Because the story I wish to post below is ultimately a story about grieving the loss of my beloved father, Dr. Roland Hayes Luckett, and making sense of what I still see as his “early” death at 60, I dedicate this post with prayers to Cameron Sterling, whose loss I cannot fathom. I hope it will be evident that I in no way champion gun violence or even gun ownership with the story below…it was/is however about my coming to terms with my Mississippi father’s relationship to his guns and their presence in our lives. Tomorrow Pops would have been 78, and March was 17 years without him. So much of this blog over the years has talked about the times and ways I enjoyed music with my father, some of that comes out here too…but even more so here is the movie culture we loved. That was a joy to revisit. So yes, I found this story this week, had been hunting for it to give to a friend who recently lost her pop. It’s called, “21 Gun Salute: One more shot at forgiving my father.” It’s obviously much longer than an average post, but read a little at a time….
“21 Gun Salute: One More Shot at Forgiving my Father”
for Papashugs from Babyshugs
- The summer before I move away for college, we fight about the .22 you want me to keep in my dorm room. I tell you, “They don’t allow guns in dorms, Dad, especially not in Berkeley.” You don’t care what they allow or don’t allow, you want me to be protected. “Something small, could slip right in your purse.” While most 1980s kids are at this point pushing parents for televisions, mini fridges, microwaves and credit cards, I push back the pistol. I win. No gun.
You give me that wicked knife instead.
- We go to see Clint Eastwood’s, Unforgiven. Early in the film, when Clint’s character, Munny, first considers coming out of retirement (he hasn’t been a murderous, gunslinging drunk for over a decade) he takes out his dusty revolver and shoots at a can a dozen yards away. He misses. He misses repeatedly. You bust out laughing. The movie’s opening sequence is so taut, so terrifying, no one else in the theater has access to more than a giggle. But you–you are so tickled to see Munny/Dirty Harry miss that easy shot–a shot you could make blindfolded–you double over. Last week I watch the Unforgiven dvd. During the same scene I double over…sobbing.
- You introduce Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women” to me young. You want me to hear a lyric that acknowledges the various hues of African American women. I wonder if I’m tan or yellow, Sweet Thing or Saffronia. You never want me to feel “tragic” yet you also want to prepare me for any trouble my mulatta mix might invite. The music feels heavy to me as a kid, but in my teens I discover, reclaim Nina on my own. I’m thrilled one visit home from college when I’ve found a re-released live recording of “Four Women” where Nina breaks with the lyrics to talk more about the degrading way that white men in the south would refer to black women as “Auntie.” Nina says if she had been there when they called her mother that, she’d have “burnt the whole goddam place down, I tell you that!” This chokes you up. You say the thing we’ve heard so many times, “You kids are always on me about my guns, but you don’t understand what it was like in Jackson. No one was going to protect my mother, Eula, Alberta from…. We had to protect ourselves.” Everybody knows about Mississippi….
- We watch a mob movie, maybe one of the Godfathers, where a gun is hidden in a box of cannoli. You love these movies, and I love them because you love them and take me to see them really young. The gun in the cannoli box becomes the perfect segue to your retelling of your own favorite, real-life movie scene. Summer ‘65. You and Ma are determined to take newborn Jason back to Jackson to meet his Grandma. Summer ‘64, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were shot to death and dumped in a dam for being black and white together, trying to overcome. Now you and Ma have the nerve to be black and white together with your pro-miscegenation son in tow. “I had your mother walk ahead of me with Jason. I walked several paces behind. You damn right I had a loaded .45 in the diaper basket. If anyone had touched your mother or our son, I know they would have roped my ass to a tree, but I would have taken out the perpetrating fool first.”
It becomes this chicken/egg curiosity in my head as a kid…did you steal this move from the mob movie guys or did they steal it from you?
- I was always a tall, big-boned girl. Still, at age 12, I wonder how my body took the kick of that first .22 rifle you had me shoot. I shoot the .22 pistol too, and you showed me the .357 revolver, but I was probably in high school before you let me shoot it. I liked that outdoor range we went to in Orange County better than the indoor gun clubs you’d frequent later, after your second divorce, when you finally moved back to Los Angeles.
