The Luger and the Ukulele
Monday, December 3, 2001
Rev. Heng Sure
The Luger and the Ukulele
Monday, December 3, 2001
Rev. Heng Sure
My father was possessive of his things. He regularly reminded me not to touch his stuff, and he meant it. He forbade me to play his baritone ukulele, read his Western novels, or touch his handguns. I really wanted to play the uke. That mahogany instrument infected me with the music bug. Once I caught the virus I wanted my fingers on the strings night and day. Even without the uke in my hands I fingered the chords. I played air ukulele. Entranced by the sounds of nylon on mahogany, I listened over and over to the G chord, the C, the D-seventh, the G chord again. Time took a vacation while I played along with my favorites, the Kingston Trio, or Peter, Paul & Mary, strumming a ukulele accompaniment to Puff the Magic Dragon in front of the big hi-fi speakers in the dining room.
My father came home from work the day before my birthday and found me practicing the tunes I had already learned on the ukulele. I had forgotten his no-touch rule and I wanted to show him that I could play Kingston Trio songs! My father blew up, scolded me harshly, his profane curses raining down, knotting my stomach, making me cry. His scorn crushed me. My fingers were numbed, my heart was iced, my songs were destroyed.
I ran from the room and considered shooting myself, showing him how he had hurt me. This was more than a threat; I knew where the German Luger was in the bedroom closet. Dad had taught me to field strip it down to oily parts in sixty seconds. I locked the bed room door and opened the closet, pushed aside the garment bags. A puff of moth-balls and cedar stung my nose and eyes. The box on the floor in the back held the handguns. I pulled it out, and yanked the string pull light switch. There in the cotton bag with Bank of Montreal printed on the side was the steel gray handgun, two bullets and a swatch of pine needles. The bullets were grey and business-like, they were tarnished steel with a thin profile and a blunt snout. The pine needles were brown and dry but still intact and they brought back the memories.
It was Ottawa Park, the summer of my fifteenth year. Last summer. Touching guns without permission brought certain punishment, certainly being grounded, losing privileges. My best friend, Donnie Eggenschwiler and I had snuck the Luger out of the house, hidden in the pocket of my baseball glove. I stuck it under the driver’s seat of Donnie’s 62’ VW Beetle, looked out the paint spackled garage door window, left and right, mindlessly whistling the theme song from “Have Gun, Will Travel.” I had loaded three bullets into the magazine, which was inserted into the handle of the pistol. It was precision German steel and engineering. Donnie hauled on the rope and the big white garage door swung up. We backed the VW down the driveway and putted off unobtrusively towards the woods of Ottawa Park.
We drove beside the golf course fairways, took the dirt road past the maintenance shed and down the secret trail behind the copse of blackberries. We turned off the trail, bounced down the embankment; the VW just fit along the dry creek bed. We cut the engine and coasted to a stop next to a clearing, but hidden to view in the green shadows. Donnie kept the brake off, set the gearshift in neutral and pushing with his shoulder on the door jamb while I pushed on the engine cover from the back, we silently turned the VW around, facing the direction we had come. We pushed and turned, pushed and turned, until the Beetle faced out for a quick escape; we both thought the bang was going to be loud.
I looked through the trees to the clearing beyond. I was a golfer; I knew was the third fairway. It was Wednesday afternoon in August, a foursome passed every half hour. From deep in the bushes we saw three men and a boy walk by in natty whites, their golf spikes covered with flapping leather tongues that kept grass out of the laces. A thin, tanned man, eyes hidden by a golf visor, shanked his drive into the forest. It caromed, tock tock from the hardwood trunks and came to a stop ten feet from where we dashed for cover. Donnie and I rolled down onto the creek bed, dived into the reeds and held our breath. Lucky the VW was forest green. I waited as long as I could bear it, then raised my head to peek through the greenery. I waited for his swing and the thwock of the ball. I heard silence then a piddle-piffle like water streaming from a hose spigot. I raised my head and saw him zipping his fly, his back to us. He scooped up the ball, carried it twenty feet and pitched it back on to the fairway through an aisle in the maples and followed it out of the woods.
