PLUCKED FROM THE ASHES

“It’s more than just a gun!”

Firefighters struggle to get Mt. View Sporting Goods fire under control (January 21, 1976)

Sometimes stories come out of the blue. Unlike those compositions, this one was plucked from the ashes:

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I’m not sure why I was given Herman’s rifle. Glenn, Charlie, Andy, and Philip are the hunters in our family. They deserved the weapon more than me. These guys are lesser halves to Joleen’s four sisters. Joleen is my wife of almost 43 years.

Killing animals and butchering them isn’t something I do. I hold no ill towards those that choose such. My friends and family hunt solely for subsistence. In my opinion, a grocery store meat-counter works great for harvesting steaks; the best part being they come fully wrapped.

Several years ago for reasons unknown Joleen’s mom picked me as ‘keeper of the gun’. The prized weapon belonged to Bonnie’s late husband, Herman Freeman. For those needing specifics it’s a 1972 Sako – Finnbear Deluxe – .375 H&H Magnum. For folks needing less data,

“It’s a bear gun!”

My late father-in-law Herman Freeman.

I covet firearms for mechanical and historical significance more than anything. An ancestor of mine, William Hankins, was partners with Christian Sharps during the American Civil War. The two entrepreneurs teamed up to create the Sharps & Hankins Firearms Company in Philadelphia. I’m fortunate to possess several rifles and pistols they manufactured.

“If only those weapons could talk!”

Seeing Hankins stamped alongside Sharps is meaningful to me. Christian Sharps is undoubtedly one of the finest American gun makers to ever live. The Sharps & Hankins partnership lasted but a few years. Research shows them going separate ways about the time William Hankins’ wife Elizabeth died in 1866. William didn’t live much longer. He passed away in 1868.

I’ve always been intrigued by guns of the Old West. To own a Colt pistol or lever action Winchester owned by Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, or Lucas McCain would set my world on fire. The pinnacle of my collection is a U.S. surcharged Brown Bess musket from the Revolutionary War. An original bayonet is still attached. The weapon literally reeks of early American conflict.

I’ve never been attracted to sporting weapons where collecting is concerned. When Bonnie gave me Herman’s hunting rifle I was humbled, yet not sure what to do with it. The Sako didn’t fit with firearms I possess. Even so, I carefully placed it in my gun safe for protection. Every so often I’ll remove it to lubricate metal components including polish the stock. It goes back inside once this work is done.

Gun’s home for the past several years.

One afternoon while reading a book on early Alaska gold mining a thought crossed my mind. Herman’s rifle possessed unique significance where Anchorage’s past is concerned. Much of the gun’s heritage I knew. Other data regarding the place it came from was obtained from Loussac Library newspaper archives.

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Mt. View Sports Center began operation in 1961. It was originally located at 3130 Mountain View Drive. That’s basically a suburb north of Anchorage. Soon after opening, the store became a must stop for hunters and fishermen from all over the last frontier. Residents from Fairbanks, Kenai, Seward, and Glenallen came to shop. After arrival, many out-of-state visitors purchased firearms, fishing equipment, licenses, plus other sporting equipment. Business was brisk.

Early evening on January 21, 1976, when the store was closed, a fast moving fire broke out. Newspaper accounts show it was a major blaze. Bullets exploded from inside the structure blowing out front display windows. Most of those early explosions undoubtedly came from heated cans and bottles of reloading powder and cleaning solvent. There were so many blasts that merchandise ended up on a sidewalk and in the street.

An article in the Anchorage Daily Times mentioned police and firemen taking cover throughout the ordeal. Bullets were ricocheting and pinging like those in a western movie. I recall driving by as firemen mopped up the scene. It appeared nothing could have survived. I was wrong!

My father-in-law told me one evening he was going to a fire sale. All the surviving items from Mt. View Sports Center were to be auctioned off. He was eager to look things over hoping for a good deal. I accepted an invitation to tag along.

From my perspective none of the charred weapons looked salvageable. Most of them appeared to be burned beyond restoration. Once vibrant and shiny, the bluing on barrels and receivers was now tarnished from heat, smoke, and water. Herman came upon the carcass of a rifle that caught his fancy. He took his right thumb rubbing it over the floorplate. Silver inlay hid under black grime.