- You are the only black man on our block in Irvine in the 70’s. Let’s be real, you are damn near the only black man in Irvine. Period. If this alone didn’t make you stand out, you drive a gold Pantera too (don’t know if I ever saw another Pantera in my life after you traded yours in for that Canary yellow ‘Vette). But you also seem to be the only man on the block who shoots your gun on the Fourth of July. The other families might have more and fancier fireworks, but we win the loud competition. Mom’s always scared when you do this. I can see her in her terry cloth robe holding me and Jason close. I squirm, want to get back in the action. There are still some sparklers left.
- My junior high newspaper editor asks me and my fellow pre-teen journalist, Ted, to write pro and con gun control editorials (cracks me up how I’ve barely reached puberty and already think I’m Connie Chung). But I’m not sophisticated enough to quite understand that “pro” gun control means I’m for the controlling of gun sales. I get looped into defending the position I’m not actually for. I’m my daddy’s girl and he’s from Mississippi and everybody knows about Mississippi and it’s his second amendment right to bear arms and okay maybe the constitution writers didn’t count on a black PhD from Mississippi now living in Orange County to own that many guns, but still. I’m 12, I’m grown, I’m professional, I can be objective. I compile the facts. I even write passionately about the staggering statistics on domestic violence, murder, suicide rates, and fatal accidents occurring in homes with guns. Hmmm. This matched with the hippy, left wing Christians and peace activists I’m starting to be drawn to makes me feel more and more ambivalent about going shooting with you. By late high school I’m attending antinuclear marches with people like Father Daniel Berrigan. I stop going to the range for a while. You still get me to go to shoot-em-up mob movies, and I still enjoy the hell out of them.
- You love the early, progressive hip hop. You take counseling jobs here and there with various group homes and housing projects where both the baby thugs and grown OGs turn you on to folk like KRS1 and Kool Mo Dee. We listen to Mo Dee’s, “Knowledge is King” and you burst out, “That’s been my motto for years! To educate is to liberate! Maybe now these kids can hear it.” We begin to listen to more and more hip hop, progressive and not so progressive, in between the jazz, Jobim and Sade that make up our usual set. You make sure I catch all the gun references. “Now you know what he’s talking about there, right?” No. “He’s talking about the Glock. You’ve shot the Glock, Babyshugs, that’s that 9mm you like, you just didn’t know the name.”
- Years later I’m hired to write a biopic on a very famous rapper who I know very little about initially. I’m straight outta Irvine after all. What gives me “street cred” with the late rapper’s fellow MCs from Oakland to Atlanta to NYC is that I know something about guns. Thank you, Papashugs.
- Your community counseling work from Watts to Compton to Long Beach brings you in contact with numerous Bloods and Crips. They love talking weaponry with a licensed clinical therapist. You brag about how they have your back: “Anyone you need us to take care of, Doc Luckett, you say the word!” I can’t deny that even this Gandhi/Archbishop Romero/MLK loving girl gets excited when you tell me these stories. The way you swing like Lionel Hampton between the PhDs and the OGs is one of the most inspiring lessons I ever learned from you.
- From Ma’s and your social work training, you always talked with me about “meeting the client,” meeting all people, “where they are.” So while I don’t imagine you encouraged more violence in conversations with gang members, you spoke with them in a way that made you relatable and let them know you step to them without judgment. At the same time, I remember the summer after the Rodney King violence, when the Crips and Bloods were working to form a truce and there was a huge “Black Family Reunion” held at Exposition Park. You and some other counselors set up a grief support booth. I watch you hug, console, allow the space for weeping and wailing for so many mothers who’ve lost their sons to gang violence or correctional facilities. You affirm that those lives and losses matter, and that it is the sane and healthy response to take the time to mourn. I watch you–my multiple gun owning father–minister Gandhi/Romero/MLK-like to the wounds of our grieving sisters, on that sweaty, summer afternoon in South Central.
