Excerpt from a Texan Gunshow #2

A quick stroll down an aisle at a gunshow reveals a surprising spread of retail: homemade jellies, stun guns, night scopes, machetes, IV bags, freeze-dried organic quinoa, 9mm pistols, brass knuckles, antique coins, solar panels, leather belts, and more. Bumper stickers quoting Joseph Goebbel – "Truth is the greatest enemy of the state" – are on sale at one booth; stickers of Hello Kitty at another. There are signs advertising everything from free hugs to free guns, legal advice to bush knife sharpening. 

“It’s better than Walmart,” says John, Henry's booth-mate.  

“Same crowd though,” Henry observes. He grins at me, leaning against the table with his arms crossed. His right fist is closed and hidden against his chest. When I shook his hand in Mesquite last weekend, I felt the thick, round knuckle where his pointer finger used to be. 

“Did you cut yourself welding?” I asked.

“Nah,” he dismissed.  “But it’s simpler to leave it that way.” He plucked at something on the table – a miniature blade shaped like a shark fin. Minutes earlier, he was showing me how to open cans with it. He cranked it around his Big Red soda can, severing the metal top in seconds. The cut was smooth, seamless. He ran his finger around the edge, laughing when I winced, anticipating blood. 

“I don’t have fingers and I can do it,” he challenged, handing me one.

Henry and John work at gunshows around Texas. They sell knives, gas masks, fake grenades, flame-resistant camo, and other odds and ends like smokeless fuel and flashlights. Most of it belongs to John, who started collecting army paraphernalia when he was twelve. Every weekend, he parts with a little more of his collection. He calls it “reverse-hoarding.”

“Collectors go back to ancient times,” he told me in Mesquite. “The Egyptians would strip the bodies of the Heddites. Collecting goes back as far as you can imagine.” He chuckled. “I’m sure Cain stole Abel’s staff.” 

John has a deep reverence for the act of collecting. He disdains certain collectibles – “I don’t collect coffee cups,” he scorned– but will consider anything touched by history. “After I left the army, I shoulda went to college,” he said, his Brooklyn accent bending the vowels. “I guess I’d be a professor now, teaching history or something, ‘cause that’s my passion.”  

Hunched over on a metal folding chair, John reminds me of an old bear – thick limbs, wild hair, pulverized back. In Vietnam, he was catapulted out of a car and broke four vertebrae. “My hand’s all smashed up,” he told another vendor. “I feel like I got a knife stuck in my back. I start getting shaky ‘cause the nerve system’s all messed up.”

Henry's the active one, helping John load and unload merchandise every weekend. “I like to stand,” he defended, when I offered him my chair. “Otherwise, I’ll get stagnant.”