A Mennonite Soldier

by Robert S. Brunk
Photo courtesy Brunk Auctions

Photo courtesy Brunk Auctions

        In February of 1985, my third year in the auction business, I received a call from Johnson City, Tennessee, an old railroad town about sixty miles north of Asheville, North Carolina, where my business was based. Tom Kempson had attended an earlier auction we’d conducted in East Tennessee and was interested in selling his collections. Several people had told me that he had “a houseful of great stuff,” but in the shifting, often fickle, markets for antiques and collectibles I knew that not all “house fulls” made good auctions. I needed business, though, and was eager to see his collections.
        A few days later, I drove the shoulderless two-lane road to Johnson City, winding through mountains and ravines, and over the high ridge at the North Carolina-Tennessee line. I watched for familiar landmarks on the Tennessee side: the arc of fresh spring water splashing from a pipe under a rock outcropping, the handwritten sign at Rice’s Bend that read “locust post for sale,” and, at the base of the mountain, the village of Flag Pond with only a few buildings visible from the road.
        Trailers and pickup trucks huddled in the valleys, reflecting the slanting sun in the eastern sky. Sunken pumpkins and plastic Santa Clauses rested on porches. Flat layers of wood smoke slowly expanded in the still air. Every few miles I passed a small steepled church and wondered where all the people who worshipped in these places might come from and what they believed.
        The landscape bore the vestiges of failed farms and businesses: leaning barns with loose tin roofing, small, boarded-up grocery stores, lifeless trucks with bald, half-flat tires, bulldozers with spreading rust. A faded sign advertised a long-closed motel in Erwin, Tennessee, eight miles ahead. A few white-painted, two-story farmhouses, and the roads and schools, the largest employers in the area, gave the most evidence of sustained care. An hour later, I reached Tom’s house, one of many small brick ranch houses in a weathered, 1950s neighborhood. Several yards featured flat-lying tractor tires and large cast iron pots filled with withered flowerbeds. His house faced south in the deepest curve of a large cul-de-sac. I was pleased to see Tom’s good-sized front yard and ample parking, important ingredients for an on-site auction. Tom’s blue Ford pickup was parked in his short gravel driveway.
        He met me at the front door. “Come in the house,” he commanded as he swept one hand around the room in a great flourish, welcoming me to his exhibition. He was fifty or sixty years old, stocky of build, and dressed in outdoor gear. The rooms were crowded, every flat surface claimed by rows of glassware, figurines, and porcelains. The rooms smelled of lemon oil, recently applied to oak furniture. He handed me a fine oak split basket made by Mary Prater of Calhoun County, Tennessee; the work remarkably detailed and perfectly executed. Years later I, too, would collect her exceptional baskets and other examples of Southern Appalachian folk art.
        Tom opened a display case overflowing with pocket watches, medals, military ribbons, and pocketknives. Decoys, tobacco jars, advertising tins, lunch boxes, and Tennessee memorabilia were displayed on tables and shelves in other rooms. Tom had collected over thirty Gone-With-The-Wind lamps, late Victorian double-globed oil lamps, named after Margaret Mitchell’s famous novel, and often found in Southern collections. Clearly, there was enough material here for a full, one-day auction.
        As we walked through the house, I evaluated my ability to catalogue and advertise all that I saw. I felt sufficiently qualified until I saw several floor-to-ceiling cases crowded with rifles, muskets, fowling pieces, pistols, and revolvers, a mixture of nineteenth century and modern firearms.
        I was raised in a Mennonite family with no guns of any kind. The only gun I’d ever owned was the 12-gauge shotgun I kept in the barn at our farm on Sugar Creek to entertain the crows that frequently destroyed our freshly planted garden. As I imagined selling this collection, I felt a slight wave of uneasiness. Though I had not been a member of a Mennonite church for many years, I still carried within me a grid of beliefs, or memories of beliefs—I wasn’t sure which they were: the importance of a nonresistant lifestyle, serving my fellow men, avoiding confrontation, and in all ways striving to be a peacemaker. Those 450 year-old Anabaptist articles of faith were still a slight but indelible current flowing under my life. They asked nothing of me, but this collection reminded me again of their presence.
