I just read Brigid’s post, Walking the Land. It reminded me of an incident, long forgotten, when I still lived on the farm—under rifle fire from a neighbor. As best I can remember it was in September of 1961. I had just started my Sophomore year in high school.
It was the Saturday after Labor Day. At that time, school in Illinois started the Tuesday after Labor Day. Mom was teaching the third grade in Buckner, Ill. Dad had been laid off earlier that summer when Orient #2 closed for the final time. Dad and I were taking it easy under the shade tree next to the house. I had just finished mowing the lawn. Dad had picked some apples, Jonathon Whites, from our orchard. Mom and Grandma were in town doing the Saturday shopping.
Dad had an old green hammock swung on a metal frame and he was napping in the breeze. It was a warm day with few clouds to lessen the warmth from the sun. I was half asleep lying on a canvas tarp I’d brought from the garage as a ground cloth.
I remember watching the clouds move and listening to ticking coming from the top of the tree. Ticking? There was another rattle of limbs above and a leaf drifted down from the crown. I didn’t give it much thought. I could hear a train in the distance on the rail-road along the river a few miles away. Our cows gave an occasional “moo” out in the pasture. There was a car approaching from the east on the gravel road that passed in front of our house. Our neighbor two houses down the road, about three-quarters of a mile to the west was shooting his new 30-30.
Our neighbor used the earthen dam at the west end of his pond as a berm for his home rifle range. He had built a shooting bench out of an old table and some rail-road ties. If he overshot the berm, the rounds would fly right in the direction towards our house. Fortunately for us, if he overshot his berm, the trajectory would pass over our house. Should pass over, that is, if he didn’t have a short round in his hand-loads but not high enough to miss the top of our shade tree.
There were more rounds ticking through the top of the tree and finally, a bullet cut a small branch about a yard long out of the top. Down it came—landing right on Dad. He awoke with a start. Looked at the branch. Noted the ragged cut that had severed it from the tree-top. Heard more bullets ticking through the limbs aloft and I could see his normally ruddy complexion getting redder. And redder.
Dad and our neighbor had had some run-ins before. Both worked at the same mine for years and neither much liked the other. Dad was an auxiliary Deputy Sheriff. Most of the time, that didn’t mean anything other than allowing Dad to carry a pistol if he wanted. Our county had many union/strike-breaker wars in the 1920’s and memories on both sides were long.
But, on occasion, Dad would take his duties seriously. He had ticketed this particular neighbor before for speeding at 60mph on our gravel road. He had struck and killed a dog owned by our neighbor across the road and had nearly run another neighbor off the road. On that occasion, Dad put on his deputy shirt and pistol belt, drove down the road and arrested the driver and took him in to the Sheriff’s office to swear out a complaint. That episode cost our neighbor several hundred dollars and he didn’t forget.
There had been occasions when returning home from shopping, we’d find bullet holes in our garage or find holes in our roof during the next rain. We had no proof but Dad was sure it was our neighbor and he didn’t forget.
After a call to the Sheriff, Dad got his uniform shirt out of the closet, slipped his pistol belt around his waist and loaded this S&W .357. A half hour later, another Deputy arrived and pulled into our drive-way. Dad and I went out to see him and while Dad was explaining the situation to the Deputy, there was a Bang from atop our house.
Like many people at that time, there were few TV stations around. The closest was Channel 22 in Harrisburg, IL to the southeast. Another was Channel 6 south in Paducah, KY, and another three were to the northwest out of St. Louis. Our TV antenna was perched atop our house with a rotator to swing the antenna towards whichever station we were watching at the moment. One of our neighbors bullets had struck the rotator squarely and had shattered it. The TV antenna now pointed downwards saved from more damage only by the connecting wires and cables that kept it from falling to the ground.
Dad and the Deputy drove off down the road towards our neighbor. I wasn’t allowed to go, but I heard all about it at supper that night. It appeared that our neighbor, unemployed by the recent mine closure, had decided to do a little moonshine distilling to earn some money above that of his weekly unemployment check. He’d moved a chicken coop out next to his shooting bench installed a still inside and had just bottled a run of ‘shine. Since he was new at making moonshine, he had to sample some of his product—while sighting in his new rifle.
The Deputy that accompanied Dad knew our neighbor and knew he was a brawler. Our neighbor had a reputation for starting fights when he’d been in his liquor for a bit. The deputy drove up with Dad on the passenger side and both walked back to where our neighbor was about to let loose another round down range and towards our house.
When he saw Dad and the Deputy approaching, his first thought was about all the ‘shine that he’d just produced laying around in glass jugs. That alone wasn’t a crime IF he was within his limit for personal use. But, drunk as he was, he forgot how much that limit was. He dropped his rifle and started to run but got entangled with his folding chair, the rifle that had fallen between his legs, the shooting bench and several three gallon glass jugs full of moonshine. Down he went, face first into the glass jugs, breaking one that left a deep cut in his forehead and knocking him out cold.
It could have been a dangerous situation if he’d turned that loaded rifle towards Dad and the Deputy. The Deputy was a WW2 veteran , a state pistol champion and he was prepared for anything.
As it was, Dad poured some ‘shine over his head to “clean the wound and wash off the blood from the head-cut” while the Deputy applied handcuffs. Our neighbor was hauled off to jail still bleeding from the cut with 120 proof moonshine dripping into it from his hair to remind him that drinking and shooting didn’t mix. He was later fined $1000, had to replace our TV antenna,plus one year in jail for “reckless endangerment.”
Brigid’s post about sleeping out in the open and under a tree reminded me of this. I remembered lying on the ground under the tree—listening to the bullets snap through the upper branches. Some old memories are never forgotten.