Removing additional residue, an artist’s representation of a strange looking animal with long round horns appeared. It was surrounded by botanical leaves. Herman believed it to be an African Waterbuck. I jokingly declared it a four-legged Phoenix. The gun’s wood stock was totally charred. Particles of black ash fell from several locations.  I initially viewed the rifle as nothing more than burnt toast. My father-in-law saw different. Through his eyes he’d found a diamond in the rough.

Silver inlay was hidden under fire blackened smudge and grime.

When the auction was over Herman walked away with his prize. On the ride home I rolled my truck window down along with opening a vent. An odor of doused campfire permeated chilled air. My father-in-law was so elated in placing the winning bid I doubt he noticed.

For safety reasons, Herman realized the action and barrel needed to be inspected by a professional. Alan “Jerry” Giradet of Lock, Stock and Barrel gun shop was the best gunsmith in Alaska at that time. His business on Muldoon Road was located in a building my father owned. Herman took all metal components to Jerry for analysis. Mr. Giradet proclaimed the barrel straight and true, with breech and action uncompromised by heat. Herman was elated with the news.

The first thing accomplished in restoring the gun was removal of the charred stock. I helped clean all metal components in diesel fuel to remove soot, smudge, roof tar, and other contaminants. The metal was given a coat of WD-40 to help keep it from further rusting. 

He began working on these parts using fine emery and crocus cloth. Herman attempted to re-blue the action and barrel with subpar results. Lock, Stock, and Barrel once again came to his rescue. It took Jerry several weeks to perform his magic. The pieces looked good as new when finished. Mr. Giradet was an Army WWII survivor having learned his trade in the service. My father-in-law was a Navy veteran from the same conflict. Both men understood the importance of firearms where freedom is concerned.

Alan “Jerry Giradet’ was undoubtedly the best gunsmith in Alaska before his passing.

Sometime during the restoration process Herman ordered a new French walnut stock. A good deal of money was spent on that. When the box arrived there was not much inside other than a slab of unfinished wood wrapped in protective paper. He chiseled, shaped, sanded, and finally contoured it to fit the receiver. Herman consumed a huge amount of time working on the stock alone. He’d sit in the living room watching “All in the Family” while sanding away.

After adding a variable power Leupold scope and then having it bench tested by Jerry Giradet, the Sako was ready for test fire. I rode with Herman on his airboat up the silty Matanuska River until we came to a sand bar near the glacier. That’s where we beached the craft. He walked a good distance before setting up a paper target. I remained at the boat with sandwich, candy bar, and bottle of pop.

When it was time to shoot, foam ear plugs were inserted. I knelt while he went prone on the ground, using a tree stump to support the Sako. With each detonation of a brass cartridge sand jumped all around my feet. That’s how much concussion the big .375 had. Herman eventually walked out to retrieve his target finding all shots in the black. The scope crosshairs were dead on. Without question my father-in-law is the most accurate shooter I’ve ever met. Others say the same. Offered a chance to fire the gun I declined.

"It's more than just a gun!"
I’m merely ‘posing’ with the powerful rifle having never shot it.

Looking back I still can’t say why I ended up with the rifle. Undoubtedly it was one of Herman’s most prized possessions. I’m probably the only person knowing full history and then some. Perhaps that was reason enough for Bonnie to choose me as custodian. There are no plans to sell the Sako even though it has significant monetary value. Calloused yet caring hands bringing the gun back to life are no longer here. Jerry Giradet and Herman Freeman have permanently left the building. In a few more years the heirloom will be passed on to another family member; handed off to someone hopefully understanding,

“It’s more than just a gun!”

* The biggest survivor of that 1976 fire is Mountain View Sports. The business is still going strong at a location on the Old Seward Highway. This story could not have been told without the relentless sleuthing of Diana Sanders, Pamela Painter Jones, and Kathy Sievert.

My late father-in-law Herman Freeman’s beloved Sako .375 H&H magnum.

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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