Beanery Online Literary Magazine

January 31, 2013

Modern Ruins of a Museum



by Mark Sliwa

As a kid, I loved to blow stuff up. Gunpowder bombs to destroy my plastic model car collection or a Polish cannon that could shoot a hundred yards.  For those who may not remember, a Polish cannon was five or six Pepsi cans that had the ends cut out. Construction was possible as soda cans were made of metal with a reinforced steel ring at each end. All were duct-taped together to resemble a small bazooka.

The base can was left partially vented at the drinking end and had a pinhole punched in its bottom.  Ammunition was a tennis ball and propellant was lighter fluid.  To operate, we stuffed the ball down the tube with a stick, squirted fluid in the pinhole, lit a match to the hole, and boom! The kick felt like a 12 gauge shotgun as you watched the ball sail across the neighborhood.  I had the most powerful one in the neighborhood until my mother captured it and proceeded to crush it with dad’s workbench vise.

It is no surprise then that a place called Forbes Road Gun Museum held great interest for me as an early teen.  Located in Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania, at the top of Gravel Hill Road, it was a small brick two story Smithsonian of guns, some dating over 500 years. A field artillery cannon sat on the front lawn, commanding respect before one entered. The first floor served as a gunsmith shop and the second as the museum.  An elderly man named Russell Payne was the owner and seemed to know everything about everything as he followed you around the displays. The firearms ranged from a 15th century Turkish matchlock to machineguns from WWII.  In addition, various military and historical items were arranged in glass cases or hung on the walls. This local treasure trove remained in existence until the late 1990’s when Mr. Payne died.

Fast forward to now. The building still exists in its mostly original state but the ravages of time haven’t been kind. The cannon is long gone. Many of the windows are broken or covered over with plywood and vines climb up the brick walls.  Peering through the front door glass, one sees a pile of debris, old wooden furniture, a metal push button cash register, and in general just a lot of junk. Junk, but cool junk—touchstones to another era. With a window pane already broken by the door handle, I reach through and decide to explore further.  I myself hadn’t been in this building since about 1977.

Musty smells compliment the furnishings. It really doesn’t look much different than my last visit except messier and all the countertops are piled higher with clutter. Stacks of 1940’s Life magazines, with covers proclaiming “Eisenhower on the Rhine” or “Soviets prepare for final assault on Berlin,” take one deeper into the time machine. On the shelves remain many reference books and binders. One shelf has unused letter head stationary and some “Forbes Road Gun Museum” bumper stickers.  Surprisingly, boxes of (now antique) live ammunition still lie about among gunsmith tools, empty shell casings, and other reloading supplies. Moldy leather pistol holsters and cracked wooden rifle stocks on the floor are kicked out of the way as I walk further. I snoop through old customer files and find an original bill of sale for a hunting rifle to R.K. Mellon—the date is 1965. Like Mr. Payne, General Mellon has passed on too.

Each step creaks and groans going up to the second floor. A huge pile of garbage blocks half the path at the top. Past the garbage though, this main hall is empty. Since used as the museum area, the floor is open the entire length of the building. Save for scattered light trash and a lot of dust, it is just a vacant shell. Silhouettes of guns line the walls, more dust preserving a perfect outline of where they once hung. Coming to a small table I chuckle. There is a rotary dial phone with a 412 area code used when Pittsburgh and Ligonier still shared the same prefix. Going down to the far end of the hall there is a desk with a shooting support on it. The window in front of the desk is open pointing out across a field to an overgrown earthen backstop. This is where Mr. Payne would sight in his clients’ rifles. Another box of live shells lies exposed in a partially opened drawer. A senior citizen’s sniper alley. I take a few more mental snapshots and prepare to leave.

Outside, blue sky replaces the dark mustiness. I walk away in silence and feel a light breeze. A metallic boom startles me. Turning around, a battered aluminum screen door sways back and forth—a soft closing bang to a memory of my youth.

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