By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, January 19, 1935.
“We had better,” said Jimmie Frise, “register our pistols.”
“Nonsense,” I replied. “I’m an officer of his majesty’s Canadian militia. I’m an officer of the reserve. I am entitled to possess my arms.”
“The new law,” stated Jimmie, “says that every pistol or revolver – every – shall be registered with the police.”
“That means bohunks and shady characters,” I insisted. “It doesn’t mean officers and gentlemen. Say, listen: I’ve carried that pistol of mine through some of the greatest battles in human history. Vimy, Passchendaele, Amiens. It is my armor, just the same as the armor of the Crusaders. Just the same as the swords of the knights of King Richard the Lion Heart. Do you think I’ll submit to having my armor listed by a bunch of cops? No, sir.”
“You are liable to a fine of fifty dollars if you don’t,” said Jim.
“I think this is an outrage,” I declared hotly. “When there was a war they went through the streets with bugles and drums, begging me to come to the rescue of my native land. They thrust a pistol in my hands. Pleaded with me to use it often and truly. I marched through the world in those days with a pistol on my belt. Now they treat me like a suspect and demand that I register that same gun. I won’t do it.”
“It’s just a matter of form,” explained Jim.
“There is too much matter of form these days,” I roared. The world has got the jitters. Do they think I am a Red?”
“They never can tell,” said Jim. “How do they know but that you may have changed your mind about things this last fifteen years since the war? In case of trouble which side of the barricades do they know you will be on?”
“The fact that my pistol is registered won’t make any difference which side of the barricades I’ll be on,” I contended.
“No, but it will make a big difference to the cops that have got to rush around the city snatching up all the registered pistols, just in case,” argued Jim. “I don’t blame the cops. They’ll feel a lot easier if they know just where the guns are.”
“Caesar said,” I announced, “that it was easy to raise an army, but it was terribly hard to disband one. This is the disbanding. This last shameful act. This causing the old and broken knights to come to the police station and register their arms. I’m through. I give in. They don’t trust me any more. I’m just another suspect. They want to register my gun. All right. I’m through. They can fight their own wars from now on. They can employ registered soldiers and registered guns. I wouldn’t fight for a nation whose idea of statesmanship is registration of everything. I wouldn’t fight for a nation that would submit to such an indignity.”
“Then you’ll give up your guns?” asked Jim.
“I won’t,” I shouted. “I’ll take them, and all my sons will come with me, and I’ll throw them into the Humber. I’ll make a ceremony of it. My little sons will stand by me, and one by one I’ll throw my guns and my spurs and my Sam Browne belt and all the other things I’ve got left of those great and mighty days into the deepest hole in the river rather than submit them to the shame, the ignominy of being registered by a suspicious-eyed cop.”
New Ideas Come This Way
“I’ve often heard you speak far differently about pistols,” said Jimmie. “I’ve heard you say you never used your pistol. That pistols are of no use except for suicide or murder.”
“Quite true,” I admitted, “with this one exception: that in the middle of a battle, when you are scared stiff, a great big pistol in your hand gives you a lot of encouragement. If you bang it off in the air every few minutes, it encourages you.”
“Did you never use it on the enemy?” asked Jim.
“I’ve no doubt the noise of my pistol – it was a big forty-five, firing a slug of lead the size of the end joint of your thumb and making a noise like a double-barrelled shot-gun – I’ve no doubt the noise of my forty-five, added to the general racket of the war, helped to demoralize the Germans,” I said. “But I doubt if I could hit a barn with my pistol even if I was in the barn with the door shut.”
“Then,” demanded Jimmie, “what is your objection to having the blame thing registered?”
“It is a moral question,” I explained. “I think nothing of pistols. They are vicious and useless things. Fit for nothing but crime. But I have a pistol. It is mine. It is the mineness of the pistol, not the pistolness, that I am defending.”
“You’re a die-hard Tory,” decreed Jim. “Don’t you recognize, in this new law registering all pistols, the dawn of Communism in our government? Can you not see the wonder of Toronto’s police, who less than four years ago were slugging Communists in parks, now so converted to Communism that they are adopting one of the main planks of the Communists?”