- You pack in public in the last few years of your life. Maybe it’s not something you felt the need to do in Orange County, but one random night in Culver City, I meet you for a movie and notice you’re carrying this old leather pouch around. In the 80’s you used it to carry your wallet, checkbook, maybe a comb. Tonight it’s much heavier than that. You ask me to hold it when you run to the men’s room and my hands drop to my knees not expecting the weight. We’re not going to see, New Jack City. We’re going to see, Analyze This. What, did word get out that disgruntled mafioso were unhappy with their portrayal in the film and PhD shrinks everywhere were now targets? We are so high on laughter after the film, I don’t bring up the gun.
- On a trip home from school you take me to some new restaurant in downtown L.A. that’s supposed to have live jazz. I can’t remember if you’ve been to the place or not; we’re both a little unfamiliar with the location and where best to park. We find a kind of dark parking lot and begin the walk to the club. You hear footsteps behind us. I either don’t hear them or don’t make anything of it. You suddenly and sharply turn around, raise up your arms and say, “Damn, it, I forgot something in the car.” I think, okay, let’s go get it. We walk back in the direction of the car, I hardly notice the man who was walking behind us. We get close to the lot, but don’t go all the way. You turn us back toward the club and say, “Honey, I didn’t leave anything in the car.” You thought the guy behind us might mug or attack us so you said, “In a situation like this, it’s best to turn around and square yourself with your attacker, look him right in the eye…it will usually disarm him.”
- For your birthday, I think it’s your 59th because we’re not speaking on your 60th (and you die a few months shy of your 61st), I go to the range with you. We used to always shoot the circle/dart-board type targets but today we’re shooting the police style, head and torso targets. In my late 20’s now and a good 50 pounds heavier and 5 inches taller than my middle school target practice days, I still can never get used to the kick of the .45. It’s too much. I switch to the Glock 9mm and, I hate to say it, but it feels like…butter. After the first round on the Glock, we pull the targets back and you compliment where I get a few consistent bullets in a cluster and can see I’m just warming up. You are always loving and generous at the range. For one thing you’re thrilled I’ve come instead of going off on one of my political diatribes about you and your guns, to which you always come back with some version of, “As a black man in America….” So there’s that. But there’s also the fact that you are unquestionably masterful at shooting. You are often assumed to be law enforcement and tend to shoot circles around any of the cops present. So when you compliment and encourage me here it’s free of the backhanded, narcissistic way I’m so frequently praised by you…as a reflection of your greatness. My favorite example is the time I get my first play produced in Los Angeles and all you can talk about is how you should write a book on your brilliant parenting skills. No congratulations, no “well done,” just, “look at what an amazing job I did at raising you.” At the range, you have nothing to prove. The excellence you yearned for, failed at, or faked in your professional, romantic, and parental life, was undisputed behind a gun. From that sincere place of ease and confidence, you show me real grace.
- Once at the range with you, I make the mistake of imagining my last withholding, rejecting, totally unavailable, award winning creative artist, lover’s face as the face of the target. I completely lose my aim and set down the gun with a good 8, 9 bullets left in the magazine. I can’t remember if I tell you what’s going on or not, but you take the gun and finish out the round on my target, tearing up the face and the center of the chest. For some reason I keep that sheet.
