One of the things my Navy-officer uncle brought home from World War II was an M-1 carbine (one of the most useless firearms ever issued to the military, but that’s another blog) with a hammer and sickle carved in the stock. The hammer and sickle, you may recall, was the symbol of the now-vanished Communist Party, and I always wondered why an American soldier, sailor, or Marine would cut such a thing into his weapon.

My uncle could shed no light on it; the gun was not issued to him and he never did say whether he found it or traded for it. And that carbine is probably still out there somewhere, its mysterious symbol forever unexplained.

All this was brought up by my trip to the Las Vegas Knife and Gun Show in February, where all sorts of old guns were on sale. Unless you have less imagination than the beasts of the field, you can’t pick up an old gun—especially a military one—and wonder who carried it, and what became of the man, and what trail the gun took to end up on your hands on this day in this place.

Fine guns—there were some gorgeous old Winchesters there—have their own aura. They were worth big money even when new, and were someone’s true pride and joy. What stories could they tell if they had voices? We will never know. A paleontologist I met years ago told me that every time he looks on an ancient skeleton, he asks: “What was your name? You had a name. What did your voice sound like? How did you come to lie here for 10,000 years?”

But the bones cannot answer any more than the guns can.