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When I was a teenager, I packed a pistol.

As a boy, I always admired the 1876 Winchester rifle my mother often told us she carried on her lap as she ferried family and friends on the Exodus journey from 1930s Mississippi to the Naval Shipyard jobs awaiting them at Bethlehem Steel and Hunter’s Point. I loved clicking the lever on that octagonal-barreled gun, while my brother, sister and I sat watching Saturday afternoon Westerns on our old black-and-white television.

My father had a beautiful black, bone-handled Colt .45. Some Sunday mornings after Mass, he and I would go target shooting at a range at the base of Albany Hill, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I was probably 6 when Dad taught me how to hold and aim that gun with two hands, its recoil almost knocking me down each time I pulled the trigger.

Tom Dickson, a dear family friend and San Francisco police officer, gifted me my own first gun, a .177 caliber pellet rifle, when I was 7 or 8 years old. Tom followed that with a bolt action .22 that he gave me along with a mountain lion pelt. “You sometimes only get one shot,” he said, smiling, as I fingered the small bullet hole next to where the animal’s left eye had been.

More guns came from Tom on my birthdays: a .22 Remington repeater, an Italian Carcano carbine, and eventually a .38 snub-nosed Smith and Wesson. The rifles hung from the rafters in my bedroom, while the pistol rested in a bureau drawer among my socks and underwear.

The handle on the .38 cracked one day when I dropped it, and I took it to the local gun shop to have it repaired. When I picked it up several weeks later, rather than put it back among my Fruit of the Looms, I tucked it under the driver’s seat of my ’66 Chevelle hot rod.

I had been mostly a small kid who was much better at dancing ballet and playing violin than at following the boxing instructions of my former pro welterweight father. I remember the quiet fear I sometimes felt as the lone Catholic school kid at the local playground, or as I threw the afternoon Shopping News paper in strange neighborhoods. I also recall the confidence I felt with that blue steel gun under my seat.

One morning, as I was driving up Berkeley’s University Avenue, I saw a couple of teenagers beating up on a lone boy, who was on the ground trying to fend off their blows and kicks. I was about to drive on, but, remembering my friend under my front seat, I made a quick U-turn.

I’m not sure what I said as I jumped out of my car to confront the two assailants, but I do remember that my hands were trembling and my heart was pounding in my chest. The two teens turned away from the kid on the ground and moved toward me, both fairly sure I was going to be their next victim, until they noticed the pistol I was holding at my side. They took off running in one direction and their victim in the other, as I got back into my car and drove away.

That night, I took my courage out of my car and put it back among my underwear, where it and I might be a little safer.

Looking back now, I realize that one, two, or three young lives could have been ruined had any of us kids chosen to stand our ground on that long-ago morning. I also know that having that gun under my seat made that possibility even more likely.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to


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