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"What It Is, Is Reform School."

More Letters To Mom

five story, very old building with a clock tower

As a part of our effort to let readers get to know us better, Paul is sharing a number of short stories that he wrote for friends over the years. This series details his "follies after retiring from law enforcement and the military."


Many of you wonder what the path to becoming an author looks like. For me it has been littered with missteps, side streets, dead ends, and other diversions. Notable was the 15 months spent learning how to be a gunsmith. The 3 years in Alaska running a gun shop is fodder for a different blog. What follows is the second report I wrote while attending the Colorado School of Trades.

"What it is, is Reform School."

I have never been more than a casual believer in Karma, that is up until now, and the Colorado School of Trades. As many of you readers know, my youth was somewhat checkered. The best that I can say about myself is that I avoided prison. I was that kid that lived down the block that all the adults cursed. I was a hellion. Not the fault of bad parenting, though in my formative high school years my dad was working at the Naval Air Rework Facility in Alameda, and because of this thing called the Vietnam War, he worked a lot of swing and graveyard shifts making sure that the US Navy had plenty of fresh aircraft to bomb the piss out of Ho Chi Min.  My mom chose that time period to “find herself” and she went off to live in our cabin in the mountains. So I had a lot of “me time” on my hands. I wasn’t all bad. I went to high school most days, and I had a wicked good copy of my dad’s signature for those days when I didn’t. And I went to work after school and on Saturdays because I needed money.

Money for car parts. Specifically for hot rod parts. Even though a complete moron in school, I had figured out how to get the complete drivetrain from a 1963 Ford Galaxy factory built drag race car into a 1964 Ford short bed pickup. I should’ve just bought the entire Galaxy and raced that, but I was into trucks and all of my peckerhead buddies were into “sleepers”; a car with crazy amounts of horsepower, but looked like your Uncle Earl and Aunt Edna should own it.  So I had this pickup with enormous fat tires in the rear and little skinny ones up front, 405 of Henry Ford’s best horses, 3 Holley two-barrel carburetors, factory headers dumping into a neat tuned exhaust system that I could disconnect from the mufflers in a moments time. Even if you are not a gear head, I think you can see how the neighbors may not have been too thrilled with me.

Idyllic Summer days doing bleach or oil burnouts in the neighborhood street with mothers pulling small children inside just in case the big Ford scattered bolts as it wound past 6,000 rpm. A typical Saturday evening would involve a few passes up and down the street with the headers uncorked just to let the neighborhood know that I was off work and ready to head downtown for the cruise. My hometown, Walnut Creek, had a huge cruise on Friday and Saturday nights in the early 1970s and it was a place where those interested in finding a drag race or two could make all the illicit arrangements there. 

 I narrowly escaped being rounded up in a California Highway Patrol dragnet where they set up on one of our remote country locations and arrested everyone, drivers, flaggers, and onlookers for speed contest.  A blown side wall in one of my “Cheater Slicks” (a racing tire with some grooves cut in it to give the appearance of being street legal) is the only thing that kept me from making it to the races and subsequent arrests. And there were other awful acts of delinquency that will not be chronicled here for fear that one day one of my grandchildren may find and read this.  I suppose that perhaps this illspent youth prepared me for a career in law enforcement, being able to understand the criminal mind and all, but juvenile hall, county jail and prison was what I deserved.

So after 40 plus years and successful careers as a policeman, federal agent and reserve military officer, all of those chickens have come home to roost. I’m in reform school. I’ll be 60 years old in a couple of months, but the long arm of the law is patient, so here I am. Reform School.

At 0750 the doors open and we file in one at a time, backpacks and lunch buckets inspected for contraband. We sound-off for roll call and stand by our workbenches. At 0800 all the lights come up and the head instructor calls out, “Get to work Basics!”, and thus another day of reform school begins. As I try for the fourth day in a row to drill and tap 7 holes in a perfect line to a perfect depth, I reflect on my sins, and they are many. Somehow God directed me to this place and away from a Del Webb retirement community where I could have been content running an illegal Texas Hold’em game in my garage, souping up my electric golf cart and challenging the 65-year-old punk down the street to race for pink slips.

Instead I’m amid fellow ne’er-do-wells like Grizzly Adams who works as a bouncer at night and sleeps for hours at his workbench each day. We try to wake him when the guards (whoops!) instructors come around.

And there is Train Wreck Mosley. Very skinny and rodent like, chain smoking whenever he gets the chance. Nice enough guy, but the things he does with a file to metal shows that he is criminally insane. We all had to refinish a wooden stock and refinish the metal on a rifle or shotgun. Most of us brought our own project guns from home, but Mosley didn’t have one, so the school provided him with a customer’s rifle that needed re-bluing. You may remember from the first report card we were all given a completely trashed rifle barrel we had to bring back to match finish. They were so bad that sanding and polishing wouldn’t work, so we all had to strike the barrels with files to get the big gouges and divots out.  Apparently this lesson took hold with Train Wreck Mosley and he chucked a perfectly good Remington 700 rifle up in his vise and started filing away. Problem was, the rifle just needed a little polishing on the buffing wheel and a dunk in the re-bluing tank. The instructors saw what he was doing and started screaming for him to stop. Three of them ran over and took the rifle out of his vise, all the while yelling “what are you doing!” I’ll never forget how Train Wreck looked after they left with the rifle. Crazed grin on his face, beady eyes gleaming, drooling a bit from the corner of his mouth, and still holding his big draw file like a murder weapon. He will never fix a firearm in this lifetime. 

