The Contender

I made my way through grammar school on Chicago’s South Side. I had no marketable skills. I couldn’t throw a football spiral, hit a baseball or catch one. On skates of any kind, I was a disaster, and my bicycle-riding prowess threatened to change my voice from alto to tenor every time I braked and made intimate contact with my Schwinn’s center bar. I was short, my mom bought my clothes in the husky department at Sears, and I wore glasses. In effect, as an American boy, I was a failure.

But there was one thing I discovered while lying on a crusty old mattress in a damp crawl space under a friend’s house: I could shoot the center out of a target at 50 feet consistently enough to earn my Boy Scout Marksmanship merit badge. Now, what do you do with a skill like that? I had only one choice. I joined the South Shore High School ROTC and tried out for the battalion rifle team.

My sports history had taught me that close-order drill, learning the nomenclature of an M1 rifle and taking orders from squeaky-voiced lieutenants were preferable to climbing a rope, becoming a dodgeball casualty or collecting damp towels in a hamper after swim class.

Sadly, my tryout for the rifle team followed my established pattern. The Army 1922 Springfield rifle defeated everything I had learned while wielding a simpler, lighter, basic Stevens .22 in that smelly crawl space. The Army sergeant in charge of the tryouts suggested I stick to learning to field-strip rifles and leave the shooting to those more qualified. That just about did it for me. I had nothing. I was a wildebeest in lion country.

Gavin Scobie, a kid I knew who ran with a different gang a few blocks from my patch, witnessed my red-faced, teary defeat at the ROTC range. He asked me if I still wanted to learn to shoot. I thought I knew how, but evidence to the contrary had left me with a hot face, a dry mouth and a crushed spirit. He offered to take me to where he did his shooting every Friday night. I just nodded.

American Legion Post 175 at 75th Street and Coles Avenue lit up its piece of the street with welcoming neon and blazing lights above a glass door. A meeting hall and neighborhood bar, it was always filled with World War II and Korean War veterans. Gavin led me past the door to a path alongside the building that went into the deep and silent dark. I feared the dark. Nothing good ever happened to me where it was dark. I followed him to stairs that led down to a basement door lit by a single 40-watt bulb. Muffled sounds came from behind the door: Krung! Krung! Krung! Gavin pushed through the door, and I stepped into the rest of my life.

The “Krung!” became “Krang!” as rifle shots banged behind a wood curtain between the club room and the actual five-position rifle range. The room smelled of Hoppe’s No. 9 powder solvent, gun oil, leather pads on shooting coats hanging from pegs, and the suffusing scent that once sniffed is never forgotten: smokeless gunpowder. At a table, a blonde girl wearing an Al Freeland 10-X padded shooting coat covered with rifle match brassards looked up at me, smiled and went back to loading .22 Winchester match bullets into a drilled wood shooting block. Shooters trooped from the range back into the club room, carrying their personal heavy-barrel match rifles to the long rack above a scoring table. The last man through the door, filling it as he passed, paused and looked at me. He was the oldest man in the room and looked like he must have hash marks running up both sleeves.
“Doc,” said Gavin, “this is a new recruit who wants to shoot. Gerry, this is Doc Meissner, the range boss.”

Dr. Arthur Meissner, ophthalmologist and Camp Perry veteran, stood about 6 feet tall, with a balding head sparsely thatched with finger-combed strands of brownish hair. His eyes were deep-set. They missed nothing behind thick spectacles. He carried a scuffed Bausch & Lomb spotting scope in one hand and scoring sheets in the other. Doc examined me without enthusiasm.

“Can you shoot?” he piped in a voice shaped by command and eroded by whiskey.

I had brought my Boy Scout merit badge sash and unfolded it to show the Marksmanship award. He squinted at the olive fabric spotted with colorful merit doodads. Sliding a chew of tobacco around the inside of his mouth, Doc looked from badge to badge.

“I see you can burn oatmeal over an open fire, you know how t’ find the Big Dipper and you know a hammer from a screwdriver.” He looked closer at my merit badges. “The one with the concentric circles – that mean you know one end of a rifle from the other?”

“Yessir,” I answered, fighting the urge to salute.

“Never made officer,” Doc said. “Mustered out as a top kick.” He turned, surveyed the rifle rack and selected – groan – a Springfield .22. “C’mon, let’s see if you can put a few down range without hurting anybody.”

Of all the rifles made by all the gun manufacturers in the world, why did he have to pick that one? My stomach started its familiar churn as I followed him to an open shooting mat. He squatted down on a little stool next to me as I fitted the prone sling loop over my left bicep and sank to my knees. He put a loaded shooting block of .22 long rifle standard-velocity ammunition in front of my right elbow.

“Let’s dry-fire for a while first,” he said. I slid the bolt closed. The front sight was a circle into which I maneuvered the round black target 50 feet distant, and then centered that picture in the rear sight aperture. This was more precise than the ROTC post front sight. I squeezed and the trigger broke clean, snapping the firing pin against the rim of the empty breech. When the sight settled back, the target had slid to the right. I moved my left elbow to the left a fraction, worked the bolt, held my breath and squeezed again. After the click, the target remained at dead center in the concentric sight circles. His voice was still flat as he got up – with some effort – off his stool and took the spotting scope to the table at the back of the dark range.

“Give me five on target No. 3.” Surveying the firing line, he added, “Fire when ready.”

I began shooting and he began suggesting small tweaks to my style and technique. An hour later, I was shooting the center out of every target. At last, for once in my life, I was a contender.