“Sir,” I said.
“Certainly,” went on Jimmie. “The only difference is that the Communists started by confiscating factories and banks. We have started by confiscating pistols. It’s all the same. It’s the start. The fact that they register your property gives you a license to possess it. The next thing they do is revoke the license. Your property is thereby confiscated. It is very simple.”
“Well I’ll be!” I said.
“Yes,” agreed Jim. “In Russia, they started at the big end and are working down. In Canada we are starting at the little end, and are working up. It is all out of deference to some of our older gentlemen. In Russia, they haven’t the same respect for elderly gentlemen we have in Canada. So, out of respect for these old gentlemen, they are starting confiscation with your pistol. After the old gentlemen pass away, they will then confiscate their factories and trust companies. See?”
“Who would think our police are like that, from looking at them?” I gasped.
“It’s very simple,” said Jim. “New ideas always come that way. We resist them at first. Then all of a sudden, we just slump.”
“Well, I think as much of my pistol as a lot of old gentlemen think of their factories,” I declared. “By which I mean, it’s mine.”
“That’s it,” said Jim. “How many pistols have you?”
“Well,” I said, “I have my big army forty-five and a Luger automatic I got off a German. Then I have an old frontier Colt dating back to about 1870, but still capable of bumping off a buffalo at the gallop. I also have a little twenty-two trapper model I carry on fishing trips. And an old thirty-two pocket gun somebody gave me because they were afraid their children might get hold of it.”
Carrying Down the Hardware
“How on earth are you going to carry all those openly down to the police station to get them registered?” cried Jim.
“I’ll just send in a list,” I said.
“The police want to see them,” said Jim. “It is against the law to carry concealed weapons. So you’ll have to carry them openly. I can see you walking along with two fistfuls of gats of all sizes.”
“Ridiculous,” I said. “The streets of Toronto crowded with people carrying revolvers!”
“It would have been a queer sight four years ago,” said Jim. “But it’s all right now. I’ve just got the one gat. When will we take them down?”
“Under protest, I’ll go any time,” I said.
Jim had an old suitcase which his family said he could borrow for the purpose of transporting a load of greasy guns. We loaded it up with the hardware.
“Where do we take them?” asked Jim, hoisting the bag. It bulged. My old forty-five weighs nearly four pounds.
“I suppose to the city hall,” I said. “It’s handier. We can deliver them on the way to work.”
We put the suitcase in the car and drove down town. Even at nine o’clock in the morning it is hard to find a parking place near the city hall. We drove around the block twice and at last got a spot on Richmond St. over near the vendor’s which doesn’t open until ten.
“Here,” I said, “they’re mostly mine. Let me carry it.”
Along to Bay we lugged the bag. Jim was nervous.
“In a town like Toronto,” he said, “it is a creepy business carrying a suitcase full of guns.”
As we came to the corner, a large armored bank truck, defying all traffic laws, swung slowly around the turn, and behind it came two motor cars full of policemen, then a mounted cop and one motorcycle man. As if by magic, foot constables appeared on all four corners and stood like statues, while the august chariot of commerce and industry, in defiance of red lights, and calmly forcing common citizens in their cars to skid and slither out of the way as best they could, made the grand turn.
“Jimmie,” I said, “the bag’s a little heavy. Would you take it for a minute?”
“I have a sore hand,” said Jim. “Wait until I get my glove on.”
The whole city was filled with police. From the opposite direction, as we stood waiting for the lights to turn and for the traffic jam resulting from the bank car to solve itself, another stately steel fortress on wheels came to the corner, also accompanied by carloads of cops, with horse, cycle and foot police in attendance. And through the confusion of this mighty but daily spectacle in Toronto’s downtown, Jimmie and I, with the bag of pistols, threaded our timid way.
Our hearts were in our mouths.
“Easy,” whispered Jim anxiously.
I could hear the pistols rattling loudly in the bag. I looked at the bag. It was old. The handle seemed about to part. The walls of the bag bulged and I could see the shape of guns, of muzzles and cylinders, of trigger guards and butts, revealing themselves plainly.
