Jul/Aug 2013 Nonfiction

Goldstein's Sporting Goods

by Sam Mills

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Their presence in my memory dates from the time my hometown materialized around me: they were always there, the Goldsteins, German immigrants from after the War, a son and a son in law, brothers by a marriage like marriages were back then. Goldstein's Sporting Goods lay on Main Street across from the floodlit courthouse in the center of town, the window I waited for past men's shops and mill-ends, past Brookfield's and Rossetti's—where my mother dawdled to no purpose over furniture and rugs we couldn't afford—on those long, cold, Christmas window shopping sprees that began almost at the city parking lot and ended—after a dozen miles of colored lights, a dozen storefront Christmas trees, a dozen Mantovani carols—with a chili dog and a cherry Coke at BurgerBarn on the neon edge of town.

Picture the Compleat Campsite. I was 12 then and wrote fan mail to Outdoor Life's Jack O'Connor and L.L. Bean—the man, Leon, not the store. That fantasyland was pitched right there in Goldstein's big window. A wall tent pegged beneath overarching spruce, all wearing a predawn dusting of Rinso flakes, as near a Christmas tree as the Goldsteins ever came. In front, around a papier-mâché campfire that burned between authentic, fire-blackened hearth rocks, were all the trappings of the Well Made Camp. An Olde Towne canoe of scarlet hull lay grounded on a beach of cemetery grass, paddles athwart varnished oak ribbing. It was swamped to the gunwales with stocking-stuffers. Nearer the fire, an olive-drab dove stool supported a double-mantle Coleman lantern. A Coleman-green ice chest bore a gas stove of the same color; a percolator of speckled blue enamelware sat atop it. A camp axe and a yellow McCullough chainsaw stuck in a length of hickory log. Deer rifles hung from the tent's ridgepole and leaned against a woodpile of split oak. I could recite the model numbers, calibers, muzzle velocities, and midrange trajectories of them all.

Three mannequins, blond and blue eyed, sporting the reds and yellows and camouflage of Opening Day, inhabited this perfect camp. At fireside, Mr. Yellow, binoculars hung from his neck, cut wood at a folding sawbuck with a folding camp saw. Mr. Red sat on a cot inside the tent, wearing only thermal underwear. He was swabbing the bore of a Savage 99 with an aluminum cleaning rod. On the cot, the sleeping bag was open to its stag-print lining. Out front, Mr. Green stood at the stove, frying styrene bacon and eggs in a long handled fry-pan. He wore Maine hunting shoes laced to the knee and a red deerstalker cap with the earflaps down. On Mr. Yellow and Mr. Green, blaze-orange stocking caps produced the Neanderthal brow lines of village idiots. I loved them anyway.

As I stood on the cold sidewalk—hands fisted in the pockets of my unlined London Fog raincoat, visible breath fogging the glass, fogging the reflected courthouse with its Prussian-helmet cupola and hay-bale crèche scene behind me, "Little Drummer Boy" rat-tat-tatting from a speaker above—I stared hard into their vacuous eyes in a vain effort at male bonding. But on loan from Belk, they looked past me with a fixed icy hauteur as though prescience and high fashion had gone to their heads. Their smiles were the affectless simpers of cemetery angels. Or serial killers.

Elsewhere, in a departure from realism, there was a rod rack in one corner for diehards in winter. At its base, trout flies swarmed on angler's vest and wicker creel around a salmon-sized Royal Coachman streamer big enough to be the queen. Primary-colored shotgun shells and antler sheds littered the edges of the camp. There were duck and goose decoys enough to swerve flyway migration routes. These were scattered about in careful disarray. A mallard drake sat near the fire on a bundle of fatwood kindling. A widgeon hen watched him come-hither from her roost on the folding camp table. Owl and crows in Yuletide truce shared an evergreen bough on alligator clip feet. As a joke, there was even a partridge in the spruce tree.