Donnie and I raised our heads at the same time in slow motion. We heard the click of a five iron, laughter that faded. Donnie pulled out the key, opened the Beetle’s door, slid in and turned the engine over. He stuck his head out the window and nodded to me. I slid the passenger seat forward, reached under his seat and pulled out the pitcher’s mitt and eased the Luger from the pocket. I walked to the center of the path behind the VW and found a broad, solid birch tree with two evenly spaced black- rimmed knots that looked like eyes. I clicked off the safety and saw the red warning line inscribed against the grey steel. The machined, cross-hatched grip was heavy, cold, and silver where it was worn away.
I raised the pistol, held it at arm’s length and sighted down the barrel between the two eyes on the birch. A voice in my mind said distinctly, “Don’t shoot.” I pulled the trigger and several things happened very quickly. The Luger bucked and kicked, carrying my hand and arm straight up into the air. The sensation was like a quick, thirty foot steel rod connected from the pistol’s tip stretching dead straight through space to tap the tree, a long leaden pathway passing through the trunk and opening a hole in the wood. The steel casing popped out of the slot in the side of the gun, and landed on my shoulder, scorching my shirt and smelling like gunpowder.
For an instant there was uncanny silence, the explosion was so earth-ending loud that I was temporarily deafened. My first awareness that the gun had made noise was a red cardinal dropping three feet down through air towards me before his wings could spread and cut the air. The bang had knocked him from a hole in the tree over my head. He was unharmed but startled and my eyes, following the gun in my hand over my head locked eyes with the irritated red bird. My ears shook free in the vibrating air and on the instant the silence was ripped apart by a rolling boom that shook the leaves, swelled and echoed distantly from the synagogue, half a mile across Kenwood Gardens.
Donnie and I flew towards the Volkswagen, gaping, laughing, delighted, and stunned by the power. As one body we dived for the Beetle, slammed into the seats, snapped on the safety, jacked out the ammo slide that held two remaining bullets and dropped them into the fingers of the baseball glove, along with a handful of spruce needles ripped from a sapling I had trampled running back. I slapped the mitt under the seat and ducked below the window level. Donnie floored it and shifted into second, and third before we passed the maintenance shed. We roared onto the blacktop in passing gear. I peeked out the window, inches from the astonished sun-burned face of a retired banker who swung his golf cart wildly down the gravel track to avoid being sideswiped. I scanned for black and white patrol cars with blazing red bubble tops, scowling eyes boring through the car body and through the seats to find my sweaty shirt and guilty grin. That was the last time I had held the Luger; the pine needles had turned brown.
With tears in my eyes, tears of hurt and anger, I saw the same two bullets on the bottom of the box. I was startled to find my hands still held the knowledge of dissembling the gun. Without a thought I put the Luger back, closed the box lid, pushed it into the back of the closet, tugged the light switch and shut the closet door. The memory of the gunshot ringing in my ear chilled my feeling. I couldn’t imagine a little hole in the side of my head, I couldn’t release that noise in my bedroom. I shouldn’t have touched the uke; Dad loved his stuff. Why didn’t I leave it alone? I could make the ukulele sing, I could make the pistol boom, why did I have to make my father swear at me? My fingers tapped out a ukulele chord on the bannister where I sat on the top stair.
I heard my father calling my name downstairs. I came slowly forward stepping lightly, feet clenched in my athletic socks. He stood in the kitchen doorway, his bulk filling it. His eyes blinked back tears. He struggled to control his chin as he handed me the chocolate brown baritone ukulele, a red ribbon and bow around its neck. He held the instrument with both hands, sound hole up, like a sterling tray bearing jewels. A note on cream-colored paper stuck between the second and third strings in my father’s graceful script:
“For your birthday, Chris. May its songs never replace the music in your heart.”