By Denny Jones
Above, Denny Jones, center, is flanked by his cousins, Ron and Forrest, early 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Jones Family Archives.
The chest sat outside of the store on the front sidewalk. It was almost always there when we went downtown to Simchuk Sporting Goods. It was a long and tall chest. Little children needed to be lifted up to be able to see into the top of this big box. People walking by would notice the chest, and stop to take a look. As they stared into it, they would make comments to others walking by, and a crowd would gather as they waited to have their turn. A group of men would be around the chest, and they would look and talk, and then look some more, and continue to talk for what seemed like forever to me. My grandmother and I waited off to the side while these guys continued to share their stories. I would hear parts of their stories and they would excite me, but what I really wanted was my own uninterrupted time to look into this huge box.
To help kill the waiting time, I would watch the water as it ran down away from the building across the sidewalk and off the curb into the street. I was hoping the men would notice they were standing in a puddle, and move out of the way. Maybe I could stomp my foot in the puddle and splash water on them. Really, I would not have done it, but I thought it would be a way to speed them up. My grandma must have read my thoughts as she reminded me we had been waiting only a few minutes, and I needed to be patient. This was a concept I never much liked when it applied to me, even though I knew she was right.
The men finally moved on, and now it was my turn. I had looked into this chest on other occasions when I was in downtown Spokane visiting this and other sporting good stores. It was an attraction that Simchuks used to lure people down to the store. This display had been mentioned in the evening newspaper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, the previous day. I was now there, and about to satisfy my own curiosity. It was always kept as a surprise what might be in the chest. I walked up to the chest, and I was aware of my heart beating loudly. I looked into the top of the chest, and I was amazed. Lying on a deep bed of ice was the largest fish I had ever seen. Next to the fish was an explanation of the type of fish, and who had caught it, and where it had been caught. On this Saturday morning, the fish in the chest was a Mackinaw. The placard told how the Mackinaw was one of the largest species of lake trout. This one had been caught in Loon Lake, which is a deep, cold lake about thirty miles north of Spokane.
The fish, as I remember, weighed thirty pounds, and was over two feet in length. It was a real “bad boy.” The mouth was open so you could see the teeth. They were large and sharp-looking. Some other boys that had also been waiting to look were now by the chest. We did not know each other, but this did not seem to matter. Evidently the common bond of fishing we shared was more than enough to get us talking about how we were going to catch a fish like this someday. We started sharing our own fishing stories until a parent, or someone else waiting to look into the chest, reminded us it was time to get the heck out of the way.
It was the spring of 1953. A few weeks earlier I had a birthday and reached the grand old age of eleven. I remember thinking this was a special time in my life. I was no longer a little boy, but not nearly ready to become a teenager. I had two whole years ahead of me to be a boy and do the things I liked to do – ride bicycles and go fishing, when I could talk someone into taking me. Becoming a teenager was a lifetime away for me. I was glad, because it seemed a little frightening to consider.
Grandma and I were downtown on this beautiful, sunny spring morning to look at the current fish on display. This morning it was a mackinaw we were viewing, but bass, perch, crappie, rainbow trout and probably other fish had been exhibited. Local fisherman were more than willing to show off their latest catch and fishing prowess. I would imagine a fish I had caught being on display with my name printed on a card describing the event: “Record Rainbow Trout! Denny Jones, a local boy fishing wonder, was able to hook and land this near-record rainbow lunker in our own Spokane River. Fighting the trout for nearly two hours with a spinning reel and the lightest of fishing lines, he expertly controlled this beautiful fish until he deftly lifted it from the cold, fast running water into his net. Spokane is justly proud of this eleven-year-old young man’s accomplishment. It is recognized by seasoned fishing veterans what skill and tenacity is needed to catch a wild and wiley fish of this size. Denny is a wonderful representative of our fair city and the youth of this community. Our hats are off to him. How can we show our appreciation? In his own words, he exclaims: ‘Take me fishing!’”
It would have been even better if I could have said the lightest of fishing lines was my grandma’s sewing thread, but even in my imagination I knew no one would believe it. As an adult I learned that in the 1950’s the Spokane River was used for the city’s sewage disposal. I now realize it might not have been a large trout I hooked, but something entirely different. I will leave that to your own imagination.
Simchuk Sporting Goods was a family owned business, as were most of the businesses in Spokane in the 1950s and 1960s. There were several stores dedicated to sports and sporting goods merchandise. Names that come to mind are Spokane Sporting Goods, Odegard’s, and Jensen-Byrd. Montgomery Wards and Sears also sold sporting goods. All of these stores had fishing gear, rifles and revolvers, shotguns, bows and arrows, and even slingshots for sale. There were no stores I liked better than the ones that sold sporting goods. After viewing the fish on display we went into the store. I had trouble controlling myself. There were so many exciting and interesting things to see. Hanging on the walls were mounts of different animals – deer, elk, moose, and a bearskin with its head and teeth showing. Different types of game birds were also on display. There were pheasants, quail, grouse, and ducks to view. Fish were mounted and looked extremely colorful. I always wondered how they made all the trophies look so real.