This was "The Deer Camp" as depicted on the November page of the 1959 Winchester Arms calendar. (Only the bloodlessly dead ten pointer was missing.) Each year, I awaited its return as ardently as I awaited the holiday itself. As much as the Christmas parade with its goose-pimpled beauty queens, wearing one-piece bathing suits and sashes promoting out-of-season fruits and vegetables. (Then as now a marketing truism: for maximum visibility, put your logo between a pair of commodious mammaries. Our tutelary pair were manfully borne by the Apple Festival queen—though we boys loved her less out of lust and tri-county fealty than for the candied apples her groundling elves dispensed at speed as we jogged alongside her cider-press-themed float.) More than the off-key Messiah and spiked eggnog and premeditated encounters beneath mistletoed doorjambs. More than the bell-ringing, Salvation Army colonels and front-stoop carolers and axe-wielding expeditions in search of the perfect spruce or white pine.

And I was not alone in my estimation: all the boys in town agreed: Goldstein's big window was the nocturnal emission of November dreams. But best of all, the window was only a fitting introduction—nay, the perfect gateway—to the Great Outdoors that lay inside.

INSIDE, BEHIND THE GLASS COUNTER, a multi-colored wall of ammunition reached ten feet to the watermarked ceiling and cumulus of cigarette smoke that hung there. Remington reds and greens. Winchester Western yellows and blues. Floor to ceiling, every caliber since the wane of black powder was surely represented there. Weatherby and Ruger and Holland & Holland magnums. African rounds with magical safari names like .404 Gibbes and .458 Winchester Magnum and .470 Nitro Express. In Jack O'Connor, I read about those calibers in sentences with words like buff and pride and veldt.

There were also the old black powder rounds and the very first of the smokeless. Old timers from the sticks of Cades Cove and Green River could send in by their missus for a box of 38/55s or 44/40s and know that she would return with enough ammunition for another ten seasons.

There were rounds for all the military-surplus rifles in the nail-keg bins. The 7.7 Japs from just before Armistice with their pathetic rough blank stocks. The masterful German Mausers and Mannlicher Schoenaurs with the first Monte Carlo cheek pieces I had ever seen. The British .303 Lee Enfields with the stubby barrels and conical flash suppressors that had won an Empire. There were the big twelve pound Garrands that my father didn't like to look at, let alone lift. And there were the stocky 6.5 Italian Carcano carbines that Lee Harvey Oswald would make infamous just four gloomy Novembers hence.

I had them all, and at school in shop class, I refinished their stocks. Worked them down with 00 steel wool. Burnished them to a golden luster with hot linseed oil. Blued the barrels and removed the military sights. Fitted them with recoil pads and telescopic sights. It had gotten to be a school joke. When the Commies came, my classmates said, Sammy could start an army. They were joking; I was not. It was the Age of the Rosenbergs.

Factory rifles were kept in a glass-fronted cabinet behind the glass counter. A request to see one of these was rarely vouchsafed a boy of 12—but to the Goldsteins, I was special, a prodigy of sorts. The guns were racked according to needs of access, which was in turn a pollster perfect reflection of their popularity. I can still see the queen of that collection, a blond stocked Weatherby Mark V in .300 Weatherby Magnum, resting so far at the left end that to fetch it—only as a conversation piece, mind you—Mr. Ira Goldstein would have to run the glass door nearly out of its track.

Over the years—and it would sit unsold for 15—it became known by patrons as "that elephant gun," as in "Ira, let me feel of that elephant gun." Or, upon the intelligence that a particularly large black bear had been sighted in Pisgah National Forest, someone might preface his version of the story with, "Karl, I hear tell they might be a buyer for that elephant gun of yourn."

Twenty years later, the Goldsteins were ordering ten Weatherbys a season for Southern whitetail and couldn't keep them in stock. (In 1967, Norman Mailer would observe that this was why we were in Vietnam.)

To the right of the Weatherby, rising in popularity, were the classic bolt actions, the Model 70 Winchesters and the Remington 700s, toe to toe competitors, both—like the calibers .270 and 30/06—surprisingly popular in an area of second-growth timber where opening day wisdom was to hunt the grown-over clear-cuts. (Shotguns with slugs and 30/30s were the time honored weapons of choice.)

"Ja, vee do zell a lot of deese," Mr. Ira Goldstein, the son, told me that Christmas of '59 as he handed me a Model 70 in .308. Unlike Karl, his brother in law, Mr. Ira still spoke with a heavy German accent. “It iss surprisink how many vee do zell. For ze deer."

But I had my heart set on a Winchester 94 in 30/30, and he knew it and was using his reliability argument to sell me the more expensive gun.

