GIBSONTON — You can't drive by the River's Edge Lounge and Marina and miss the massive sculpture of a .38-caliber pistol outside.
Since summer, the super-sized replica — more than 6 feet tall and at least twice as long — has made passing drivers hit the brakes for a longer look. Tourists pose in front of it for photos.
The gun is actually a barbecue grill and smoker, the last creation of custom grill maker "Smokin' Joe" Stopowenko. Mr. Stopowenko built grilling racks into one side of the "chamber," a smoker on the other side.
When the grilling starts, a pungent smoke exits the gun barrel.
The man who designed and built the grill did happen to like guns. Mr. Stopowenko did his share of hunting. But Mr. Stopowenko was far from violent, his family said.
"If you pinned him in a corner, he would come out and defend himself," said brother Larry Stopowenko, 58. "If you argued with him, he would rather walk away than fight."
He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and learned welding from his father. He lived in Florida, then Tennessee and Gibsonton again since 2004.
In the meantime, the welder and metal fabricator developed an interest in making custom grills.
He used old propane tanks, oil drums and a variety of torches to craft grills that looked like something else: a rat, a rooster, a hot dog in a bun. He sold them to businesses and individuals, usually for $1,000 to $1,200 each.
Mr. Stopowenko was married three times, the longest for half a dozen years. He loved motorcycles and rode a Harley Sportster 1200, accompanying hundreds of other bikers on runs to biker-friendly venues such as Peggy's Corral in Palmetto or Bike Week in Daytona Beach. He wore a denim jacket with "Smokin' Joe" emblazoned on the back, and decorated with buttons and patches commemorating events or friends who had died on the road.
Welding and smoking took its toll on his lungs. He quit smoking three years ago, but not in time to fend off emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or to have his name on a Tampa General Hospital waiting list for a double lung transplant.
Last year, Mr. Stopowenko readied himself for the work of his life — the .38-caliber pistol. "He said, 'This will be the last thing I do before I die,' " his brother said.
He spent two months on the design alone. After months of cutting and welding, he sold it to the River's Edge, where it became an instant conversation piece.
Mr. Stopowenko, who had been under hospice care, died Jan. 5. He was 54.
Friends will gather at the River's Edge today to remember Smokin' Joe, by the gun that ejects savory ribs, not bullets, whose final work was probably his best.
"That was the top of the line, right there," his brother said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.