Once upon a time, before politics and political correctness, the 4th of July meant fun and competition to determine the top marksman in the community.
Ed. Note: From time to time we get inquiries requesting outdoors and shooting stories from Tom Cappell. Cappell is a veteran shooter, hunter and free-lancewriter from Missouri whose views on the outdoors and the outdoors industry are thought-provoking and always responsible. His columns have previously appeared on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
There was a time when the 4th of July was as much anticipated in Amlin, Missouri, as, well…Christmas itself.
It was day of great patriotism, of course. There was a parade, of sorts, as the local American Legion men led a small pilgrimage to the local cemetery. An honor guard unit of three, Marvin Hesson, Lester Toth, and Raymond Leckler, fired the three-gun salute to the fallen veterans. I marveled at their World War M-1 rifles for years, and after the ceremonies they would pass them among the boys of the county to feel and sample the smell of spent .30 caliber shells.
There were picnics, of course. The Legion sponsored a hog roast, and everyone brought a dish of some kind to complement that roast pork. There were locally-grown watermelons, and pies, and cakes – contests to determine the best of each – and enough food, it seemed, to feed half of Boone City.
There were foot races at the school, cross-cut saw competitions at a nearby mill. And perhaps the best of all…there was a competition between the boys between the ages of 12 and 18 to determine who was the best .22 rifle shot in the community.
Now, this was a BIG deal! You can imagine how big, among 50 or so of us who dreamed all year of winning the gold medal awarded by the local VFW. Those of us with the means practiced almost weekly throughout the year at the various positions – prone, sitting and off-hand. It was anticipated. It was much-talked-about. And actually, for the sake of what was supposed to be simple, fun competition, it went well beyond. It was a grudge match to see who could beat…Tarpey Atkisson.
Tarpey was bigger than the rest of us, and in a word, different. He quit going to school after the eighth grade. It just wasn’t for him. Socialization came hard for him, too, as others mocked his looks and his mannerisms, but always behind his back. Tarpey (short for Tarpley) was strong as an ox and we feared he could break your neck with one squeeze of his mammoth hands. When he grinned there were some teeth missing, and those he had needed a good scrubbing.
He towered over the rest of us, and he said little. And if addressed he responded with an awkward sneer. He was the ‘king of the hill’, he knew it, and he reveled in it.
It was assumed that he was 17 years old. No one really knew for sure, and most just accepted that he was the same age as the rest of the local boys when he started school. But regardless of how old he was…he was damned good with a .22 rifle. No one knew if he practiced or not, but we all knew that the Atkissons hunted and fished twelve months a year. We knew he could crack a walnut off a fence post at 50 yards because we had seen him do it. And rumor had it he could peg a tossed dime out of the air, but none of us had the nerve to ask him to prove it. We left Tarpey alone.
I didn’t live in Amlin, of course. I lived upstate about an hour with my mom and dad, but I always spent the month of July with Mom’s oldest brother, my Uncle Mel. It was a glorious time, days of hanging out at the creek that cut through his 220-acre farm, catching rock bass and shooting bull frogs with Mel’s old Remington .22. He taught me to shoot with that gun when I was about ten, and within a couple of years I could hold my own in the squirrel woods with him, come November. It wasn’t fancy with its iron sights, but it shot where you held it and Uncle Mel was wonderful to have taught me well.
Because of our kinship Uncle Mel always saw to it that I got to shoot in the 4th of July competition. I was OK, but I was no match for some of the older boys around Amlin – Tarpey, Junior Hodge, and Dixon Hinch. Frankly, the only drama in the contest was who would come in second to Tarpey. Junior had taken it two of the last three years, but only by a fraction of an inch both times.
I had spent much of the previous year practicing. During fall bird hunting season, Uncle Mel would always end the day with a box of shells and a package of official contest targets out behind the shed. Official yardage was 25 paces and the minimum standard for a five-shot group was a quarter of an inch.
On that 4th of July in 1964 we all assembled at the infield of the fairgrounds harness track. There was a big dirt mound that served as a bullet stop and each of us took our turns shooting the three positions on a bright, and wind-free day. I survived the first round, making it to the round of 25 shooters.
In the second round Tarpey put all five of his shots in literally the same hole – prone, sitting and off-hand (standing). The diameter of his group was less than half a quarter of an inch. The rest of us did the best we could, but under that kind of pressure the competition fell away quickly. I made it to the round of twelve.
In the round of twelve I got lucky. Dixon Hinsch’s off-hand group had a “flyer” in it, which knocked him out of the round. I was now one of the final six, with Tarpey and Junior.
In the semi-final round the pressure simply got to Chuck Simmons, Randy Kellogg, and Petey Roach. Their groups fell apart, and the final three shooters were Tarpey, Junior Hodge…and me!
Hodge had a dreaded pair of “flyers” in his final round, bullets that for some reason (some kind of irregularity) flew erractically. There was no control over it. A gram of weight here, or a dram of powder there, could cause your shot to go wide or high. I had been lucky all day. My box of Winchester Super-Speeds had been true as my aim; but there were no guarantees, and no do-overs. There were no alibis because of a bad round. You were either good enough, or not.
Being the reigning champ, Tarpey got to watch as I shot first on the final targets. My prone target was good, and under a quarter inch. My sitting was as good – one ragged hole. But my standing target, the last target could have been better. My final shot was just outside the first two, making my group the size of a dime. I knew I was dead meat as Tarpey took his place on the line.
He was shooting a Marlin lever action, known to be an accurate piece, and he handled it like Chuck Connors did in the old Rifleman TV show. He easily matched me in prone and sitting. He leered at me as he took his position for the standing target; he was that sure of his dominance.
Like me, Tarpey had not had a “flyer” all day. And his first four shots were quick and true, easily under a quarter inch as he shucked shells through that Marlin Model 39. But his fifth and final round made a sick sound as the hammer struck the primer. It lacked the expected crack of a well-loaded .22 round. A murmur went up in the small crowd assembled behind us. Tarpey’s last shot…was a “flyer”!
It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough. It struck almost an inch high and to the right of his first four shots. And while the first four made for one ragged hole, the final shot made the diameter of his group non-competitive. Tarpey had finally been beaten; and I had won the 4th of July marksman contest.
He slumped as he cased his Marlin and headed for the car and home. The rest of the boys gathered around me and thumped me on the back like surely they did the day David slew Goliath. Uncle Mel wore a broad, contented grin. “You just do your best,” he said. “And sometimes you win.”
But I never won again. And Tarpey never shot again on future 4th of Julys. Some said he was too old. Others claimed that he had been embarrassed. I later learned that he was decorated for service in Vietnam. I’m not surprised. He was the best I ever saw.
Except, on July 4th, 1964. Before I had a camera or the presence of mind to even keep the targets. All I have is the memories…of the grandest 4th of July of my life!
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