I see by the newspapers that the legislature in Concord may reinstate the ban on guns in the Statehouse. Prior to 2011, the House and Senate had been weapon-free. The ban on guns only goes back to 1971 and was said to have been instituted because of Cap Gay from Derry.
Charles “Cap” Gay Jr. was born in Boston in 1907, the son of a plumber and an English-born mother. At 17 years old, he enlisted in the military and during the next 23 years served in the Coast Guard, Army and Navy. His last tour of duty was as master of the USS Haines, a destroyer escort. After a year of duty in the Mediterranean, it was sent to the Pacific Theatre in August 1945. While going through the Panama Canal, a very relieved crew was told of Japan’s surrender. The ship later sent back one of the first reports on the atomic bomb’s destruction of Hiroshima.
Gay retired in 1947 from the service as a result of war-related disabilities. He and his wife, Mary, moved to Derry in 1945, buying a home at 65 Birch Street which he later sold to former Heritage Commission leader Ralph Bonner. In 1950, the Gays built a home at 106 East Broadway where they would remain for the rest of their lives. While Charles had never been an officer in the navy, he had been a master’s mate, which rated him to pilot any tonnage boat in any ocean. Because of this rating, he was called “Cap” by everyone.
Soon Cap was joining into the town’s civil life. He was a member and frequently leader of the local Masons, Shriners, VFW and American Legion. For many years, he served as assistant town moderator and was on many committees and commissions. For a dozen years, he was member and chairman of the local draft board that was responsible for my becoming a medic with the Army sappers in Vietnam. In 1947, Cap was elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives and would serve there for 12 terms. He served three terms as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. He was a big man in Derry. I personally witnessed an incident where the State Department of Health closed down a Broadway restaurant and one telephone call from Cap got it reopened.
During the time of Vietnam war, he was a major supporter of our involvement in that conflict. He did not appreciate criticism of the war or its goals. Cap received the ire of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union when in 1969 he stood of the front steps of the Statehouse and told a group of anti-war demonstrators that “I’m on the draft board and I can get everyone of you God damn goons!” and “if you want to get to Fort Dix, I can get you a haircut.” In an interview with the Derry Star, he branded all the anti-war demonstrators to be “nuts” who should be arrested. Referring to one local young man by name, Gay said: “Rest assured that if he goes to jail, he will at least have a bath and a haircut after he is deloused.”
In 1970, Marshall Cobleigh was re-elected speaker of the house by an overwhelming majority. One of the few representatives who opposed him was Cap Gay. The two had never been friends. Once Gay had used such bitter words against Cobleigh that Cap had to be escorted out of Representative Hall by the sergeant-at-arms.
For years, Cap had prided himself on the location of his seat in Representative Hall. It was toward the front and on the aisle. In 1971, Cobleigh used his prerogative as speaker to reassign Cap to a seat in the very back of the hall. Cap Gay was more than a little upset.
A few days latter, during a morning legislative session, Minority Leader William Craig of Manchester approached Cobleigh and whispered to the speaker: “I don’t want to alarm you, Marshall, but Cap Gay’s in the back of the hall with a pistol. He says he’s going to shoot you.” Immediately, Marshall cleared all the material away from his podium in case he had to dive beneath it to escape being shot. The speaker knew that Cap was a “heavy drinker” with a fiery temperature and capable of most anything.
Cobleigh kept the session going while he tried to figure out what the hell to do. His sergeant-at-arms, Lloyd Fogg of Milan, was 86 years old and likely wasn’t going to be much help. Frantically, the speaker placed an emergency telephone call to Gov. Walter Peterson. He quickly made the governor aware of the situation and asked if there was any law preventing Cap from carrying a gun into the Statehouse.
The governor conferred with Attorney General Warren Rudman and found out the answer was no. While there was certainly a law against killing the speaker of the house, there was no law against having guns in the Statehouse. The New Hampshire Constitution also prevented a representative from being arrested in the Legislature. Rudman sent State Police Col. Joseph Regan into the House, who, in time, managed to talk Mr. Gay into surrendering his pistol.
The story of Cap Gay and the gun is recorded in Marshall Cobleigh’s 2005 biography, “We Aren’t Making Sausages Here.” There is a letter in the Derry News in which Cap said that all those rumors about his disturbing the House were wildly exaggerated and nothing really happened. Who’s right? I really don’t know. All the principal actors in this drama are now gone. Cap Gay died in 1973, Cobleigh in 2009, Peterson in 2011 and Rudman in 2012.
I do know that anti-gun legislation was enacted in Concord in 1971 — about the same time Cobleigh said the disruption happened and about the same time Cap Gay said it didn’t.
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.