Cardella: My Secret

I’ve written about a lot of subjects in the 58-plus years I’ve written for this newspaper. Some of the subjects have been trivial. Some about important stuff. Many have been about my family. I’ve had my own agenda in doing so. It’s been my way of grieving. Of bringing them back to life. But it’s also been a way to connect with you and your family experiences. The commonality of all that we have loved and not loved about growing up in South Philadelphia. There’s one family story, though, I’ve never shared with you. It’s about a gun in my house. About the day I discovered it. A day I’ve been too frightened to contemplate over the years. I’m not sure what it will mean to you or whether it will mean anything at all. But guns dominate our lives today like never before. And it seems to me there is no better time than now for me to disclose my secret.

Dad was a Philadelphia cop. He spent 13 of his 20 years walking a beat. Most of that time his beat was on the mean streets of this city. It was a time when you could separate the safe neighborhoods from the ones where violence ruled. Before the mean streets and guns threatened to encompass our entire city.

Dad loved The Force, as he called it. Badge 443. He hated the politics of the job. The politics that landed you in hot water for ticketing the car of some big-time politician. The politics that seemed to often obstruct going after the bad guys. He hated sloppy out-of-shape cops. Cops with fat guts for whom police work was just a job. The cops who hung around diners for a free coffee and donuts. But he also lived by the “Blue Code.” You didn’t snitch on a fellow cop. No matter how bad the cop. And to him was the lowest form of humankind — lower than the criminals — were the “Geeks,” the internal investigation boys who preyed on cops Dad thought were doing their job.

What Dad really loved was his seven years as a plainclothes cop. A member of Clarence Ferguson’s squad. A small cadre who were feared for their dedication to getting drugs and guns off the street, even though doing so meant sometimes knocking down doors without a warrant. Ferguson and his squad seemed to act as if the Bill of Rights was an obstacle to good policing. Eventually the access to drug money got to some of the squad and it was disbanded. The cowboy cops were reined in. A by-the book approach was grudgingly enforced. And with it came a rise in crime.

Dad wasn’t a gun nut. He wanted guns kept out of the hands of bad guys. He always carried his gun. Had a permit so he could carry it even after Mom’s illness forced him to leave The Force after 20 years. He periodically visited the firing range. Kept his weapon clean and secure. Or so he thought. That’s where my secret comes in.

You have to understand that guns are totally foreign to me. I never even tried to win my kids a stuffed animal on the boardwalk. In Air Force basic training, I missed all of my ten shots during a day of “wet fire.” None even hit the target. And yet on this one day — or was it several days — when the house was either empty or the other family members were totally preoccupied, I went looking for Dad’s pistol.

Dad used to clean his unloaded pistol at the kitchen table. The gun gleamed like an evil genie promising to grant one wish. The handle was silver, as I remember it. Straight out of a movie western. Could’ve been carried by Hopalong Cassidy or the Durango Kid. The damn thing almost winked at me while Dad methodically cleaned it. “Don’t touch,” he said. “Don’t ever touch.” But the words carried the opposite meaning. And so I searched for where he kept his weapon.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I found the gun. To this day, I’m surprised I disobeyed his constant warnings about looking for the weapon. It wasn’t like me to ignore his warnings. He had warned me against the evils of smoking when I was very young. Both my parents smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Do as I say and not as I do, they admonished me. And incredibly, I never smoked. Never. Not one cigarette in my entire 83 years of existence. And yet I fell victim to the lure of Dad’s gun. For a careful man, Dad was naïve. He regularly placed the gun on top of the cabinet in our dining room or in the bottom drawer of the bureau in the corner of the room. No locks. Not even a challenge. I found the pistol.

With a bit of hesitation, I calmed my fears and picked up the weapon. It felt heavy — not at all like the toy pistols I was used to — the ones that shot caps. I placed my finger on the trigger. My courage deserted me. I wanted to pull that trigger. Just to see what would happen. Whether it was fear of my father or common sense that came to my rescue, I don’t know. I don’t think the gun was loaded, but I didn’t want to find out.

Carefully, I placed the pistol back into the drawer. I went back one other time and did much the same thing. Stopping short of pulling the trigger. And then somehow I forgot about the gun. Never said a word about it. Never got caught.

As Father’s Day approaches, I can’t help thinking of the one time I betrayed my Dad.