My oldest girl, Nicole, had been working really hard in school and on the farm, so I decided we would go to South Africa for a once-in-a-lifetime father-daughter hunt. She tried several rifles, but asked if she could try the special one, and my mind drifted back to my old friend Jack…
Interest rates were 15% and higher, and many good people were out of work. Dad told us that his friend, Jack, would be staying in our spare room for awhile. We expected a bum, but the first time you looked into his hard, black eyes, you knew he was no bum. His handshake was firm and everything about him was serious. He looked like Clint Eastwood in the movie Pale Rider. He was tall, lean, tough and mean.
Dad told me to help Jack unload his work van. For a young boy, it was a treasure chest with Kennedy machinist toolboxes, Perazzi shotguns, a pair of custom Anschutz rifles, an old Winchester lever gun, and a hand built western fast draw two holster rig complete with vintage Colt .45s. I asked Jack if he was a cowboy. He said, “horses stink, and I hate barb wire gates. Go to bed punk.”
Two years later, I learned the truth behind Jack’s hard black eyes. Sitting quietly in the shadows after a cookout, I listened to three men spill their guts as they talked about the service they did for our country. They were all proud of their service but sad about the thousands who didn’t come home on both sides of the war. I realized these men were scarred for life. They made untold sacrifices for our freedom.
Jack was drafted to Korea from his small town in Wyoming. He had to leave behind his wife and the baby on the way. Jack’s memories as a bomber in Korea were horrible, but men like him stopped communism at the 38th parallel. When Jack returned home, his wife had met another man and had another baby. The war destroyed Jack’s early life. Freedom has a price, and if we aren’t paying it, someone else did for us.
One day in my dad’s basement, Jack was teaching me about the Colt Peacemakers. I asked him if he would ever get over the war. That’s when I learned that after Korea, Jack went on to fight in Vietnam. He said that when he got back from that war, he wasn’t right for a long, long time. I never asked him if that’s where he got the scars on his face.
During the years he lived with us, Jack taught me and my sister a lot. He told us stories of the Rocky Mountains, the awesome beauty of Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and the joy of antelope hunting with a good rifle at his childhood ranch in Wyoming. Jack thought a .243 rifle was the best choice for antelope and deer for a skilled rifleman with the patience to use it correctly. Flat shooting, accurate, low recoil, and low meat loss.
He studied and worked hundreds of hours to custom build a .243 for his anticipated trip home. He handpicked the American Black Walnut stock, feather crotch in the butt stock, straight grain in the forearm for accuracy and full monte carlo rollover cheek piece. I helped sand the stock, and he hand-cut the checkering. Jack special-ordered the African Cocobola grip cap and fore end tip for added style and contrast. Then he hand-buffed the finish with linseed oil, saying, “glossy stocks are for sissies, punk.” He built a custom Mauser bolt action and jeweled it. The trigger was completely improved and hand honed. The barrel was of medium weight, hand-lapped for accuracy, and double polished to a lustrous blue. That rifle was built by a perfectionist and was American craftsmanship to behold.
Ten years later, I got the dreaded call. Jack was at the veteran’s hospital; cancer had him bad. He said he wanted me to have his prized rifle, which he never got to hunt with.
As we sat at dad’s house that last winter evening drinking coffee by the wood stove, the mood was pretty dark.
“Thanks for the rifle,” I said. “Pretty damn nice for a right-handed rifle Jack.”
“Notice that it fits your sister like a glove, and your kids will probably be normal too.” Then he added that a skilled rifleman should be able to shoot with either hand. “Kill an antelope for me. Get out of here you left-handed punk!”
That was the last time I saw Jack. I put the war hero’s rifle in my gun safe for almost 20 years and never shot it once…
In the shadow of the Thabazimbi Mountains, Nicole and I stalked a herd of zebra. She was careful of black mambas as she crawled to close the distance. As the herd boss turned broadside at 125 yards, the other zebra winded us and bolted.
At that split second, Nicole squeezed off a shot with the custom .243. I saw a solid shoulder hit. A cloud of dust formed as 20 zebras ran full speed into the thorn bushes. Nicole instinctively chambered another round. The frenzied zebra ran head on into a hidden herd of giant waterbuck. I was lying in the dirt behind Nicole, and before I could speak, the waterbuck were jumping over us. Nicole watched the huge, 650-pound waterbuck running straight for us…15 yards, 10, 5 and BOOM.
“Dad did I get him?” she asked, cool as a cucumber.
I can still taste the dust and blood, feel the hoof beats and hear the crash of the beast. We found the giant waterbuck only fifty yards away. Then, out of nowhere, a freak cloud burst open and soaked the desert. A single thunder boom rang across the valley like the sonic boom of a fighter jet and was gone in minutes. Pride overwhelmed me as I hugged my little girl.
I turned to the departing cloud burst with tears in my eyes.
“Thanks Jack. I’ll do my part to Let Freedom Ring. Guys like you made it possible.”
Submitted by Brendan Walsh in honor of his friend Jack, a true American and a union painter.