        I didn’t mention my Mennonite background to Tom and instead asked several general questions about his collection of firearms. He quickly sensed my apprehension. “Don’t worry about the guns. I’ll teach you everything you need to know.” He said this while rotating the cylinder of a Colt single-action revolver. Tom was justly proud of his collection of Tennessee rifles, a prominent feature of East Tennessee culture since William Bean, a maker of fine long rifles, settled at the convergence of the Watauga River and Boones Creek in 1769.
        Many of Tom’s rifles bore the signatures of their makers and carried long histories of ownership in Tennessee families, good signs of a strong collection. These pieces would do well at auction since they were specific to person, time, and place—what most collectors of antiques watched for: The difference, say, between a fine, hand stitched quilt, unmarked, and the same quilt carefully stitched in one corner, “Alice Yoder/ Maugansville Maryland/ 1847.” I always enjoyed discovering these documented fragments of material culture, the rewarding but unpredictable archaeology of my work. These scarce artifacts were also the trophies that fueled the passions of collectors of antiques, many of them watching for traces of their own histories.
        This setting had the ingredients of a strong auction: a good collection fresh to the market, a single owner rather than consignments from many people, and selling the collection from the front porch, usually better attended than an auction conducted in a rented hotel facility. My role would be to provide accurate information, create a climate where each piece was maximized, and hope for planetary alignment on auction day.
        But what about my Mennonite heritage? Though high-powered rifles and semi-automatic pistols would only be a small part of the auction, how could I encourage people to buy these guns, often the instruments of violence? Despite my reservations, I was never tempted to decline this sale. I pushed aside the constraints of my personal history, convinced that my young business needed auctions like this to solidify our presence in Tennessee. I believed Tom could give me basic instruction on firearms and that we could work well together, creating a successful sale.
        Three days later, I returned to Tom’s house with a contract he quickly signed, and we began our work. He covered the dining room table with a blanket, laid an English flintlock musket in front of me, and stepped back with a smile; he enjoyed the prospect of becoming my teacher. The musket was dark and heavy; its metal surfaces were crusty with age and had not been cleaned, always an asset in selling antique firearms.
        We began with basic vocabulary: patch box, stock, pan, frizzen, forearm, lock, butt plate, barrel, rod. Here was the origin of the phrase “lock, stock, and barrel.” Likewise, the phrase “flash in the pan.” Tom explained that sometimes the powder in the pan of a flintlock rifle flashed when ignited by the spark, but the gun failed to fire, hence, just a flash.
        Next, Tom exchanged the flintlock with an early 19th-century percussion rifle, laying it gently on the table as though it were an offering placed on an altar. It was a fine East Tennessee long rifle with fancy brass mounts and detailed carving, striking evidence of skill and imagination. I picked up the rifle and sighted down the octagonal barrel. I was surprised by its balance and how well it fit my hands, arms, and shoulder. As I examined the initials scratched in cursive script on the top of the barrel, Tom told me the maker’s name and when and where he had worked.
        I asked if he thought there would be a lot of interest in his guns at the auction. “Aw, hell,” he said with a little smile. “They’ll be here like flies on road kill.”
        Tom looked a bit like an old sailor with a week-old beard, a stained cap, and his huge camouflage vest with bulging pockets. He discussed three generations of Bean Station rifle makers, their choice of woods, variations in silver inlay, and the relation of their work to the Great Road migration down the Shenandoah Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tom was as articulate and thorough as any formally trained scholar. As we finished each gun, its lot number now waving on a small string tag, Tom would return the gun to the glass-door cabinets and take out the next rifle or pistol. He shuffled back and forth and stood beside me while I asked questions and wrote descriptions. I learned about firing mechanisms, powder charges, caliber, and refinements in the design of firearms, improvements to make them more efficient, more effective.
