We Are Each The Product Of Things We Learned From Others

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For the first time in my life, I held a loaded weapon in my hand and pointed it at something I intended to hit.

Well, perhaps “intended to hit” is a bit strong. I think “hoped to hit” comes a lot closer to it. In any event, I held Archie’s .22 caliber eight-shot revolver up at shoulder height, placed the pop bottle on the stump 50 feet away atop its sights as Archie had shown me, took a breath, let out a little, and slowly squeezed the trigger.

Pow! The report surprised me, as Archie said it would.

“If you squeeze the trigger on a weapon,” he had told me, “and you’re not familiar with its trigger pull, it’ll come as a surprise when it goes off. If you yank the trigger, or jerk it, you’ll know when it’s going off, but the chances are you’ll miss.”

And he was right. That old pop bottle was now a mess of glass shards lying both on and off the stump. From 50 feet away!

“Hey!” I said, amazed that I had hit a target the very first time I ever fired a handgun. “That’s all right!”

Archie grinned. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”

He grinned wider and pointed. “Now try this. See the neck of the bottle lying on the stump? Take aim and hit that.”

I eyed the inch-tall piece of pop bottle neck lying on the stump. Hitting an 8-inch tall bottle from 50 feet away was one thing, but a little one-inch-tall bit of glass ...?

“Shoot the neck?” I asked, wondering if I had heard right.

“Go ahead. You can do it.”

“Okay-y-y,” I said, taking aim. I did the breath thing again, squeezed the trigger and ... pow! No more pop bottle neck!

“I’ll be hanged!” I said. “That’s amazing!”

“Garrett,” Archie told me, “that’s the way life is. Most things come down to just listening. You listen to what someone tells you and you do it. When it comes to shooting, it’s basically just sight picture, breath control, and trigger squeeze.”

Years later, when I was a drill instructor teaching young recruits how to shoot, I said those same words myself many times. By then I could hold a light little 6-pound Air Force carbine in one hand and put a round in a bullseye at 300 yards. It was just as Archie had taught me on that warm fall afternoon in 1946 in New London, Conn.

Just listen and learn.

Bob Archibald, Archie for short and Robert Brigham Archibald for long, may very well be the most unusual person I have ever known, though I didn’t realize it back when I first met him. In fact, I don’t think any of the kids in my high school sophomore class realized how unusual Archie was.

That was because at age 21 he acted like he was just another high school sophomore. A little smarter, and older, and wiser, perhaps, but just one of the guys.

Archie, you see, for reasons he never mentioned and we never asked about, had left high school during his sophomore year. And sometime after that, he had joined the Army. By the time we met him, he’d finished a hitch in the Army, been stationed in Germany for a couple of years, come back home, and — amazingly! — decided that he wanted to finish high school.

Strange, you know. As startling as it is to me to write that statement down now, it never so much as drew a raised eyebrow out of the kids in my sophomore class. Like most of the things we had run across in life up to that moment, I suppose, the fact that Archie had come back to school was just that — a fact — something that just was. We didn’t wonder about it; we just accepted it.

It must have taken a whole of a lot of courage to do what he did, and even more to stick with it, but I don’t suppose that ever occurred to us. Archie was just one of us, and that was that.

It’s amazing to me now how many facets of myself I can trace back to Archie.

Learning to shoot, to handle a weapon safely, and to respect the wilderness by leaving it better than you find it — we cleaned up every speck of glass that day — are just a few things. There were so many, many others!

For example, I learned something else that very same day.

I was a crack shot there for a while, but after an hour or two I couldn’t have hit the broad side of the proverbial barn.

“Here,” Archie said, “let me check that revolver.”

I handed to him, he checked a few things, and handed it back. We were back at the stump, so he told me, “See if you can hit that other bottle I put on the stump.”

I aimed and fired. Bang! Kick! A miss.

Again. Bang! Kick! A miss.

Again. Bang! Kick! A miss.

And then came: Click. Kick!

“Hey!” Archie said, grinning from ear to ear, “how come there was a recoil there if there wasn’t a round in the chamber?”

And so I learned about flinching, something you do when you first start firing a weapon. And so it went, through high school and afterward. Archie, without ever seeming to do it, taught us a lot. And I mean a lot!  

There were about eight of us in our little group. We were in the same home room, took more or less the same classes, walked around a long block as we ate our sack lunches each day, took jobs in the same place whenever we could, and finally grew to manhood and went our separate ways.

One day it occurred to me how much of me was stuff that had rubbed off Archie. That was in 1998. I hadn’t seen or heard from him since 1958 — 40 years earlier. I wondered where he was, and if he ever realized how much he had affected each of us.

So I looked him up, found out he lives over in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and contacted him. Just one month later he was here in Pine with his wife, shaking my hand as he paid me a visit.

After 40 years without hearing a word from me.

Now that’s friendship!

I guess some people are born with a natural wisdom that they just can’t help passing on to others, sometimes in words, and sometimes by the way they act.

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