|My First Grand American, 1950|
It appears that the glorious old Grand American will be moving. They say the new but yet unnamed location will be a state-of -the-art complex with a perfect shooting skyline, elegant buildings and manicured lawns. But somehow the freshness of newly seeded grass, young trees and the luster of everything else won't overshadow the tradition and history that will always be associated with old Vandalia. Who can ever forget the first time they walked on those legendary grounds! If they weren't impressed, they didn't belong there. I was 13 in 1950 when I stepped on the hallowed fields, and I well remember that shaky-knees feeling like it was yesterday. Fifty some Grands later, I still get that same sensation.
The trip from Connecticut with Dad in his 1948 Chevy took three days. His Remington company car had no radio, so there was plenty of time to talk. Dad did most of the talking, and I did most of the listening. They say one can't remember conversations of over 50 years ago. I can. What I learned on that trip, and on other long car rides with him to shoots, wasn't taught in the schools I attended. I learned, among other things, about humility, politeness, shaking hands with a firm grip, looking people straight in the eye, respecting others, and family dedication.
Vandalia had only one motel, with less than 20 rooms, so our home away from home was the Dayton- Biltmore Hotel in downtown Dayton. The Van Cleve Hotel, the older of the two, housed as many shooters.
Each morning, we traveled from Dayton to the Grand American grounds down a two-lane road (now 1-75), north to Route 40 , then west through the little village of Vandalia. Shooters who took a train or flew to the shoot were always looking for a ride to the grounds since car rentals, I guess, didn't exist. We were always carting out-of-town people to and from the Grand.
Just past a four-corner intersection in Vandalia hung a large "Welcome ATA " canvas banner that stretched from one side of the road to the other. A road sign on Route 40 just past the banner read, "Vandalia, the Crossroads of America. On this road the Conestoga wagons passed during the Westward expansion." I used to envision those oxen-drawn prairie schooners of 100 years ago passing by the ATA grounds. What a sight they must have been.
Many shooters ate breakfast and lunch in Vandalia at a fine little family-owned establishment called The Cafeteria. It was owned and operated by the Brusman family-mother and father of Dave Brusman, captain of the 2003 veteran All-American team. Dave's brother currently runs the Original Rib House, not far from where his parents served many a meal to hungry trapshooters more than 50 years ago.
The pop-pop sound signaled we were near the astern end of the 40-trap firing line. Rows of trailer lined Route 40 where the family wash was displayed daily for all to see. Many tents and lean-to's also served as hunting and fishing shelters during the rest of the year.
The clubhouse, which now houses the ATA offices and Hall of Fame and Museum, was located in the center of the firing line. Twenty traps stretched east and 20 west. This was a hub of activity. Trophies were displayed, entries were taken, and thousands of shooters and their families passed daily, always hurrying somewhere. A locker room was located on the second floor on the west end of the clubhouse. I enjoyed going there as someone always seemed to be playing a musical instrument. H. T. Bullock of New Jersey played a violin as sweetly as he broke doubles targets, and he was a great storyteller. Poker games were numerous and cigar smoke thick. Spittoons were present, but the aim of tobacco chewers wasn't always as good as their prowess with the scattergun, and the stained floors bore testament to this.
In that old upstairs locker room, Dad introduced me to a man with a couple of gold front teeth. He wore round eyeglasses and a playful smile, and he was well into his 80s. I just knew I'd like him before a word was spoken. Dad introduced him as Mr. Young.
Below his suspenders hung the most magnificent gold watch fob I have ever seen. Centered in the middle was a diamond that seemed to be the size of an ice hockey rink. At 13, I appreciated such things and remarked how beautiful it was. He unbuckled it and handed it to me to further admire. The back was engraved, "1926 Grand American Champion, won by Charles 'Sparrow' Young, 100xI00." Years later I realized what a great shooter and colorful character he was. Less than a year later, he died. Not many are left who can say they shook hands with that great Hall of Faller. Sadly, his splendid Grand American Champion watch fob never surfaced. How I would like to display it in our museum.
A symbolic Grand American landmark was a silver- colored water tower that stood some 70 feet high, with the ATA logo painted on two sides. It stood at the eastern end of the clubhouse, directly behind the Ithaca Gun Co. tent. A ladder extended to a small circular platform 10 feet or so from the top. This was a great place for fearless youngsters like me to watch shoot-offs. In the late 1960s, the airport administrators asked the ATA to take it down because of the danger it posed to low-flying airplanes. A memorable bit of nostalgia disappeared with the old water tower.