        Tom went to the kitchen for a few minutes. A Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber, semi-automatic pistol with a seven round magazine, a popular and widely produced weapon, lay on the table in front of me. I picked it up and removed the magazine; it was not loaded. The gun fit my hand comfortably, the wooden grips worn from age and use. It had a kind of tactile clarity that encouraged touch and examination. Its moving parts slid and clicked with smooth precison.
        I wanted to fire this gun: hold it firmly with two hands, aim it at some benign target, and squeeze the trigger. I was startled by the seductive power this carefully designed instrument held for me; how quickly I wanted to fire it at something. The desire to use this gun had an almost sexual urgency: the anticipation and release of confined energy, the small explosion that would change all my senses for a moment, the smell of smoke and spent powder.
        I exhaled and laid down the gun.
        When Tom returned, we continued our discussion of craftsmanship: how a gun smith working at his forge in rural Tennessee in 1780 could make an impossibly straight barrel with only hand tools and a string, how the placement of the elements of a flintlock mechanism must work in perfect harmony to ignite the powder. I was impressed by the skills required to make a fine rifle.
        Perhaps my approach to Tom’s guns was too narrow. These early rifles, after all, were not always used in warfare; they were a basic tool for survival in rural frontier life, like an ax or a plow point. Surely my 18th-century Mennonite ancestors in rural Virginia hunted with rifles. Maybe it was the intent, not the object. A stone could be a weapon. I came to a rough sort of truce with myself about selling the guns. I couldn’t reconcile my past with the idea of selling weapons, but I also could not find a rationale for not selling them; I didn’t think selling these firearms, mostly 19th-century relics, would add to the violence in the world. Many forms of interpersonal violence, I reasoned, did not involve weapons of any kind. The prospect of making a meaningful profit at this auction had prevailed.
        I worked at Tom’s house almost every day for two months. I set up my lamp, camera, tape measure, magnifying glass, and reference books on a card table we moved from room to room. I noted descriptions, condition reports, and estimates on a yellow legal pad. Tom helped carry pieces to the table and volunteered useful information. I was looking for details I could mention when the items were sold: this stoneware butter tub came from an estate sale in Greene County, Tennessee; or, the cheek plate on this rifle is on the right side of the stock, indicating it was made for a left-handed man.
        Our work gradually settled into a routine. I arrived at about 8:30 in the morning, and at about 9 o’clock Tom would ask, in a friendly way, if I cared for a drink. I always declined. Then he, always standing at the kitchen sink, would produce a bottle of bourbon, gin, or vodka, pour a heavy splash into a glass, and we would proceed with our morning’s work. He was always lucid and focused, but in the afternoons, usually around four o’clock, he would stretch and say he was going to take a nap, usually about the time the bottle was empty. I wondered if Tom’s daily rituals at the kitchen sink would create problems during the auction.
        Tom spoke very little about his life, but occasionally alluded to episodes of violence he had survived. He often said, “I’m played out” or “I been to tap city,” a variation of being tapped out. He had worked in a car parts store for a while, had managed a small restaurant and bar for a few years, but primarily he was active in an extensive and invisible economy that consisted of buying, selling, and making deals for antiques, guns, and ammunition. It was usually underground, mostly rural, and often dangerous. I had seen and heard signs of this well embedded subculture, but this was the closest I had come to it. I had learned not to ask questions.
        Tom lived in fear of being assaulted: a gunman driving by, shooting into his house, or the nation being attacked by “A-rabs” or “Communists.” Nightly news stories of gunmen entering schools or businesses and shooting strangers at random confirmed his worst fears. Tom had loaded guns in his truck, in the basement, beside his bed, and on his person.
        One afternoon, we were working in one of the bedrooms, sorting his collection of dolls spread on a quilt-covered bed. Tom returned from a trip to the kitchen sink and settled heavily into a large walnut rocker. I was sitting beside the bed, using a reference book to look up marks on the heads and necks of porcelain dolls.
        “You don’t carry a gun, do you?” Tom asked. He was looking directly into my eyes, his head tilted a bit to one side.
        “No, I don’t,” I replied, setting my book aside. I suspected where this conversation was headed.
