We went through this several times.

“Bullets in here.”


“Move this little switch to chamber a shot.”


“Move the safety to off.”


“Aim and fire.”


I went through the scenario several times, but in my final exam, failed to unsecure the safety.

I imagined an invader in my house, at night, in the dark.

Adrenalin pumping, I load the bullets, chamber one, and warn the guy, just like in the movies.
“Stop, or I’ll shoot!”

He flips me a finger and lifts his gun, at which point I blast him into smithereens with one, two, or three 12 gauge shot that would probably blast a hole in a door.

But, wait, nothing happened when I pulled the trigger.

Gawd, forgot to switch the safety off!

“Uh, could you stand still a second while I get this right….”

Where are those gunner’s mates when I need them?!

Published Sunday March 24, 2013 in The Tuscaloosa News in OpEd section as An Inept History of Living with Firearms