On each side of the clubhouse stretched rows of tents for trade representatives, refreshment stands, a clothing manufacturer (Bob Allen), gunsmiths and used-gun dealers. Nestled among those displaying their wares was a young man from Buffalo, N .Y., selling shooting glasses. He called his year-old company Clear Site, a rather appropriate name considering the product he sold. He later moved to Arizona and changed the name to Decot Hy-Wyd. Bud Decot is still serving shooters' needs, and other than the ammunition companies, he's the only one left that was there in 1950.
There were no buildings for vendors. Canvas protected them from the frequent, violent thunderstorms that were as bad as I had ever seen. Large, oscillating fans made a feeble attempt to cool the air but to little avail. It was terribly hot and extremely uncomfortable for a New England boy not used to scorching Midwestern heat. Winchester, Remington and Federal tents offered water, comfortable chairs and reading material. Every company that made trapguns had them on display, and if you wanted to try one at the practice traps or shoot one in an event, all you had to do was ask a representative. There was no paperwork to sign and no ATA cards or driver's licenses to leave when borrowing a gun. The guns need only be returned before the shooting ended for the day. As far as I know, no company ever lost one.
I spent most of the time at the shoot in the Remington tent with my dad. Here the recently introduced Model 870 "Wingmaster" trapguns were prominently featured. Dad had given me one for my l3th birthday, and I still hunt with it every fall. For the first time, I met Remington people who I was destined to work with in the years to come.
On a Saturday during a preliminary doubles event, Father suggested I watch a Remington pro named Rudy Etchen shoot his Model 870 pump gun. It wasn't uncommon then for doubles shooters to use a pump, but it certainly is now. That afternoon Rudy broke 100 shucking that 870. It was the first 100 in doubles ever at Vandalia, and I watched him break every pair. From that day to his death a few years ago, Rudy remained one of my all-time shooting idols.
I entered the sub-junior race and tied for fourth. It was part of the first 100 of a 200-bird 16-yard event on Monday, Aug. 21. This was the only sub-junior event during the entire Grand American. The rest of the events, we had to compete against juniors. Many years later, sub-junior trophies became a part of every Grand American race.
On Tuesday, Aug. 22, I represented Connecticut in the Junior Champion of Champions and broke 95xl00. A boy of 16 named Ronald Gaude of Natchez, Miss., ran the hundred. Gaude became a career military officer, and I heard years later that he was killed in Vietnam.
Earlier in the week, I met the prettiest girl I had ever seen. Her name was Lois Powell, and she was the stepdaughter of the great future Hall of Famer Julius Petty of Arkansas. She captivated me from the minute I laid eyes on her, as she did every other young boy at the Grand.
Trying to spend time alone with Lois was indeed a battle. A dozen other fellows had the same thought, including Gaude from Mississippi, who was three years older, better looking, and a better shooter. I thought this was important to Lois because of how good her stepfather was.
Before the shootoff for the Clay Target Championship, Dad told me I had better find a good spot to watch as it was going to be a long time deciding a winner. Defending champion Arnold Riegger, a 19-year old, formerly of Ohio, and a doctor had the only 2OOs. As the shootoff crowds gathered, I spotted Lois standing alone. A wonderful thought came to mind, and before long we were sitting together near the top of the ATA water tower. It was truly a wonderful situation for me-no one could see us, and we were going to be there awhile watching the long shootoff .
But there was no long shootoff. Joe Devers, the 19-year-old Dayton native and Jimmy Dean look-alike, broke 25. Riegger missed one and Dr. G. A. Roose two. My quality time alone with Lois high on that old water tower lasted less than 15 minutes. What a shame.
That night, driving back to Dayton, Dad said we were lucky the shootoff hadn't lasted longer, as we could have been there until dusk. I didn't think we had been so lucky.
The happy memories of my first Grand American and many more at Vandalia linger in this aging mind as clearly as if they had occurred since this morning's breakfast. But on cold Connecticut winter nights, when I look forward to the warmth of summer, the thought of not going to Vandalia saddens me. And I can only associate this feeling with an old boyhood friend who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. We all hope for a miracle, but if it doesn't happen, perhaps he will be going to a better place. Maybe, just maybe, the Grand will, too.
These few pages about my first Grand American 53 years ago mark my last Road to Yesterday column. My pen is dry. After 32 TRAP & FIELD articles, it's time to call it quits. Over the months, I've endeavored to bring you closer to the great shooters and events of those who came before us, those who history has long forgotten. Along the way, I've thrown in a few things that have happened to me during some 56 years in the old game.
It wouldn't be fitting or proper if I didn't end all of this by thanking the many who e-mailed, wrote, called, or personally expressed their appreciation for what I've written. My heartfelt thanks to those who took the time to say thanks.