Joe Dillon’s Early History: Traumatic Sophomore Year

April 22, 2024

Rifle with funeral home in background

At the start of my sophomore year in high school, I was even more uncomfortable than during my freshman year. I had regained the weight I had lost, my eating habits were worse than ever, and, as a result, my face was broken-out all the time.

One way I retreated from the world was by going home for lunch. We lived at the end of a short cul-de-sac which was across the street from the entrance to the Hillsdale high school campus.

An easy 5-minute walk, and I was home. I ate my lunch, hung out with my dog Clancy with whom I shared my lunch, and watched old black and white movies on TV. This was my standard weekday routine. Both my parents worked, so I had the house to myself. It was the only time in my house that I felt relaxed and safe.

Several weeks into the new school year, I came home for lunch as usual. So, it was a shock to find both my mother and my father home. My mother was distraught. My father’s face was drawn and pale, his eyes downcast.

Rifles in cabinet“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“There’s been an accident,” replied my mother.

“What happened?”

“Your grandfather accidentally hurt himself,” she said.

“How bad?” I asked, getting upset.

After a tense pause, she said “He’s dead.”

Uncomprehending, I looked at my mother’s face.

I looked at my father who had been looking at the kitchen floor the entire time. He did not look up at me.

“My grandpa’s dead?” I said outloud trying to get my mind around what that meant.

“How did it happen, the accident?”

“He was trying to get the rifle out of the gun cabinet” she said.

“His .270?” I asked, not comprehending.

“No. The 30-30.”

The only rifle I had ever seen my grandfather shoot was his .270 which he used expertly during deer season. He always killed the buck with a single shot. Clean. Surgical. As was my grandfather’s way. My grandfather getting the 30-30 out of the gun cabinet made no sense. In fact, my grandfather having an accident made no sense.

30-30 Rifle

“He was trying to take the 30-30 out of the gun cabinet and it went off,” she said.

Again, this made even less sense. The guns in the gun cabinet were never loaded. That was one of the rules my grandfather had taught me.

Chart showing clean deer shot“It went off?”

She nodded.

“It went off and it killed him?”

I looked at my dad.

He still stared wordlessly at the kitchen floor.

“Your father has to drive up to the ranch and help your grandmother clean up,” she said flatly.

“Today?” I asked, looking at my father.

“He needs to leave right away,” she said.


“Yes,” she confirmed.

With that, my father left our house without a word.

My mother and I sat silently and alone at the kitchen table.

“Should I go back to school?” I asked almost to myself.

“No.  Not today.”

We sat there for a long time.

“Is that what really happened?”

We sat in silence for what seemed a very long time.

“Your grandfather killed himself,” she said slowly.  “He put the barrel in his mouth. It must be a terrible mess. Your father may be gone for a few days.”

The graphic images my mother’s words created in my mind hit me like a gut punch. As the brutal reality slowly began to sink in, Clancy came into the kitchen. I gently petted his head. He tentatively wagged his tail.

My father was gone for 3 days. He called once and talked with my mom. After the phone call, my mother shared a little of what my father had said. Apparently, there had been blood and brains and bits of skull all over the walls and the ceiling. My mother said my father was crying on the phone. I had never seen my father cry.

My father was stone-faced when he came home. He brought back one thing from the ranch: the 30-30 rifle my grandfather had killed himself with. Without a word, he stored it on the deck in our garage.

The next day we drove north to Napa to the funeral chapel where the service would be held. No one said a word during the entire hour and a half drive north.

There was only a small group at the funeral chapel when we arrived. The coffin was closed.

Black and white photo of funeral home

My grandmother was as stoic as ever.  Uncle John and his wife. John was my father’s oldest brother. And Uncle Jim and his wife. Jim was the middle brother, and my father was the youngest of the 3 boys.

It was unusual to see my uncles John and Jim. My father hated his brothers. They had picked on him as a kid and he had never forgiven them. John was a smalltime subcontractor and lived a few miles from the ranch.  He helped out around the ranch and got financial help from his parents. I often saw Uncle John when I visited the ranch. John was paunchy with a gut like my father. He looked tired and grizzled.

Jim was the superstar of the 3 boys: Stanford graduate, Stanford Medical school graduate, a urologist and surgeon like his father, a captain and a flight surgeon in the Navy since the second World War. He was on his way to a 20-year career in the Navy and was currently stationed at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. Uncle Jim looked lean and fresh and had a flat stomach. He also carried himself with military posture and presence.

Not much was said. No hugs or handshakes were exchanged. Just somber nods. The tension was palpable.

Thank you for listening.

As always, I wish you and your family the very best of health.