The Shotgun In The Closet

My father was born 100 years ago in a house on Jewett Avenue, when Staten Island was wild and beautiful. The middle child of nine, Louis Lattanzio was the son of Italian immigrants. Grandpa was a shoemaker. Grandma had children and kept house and no doubt her figure, running after them in an attempt to keep them in check.

As a child he joined his brothers in exploring the hardwood forests, farmland and fields around them. The Lattanzio children were a wild bunch, and probably would have been placed on Ritalin today. Shoeless in warm weather, the boys hunted reptiles and amphibians, birds and other small game with homemade slingshots, spears and later BB guns. They fished for red-eared sunfish, perch and sometimes carp with sapling fishing poles in the chain of Clove Lakes-- Silver and Clove Lakes, Brook's and Martling's Ponds. Learning to swim was easy. Uncle Nunzi, huge and powerful even in his youth, simply threw them into the water from the strong limb of a tree overhanging Martling's Pond. Whether the children wanted to learn to swim or not, there was no choice. If you didn't swim, you drowned. All were strong swimmers.

Sundays at the Roman Catholic Church didn't slow them down. All dressed up in their best clothes, the boys would head for the bathroom before Sunday School and escape to the woods from an open window. Nuns trailing great clouds of black habits pursued them angrily, the mocking laughter of the boys stinging their ears. They never caught them and surely felt the rowdy Lattanzio's were destined to hell, or at least a long stay in purgatory.

My father's first real gun was a Stevens .22 Sharpshooter given to him by his father, Paulo. Fading sepia photographs show Dad and his brothers posed proudly with their beagle-type dogs (Frank was dad's favorite), shotguns prominently displayed. Together with his brothers and his best friend Bill LaTourette, son of an immigrant oysterman, they followed after sweetly tonguing hounds, bagging many a rabbit when Staten Island was still pristine and sparsely populated.

When I was growing up, Dad and I explored Clove Lakes Park and other woodsy places in all seasons. We'd sneak up on sunnies at the pond edges, lying on our stomachs in damp, sweet-smelling grass to watch them sweep their nest sites clean, protecting the area from all insurgents. We tramped the woods for yellow violets, tulip trees and choke cherries; gathered pokeweed berries when I decided to make ink, collected pine cones for Christmas decorations, made little pipes of acorns and wooden matches. We'd examine freshwater snails, returning them to their homes unhurt. In the fall we marveled at the colors of the leaves, dragging our feet through rustling carpets of reds, golds and yellows. In the winter we'd take endless walks in snowy woods to see if we could start rabbits while we watched for animal tracks and scattered wheat for the birds. Sitting next to Dad in the dark across from Ascension Church, we watched cottontails congregate, eyes aglow, illuminated by the spotlight on the old DeSoto, and caused them no harm.

I was very young when my dad took me to an estate sale of a friend. I stood in quiet fascination watching a mole tunneling near Concord grapevines; my father and other men dickering with the widow over the dead man's belongings. Dad had talked about a special doublebarrel shotgun with a Damascus barrel. Now he was here to buy it. When he walked away with the beautiful, engraved shotgun, he was ecstatic. It was a jewel he kept clean and oiled in the front hall closet, taking it out only when he and Uncle Bill went rabbit hunting in the fall with their beagles. Dad often came back with stories of the ones that got away. Our Lollipop wasn't much of a hunter.

As Staten Island grew and the beautiful wild places we treasured shrank before our eyes, something happened that I didn't understand. A New York law intimidated my father so much, that one day he took the beautiful shotgun from the closet. On that day it disappeared from my life. The shotgun was as much an heirloom as the gold pocketwatch Grandpa gave my father on his twenty-first birthday, or the lovely Victorian bird pin Grandma gave me that I was allowed to wear only when I became 18. The shotgun was beautiful to look at with its intricately made barrel of melded, wound wire, elegant engraving and richly grained stock. Being the upstanding, good citizen that he was, Dad chose not to sell it for fear someone else would use the shotgun illegally. He turned the shotgun in to the local police precinct, perhaps to grace another's closet.

My father never brandished the shotgun in anger, and never had to use it in defense, though we intuitively knew that he would do so to protect us if the need existed. He stopped hunting rabbits when he grew older. The shotgun was simply a fixture in the closet-- a work of art and provider of many meals to a steamy kitchen with my cousin Marie sitting next to me, plates laden with mother's special rabbit recipe. It was a reminder of the day when Mokey, our tom cat, stalked down the cellar stairs and blew up with ancient recall to become a real tiger over a piece of rabbit hide. As I sat on Grandpa Decker's railroad there in the cellar near the coal furnace, Dad patiently cleaned the animals, pointing out the rabbit's organs, explaining their function and cautioning me that game should never be overhunted or wasted.

My father, a law-abiding man, loved his country fiercely. He gladly would have sacrificed his life for the ideals of liberty and the freedom of others. World War I found him too young; the Navy didn't want him in World War II. "Too skinny," the recruiter said, and shut the window in his face as he tried to enlist a second time. The quota for the day had been reached.

I was taught that I was a most fortunate child because my country was the finest, most wonderful country in the world-- that I should abide by its laws and always be respectful of her name. And that even though my grandparents thought the streets were really paved with gold, freedom, liberty and opportunity are the real glittering ore of America. Sadly, over my lifetime, I have seen our freedoms eroded day by day.

Every law that is made restrains and inhibits freedom. To my father, not voluntarily giving up his beloved shotgun would mean he was being unpatriotic. Apparently, though he knew his Constitution, he believed that he might be considered a criminal if he didn't comply with the new law and turn in his gun. The notion of being a criminal was repugnant to him. As a good citizen, he did what he thought was right.

Today, beleaguered by the interference of politicians who would gladly give away what was guaranteed by the Constitution, America is no longer free. Our liberty has been compromised, usurped, sold. With their vicious onslaught against the Second Amendment, our lawmakers intend to take away the very thing that made America a shining example of freedom. The Second Amendment alone made us different from every other country. We could arm ourselves for personal protection or against government tyrants run amok. We could hunt and provide for our families. We could enforce our other liberties. We had the freedom to keep and bear arms if that was what we chose. If we used our firearms in an illegal, dangerous manner, we would be punished. And that was reasonable.

24-hour news coverage hammers us with repetitive film footage of gun-related crime. Newspapers feed us an endless line of spun facts and slanted reporting. People who do not understand the gift and importance of the Constitutiion, panic. Celebrities rail against the dangers of firearms. Firearm advocates are ridiculed and called whackos, not to be trusted enough even to raise their children and most often, just not trusted. Politicians who have been tainted by scandal, corruption and concealed financial boons attempt to brainwash an entire populace into thinking it cannot act responsibly. It is they-- the politicians-- who fear the firearm. Most of them have backgrounds in the law. They have learned legal ways to convolute and re-interpret the Constitution, which was not written for the elite, but for the common people.

We accept traitors, liars, cowards, thieves, moral perverts and those easily corrupted to lead us and in our stupor, we elect them repeatedly.

Our military is gutted, its ranks full of men and women who will acquiesce to unlawful orders and blindly follow them.

With the death of the Second Amendment will surely come the swift demise of our freedom of speech, which is beginning to sicken, along with our other inalienable rights.

America is dying.

We live in dangerous times; the danger comes from within our government.

My father rests with the founding fathers and patriots. America's dead patriots and heroes are legion. When the people of this country are disarmed by the government and finally at its mercy, it will be because we didn't learn the lessons of the consequences taught when fathers all over the world, being good citizens, quietly gave up the shotgun in the closet.