Last week I mentioned how I was transferred to Sheppard AFB, Texas, as a drill instructor, where I met Chance Davis, a really great friend and one of the oddest ducks on the planet. To this day I cannot remember anything that Chance ever did that he did not do perfectly. He was the finest marksman I have ever known, had a command voice that sounded like the crack of a rifle, and never took on anything without doing it to perfection.
I can even remember a time when he shook me up while I was I was drawing a plan for a new building in the squadron area. It wasn’t an official plan, just a rough plan showing what we wanted. I was erasing a stray pencil line and getting ready to turn it in when Chance’s favorite remark sounded over my shoulder.
He said that a lot, Johnny.
When I turned around he told me, “You cain’t turn that in lookin’ like that.” Then he took one of those soft old gum erasers, rubbed it on the serrated edge of a tape dispenser to create a pile of eraser crumbs, rubbed the crumbs all over the drawing, and turned out the most perfectly clean document I have ever seen.
And this was a guy who could pierce an ear at a hundred yards with a 45. Everything he did was perfect. Everything!
His uniform was always spotless. He marched like he had the proverbial ramrod stuffed you know where. And I believe the troops would have followed him through the gates of hell.
And I almost never saw him without a smile. What a character!
One day we headed for Seymour, Texas, to do some plinking on a ranch where Chance had permission to shoot. Don’t ask me how he got permission, but in five weeks he knew everyone in Texas. We were zooming down the road in Chance’s ’57 Chevy when he let out a yell. What he yelled I didn’t know, but what happened after that yell would have been downright difficult to miss.
First the yell. Then the Chevy slewed to one side and hit the soft shoulder as the brakes locked. Dan Nelligan, another DI, was riding up front. I was in back with Chance’s .270 Winchester at my feet. As the car hit the dusty shoulder Chance shut off the engine, yanked up the hand brake, jumped out his door while the car was still rolling, opened my door, grabbed the rifle, and ...
Nelligan and I stepped out of the car. “Where’d he go?” he asked.
“Beats me. What did he yell?”
“I don’t know. Do you see him anywhere?”
We peered at the brush and trees lining the road. Chance had to be in there somewhere. But where? And why?
Ten minutes went by. Fifteen. Twenty. Bang! A shot rang out far off in the trees. I caught a glimpse of gray shape falling from a dead tree 200 yards away.
Five minutes later, here came Chance, smiling as always.
“Where’d you go?” I asked him.
He bent over and slid his Winchester into the back seat.
“Hawk,” he said matter-of-factly.
“You didn’t see him? Up there on that big old snag? Silver chest a-shinin’ in the sun?”
“Uh-uh. You saw a hawk 200 yards off the road while you were driving along at 65 miles an hour?”
“Shore. Didn’t you hear me yell? I said hawk plain as ever.”
“I heard something. I didn’t know what it was.”
“You gotta start payin’ attention, Garrett.”
What a day that turned out to be! Every time Chance drew a bead on something down it went. He never missed. And every time I looked to see where he had hit the something the hole was dead center. Only once did I see him frown. He walked up to an unripe prickly pear fruit he had neatly picked from 300 yards.
“Shouldn’t’ve done that,” he said, “Make a nice mess’ve sweet stuff in a few weeks. Jenn’s pretty good at cookin’ ’em up.”
The rest of the day he decided to pick off tiny targets at incredible distances, doing it as casually as if they were just 10 feet away. He never missed a shot. You know what he said if I mentioned it? “Shoot! Either of my brothers could do that.”
And that’s where fate stepped in and ruined the best man I have ever known. I had to leave the base because the Air Force changed basic training and did away with professional drill instructors, replacing us with worn out old NCOs. I went to a school on base and shipped out while Chance was still making up his mind what to do. But before I left I gave Chance the only thing I ever owned that he totally approved of, a pair of E. Leitz and Company 8 x 35 binoculars — E. Leitz and Company being the manufacturer of the Leica Camera, the best there was at the time. Chance had been amazed by their quality. They were so good that you could see better with them than with his 10 x 50 binoculars.
Chance didn’t want to take those beautiful binoculars, but I made him. “Chance,” I said, “these things don’t belong to me. They belong to someone who matches their quality.”
A year later I stopped back there in Wichita Falls to see Jenn and Chance as I drove across the country to a new assignment.
I have never seen such a changed man.
He was out of the Air Force and had just come home from work dressed in dirty overalls. I took one look at that once-happy face and knew there was something seriously wrong. Later, while Chance was in the shower, Jenn told me about it.
“His brothers. A freight train pulled into the yard in Chicago and they found a hand wedged somewhere. They backtracked and found that a car had run directly into the side of the train at night in a dust storm. The car was ripped to shreds and both his brothers were killed. He went home to the funeral, left the Air Force, and took the job he has now, working as a janitor in a factory. Try to talk to him. He’s been waiting to see you. He told me so. He just can’t seem to find his life again. It’s as though he died with Pete and Henry that night in that dust storm.”
I spoke to Chance, but it was useless. Nothing I said made the slightest dent. Worst of all was what he did. He left the room and came back with the binoculars I had given him.
“Best thing I ever owned,” he said, handing them to me. “I been waitin’ for you to come by ever since your letter.”
I tried to convince him to keep them, but he would not do it. I drove off with a premonition that something terrible was going to happen. I’m sure you know what I mean. No one gives away the best thing he owns unless he has no more use for it.
I wrote many times, I never heard a word from them again.
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