        “Most everyone around here carries a gun for protection. You never know when you might need one. What would you do if someone attacked your family? Would you just stand there?” He was outwardly calm, but struggling to understand why I would not have a gun in my hand. His hands moved as he spoke, slight rotations as his words rose with his indignation.
        Though I didn’t know exactly what I would do, I explained, I would try to defuse the situation and defend my family as best I could. I would try to put myself between the attacker and my family and ask the attacker what he wanted. Was he after money?
        “If you had a gun, would you shoot him?” Tom was trying to imagine not shooting the son-of-a-bitch.
        “I’m not sure I would make good decisions if I had a gun,” I said. Tom shook his head slightly in disbelief.
        I remembered that the 16th-century Anabaptists believed that the weapons of nonresistance were silence, hope, and the word of God, but the canyon between those beliefs and Tom’s question was too great for me, and I did not mention those Anabaptist articles of faith.
        “I would try not to respond with violence,” was all I could say. Maybe I would grab a gun if someone was harming one of my grandchildren. A fellow auctioneer once recommended I not carry a gun, saying that if I had to use it I would hesitate, and might soon be dead.
        The question of what to do when confronted had been with me since childhood. In 1960, the summer I was eighteen, I worked on a construction crew—a squabble of men who reflected Chicago’s immigrant history two or three generations out: Roy Pehoski, Polish, Art Borgstrom, Swedish, Nick Patolis, Greek, and “Redness,” a hulk of German descent whose red face was said to be related to his spending most of his evenings in bars. Kenny, the foreman, a tall, tough man in his early thirties, was disliked by the entire crew for his arrogance and tendency to issue orders for even very minor tasks. We worked in Chicago’s western suburbs.
        They all, except Kenny, found great pleasure in teasing me, the “college guy.” I wore new boots that accentuated my size fourteen feet. They asked if I had ever worked stamping out forest fires. Knowing I didn’t drink, they continually asked if they could buy me a beer. After answering their questions about Goshen College, the Mennonite school I attended, they decided I was “religious,” which opened up new vistas for friendly but ceaseless harassment.
        One day during lunch break, Art Borgstrom asked me about the Mennonites–how were they different from the Methodists? He was eating lunch out of his black lunch pail and drinking coffee from a small thermos that clipped into the lid. I was eating my Lebanon baloney sandwich. The rest of the crew, including Kenny, were scattered nearby, some sitting on bags of sand, two on the down-turned tractor bucket. Art seemed genuinely curious, so I offered a short, serious answer. When I mentioned that Mennonites were pacifists, he stopped me. “What would you do if I took a swing at you?” he asked, cocking his arm a bit as if to throw a punch.
        “I would back away,” I replied, everyone listening.
        “You mean if I took a swing at you, you wouldn’t swing back?”
        “No, I wouldn’t. I was raised to believe fighting just leads to more fighting.” He replied that sometimes he liked a good fight.
        Even though there were continual threats amongst the crew about beating each other up, no actual fights had taken place. But Kenny, who was alert to anything that might threaten his authority, sensed that there was something amiss in my comments and stared at me when he heard my answer to Art’s question. One unspoken source of his authority lay in his ability to thrash anyone on the crew if necessary. He had been a boxer after high school and often worked without a shirt to advertise his exceptional physique: he was tall and lean, every surface of his body perfectly muscled. He was, by far, the strongest man on the crew. I was tall, my body roughly the shape of an oar.
        A few weeks later, we were working in Villa Park, a suburb just east of Lombard where I lived, building a long fence that bordered a large parking lot. Each six-foot section of fence consisted of vertical poles secured by three steel pipes that ran parallel to the ground. Kenny drove the tractor and auger mounted to the PTO (Power Take Off), Roy and Nick positioned the auger for each hole, and Art and Redness set the posts. I replaced the thin pipes in each section by driving stronger steel pipes through the poles with a sledgehammer. As I finished each section, it was hefted into place and bolted to the posts. It was a hot, dusty day; we sat in the shade of the tractor when we took breaks.
