Sunday, May 08, 2011

Charlie's Story

One of the many things that I feel privileged to carry from my fathers is a steady hand and keen eye with firearms. An incident with my dad illustrates the pride we have in this skill. When living in the mountains of Avery County, North Carolina, Dad bought me a British 303 high powered rifle. We took it outside on a sunny day, set up a small piece of 2X6 scrap lumber and moved back about 50 yards. Not a bad distance for such a small target. The rifle had the typical military peep sight and a blade at the muzzle. Dad stood and took aim. The crack of the big ammunition echoed back from the surrounding mountains like a clap of summer thunder. The 2X6 spun into the air and tripped over itself as it landed in the grass. I went to it and looked, finding the hole from Dad’s round near one edge. I set it back up and walked back to him and he handed me the rifle.
I nervously accepted the heavy piece from him and positioned myself the way I learned in the Marine Corps as the “Off Hand Position” the stock pulled firmly into the shoulder and the left arm braced on the hip and rib cage – a skeletal prop. I wasn’t afraid of the kick of the rifle but that I wouldn’t measure up. My grandfather was the local pistol expert in his home town and I was sort of at the bottom of the line of succession. I mustered up some discipline, sighted the front sight blade within the “Rear sight Aperture,” took up the slack in the military-type trigger and squeezed off the round. To my dismay, dirt splattered behind the wooden block and the target didn’t move. Dad said with disgust, “Gimme that rifle! You’re no son of mine!” I was crushed at my miss and those words. I walked to the target just wanting to get away from him. I picked up the block and to my amazement, there was a hole drilled dead center! I laughed out loud and struggled to talk through the ecstasy. “No son of yours, huh? Whose son am I then, I hooted.” I took the block and handed it to him rubbing it in. “You hit it but mine went through so perfectly that it didn’t even move. That, ol’ man, was a PERFECT shot.”
All firearms were fascinating to me but once I had a substantial amount of experience under my belt as a cop, they became just tools with which I was very good. Out of a possible 300 on the range, I rarely fired lower than 298. Most officers are good with their weapons as you probably already know. What you may not know is that there are accidents with fire arms among law enforcement officers. One that always comes to my mind was the one that Charlie Harris told on himself.
I worked with Charlie when he was a deputy sheriff but he’d spent many years as a Winston-Salem police officer. He was also a part of the department’s pistol team and competed often. At the time, the police department in Winston was in the lower floor of the old City Hall. Above it was the city jail, courtrooms and offices. One day Charlie was headed out on patrol but had to go to the bathroom first and, he was having a little trouble with constipation. Charlie had been on the commode a good long time and decided to pass the time “dry firing.” Dry firing is something that’s taught in most small arms training. A shooter takes all the bullets out of the weapon – double checking that the weapon is empty and takes aim on some improvised or actual target. Charlie emptied his revolver and took aim on a light fixture just above the stall he was in. He squeezed off a couple of times and suddenly the pistol exploded in his hand. The light fixture shattered, the noise of the shot in the plaster and steel Men’s Room rang in his ears like a hundred bells and the room filled with the odor and smoke of gunfire. Charlie no longer had constipation.
He very quickly pulled up his pants, buckled his gun belt and very casually sauntered out into the hall. No one was around. Apparently the noise was contained in the room and the smell hadn’t slipped out of the room – yet. What worried Charlie more than anything was that directly above the Men’s room was a full courtroom. He rushed up the steps as fast as he could go, already out of breath and his heart raging from the unexpected explosion, shattered fixture and gunpowder smog in the men’s room. By the time he got to the door of the court room he was also sweating profusely. Charlie got a hold of himself, carefully opened the court room door and very timidly eased in looking at every inch of floor that he could see. Meanwhile, an attorney was droning on, a witness was squirming and the spectators and judge were sleeping peacefully. There didn’t seem to be any unexplained holes in the floor or wounded jurists so Charlie headed for the nearest exit, clambered into his assigned patrol car and got the heck out of there. Not a word was ever said about it.
I told that story to make my own seem less dumb.
Dottie let me buy a brand new Sig Saur 9 millimeter semi-automatic. It’s one of the finest handgun’s in the world. I was eager to qualify with it and was dry firing. I was always cautious with a handgun; especially so because I often taught handgun take-aways in defensive tactics and officer survival training. One had to be extremely careful because the students held the weapons on each other. We never had an accident in all the years I taught. I was always very careful.
I was lying on the bed, taking aim at a joint in the ceiling tile. I locked my right arm and cupped the right hand with my left pulling the right arm into a ridged gunstock – like extension of the pistol. It’s called the “Weaver Stance” developed by a deputy sheriff. You see disgustingly lousy imitations of it on cop shows all the time. I adjusted my eyes so that my focus was on the front sight blade with a slightly blurry rear sight and target. It takes hours of practice to get that front sight blade directly in the center and level with the rear sight groove. It’s called “Sight alignment.” Doing it quickly after firing a round is called “Sight acquisition.” I practiced sight acquisition and sight alignment over and over as I rested in bed. Without thinking I squeezed the trigger. Like Charlie’s revolver, my Sig exploded in my hand.
Chuck, my oldest son was on the phone in the kitchen and came flying around the corner stretching the phone cord into a squiggly line. “You OK Dad?” “Yeah, I screwed up and accidentally fired a round.” I felt really stupid and released the clip and ejected the round in the chamber.
Later, I called Dottie. “I got some good news and some bad news.”
“Oh, Gosh,” she said. “What now?”
I said, “Well, the good news is, the bullet went into a rafter and didn’t make a hole in the roof.”
“The bullet…the roof?” she stammered.
“The bad news is that I missed what I was aiming at.”

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