The Life & Times of John Philip Sousa

I have always held a special fondness for the great composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa. Almost a hundred years ago he was a frequent shooter at the Pahquioque Rod and Gun Club in Danbury, CT, my hometown.

Pahquioque was founded in 1899 and is still quite active. I've been a member for 48 years, as were my father and grandfather. Dad started pulling trap there in 1909, when he was 16 years old. He was paid $2 a day, which was considered fair wages in those times.

Modern voice-activated traps have eliminated the need for good pullers. Getting a target when you call for it is pretty much automatic now. It wasn't always this way. A slow pull could spell disaster for a good score.
Some pullers were always better than others, as is the case today wherever pullers continue to "press the
button."

nullEvidently, John Philip Sousa thought my dad was a good puller. After each round he shot, the old bandleader made it a point to tell Father he had done a good job. But what was more important to Dad was the $2 tip Sousa gave him at the conclusion of each shoot, equaling what the gun club paid him. Those employed in Danbury's sweltering hat factories weren't making $4 a day.

Dad continued pulling trap and occasionally shot at Pahquioque until the start of World War I. Soon after
the United States got involved, he went off to the poppy fields of France with an artillery company. At the war's end, he was one of thousands of soldiers who took part in a giant victory parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City. On the morning of the big parade, he learned John Philip Sousa's band would lead the great
procession.

"When I heard Sousa was going to be at the head of our parade, I immediately started looking for him," Dad said. "There were tens of thousands of soldiers and spectators lining the way. I don't know how I ever found
him, but I did. He was a little fellow and all dressed up in his bandleader uniform.  I hadn't seen him in almost three years, and the war had changed me some; I was a lot thinner and older-looking and was sure he wouldn't recognize me. I walked up to him and said, 'Mr. Sousa, I'm sure you don't remember me, but. ..' I never finished the sentence. 'Of course, I remember. You used to be a trap boy at Pahquioque,' came the hearty reply. 'Welcome home, soldier.'"

I heard my dad tell this story many times, and when I hear "The Washington Post" or the immortal "Stars and Stripes Forever," my mind and heart goes back to the days he shot at our club almost a century ago.

As I grow older, the stories my dad told me about his early days are still as fresh in my mind as the morning news. They say that fathers want their sons to be what they never were. It was the reverse in our family. I always wanted to be what Dad had been.

His stories about Sousa prompted me to learn as much as I could about the bandleader and his love of trapshooting. He was our game's first goodwill ambassador, and from the time he started shooting in 1906 until his death 26 years later, he missed no opportunity to promote trapshooting through written words, public speeches or personal interviews.

When asked by a Chicago reporter while attending the 1913 Grand American what he considered life's best gifts, Sousa replied, " A horse, a dog, a gun and a girl-with a little music on the side. That's my idea of heaven."

In a DuPont Powder Co. booklet published around 1910, he said, "Every man should have an active, muscle-building, fat -destroying, lung -developing hobby. I choose trapshooting because this thrilling, fascinating, invigorating sport trains the brain and develops brawn. It's a sport that gives one the chance for hobnobbing with the best of sportsmen." What John Philip Sousa lacked in shooting ability, he more than made up in enthusiasm for the game. He seldom broke in the 90s. When he won the 1913 Berlin Handicap at Ocean City, Md., the Hercules Powder Co. featured him in a national ad. A year or so later at a New Year's Day shoot in Pennsylvania, he broke 44 out of 50 and had a six-bird handicap. Again Hercules took advantage of his use of their powder and ran an ad with the rather misleading headline, "John Philip Sousa wins with perfect score."

While Sousa was competing in the 1909 New York State Shoot, a magazine reporter said, "The presence of John Philip Sousa is just another reason why trapshooting is getting more popular and has been recognized as one of the cleanest sports in the world." The same journalist made note of Sousa's sportsmanship and reported that he shot all day in a downpour of rain and finished just as cheerfully as he started.

At age 14, Sousa became a member of the United States Marine Band. He followed in the footsteps of
his father, who was also a musician. His dad was instrumental in teaching him to shoot and to appreciate quality firearms. By the time Sousa was 26, he was the conductor of the Marine Corps band. In 1892 he left the service and formed his own concert band and became rich and famous. Along the way, he composed more than 600 pieces of music. Among his most popular marches are "Stars and Stripes Forever," "Semper Fidelis," "The Washington Post," "Hands Across the Sea" and "King Cotton."

Sousa was the first president of the newly-founded American Amateur Trapshooting Association (AATA). It was 1916, and the amateurs were taking over the reins of the old Interstate Trapshooting .Association that had been run by members of the industry. He served as AATA president again in 1919.

nullIt was Sousa who first recommended that shooters be handicapped based on their ability to break handicap
targets as well as 16-yard targets. He said, "The more they win, the farther back they should go." Prior to 1916, women were not allowed to compete at the Grand American. Sousa quickly had this rule stricken once he took over as president.

He was often asked to speak at various affairs, as he had the reputation of being a great storyteller. More often than not, Sousa had something to say about trapshooting.

"Painting the town" doesn't fit in trapshooting. I recall an instance where a young man entered a tournament in the middle west. The first day he led the field, and a continuation of that brand of shooting would have made him the champion. That night he met congenial friends and decided to celebrate the expected victory
before it had been won. The next morning he appeared at the traps bleary-eyed, nervous and sluggish. At the end of the second day he was among the also-rans. I have shot with this man many times and nothing can induce him to give the town a coat of paint. It is not liquids alone that must be passed by. A shooter must be temperate in all things. The gorged, overworked stomach of the glutton will mean defeat. A man must learn to curb his appetite if he desires success at the traps.

I don't know if I agree with the old bandleader in this instance. Mark Arie was among the best during Sousa's day, and he overindulged in both food and drink. It also seems to me there are some fine current All-Americans who are a pound or two overweight. Maybe if the old gentleman was around today, he'd say, "There are exceptions to every rule."

The first year (1916) Sousa was president of the AATA, the Ithaca Gun Co. introduced an engraved, gold-inlaid trap gun and appropriately named it the "Sousa Grade." At the time of its introduction, it was considered the finest trap gun money could buy, and Sousa shot one continuously until his death.

Today his Sousa Grade rests comfortably in a special place at the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum in Vandalia, Ohio. A gold oval, stock plaque tastefully bears the letters "J.P.S."

Sousa enjoyed riding horses. And it was a horse that eventually curtailed his trapshooting days. On Sept. 6, 1921, a big animal he called Patrolman Charley threw him. He cracked several vertebrae and suffered painful
shoulder and head injuries. Sousa spent eight weeks in bed and recovered as well as any 67-year-old could. The accident changed his life forever. He could move his left hand but couldn't extend it from his body. This changed his style of band conducting and resulted in him learning to shoot trap using only his right hand. He continued one-arm shooting until his death at Reading, PA, on March 5,1932.

He was often asked if his music influenced his trapshooting. He had this reply: "Early on, themes (tunes) kept coming into my head just as I would call for a bird, but soon I learned to leave my music at home. Let me say that just about the sweetest music to me is when I call 'pull,' the old gun barks, and the referee, in perfect key, announces 'dead.' "

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 June 2010 13:33