Fat Lips and Heirlooms

In the wood-paneled basement of a stranger's South Dakota home, I learned a little about a grandfather I scarcely knew.

And, holding his old double-hammered shotgun, I realized that when it comes to heirlooms, guns run thicker than blood or water.

I was in South Dakota last month for a family reunion of sorts. My mother, siblings and close family friends had gathered to spread the ashes of my late father on the prairie ranch where he spent his formative years. No McKeans remain in this little town, but if you look hard enough you can see signs of our presence here: a pottery crock bearing the name McKean & Company after my great-grandfather's Depression-era general store on Main Street, an inscription to this same man on a cemetery monument recognizing local veterans, an entire chapter in the town's centennial yearbook devoted to my homesteading family, a ranch that's still called "The McKean Place."

Like so many early ranchers and sodbusters, the next generation didn't stick. My grandfather left the ranch for college, and while my father returned every summer for two decades, he never became a permanent South Dakotan.

But residents of a certain age still remember my ancestors, which is why I found myself in this basement, holding a double-barreled shotgun with a crude homemade stock. The gun is in the collection of a man who collects firearms, as well as spurs, horse bells and just about anything else with a Western theme.

He had invited me to his home with this appeal: "I have something of your grandfather's you might be interested in."

I had no idea it would be a gun. As he hefted the shotgun out of his safe, he must have seen my stunned look. Only a couple of firearms--a century-old 25/20 Winchester Model 1892 and a pair of single-shot .22s--have been handed down in our gun-loving family, and to be this close to an heirloom like this quickened my blood.

"This was your great-grandfathers," said its current owner as I ran my hand over the seasoned wood that had felt the grip of my ancestors. "You might not know this about your grandfather, but he had the biggest lips of any man I've ever met. I guess when he was a kid he got his lower lip caught in one of those hammers when it fired, and it made a hell of an impression on him. When your great-grandfather died and your grandfather was going through his things, he gave this gun to my father. He said, he never wanted to see that *@#%*^ gun again."

I inspected the shotgun, noting the tight Damascus barrels, the original checkered forend and the hand-carved stock. I picked out the words Richards engraved in the receiver and felt years of hard use in its nicks and scars. Homely as it was, this gun was priceless to me, and as I handed it back to its owner, the shotgun seemed even heavier with connection and accumulated memory.

I realized I'd never see this heirloom again, and suddenly a thought occurred to me. I called over my 9-year-old son, and we posed for a quick photo with this piece of history, an artifact of our long-departed, fat-lipped, gun-loving ancestors.