- I am the youngest and only female staff writer, and this is my first season on this show. The star is an ass to everyone, from prop guy to network executive. The guys I work with “in the room” approach but do not rival the star’s asshole energy. One day to mess with the guys in the room, I bring in the target you shot up, claim the expert marksmanship as my own, and scotch tape it to the back of my chair with a note in girlie cursive: “a friendly reminder, love, Josslyn.” I get a few laughs, and after a couple days the tape gives and I roll up the target and take it back to my office. A week or so later, the star comes in the room to complain about a joke. He decides to pick this day to once again try to wear me down with his hostile hazing. With some muscle memory I have the impulse to turn my chair and square my shoulders with my attacker and look him right in the eye. I tell him without raising my voice, “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know where I’m from. We might even have things in common.” He tries to dismiss me again and gets up to leave. I stand up too. I’m tall, I’m at his eye level. I say, real friendly, but with a fuck you neatly tucked deep in my throat, “Do you shoot?” “No woman has ever asked me, ‘Do you shoot?’” I say, “You got a minute? I want to show you something.” He stays. I go to my office and get my target. Like CEO’s discussing the weekend’s round of golf, I unroll my target and begin to casually, if not a bit boastfully discuss my results. He takes the bait, plays right along, pointing out: “Well, that bullet right there would paralyze a nigger, but not kill him. But those two right there….” He never fucks with me again.
- Friday, March 12, 1999, I drive you home from the V.A. hospital in Westwood. It’s not just your heart this time, there seems to be some trouble with your kidneys. You are scheduled to go back in the following week for more test. Your funeral is the following week instead. In the middle of your messy one bedroom apartment, we sit at what I know is the dining room table but looks more like a mad professor’s desk at the end of a frantic semester. You dictate a grocery list while listening to your voice mail messages. One message excites you, from another ‘radical brother,’ you say, working in the community. You want to do a clinical project with him, and you tell me the two of you have discussed putting together a Rob Williams style brigade of “Negroes with Guns.” You all are tired of the police brutality going on in the black community, and you want what sounds to me like “Seven Days” style justice. If there’s not already a Charles Bronson movie about a guy fresh out of the V.A. with congestive heart failure who starts shooting cops, you and ‘radical brother’ are pitching the black intelligentsia version of it now. You wonder what I’m talking about when I mention the “Seven Days.” I tell you it’s from Toni Morrison. In her book, Song of Solomon, there’s a character named Guitar who has this group of gunmen that do revenge killings…if a white man kills a black man on a Thursday, the next Thursday, they take a white man out. “SHE WRITES ABOUT THAT?!” Charles Bronson fades out and vulnerable, exhausted, last-day-on-earth Papa fades back in. “I know you’re always on me to read your feminist heroes. I think you misunderstand why I haven’t. Never knowing my father, being surrounded by only women…the black woman’s story is the one I thought I knew.” He points to overstuffed, wall length bookshelves and more stacks of books piled around the room, “But that’s what I needed.” Fanon, Diop, Cesaire, Baldwin, Wright, Rollo May, Sadat, Malcolm X. “They my daddies.”
- You die very early the next morning. No money. No will. Plenty of debt. Lots of guns. They are the inheritance we must cash in to pay for your funeral.
- Jason and I know a guy who used to work at one of the Culver City gun stores. We call him to take a look at your collection. This guy’s a real know-it-all, acts unfazed at the large number of guns (in that one bedroom apartment, over a dozen), but one of the Rambo looking ones stumps him. He calls his old shop and describes it. They tell him it must be dismantled and basically “disappear” because it’s beyond illegal. Later I thought–and I’m sure if you weren’t already dead it would have killed you–we were hoodwinked on that one. Someone somewhere made a pretty penny off that bad boy. Know-it-all takes the Rambo gun, and Jason and I take the rest of the collection to the store ourselves the next day to exchange for cash. We get a price on each individual rifle, hand gun, and less illegal Rambo looking gun. The Glock I love is the one we can get the best price for. Butter ain’t cheap.
- I was just learning to square my shoulders strong and look you in the eye, and then you split. Sure I’m relieved to be free of your rage, your despair, your profound dissatisfaction–all those holes in you that you molded me to fill, to patch with perfection at such an early age. Still, when I see men who make it past 70, 80, mellowing men, reflective me, I miss you with an ache I can only begin to balm with music.
- Jason and I rock-paper-scissors your vinyl collection. We each take what books we want and donate the rest to an African American studies library. I forward your mail to my address and find out you have what appears to be a lifetime subscription to both Jet and American Rifleman.
I keep the Glock.