This post is especially for two of my grandfather’s surviving friends, Mr. Carl C. Williams and Mr. Ray Atkinson.
They knew him well.
MY GRANDFATHER’S GUN:
This is a story about a pistol. It is also a bit of the life story of the special man who carried it, and of a time and place that has long since passed.
These stories, as well as so many others concerning the lower Big Bend, mean a great deal to me. A reader recently commented on that, thanking me for telling them. They mentioned that as long as I tell these stories, the people involved and the era they lived in will never really die.
For my own very personal reasons, I hope that never holds so true as in the story I tell now.
First, the pistol. It is a Colt Commercial Government 1911 Pre-70 in .45 ACP, and a fairly unusual variation as it was finished in bright nickel. Fresh from the factory in late 1965, it came into my grandfather’s possession on Christmas Day of that year.
The Colt was a special gift from a pair of men, young men at that time who were federal narcotics agents. Both thought a great deal of my grandfather, which is evident in the giving of such an expensive, high quality pistol. In that they took it one step further. The gun had a pair of Guadalajara silver grips fitted and was engraved “Ben English 12-25-65 Ray & Cliff.”
That was Ray Atkinson and Cliff Wilson. Cliff passed away some years back, but Ray is still alive and kicking after a very full and eventful life. We stay in contact and he sometimes regales me with stories of my grandfather, for which I am grateful. He knew him on a man to man basis, while I barely did so.
I never once heard my grandfather tell a single story of bravado on himself, he didn’t have to. Others did it for him. These stories still survive in the memories of those men who knew him best, such as those told by Carl C. Williams in his book ‘More Than A Badge.’
Each one of these individuals is a man’s man in their own right, and each has said my grandfather was truly someone to ride the river with. The honored adage of being known by the company you keep never seemed more appropriate than when I hear them speak of him. He may have died a poor man, but he was as rich as anyone I ever knew when it came to friends that mattered.
For the remainder of his days, that pistol was his prized possession. Some years later, I was home on leave visiting my grandmother. She excused herself for a moment and stepped out of the room. When she came back, she was carrying a large, sealed manila folder.
“Your Papa wanted you to have this, when the time was right.”
I opened the folder and there was the nickeled 1911, placed in the holster he had made for it. Wrapped separately in soft tissue was his tie tack of miniature crossed Colts, the one he had worn in his two terms as sheriff of Zavala Country.
After becoming a certified armorer for the Texas Department of Public Safety, I carefully refitted the old Colt to better suit occasional carry work. Better sights, a custom guide rod and an extended safety were added. This photograph was taken following the work done.
Exactly fifty years and a few months later following the Colt being gifted to him, I stepped up to the firing line for my Special Ranger certification. When the qualification was finished, the X-ring for the target was in tatters. 1911s have always fit me well, going back to my time in the Marine Corps. His fits me best of all.
One day my older son will inherit this pistol. He is the fifth Ben; the first born of the first born right down the line. In the meantime I will continue to carry this Colt for special events and occasions.
In this day and age some say the Colt is too heavy, too rare and too old, and that its time has finally passed. But I still do so because it is my closest link to the man I respected most of all and I know that pistol can be counted upon, and that it will always shoot straight and true.
After all, it is my grandfather’s gun…
Ben H. English