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Letters to Mom

Allan Sherman would be proud!

five opened evelopes showing addresses and stamps from WWII

Here at the Night Police, we’ve been told that our readers and our potential readers would like to get to know us better. Toward that end, I’m going to share a number of short stories that I wrote for friends over the years. The first series details my follies after retiring from law enforcement and the military.

In the fall of 2014, I retired from the US Coast Guard reserve after spending a year in Saudi Arabia as a military advisor. I had lots of GI Bill education credits built up, and with the prodding of a good friend, I set off to learn the trade of gunsmithing at 59 years of age. What follows is the beginning of that journey.

"Dear Mrs. Smith,

Your son Paul seems to be struggling in his first week of school…"


Gunsmith school, it’s no joke.  I’ll give you a little peek at what Week One looked like, and for those of you under 50 years of age I apologize up front for the references to 1960s and 70s movie and television characters.

So on Monday morning at 0745, we students are all lined up outside the one entrance/exit door. The building dates back to 1947 when the school first opened. It’s a single-story cinder block edifice with all the architectural charm of a post WW II Soviet Union government building.  At 0750 the door opens and we file in.  “New guys to the back classroom!!” Us new guys have no idea where that is, but somehow we find it after winding through a maze of workbenches, lathes, and milling machines. In the classroom there are 14 red 7-drawer toolboxes with a pile of tools by each. Very cool, I like tools.

The Director of Academics welcomes us to the school, we all stand, give our names and where we are from. Fortunately, it wasn’t a deep dive into our past and I could stay away from the whole ATF career thing, which I was dreading.  The Director is a dead ringer for Douglas C. Niedermeyer, the ROTC leader of Animal House fame. I’m not kidding.  Nice enough guy, but a little taken with himself. Liked to talk about his days in the Army.  During the expected lecture on attendance, all the transgressions that can get you kicked out of school, grading, fire drills and so forth, Niedermeyer runs down the drill about what would happen if there was an “Active Shooter” situation at the school. He told us not to worry because the Army trained him to run toward the sound of gunfire and elaborated that he was well conditioned to gunfights and they didn’t bother him.  I thought to myself that he may have overplayed that one a bit. Most of the kids in the room had just gotten out of the service, and at least two of them were combat wounded [About 95% of the 168 students enrolled are kids who just left the service].

So after the welcome aboard speech and reading of the rules, we get down to business and sign for our tools and toolbox. The process was very reminiscent of boot camp. The instructor would hold up a tool and call it out, “pick up your double-cut file!” 14 files raised in the air. “Put it in your upper left drawer!”, and so on through the whole pile of tools until we loaded our boxes.

After a 30-minute lunch break, we move to the “Big Classroom” to hear a few words from the Director of the school.  Based on the coffee cup with the Marine Corps emblem and his references to “field strip your butts and do not drop them on my deck”, I’m guessing that the Director spent some time in the Marine Corps. His mid-west twang, Marine Corps-isms and a few other traits made me think he was a blend of R. Lee Ermey and Foster Brooks. He was a man who knew how to get the cork out of a bottle of whiskey. The gist of the speech was keep your nose clean, work hard, pay attention to detail, cleanliness is next to godliness, and he believes in God Almighty and you will not take the Lord’s name in vain in his school, forget about Colorado laws legalizing dope ‘cause he will kick you out, he has an open door policy but you never want to be invited to his office, now get to work. Work is tracked in 15-minute blocks and logged by the student to correspond to every class and every project turned in.

Back to the “back classroom”.  We pick up our toolboxes and stagger across the shop floor to our assigned work benches in “Basic Section”. Again, very boot camp-esque. At least we didn’t have to button the top buttons of our shirts or hold on to the belt of the guy in front of us. During our journey one of the veteran students looked up from his work and smiled, “Welcome to hell boys!” How encouraging.

Our home for the next 2 months is a simple steel work bench with a vise mounted on one corner. A rectangular piece of plywood is chucked up in the vise with our name on it and our assigned wall locker number. “DECEMBER CLASS! (‘cause that’s who we are known as now) Turn to project number 1 in your binders, vise jaws, lay it out on the plywood and cut it out in the “dirty room” on the band saw. This is your first graded exercise, if they are sloppy in your vise you fail. Get busy.”  Good thing I knew what a band saw was. I get my wooden jaws cut out and fitted to my vise, and I’m feeling pretty smug. As I have nothing to do, I start organizing my tool box Smith style vs Niedermeyer style. The voice of one of the omniscient instructors drawls behind me, “Mr. Smith, if you are done with your vise jaws go cut your steel for project number 2. No sense sitting around wasting time. You still have 10 minutes until cleanups start. Time is at a premium around here.”

At 16:00 precisely, we students form a column of twos at the exit door. The instructors inspect all the benches and machine areas for cleanliness (next to godliness, you know), and when satisfied they release us from the center of learning.  As I head to my truck, I see something odd; a couple of instructors are running bailing wire through a bunch of rifle barrels and tying it to the bumper of a truck. Then, grinning like idiots, they climb in the truck and starting spinning around the parking lot with rifle barrels bouncing behind them. Odd.

