Owning History 2/15/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Last week, I had a great experience when I fired a 30-06 rifle, but not just any rifle.  She is an Eddystone 1917 model rifle.  She was among the first 60,000 rifles of her type to be manufactured out of about two and a half million.  She was issued by the US Army during the war to end all wars, and probably during the second war to end all wars.  Her sisters have been carried by many armies not only in the two “great” wars, but also in Korea and part of the Vietnam conflict.  She is infamously reliable in bitterly cold weather, which is why she’s still carried by the Danish Sirius Dog Sled Patrol, which operates north of the Polar circle in high Arctic Greenland, mainly as a last resort against aggressive polar bears and muskoxen.  She’s an interesting rifle, with rounds that make the modern AR-15 rounds look like ammunition for children. 

I got to thinking about this and realized that it is possible (although highly unlikely) that this rife, this rifle that I personally own (this was the first time I had fired her), could have killed my relatives.  My branch of the Bleil family fled the Nazis in the second world war, so there’s a good chance that my relatives fought with the Germans in the first, and I do know that this rifle was carried in battles in the wars.  No, I feel no ill will over this.  History is past, and things turned out for the best, but it’s a curious possibility.  But what makes this possible is the fact that she (the rifle) is over a hundred years old now, and still working like she was new. 

I have a great fondness for antiques.  The upright piano in my house was made around 1898, the second piano I’d owned that was over a century old.  My house is about ninety years old now.  I had an antique clock that was a century old as well.  There’s something about considering the history that these beautiful creations had seen through the years, the wars, the depression, the people, the good times and the bad. 

Not long ago, I read an article about a buyer who landed a black diamond estimated to be about a billion years old.  But owning items that are a billion years old, or even a hundred years old, is kind of irrelevant, don’t you think?  The Native People never really thought about land as something that anybody can “own”, but rather recognized that the people living on it were merely the temporary caretakers of it.  After all, how can you “own” something that has been around longer than any of us and will continue to be there after the “owner” is long gone.  I do not own the Eddystone rifle (or the piano or the house), but rather I’m simply their caretaker for a segment of time.  Europeans (or those of European descent) attach this concept of “ownership” to land or, well, black diamonds.  Try to tell the buyer of that black diamond that he does not, and cannot, every truly own a billion-year-old piece of history, and he’ll rush to grab the receipt.  Of course, the person (or organization) that he paid (I’m assuming it is a man who purchased it; it seems like such a guy thing to do) didn’t really own it either.  Some mining company found it, and laid claim, but that company will be gone long before the diamond.

Modern possessions lack the kind of longevity of those in the past.  I own a total of fourteen rifles and handguns at the moment (although it’s time to start thinning out some of my less favorite).  It’s interesting owning guns, because the quality of them vary greatly.  If you spend a good deal of money, you can get guns of high quality, and you can just tell that they will last for a very long time.  Others feel more cheaply made, like the tolerance on its construction and components are just not of the same quality.  These will eventually jam, break, and won’t last. 

We’ve become used to buying products that won’t last.  My washer and dryer will probably break down within five years, while my parent’s lasted as many decades as mine will last years.  This is ownership.  You bought it new, you will decide when it’s time to literally destroy it, taking it to be recycled or, worse, put into a landfill.  But my rifle?  No, she’s history.  My responsibility to her is very different because I have to take care of her not only cleaning up her past, but also to keep her in good shape for the next owner.  It’s more of a responsibility than anything else, and frankly, it’s a responsibility that I enjoy.

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