The American Legion team was a melting pot of young people coming from a cross section of South Side homes. Gavin came from a blue-collar family and competed with an unusual Al Freeland BSA Martini target rifle. At 17, Jim Preston was the oldest, and had a custom hot rod built from a 1949 Oldsmobile “bubble” coupe with a V8 sporting dual 4-barrel carbs under the hood. He could afford a beautiful Anschutz heavy barrel .22.

Our most celebrated shooter was Diane Guest with her Winchester Model 75. She elevated everybody’s effort and attitude. She and I still correspond today, and she wrote to me, “I was 15 when American Legion Post 175 gave me the opportunity to join its rifle club. Both my brothers were members, and Doc taught me the proper handling of a firearm. I practiced and worked my way up the ladder of junior awards and eventually achieved the highest rating of distinguished rifleman. Post 175 was behind me all the way. I believe the men respected me. They knew they had a competitor on their hands and started to call me ‘Annie Oakley.’”

The Legion members were impressed enough with our skills that they gave us two M1 Garand rifles from the Civilian Marksmanship program and turned us loose on the military matches at Great Lakes Naval Training Station and Fort Sheridan. Doc Meissner spent many hours with us at the Fox Valley Rifle Range in Algonquin, Ill., and we made our debut at Fort Sheridan. We did not look impressive next to the crusty Camp Perry veterans with their jaunty campaign hats and ’03 Springfields slung over their shoulders.

During the match, they drifted down to see how we kids were doing. Spectators got a kick when Donna, the other girl on our team, fired the nine-shot rapid prone – all 4 feet 9 inches of her – and the repeated recoil of the big M1 pushed her back a foot and a half behind the firing line. Then they saw that the center of her target had been shot out at 200 yards. As the day went on, our names crept up the scoreboard. Doc couldn’t stop grinning.

I tried out again for the ROTC rifle team. I made it and went on to become co-captain, earning my Rifle Marksmanship letter in my senior year at the South Shore Letterman’s Award program. My dad came to the ceremony, and that was the first time he ever applauded me.

In that final year of high school, I was an ROTC company commander of 60 cadets, my grades had shot up, I had a steady girlfriend and was living large. My “expert” rating with the M1 Garand, plus an NRA instructor certificate, got me detached to help National Guard troops in a local logistical battalion earn their required marksmanship qualifications. I was also accepted to the bachelor’s program at the School of the Chicago Art Institute and the University of Chicago. Four years later, I graduated with honors in photography.

A Tradition Worth Keeping. Following decades of adventure as an international photojournalist, documentary filmmaker, video and television producer, director and writer, I look back on the lessons I learned with a rifle at my shoulder or a pistol in my extended hand and appreciate their value. When everything in my world was crashing around me, The American Legion and the National Rifle Association punched my ticket. I wrote about that journey in my latest book, “American Shooter: A Personal History of Gun Culture in the United States.” Examining one’s life in the context of a history of deeply rooted traditions can be sobering, especially considering the state of today’s perception of the sport that gave me the life I’ve enjoyed.

Over the decades, I’ve taught young people how to shoot and passed on Doc Meissner’s lessons, which became part of my DNA. Boys from broken homes, young felons awaiting trial, kids tucking air rifles under their chins for the first time – I’ve tried to give back to the sport what it taught me. Respect for rules, the rewards of practice, sportsmanship, earning the esteem of peers and aspiring to a higher level of success are all part of the traditions of marksmanship and American character that trace back to the colonies at Jamestown.

Today, sadly, the howling, chest-beating and political maneuvering of a handful of ideologues has forced shooters from a feeling of pride in accomplishment to a qualifying defense of their sport. Extremists at both ends of the firearms debate use fear as their primary persuasion tool. Statistics are manipulated, word meanings are shaded, quotes are misinterpreted, and the field is claimed by whomever can woof and stomp the loudest. Sport shooters fear being labeled as “gun nuts,” communities fear rampages in the streets led by assault rifle-armed crazies, and citizens everywhere fear the usurping of their rights and liberties. The United States is a nation of mutts. We are conservative and progressive under the same roof. That lashup was recognized by the framers of the Constitution, and in their wisdom compromise won out over the inflexibility of ironclad ideology.

A gun is a tool like a hammer or a stick of dynamite. Where and how it is applied to a task depends on the person using it. A sporting firearm is no less a recreational tool than a golf club, a tennis racket, a race car or a hot-air balloon – except it is less dangerous. Can we return marksmanship to its once traditional sports position as a spectator event? Can we embrace sporting firearms as part of a national shooting sports league? Can we spend some of the energy wasted on a deadlocked debate on disconnecting weapons required by the military and police from sporting and recreational venues? Can more ranges and facilities be built like the acres of golf courses that plaster the nation? Can more groups like the Legion and other membership organizations sponsor air rifle or .22 teams?

Today’s kids – and adults too – are under a lot of pressure: population, the economy, constant media alarms, expectations and ambitions. They all need, at some time, to get their ticket punched to blossom, as I did. The tradition of marksmanship is as good a stress reliever as draining a 20-foot putt on the 18th green, a wicked backhand at the net, drifting through a corner at speed, or landing a big bass on light tackle. Consider the satisfactions of drilling a clutch bull’s-eye at 100 meters, dusting a double on the trap range, pranging 10 steel discs in as many seconds, or notching the V in a black-powder shoot.

Young people must approach sporting firearms not with fear but with anticipation, a chance to participate in a traditional sport as old as modern civilization. It is a skill requiring discipline and character, and its rewards are great. Learning to handle a firearm with respect and consistency translates to other endeavors down the road. Looking back on a life that really began in an American Legion post’s basement with a rifle in my hands is a fine memory to pass along.

Gerry Souter has worked as an art teacher, security guard, rifle instructor and seaman in the Merchant Marine. He is the author of more than 50 books.