        Kenny walked over to where I was working and told me to move the pile of pipes and showed me where he wanted them stacked. It seemed unnecessary, but I moved the stack, two pipes at a time. When I finished, Kenny got down off the tractor and walked over to me. “That’s not where I wanted the pipes stacked. I want them over here.” He pointed at a patch of clay twenty feet away.
        “That is not where you said you wanted them stacked,” I replied. “You and I can do our work just fine where they are. They aren’t in anyone’s way.”
        “You calling me a liar?”
        “I’m not calling you anything.”
        As he walked toward me, I moved away, backwards, stumbling slightly on the rough ground. He asked if I was going to move the pipes. I said no. My threat to his authority was now a naked thing pointed at him. The entire crew dropped their work and gathered to watch. They had no interest in the beliefs being tested, but they were curious about my challenging a boss they disliked and my courage, foolhardy as they thought it was, in the face of getting the shit beat out of me.
        Kenny put his hands on his waist; “I’m gonna knock your fuckin’ head off.”
        For an instant I wondered if I could, with my long arms, land a good punch. Instead I said, “You can do that, but I will not fight back.”
        I was surprised to hear myself say these words. I wasn’t even sure these were my beliefs. But this, to my youthful understanding, seemed to be what Mennonites so often referred to; we were not to repay evil with evil. Instead, we were to turn the other cheek and avoid revenge, retaliation, and hatred. I held my hands up in a gesture of surrender, continuing to step back as he pressed toward me. I was staring at his body, shiny with sweat, black lines of dirt outlining his muscles.
        “This is your last chance. Are you going to move that pile of pipes?” He said if I didn’t, he would teach me a lesson I would never forget. He had anticipated, perhaps relished, this opportunity.
        I was up against the new fence, and for a moment, I was fearless. “I’m not moving the pipes. What will you prove if you beat me up me? Even if I could land a few punches, I won’t. Are you going to brag that you beat up a guy who wouldn’t fight back?”
        For an instant he wasn’t sure how this was going to work out. In his hesitation I turned and quickly walked away and went back to work. A short while later I heard the tractor start up but I didn’t look his way. I felt only relief.
        Neither Kenny nor I mentioned the incident for the rest of the summer. The crew stayed with their inclinations and teased Kenny behind his back for weeks. Later, when a woman went by in a wheel chair, headed for the parking lot, one taunted under his breath, “Hey, tough guy, think you could beat up a crippled woman?”
        But Kenny had walked away from his threats and his need to defend his authority. He had chosen not to pursue the confrontation and might have taken a few steps on some new ground that summer afternoon.
        On preview day, the day before Tom Kempson’s auction, I wasn’t thinking about Kenny or Mennonite history. Collectors and antiques dealers began arriving from East Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. Pickup trucks with Confederate flag license plates, heavily used vans pulling trailers, and repainted box trucks of uncertain age jockeyed for parking places in the cul-de-sac. Old friends greeted each other, chatting about their latest find. Several men and women poured over the Depression glass, naming patterns and rare colors.
        Groups of men gathered around the gun collection. The interiors of barrels were examined with tiny bore lights, serial numbers of Colt revolvers were checked for consistency, cocking mechanisms were tested to see if they worked properly. Comments, asked of no one in particular, but slightly louder than normal conversation, could be heard above the metallic rustle of their work.
        “I think this sight has been moved. I wonder if the barrel has been shortened.”
        “I’ve never seen a trigger guard like this on a Tennessee rifle.”
        “This lock looks pretty shiny. I wonder if it’s been replaced.”
        It was an old tactic—questions designed to raise doubts about the authenticity or value of the piece and hence discourage bidding. Some smiled when they heard these questions, carefully guarding their opinions with silence.
        About mid-afternoon, I sought out Tom to help answer a question about a lamp. I found him parking his truck in a corner of his back yard where it joined a neighbor’s fence. He was securing the auction site, wearing his familiar camo vest and old cap. His manner was serious, almost grim, and he explained that if someone pulled a gun on the cashier, they would be blocked from escaping through the back yard. It had never occurred to me that we might be a target for a holdup.