As my grandma and I looked around and talked, I knew where I was headed. I realized I had to play this out very carefully. We had discussed what was on my mind many times in the past. I started bringing up the subject with anyone who would listen a year ago when I had my tenth birthday. Now that I was so much older and wiser, I was hoping I could pull this off. As we wound our way towards the back of the store I cleverly pointed out things I thought might get grandma’s interest to keep us moving in the right direction. When we reached the long counter in the back of the store, I was breathless with anxiety. On the back wall of the store were rows and rows of new and used guns for sale. In the glass counter were many different styles and types of revolvers and pistols. As I stared in amazement and admiration at the plethora of firearms, the names of brands raced through my mind. Winchester, Remington, Marlin, Mossberg, Stevens, Savage, Ithaca, Browning, and Noble were some of the rifles and shotguns on display. I had heard and read about most of them in magazines and catalogues. This was different; I was in their presence. This was “big time, baby” for an eleven-year-old boy who spent way too much time reading about them. These were real rifles with real bullets. I knew I was in over my head thinking about owning a 22-caliber rifle. I was looking for reality.
As I scanned the racks looking for what I wanted, one of the most unexpected and up until that time, greatest things of my life happened. There was a man standing behind the counter watching me. I knew he was thinking back on his boyhood and enjoying my interest and excitement. My grandma walked up to him and said the unbelievable. “This is my grandson, Denny, and he is interested in seeing your Daisy BB guns.” What!? I could not believe what had just been uttered. Here I was thinking I was devising a grand scheme to maybe persuade grandma to at least let me hold a BB gun. Then maybe she would realize what it meant to me. Now here she was asking the man to bring out the different models for my pleasure. I looked up at her in astonishment, amazement, and gratitude. I always dearly loved my grandma, but at that moment I was truly overcome with emotion. I hugged and kissed her and said, “Really Grandma, will you let me have a BB gun?”
Other boys in the neighborhood had BB guns. The ones they had were lever action models. You know, The Red Ryder type. They were very nice, and I was envious of them. When I saw the different models, I immediately recognized the one I wanted. It did not cock with a lever, but with a slide or pump handle. The man told me it was used, but in good shape. This made it even better because I thought that between the money I had saved and my grandma helping, just maybe, it was possible. The stock was real wood, and so was the pump handle. They were a dark walnut color. It was truly beautiful. It was a Daisy Model 25. The salesman said it was $20. I felt devastated. I knew we could not afford that much. He then continued, and he said that was the new price. Since it was used he would sell it for $15. My heart started beating again.
Denny Jones has some helpful advice about sharing stories with the readers of Nostalgia Magazine in the video above.
Actually it started beating faster. I was so excited I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. There were other boys watching me handling this little beauty. I was in a panic one of them would have the money, and buy it before I could figure out how to close the deal. I wanted to shout, “Fire!” to clear the store. Grandma was the cavalry and came to the rescue. She said to the salesman, “We will take it. He will also need some of the things to shoot in it.” I smiled at her not calling them BBs. We counted out the quarters and dollars, and I was the proud new owner of a used BB gun. There have been few times in life that I have been this excited. It was the first gun I owned. There was another first when I was every bit this excited, but that was when I was eighteen and it wasn’t because of a gun.
The kind and friendly salesman handed the BB gun across the counter to me. I felt like I wanted to give him a hug, but decided a guy with his first BB gun had to keep his composure. He said to me, “Have fun, but be careful.” I thanked him, and I told him I would. The gun was not wrapped, or in a box, or a sack. It was just the beautiful blue steel and walnut wood for everyone to see. I had never been envied, but now as I carefully handled my prize and started walking out of the store, I was sure everyone was watching and envying me. I loved it. What a great feeling! Grandma and I walked down the street to where her white 1950 Chevrolet was parked. People noticed me carrying my rifle. No one was alarmed; they just nodded and smiled as we passed by. It was a better, safer, gentler world then.
When we reached the car I pushed the front seat forward, and I sat in the back seat. I wanted to have more room to hold and caress my beauty. I probably talked non-stop to my Grandma all the way home. I was excited, and I needed to share it. Throughout my life, friends have told me they like and enjoy my enthusiasm for things. I have always appreciated being told this. And to think, it all began because of my BB gun!
My grandmother’s little white house was in the far northwest part of Spokane. It sat only blocks inside the edge of the city limits. Beyond her house were the fields and forest of the countryside. I believe this was one of the reasons Grandma decided to let me have a BB gun. She knew there were places to use it safely. I have always remembered what she said to me on the drive home. She said, “Denny, I wanted you to have this because I know how much it means to you. I am a little worried about you having it. It is a real responsibility, and you need to realize that. Please remember to be very careful. Always think before you shoot at anything. You probably should not shoot at birds, but for sure, leave the robins alone!”
I thanked her again many times on this very pleasant journey home. I told her I would be careful. I never said I would not shoot at sparrows, but I did promise her I would not shoot at robins. It could be placed on my headstone: “He left the robins alone.”