“O-o-o-oh,” I murmured.
A Cataclysmic Moment
Jim clung closely and protectingly over me. Police were everywhere, in cars, tooting at us, on horseback, clattering with fierce hoofs on the icy pavement of Bay and Richmond, on motorcycles, and, in massive greatcoats and towering fur caps, looming on every side.
And curious crowds, caught in the daily pomp and circumstance of the parade of the armored bank trucks, gathered at all the corners of the street. Strange how people make way for Money. Strange how those homely steel lorries with faces peering from the bulletproof windows, create a sense of awe in a more or less civilized city like Toronto. In the Middle Ages, a duke or a cardinal went by in his guarded carriage, and we, the people, stood agape or the corners. Nowadays, a duke or a cardinal would have to take his chances along with all the rest of us. But the Money wagons, with a large constabulary hand raised on high in a grave reproof to all us rabble on the corners, is color blind, goes against the traffic lights, makes left hand turns where left hand turns are illegal, and we, with lumps in our throats and reverence in our eyes, make obeisance to the homely, the bullet-proof, the barred and blind-faced gods of to-day.
For us, it was a debilitating moment. As the bank trucks wheeled south, Jim and I started across the intersection, feeling as if all eyes were on us instead of on the solemn procession of the much-guarded money. If anyone knew, at this moment, in such a place, what we had hidden in this old brown bag!
A motor car backfired.
“Yarp!” I emitted.
“Look out!” hissed Jim, as I caught my balance.
But it was slippery. The bag had been for long years in the Frise family. The handle had been on too many trips to the railroad station in the back of democrats and surreys and phaetons with fringe around the tops. Rain had rained on the old bag, and snow had silted on it as it stood on Birdseye Center station platform at Christmas. And summer sun had eaten mercilessly into its fibre as it rode in launches on Lake Scugog or ridden in rumble seats all over central North America.
I felt it give.
I set it down as hastily as I could to save the crash.
The dunt was too much for the old frayed straps and buckles.
“Jimmie!” I cried.
An avalanche, a mountain slide of pistols, of revolvers fat and bulgeous, of snaky long black automatics, of glittering silvery twenty-twos with tapering slender snouts, of wicked little pocket guns, slewed and spewed all over the pavement of Bay St.
Screams and feet poundings, muffled ejaculations and squeaks, such words as “hold-up,” “duck” and “Oh my” filled the air. Car horns, street car bells and racing engines. Big Ben booming, and a flying maelstrom of nine o’clock figures rushing both way’s and across, all crowded into one cataclysmic instant as Jim seized my elbow; and head down into the throng, weaving and twisting, we raced around the corner and into a fish store.
Through its broad windows, we saw the nine o’clock throng all hasting, with never a sideways glance.
The fish store was abuzz with opening. A man in a white smock came up.
“A pound of smelts,” said Jim.
We caught our breath. We shook hands solemnly. The smelts were parcelled and paid for.
With chins up and expressions of Torontoesque innocence on our faces, we stepped out into Queen St. and went the other way around the block.
“Well,” I said, “we’re rid of the blame things.”
“The cops have them by now, I guess,” said Jim.
“They’re confiscated,” I pointed out.
“Isn’t it funny how guilty we Toronto people can feel, even when doing a perfectly legal thing,” said Jim.
Which certainly is a curious thing about us.
Editor’s Notes: Canada passed Firearms legislation in 1934, requiring handguns to be registered with the police.
The Sam Browne belt was standard issue in the Canadian army for officers in World War 1.
“Democrats and surreys and phaetons”, were all types of carriages and wagons that would be pulled by horses. The idea was that the Frise family would have had the old suitcase for many decades, dating back before cars.
Sometimes the stories would pretend that Jimmie was actually from a real place called Birdseye Center, but everyone knew it was a fictional reference to any small town in rural Ontario. Lake Scugog is also mentioned, as Jimmie was from that area around Port Perry.
This story appeared in Silver Linings (1978).