Lunchtime rolls around and a group of us dream about the day that we will leave this place and join the world again.  No one plans on staying in Colorado.  Thirty minutes have passed. Lunch is over. “BACK TO WORK BASICS!” I pick up my trusty file and square the fifth block of metal in my attempt to drill and tap seven holes in a perfect line and within .005 inches of depth.

14 projects in Basics. Most are tools that we will use later, such as the recoil pad installation fixture. The skills learned on one project are the foundation for the next. The recoil pad fixture (project 10) is used to mount a recoil pad to a stock in project 12.  They allot all projects a certain number of hours. We keep our time in a notebook by 15-minute intervals. Bust a time limit and you lose points on the project. Bust a tolerance from the blueprint and you lose points. The aforementioned 7 holes drilled and tapped has the potential to lose you a full letter grade for each hole. Our “December” class of 14 is down to 12 and likely will be down to 10 as Train Wreck and Grizzly Adams are both on probation. 

There is now a January class and a February class in basics, so us December veterans get some slack. We are no longer pressed into working parties to clean “the Dirty Room” or clean up all the drill presses. I have my crew I roll with and we watch each other’s back. If one of us finds a shortcut or some instructor magic, we pass it on to the others. Although at 60 years old I’m like the Bird Man of Alcatraz amongst these youngsters. I have value because of my inexplicable knowledge of federal firearm laws and the criminal justice system in general. I will probably write habeas writs in the school library on Tuesday afternoons before long.  

Two kids have found a guy in the welding shop that does tattoos on the side. We have to decide if we want the full “PECKERWOOD” scrolled across our chest, or if it would be acceptable to just have “WOOD” on one side of our neck. Not all the December class is cohesive.

Besides Train Wreck and Grizzly, who are lost causes, there are the likes of “Blow Job” and “Hand Job”. You remember the type from school, always sucking up to the teacher and asking 11th hour questions such as, “Teacher, did you forget to assign homework for this weekend?” Blow Job and Hand Job came in for 7 straight Fridays in a row and passed up everyone in our class. Now they wander around annoying everybody else, gloating about being done with everything and doing extra credit projects for the instructors. Lucky thing that there are no showers at the School of Trades because there are a couple of guys that could star at their own party.  Easy to make a shank when you file metal for a living.

My crew is getting salty as we leave basics behind. Sometimes we call the junior instructors by their first names. One of my guys, I won’t say who, has started messing with one of the junior instructors by leaving notes on the instructor’s tool box. It started innocently enough with “Jeff, XXXX OOOOOs”, then it progressed to “Jeff, you are so nice!”, then escalated to “Jeff, your beard smells so sweet”. Jeff is trying to nail the offender and makes general statements out loud such as, “This is not funny people!” and “You people need to knock this shit off. I’m not kidding!” or “I will punch one of you in the ovaries!”  It is starting to get to him though. Thursday his love note said, “Jeff, your eyes are so dreamy and your beard is as silky as your bald head”. He went home sick at 10:30. Hey, the Military Code of Conduct says that if you are a prisoner of war, you have an obligation to resist by any means necessary!

Finally, in week 8, I seem to crack the code. My last 4 projects (recoil pad install, drilling and tapping a barrel for iron sights, making 4 sets of inletting pins, and bolt jeweling) all net me A’s or A- grades.  I’m too wrung out to enjoy the moment. All I know is that I passed basics with a 3.37 out of 4.0.  They sent Chaps by to have a word with Grizzly Adams and the last I saw of them they were walking toward the exit singing something about the “green, green grass of home”. I can’t waste tears for Grizzly Adams. For me it is on to “Cycle of Operations”.

Cycle of Operations or just cycle ops; eight firearms representing the main actions that all firearms use: Bolt action, lever action, pump action, blow back (long), gas operated, break action, blow back (short) and revolver. Eight guns to tear apart and diagram every movement in your notes. 10 hours per gun with a test at the end. Did you know that there are 22 individual internal movements in moving the safety of a Mauser 1898 from safe to fire? I did not.

I have 4 down and 4 to go. Introduction to machine shop has started so hopefully filing and sanding has ended. Although I have it on good authority that the first week of machine shop entails standing over a grinder machining lathe tool bits out of tool steel.

All in all, life is good at the Colorado School of Trades and I can see progress in my own rehabilitation. I drive right at the speed limit now and obey almost all the laws when I am on the outside, though sometimes I long for the old days when I used to rip those “Do Not Remove Under Penalty of Law” tags off of mattresses and furniture cushions. Springtime is coming and I parole in 12 months.

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