Tuesday morning–“DECEMBER CLASS! Back classroom!”  We get a quick class on precision measuring instruments and some math rules. Fractions no longer exists in our world; we will express everything in decimal equivalents with four place holders ( and our working tolerance for our first projects will be a sloppy 5 thousandths of an inch (0.005), about the width of a human hair. Two junior instructors come through the door with an arm-load of rifle barrels. The same ones that were drug around the parking lot the night before, except the junior instructors had just finished “touching them up on a bench grinder to ensure that each was a tragic mess. We are each given our very own for filing and polishing exercise number 3.  “Make ‘em pretty again boys. Get back to work!”

So it’s 10:00 on Tuesday morning and I have 2 projects to get done with an allotted time of 22.5 hours. One is a filing project where we are to cut out a piece of steel flat stock with a hacksaw and bring it to 5.5 inches by 1.625 inches plus or minus .005 of an inch with a file. Perfectly square (no light showing along the edges when placed in a machinist square), all edges square-not rounded from filing and polished to an 80 grit finish, no pits. Simple enough, right? Then there is the minor problem of the joy riding rifle barrel. All the rock dings and grinder marks will have to be taken out with a file (called “Striking a barrel”) and then when the entire barrel has a file finish on it I will work it through ever decreasing grit numbers of sand paper, buffing compounds and jewelers rouge to bring the barrel to a mirror finish before putting it in the bluing tank for a “Match Grade” blue finish.

As we file and sand on our two projects one of my fellow “DECEMBER CLASS” classmates mutters, “You would have to go to prison and grind spoons into shanks on a concrete floor to have this much fun…” At 13:30 (I know because it’s in my time log) we are sent to the back classroom to meet with the school Chaplin.  Again, seems odd for a student body of 168 to have a Sky Pilot, but I guess since most are returning vets coupled with 2 suicides the previous year, and we are all working on guns, well I guess you can’t be too careful.  Anyway, Chaps is a nice enough guy, and it only takes a half hour to learn about the counseling available to us.  Back to my bench and my trashed rifle barrel. If I work diligently I figure it will be Match Grade by the time my grand kids are out of college.

Wednesday dawns and I return to school with a new optimism. I will turn in my square piece of steel for initial review. I have measured it about a hundred times as I carefully filed the steel away. I am within the .005 of an inch of tolerance. I hand it to the senior instructor who puts his dial caliper on the piece. It checks out. His caliper and mine were in agreement! Then he places the piece in a machinist’s square and holds it up to the light, “Ahem, Mr. Smith, I see light. Check your edges. You have .003 to play with. Fix it.” Back to my bench. At least I’m not starting all over, which is what would have happened if I had busted the .005 tolerance. 

By Wednesday afternoon, I’m losing the will to live. I have blisters from sandpapering and where I used to have fingerprints, I have perfectly smooth skin. I wish the damn rifle barrel were so smooth. I was going to “fix” my almost square piece of steel, but the word came down, “DECEMBER CLASS! Those rifle barrels have to be ready for the bluing tanks on Monday. Get to work!” So I shoe-shine away on my lumpy barrel. I guess I could sharpen spoons in my jail cell. I’m starting to understand the chaplain deal. Although I’ll tell you, if I go off the rails I’m not going out alone. Niedermeyer will be the first to go, and then we’ll see what happens after that.

Thursday–Bright and sunny and they open the big roll-up doors to provide sunlight and air to us little People’s Party students! And I can see the daylight around my “square” piece of metal! And my new safety glasses arrived the day before. The ones with the 2X readers on the bottom. I can see! Praise  Jesus!  I doctor my sick piece of metal until no light squirts under the edges. Then a new form of torture emerges.

There’s this device called a buffing wheel. We each have three of them, one for each polishing compound; 320 grit, 400 grit and matchless which puts on the mirror finish. Breaking in a new buffing wheel takes about an hour of treating with buffing compound, trimming off unraveling threads and running your rifle barrel through it repeatedly until the rifle barrel gets too hot to handle. Let it cool and back to the alleged square piece of steel which has now broken out in “pits”. Those which have to be polished out with 80 grit sandpaper. Should I be doing push-ups or sit-ups in my cell too? I’m just wondering.

Around 15:30 my rifle barrel is showing some sign of luster and I’m still on the 400 grit. Halleluiah! Come Monday I’m going for the matchless compound, mirror finish, and the bluing tank. And during cooling periods I finished the square piece of steel (and only 15 minutes over the 7.5 hours allotted). Also did my basic layout on Filing Project #3, which is creating radiuses with the aforementioned hacksaw and file. Hope springs eternal and Monday starts a new week.

I know that I made Week One seem a little institutional, and it is, but Foster Brooks told us on Day One that he wants us to drop early rather than later so that he can offer other prospective students a chance at the school as soon as possible.  The school is also trying to ingrain time keeping, and extreme attention to detail, patience and a host of other qualities that a good gunsmith will need. If I survive the 14 months that is the Colorado School of Trades, I will be good at this stuff and I really enjoy and am honored to be in the company of so many young vets.

I’ll write more soon.


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