I don’t think I’ve ever written this in any type of permanent form, but it’s a story that I’ve told a number of people because it strikes me a great deal as a paradigm of some sort.
My grandfather died when I was 11, on 13 August 1995. Two or three summers before that a number of his children and grandchildren, myself among them, were gathered at his house where my grandmother still lives in the outskirts of Elwood. It was bright, sunny, hot, and humid; I was presumably 8 or 9. I remember sitting on their back patio, a gathering space of about 10 by 40 feet enclosed with a steel wire screen, the door of which leads to a concrete walkway that cascades into stairs down a steep incline as their property gently slopes lower until it reaches their northern field, which stretches a quarter mile or so further north.
With a few of my fellow young siblings and cousins about, my grandfather stood stoically and stared at the field. This was his routine, verily his life, especially if it were raining. With a calm but abrupt break in his stare he turned and entered the house, then some of my aunts and uncles hovered back and forth through the door and made verbal inquiries that everyone was accounted for and they knew all the family members to be in the house or on the patio. There was a strange concern and they told us to stay where we were. Eventually someone explained with a strange tension that there was an animal in the field, and my first curiosity was that it was perhaps a deer or fox that we should go admire.
I looked intently for the source of the commotion and squinted to vaguely see a rustling in the bean stalks. It had to be at least a hundred yards away, fully testing the ability of my glasses prescription. Within seconds of me spotting the anomaly among the static stalks, I saw my grandfather enter through the door leading into the house a few yards away. As I opened my mouth to begin to ask him what it was, I muted myself upon seeing his left arm raise with a ballerina’s fluidity. In his hands was a pistol, and the very moment his arm had ceased its upward draw he fired. There was no clamor in the bean stalks of a startled animal and the spot that had captured everyone’s attention had joined the space around it in perfect stillness.
From over a hundred yards away, he shot a cat-sized animals (I believe it was a fox) without taking time to aim.
Despite the business run by one of my best friends, I’m not a member of gun culture. But, I understand their place in American society and I know how to recognize exceptional marksmanship. (To that end, my skill with rifled firearms is pretty average but for some reason I seem to have an impressive level of talent with trap shooting.) As years go by, I have fewer occasions to go to that house but every time I look for the spot where my grandfather felled that animal. As years go by, it seems more and more amazing. In fact, I researched this entry by looking at the satellite images of the property to validate my wonder. I have no doubt that he could have been a professionally competitive marksman.
It was not in his character to be a professionally competitive marksman. It was in his character to stare silently at the rain for hours. It was in his character to align his telescope, a rather impressive one for its generation, to an astronomical wonder he’d overheard was taking place on the radio during his drive to work. It was in his nature to amass a large collection of vinyl records—Johnny Cash or chamber music—but never listen to them if anyone else was around. It was in his nature to smoke box after box of drugstore cigars in such a way that entering the kitchen there’d be a wall of smoke that separated the open sill to the dining room.
He fully inhaled those cigars, and doing so capped his life with lung cancer in the summer of 1995. It was only then that my mother and aunts began to collect any three-dimensional understanding of him as a person in spite of their decades of knowing him as a father. They had known that he used to be a pilot and would fly his own airplane to visit his brothers in Kentucky whenever he had the chance. They knew he always dreamed of seeing Alaska and the Rocky Mountains. They knew he had machined a component for NASA that ultimately went to the moon.
At once he was able to talk about his youth. His children’s families collected their money and bought an RV and many of us, myself included, formed a caravan to take him to the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon. (Once while driving through the Garden of the Gods, he lay reclined as he usually did and hallucinated a bit, so he asked for his pistol to fight off the Indians marauding the RV.)
It became known why he was a fantastic marksman. My mother asked about his relationship with his father, someone who died before anyone of my mother’s generation could know him. I don’t know if he had a trade beyond owning cattle and tobacco fields, but apparently he was a prolific fiddler and served as a medic in The Great War.
In response, my grandfather merely related a story. One time he was charged to herd the cattle back to the pen when he was a young boy. When he quickly mastered the task of getting the cows to go in the right direction, he thought he’d save himself any further exhaustion and he straddled a steer to ride his way home. Upon arriving at the pen he saw my great-grandfather waiting with obvious disapproval. “My father beat the hell out of me,” my grandfather concluded, for the sin of treating a cow like it were a horse.
In the summer of 1994 my sisters and a cousin spent another hot, humid, sunny day with my grandparents. One of us observed that the cherry trees populating the front yard had ripe fruit and we tasted a few to find them rather delicious. My grandmother encouraged us to pick them, generously furnishing a wicker basket and telling us she’d bake us a cobbler. After perhaps two hours we returned with a decent number of cherries and she briefly scolded us that there were still so many more out there. All of us spent that day in the sun and had horrific burns to show for it, but we also had a fine cherry cobbler. By the time it was ready to be eaten, our grandfather returned from work and he told us that when he was a boy food was so scarce and expensive that if there was a cherry at the top of a tree, he’d have to race his brothers to climb up and be the one who got to eat it. I inspected part of my cobbler and found almost every cherry to be housing a dark, baked maggot. I was highly displeased, but I continued to eat it. “That’s how I got my protein,” my grandfather added in epilogue to his childhood story.
My grandfather was a world-class marksman because when his father left in the morning to try to find work in the throes of the Great Depression, he would hand the bullets he bought from yesterday’s pay to my grandfather. As the oldest of 15 children, it was my grandfather’s responsibility to shoot something, anything except the cattle, which could be put on the dinner table. And for every bullet that did not bring back dinner, my grandfather was severely beaten.
I don’t think I would have taken those skills to competitive marksmanship contests, either.