I was in the I.B. Hunt agency chatting with the agency's CEO, CFO and XO Ken Hunt as well as with the brains of the outfit, Carolyn Salls.
We're talking about everything but insurance, when somehow the conversation shifted to firearms.
"You don't know anything about firearms, do you?" Ken said to me.
"I don't?" I said. "And since when did you become a licensed professional mind-reader?"
"You mean you do know how to handle guns?" he said.
"That's exactly what I mean," I said, acknowledging my grave competence with a grave nod.
"Oh sure," he said. "You learned it in the service."
"You gotta be kidding me," I said.
"You didn't get qualified on weapons in the service?"
"Actually, I did get qualified on them in the service."
"So?" he said, obviously befuddled.
"So it was qualification on paper only."
"You didn't fire any weapons?"
"I did," I said, "sort of."
"How can you 'sort of' fire a weapon?"
"Well, in boot camp at Great Lakes we went to the firing range twice," I said. "The first time we shot maybe five rounds from a .22 rifle. The second time we shot maybe four rounds from a .45 pistol. And that was the full extent of my weapons training in This Man's Navy."
The great northern menace
Then it was Caroline's turn to interrogate.
"But what good was that?" she asked.
"Well, they could then prove - on paper at least - that we could handle rifles and pistols."
"But you really couldn't."
"Of course not," I said. "But it was officially certified, so according to the military mind, it was true whether it really was or not."
"But how practical could that be?" she asked.
"Very," I said. "Look, let's say our archenemy, Canada, decided to conquer and annex Detroit."
"Why would Canada want Detroit?" she asked.
"A better question is why anyone would want Detroit," I said. "But this is only a hypothetical example, OK?"
"OK," she said.
"So they mount a huge invasion. Now how would we oppose it?"
She shrugged, baffled. I answer my own question.
"With crack troops fresh from the firing ranges of the Great Lakes boot camp, that's how."
"Butbut," she sputtered, "you already said you didn't know how to handle weapons."
"Didn't know the butt from the business end," I said.
"So all those guys'd get wiped out."
"No doubt," I said.
"But what purpose could that serve?"
"The same purpose it always serves," I said. "Makes money for big business and give politicians lots o' sound bytes as well as lots o' kickbacks from big business."
Silence reigned as they processed that eternal verity. Finally, Kenny spoke.
"So where did you learn how to handle a gun?"
"Right in My Home Town, as a wee lad," I said. "At the Fish and Game club's Saturday night firearm safety instruction and target shoots. Learned all about handling guns there."
"A wasted skill for your navy service, though," said Ken.
"Actually not," I said.
"No?" he said. "You mean the navy actually let you handle weapons?"
"They not only let me, they ordered me to."
"I take it there's a story behind this," he said.
"Indeed, there is," I said. And I then proceeded to tell it.
It all took place in Germany, in a communications station, where I was a Morse code operator. The station was part of a top-secret communications network. In fact, it was so secret the only other people who knew what we did were our counterparts in the other services, our civilian consumers and anyone who read Time magazine, since the media knew exactly what we did.
Since all our radio traffic was classified, we had to destroy it at the end of each shift. This was done in an incinerator which had to be supervised by an armed guard. Everyone got stuck with guard duty, which would've been just fine if it weren't for one thing - we had to carry a loaded .45.
And it wasn't just any .45. Uh-uh, it was so old and uncared for it looked less like a weapon than a relic from an archeological dig. And to match it, we were issued a clip with green bullets. The green, lest you wonder, was not military O.D. green paint - it was old- fashioned corrosion.
We may have been an unempowered, unappreciated and unworldly lot, but we were not a stupid one. We knew the pistol hadn't been cleaned or calibrated since the Battle of the Bulge and Audie Murphy himself couldn't have hit the broad side of a barn with it. Plus, if anyone was crazy enough to pull the trigger, the ammo probably would've blown up - along with their hand.
So whenever we had to guard the burn detail we did what any intelligent being would - we strapped on the gat but put the clip in our pocket.
It was an open secret among us lowbrows, but one we kept to ourselves.
Ken then asked the obvious question.
"But weren't you disobeying orders?"
"It's a matter of interpretation," I said.
"Oh?" said Ken. "And how did you interpret it?"
"Well, it was based on the directions our division officer gave us."
"Which were for us - and I quote - "to guard the burn material for all we were worth."
"So?" said Ken.
"So since I was making about 40 cents an hour, I figured walking around with a broken-down, unloaded pistol was exactly what I was worth."