"You vould t'ink around here, efer'body vould prefer ze faster gun. Like your leeber dere." He nodded at a lever-action Marlin 336, and the bell on his Santa hat jingled.

I worked the bolt. It was new and gummy from naval jelly. "They don't jam," I told him, quoting from the Gospel According to Jack O'Connor. "And they're fast enough once you get used to them." (Two years later, Lee Harvey Oswald would establish this lamentable reality.)

He smiled at my precocity. "Ja, dey are dependable, all right. I sink zat most of ze fellas vut buy dem plan on goink out Vest someday. For ze mule deer. And ze elk. Ze t'ree-oh-eight is a versa tile caliber, I tell you."

"Yes, sir." I looked through the four-power scope at a poster of Pancho Gonzalez over in tennis wear. The four-plex crosshairs had a dot reticle, and I put it on the red SPALDING logo on Pancho's white headband and pulled the trigger. Click. Game, set, match.

Mr. Ira walked down the wall of ammunition and returned with a blue and yellow box of 150 grain Winchester Silvertips. "Deese bullets here," he told me. "Dey make ze t'ree-oh-eight like anudder gun. You know vut I'm sayink?"

"Yes, sir. Only two-point-six inches of drop at 200 yards. When sighted in point blank." At the time, I could actually recite this stuff chapter-and-verse. Back then, it made me a red-blooded, American boy. Today, it would make me a cold-blooded, Columbine geek. I’m convinced that if I could just comprehend this paradigm shift, I could understand the Newtown Slaughter of the Innocents. “And the controlled-expansion Silvertip conserves knock-down power well beyond 300 yards." This was brochure-speak from the Winchester catalog. "The boat tail Spitzer is more accurate though. Especially in the wind."

"Smart boy."

I looked down to show my lack of interest. Under the glass countertop were Polaroids of successful hunters and unsuccessful deer. In the shots taken after dark, the deers' eyes were green, the hunters' red. All the men wore red coats and needed shaves. In one photo, shattered beer bottles sparked in the flash. In another, a man was having his shirttail cut off.

"You know, I sink a lot of ze guys get hooked on ze bolt durink ze Var."

He put the shells on the counter, and when I handed him the rifle, the little red and yellow price tag fluttering from the trigger guard, he wiped it down with an oiled square of tan chamois and racked it butt first. As he reached to replace it, the cuff rode up on his left sleeve, and I could see a little blue tattoo on the underside of his forearm. It looked like some numbers.

"You mean Korea?" I asked when he had turned back to face me.

"Nein, zat vus nuttink. Ze vun before. Ze Var."

"Were you in World War Two?"

"Yes, I vus in ze Var."

"What battles were you in?"

"No battles. I vus incarcerated."

The far right of the rack, the most accessible part, was reserved for the lever actions and for the two guns that would finally unseat them as undisputed Kings of the Deer Rifles: the Remington pumps and automatics, always in 30/06. Racked to the right of the last Gamemaster and the last Woodsmaster was a pair of lever action Savage 99s in .300 Savage and 250/3000. (Because of the calibers, they never sold.) Next, the Marlin 336s, one in .35 Remington; and finally at the very end, racked ten in a row like a movie set sheriff's office, were the classic Winchester 94s.

My father had come up behind me by this time. (My mother disapproved of guns and hunting and kept to the tennis wear.) I knew he was there when I saw Mr. Goldstein's gaze go above and beyond me in search of parental approval and an eventual sale.

"Ja?" he asked my father, white brows raised above the old-timey, wire rim glasses. His blue eyes twinkled, and gold teeth appeared beneath the tobacco-yellowed moustache.

My father must have nodded, for Mr. Goldstein took down one of the Winchesters. When he turned back to face us, his smile had widened to a grin. "Here," he said, handing me the gun butt first. He used the chamois to protect the barrel from his handprint. "Less zee if she fits." He laughed. Mr. Goldstein laughed a lot, and he always laughed, people said, when making a sale.

I worked the lever, clunky with newness, gummy with naval jelly, demonstrating to my father that the gun was unloaded. (It was part of my sales pitch.) Then I sighted down the barrel and drew a bead on Mr. Green in the front window, thinking that the hood on the front sight would definitely have to go, and that this particular gun would never be mine. You see, you rarely bought big-ticket there: the subject of their full list prices inspired the first Jew-jokes I ever heard.


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