Harry Beckwith was 78 years old. He'd been in declining health the past few years, but stayed hale and hearty for a remarkably long time before that. He went in for some surgery earlier this year, and I think it took a lot out of him. He was one of those old guys who seemed to be made out of rawhide, and you thought he'd go forever. Nothing had stopped him before, and lots had tried: the Japanese Navy, back in World War 2, didn't make out any better than the thugs who looked at an old man's shop and saw an easy score. Actually, they made out worse; Harry had to defend himself a few times as a civilian, and only wound up with one notch on his gun under those circumstances. I never asked him how he did against the Japanese, but I can't imagine they'd fared better.
I met Harry when I was getting into guns. I had an idea of doing a scientific study involving firearms, so went down to the local shop -- his -- to ask questions. My father had owned guns, but he died when I was young, so I'd never fired one before. So I went down to Beckwith's shop, talked with Harry a little, did the NRA safety course, and bought an old Colt Army Special revolver. And thus began my descent into gun-geekery. I bought a couple guns from Harry, and shot at the attached range, and stopped in fairly often to chew the fat. Harry had a marvelous assortment of weaponry, and some very friendly gun shop dogs. He also had a lot of pictures on the wall. One was of a guy with a rifle posing next to a target. There was a bullet hole in the picture, smack in the center of the bulls-eye. The picture was inscribed to Harry with best wishes, and I remember thinking that the champion shooter in question had come up with a cute stunt for a publicity photo.
It wasn't a cute stunt, it turned out. It was from the night Harry... well. If you want to know about the kind of guy Harry could be, when he had to be, read that.
Harry was an unlikely action hero. In truth, he was a sweet, cantankerous old coot with a soft spot for dogs and children. Like many men of his generation, he detested change but proved remarkably resilient in adapting to it. My friend Erica, who is rather dykish in appearance, went to Beckwith's to learn to shoot many years ago, and said that Harry and company were taken somewhat aback when a GIRL walked in. Then, of course, Harry saw a business opportunity. When I learned to shoot there, much later, my range instructor was a woman.
Perhaps the sweetest thing about Harry was his shy streak. It didn't show much. If ever. The only time I saw it was when I went shooting with my friend Lauren. After the range, we stopped in at the gun shop. I chatted briefly with Harry, introduced Lauren, and showed off her target. She'd done quite well for her first time shooting. Harry, bless him, still couldn't quite believe she'd come of her own volition. "You dragged her out here?" he said, with a mild tone of incredulity that it could be otherwise.
"She asked me," I said. "Look, she did the whole big brown eyes thing; how could I say no to that?"
Harry looked at Lauren, who smiled at him sweetly and blinked twice.
Blushing faintly, Harry turned away, mumbling, "I'm old and I couldn't say no to that."
It's funny, but that little moment is what I'll always remember of Harry.