        The next day, auction day, was sunny and warm, a fine April morning. About a hundred people spread out in the front yard with lawn chairs, coolers, and packing boxes, comfortable with the informal setting. Many wore hats against a potentially hot afternoon sun. Tom and his wife, Dora, had made cornbread, ham biscuits, and coffee, which Dora sold at nominal prices from a table in the side yard. People waved to each other and shared bits of gossip or opinions about an upcoming piece.
        Tom patrolled the basement and back yard with periodic stops in the kitchen. I watched him take several things out of his vest and now understood his bulging pockets; they were full of ammunition. I was nervous about Tom, his trips to the kitchen, and the fears he harbored, fears against which he had armed himself so fully.
        I stood on the small concrete front porch behind two eight-foot folding tables, flanked by two loudspeakers on stands. Glassware, lamps, baskets and furniture were brought out of the house by three or four runners. Small pieces were stacked briefly on the tables until held up to be sold, then replaced by more churns, advertising pieces and porcelains. The antique firearms were sold at one o’clock. With Tom’s coaching, I was able to describe the rifles with accuracy: “A fine brass mounted half stock curly maple percussion rifle with an ornate patch box and scrolled carving,” Bidding was fast and spirited, several rifles bringing over $5,000. An older man in bib overalls, bid by holding his bid card high in the air, not moving it or looking at anyone until all others had pulled their cards down, their plans and courage extinguished by his resolve. This strategy, if repeated several times, might discourage competition and lead to bargains later in the day.
        The last of Tom’s collection, a pair of decoys, sold just before five o’clock. People paid their bills, helped each other load their trucks, and said good-bye to their friends. Tom watched my wife, Jan, the cashier, prepare the deposit for the bank; both his hands stuck inside his vest. Two of our crew, one of whom carried a gun, left for the night deposit drawer of a local bank with the proceeds of the auction, slightly over $80,000. Our crew of ten, some bending to fill large black plastic bags, finished cleaning up the house and yard. I thought of shaking hands, as we were about to leave, but Tom was not the hand-shaking kind.
        Our caravan of five or six vehicles headed home, climbing the winding road from Flag Pond up to Sam’s Gap at the Tennessee-North Carolina line, past old tobacco barns, clotheslines hung with quilts for sale, and narrow, three-pump gas stations. At the crest of the ridge, cars and trucks often pulled over onto a large apron of gravel to cool their motors before plunging down the steep grade on either side. As I approached the apron, the driver of a pickup truck behind me waved me over. Not until he got out did I recognize that it was Tom. How strange, I thought, that he would follow me to the North Carolina line.
        He walked over to my car, still wearing his bulging vest. He said he wanted to talk to me a moment. I got out and leaned against my car. A tremor of fear had stiffened my legs. Tom stood in a posture of readiness, his legs slightly spread, his camo cap shading his eyes from the bright evening sun. We discussed the auction briefly, both agreeing it had gone well. Then, staring at the ground, he said, “Bob, I know you’re an honest man. But I don’t trust anyone, and I’m gonna have to frisk you.”
        He wanted to be sure I wasn’t stealing the money. He had told many stories of how he had been deceived and cheated by people he traded with; there was no auctioneer in the State of Tennessee he trusted.
        “Tom, you go ahead if you need to,” I said, relieved. “The money is in the bank back in Johnson City, but you probably have no reason to trust me any more than anyone else.” I held my arms out at my side. He waited a bit, then took a step toward me. One hand just touched my shirt. Then he stopped. He looked directly at me with his head tilted a bit, then dropped both his hands, took a step back, turned, and walked to his truck.
        This is how, late one afternoon in April of 1985, at Sam’s Gap, on the Tennessee-North Carolina line, Tom Kempson, against all his instincts, armed with a gun and a vest full of ammunition, let go of a single strand of his tightly woven shroud of fear and mistrust. The step he took, backwards, was in the best tradition of my Mennonite past, something one of my Anabaptist ancestors might have done.