No such hangups bothered Karla Roberts, a 36-year-old schoolteacher from St. Louis whose aplomb was equal to her girth. A huge, happy woman off the field, Karla was the personification of poised concentration when her gun came to her burly shoulder. In winning the women's .410, 28-gauge and 12-gauge events, she powdered a total of 545 birds in 550 shots to set a world record for women, beating the mark of 542 set eight years ago by Evelyn Jones of Dallas. "My husband and I took up skeet seven years ago to improve our hunting for rabbits and doves," Karla said, "and we got addicted. It's an expensive sport, and if I didn't teach we couldn't afford it. But it has its compensations. I'm a member of a five-lady pick-up team that shoots each year against the U.S. Marine Corps team. We have our own little side bet that the losing team will buy champagne for the winner, and they had to buy for us the last two years." At Savannah last week, the leathernecks finally won, but Karla and her ladies didn't mind popping for the bubbly. After all, the Corps deserved to win something after Vietnam.
Among the men, the hottest shot during the opening fusillade of the week was Kenny Barnes of Bakersfield, Calif. A lean, long-haired tire dealer who also works as a licensed goose guide during the waterfowl season, Barnes won the Champion of Champions title in a shoot-off against five other gunners. All six broke 100 straight birds to reach the final, 25 each in the four gauges. Then Kenny had to kill 111 more before his rivals missed. "Most of the older gunners are game hunters as well," says Barnes, who at 34 is a bit long in the tooth for a skeet champ. "I got into skeet through hunting. Right now I have one of the most complete sets of mounted waterfowl in the U.S.—all of the geese and all but three of the North American ducks. I'm missing two Alaskan eiders and, would you believe it, a scoter, that dark feller with the orange knob on his bill. We just don't have 'em out West. I reckon that with practice and competition in skeet, I burn about 10,000 rounds of ammo a year. In a really hot waterfowl season I might burn a case—500 rounds. So you can see that skeet will sure make a better game shot out of you, if practice makes perfect."
Unfortunately for Barnes' later fortunes, the reverse did not hold true. After his win in the four-gun Champion of Champions match, he began losing birds, a few at a time but enough to drop him out of contention for the big prize: men's overall champion. That title would go to the man who missed the fewest times over 550 shots in .410, 28, 20 and 12 gauge. On what was supposed to be the final day of the shoot, with 500 shells burned, the leaders were John Durbin of St. Louis and Maxie Wright of Savannah, with two misses each, followed by Gary Lowe, an Indiana sharpshooter, and Paul Laporte from Montreal, who were three down. During the final 50 both Durbin and Wright lost a bird apiece—Maxie's on a disputed call that went against him only after the NSSA grievance committee convened for an hour to argue the Byzantine intricacies of clay fowl ups and downs. Wright, a former helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam and was discharged from the Army only a year ago with a bad back, waited around nervously until the decision was reached. When the decision went against him, precipitating a four-man shoot-off for the overall championship, his fine edge was gone. "Well," he philosophized before the shoot-off, "that's skeet. One little bit of clay out of all that tension, and there you are, caught up in a tie."
Came the morning of the high overall shoot-off and it was evident that one gunner at least was fully primed. Paul Laporte, the 45-year-old Montreal restaurateur (he owns a chicken joint named the Laurier Bar-B-Q, had managed only an hour of sleep the night before. "I killed birds all night long, maybe 10,000 of them," he said. A courtly Quebecois with a slight Gallic paunch and dressed all in black like an aging gunfighter at the O.K. Corral, Peerless Paul had lost birds—three of them—only in the first two rounds of overall, two with the .410 and one with the 28. "Then I vowed I would not miss again," he said. And he didn't. Killing his remaining birds with the bigger-bored 20- and 12-gauge guns, he came into the shoot-off with plenty of momentum and even more cool. Within 16 birds it was over. Lowe was the first to miss with the .410, with which the gunners began the overtime since it was the first gun in the original repertoire, losing his third bird out of the trap. Then Wright, the former chopper hopper, missed on his seventh clay. Durbin, scrawny and stooped but a master of concentration, lasted to 16 birds and then blew a shot at the low house from the No. 6 post. The overall title belonged to the French-Canadian—his fourth come-from-behind victory of the season, following similar wins at the Lordship meet in Connecticut, in Puerto Rico and the Bluegrass in Louisville. "Rather like Arnold Palmer, don't you think?" he asked after the victory. It reinforced the golf analogy, but actually in his black turtleneck, black slacks, black shoes and cap Laporte came on, visually, more like Gary Player. His costume (he has come to be known as the Black Chicken Hawk on the skeet tour) makes him feel mean, a major requisite for killing, even if only of artificial birds.
But the heat generated by his black clothing finally proved Paul's downfall in the last event, the "big gun" 12-gauge men's championship. On the ninth round of the shoot-off, which began with 25 gunners tied and had now reduced itself to a scant five survivors, Laporte missed an incoming bird from the low house at post No. 8. Up to that point he had killed 223 birds straight in overtime, a remarkable performance considering his age and the heat. He was shooting through a sky full of humidity and dragonflies, which had emerged that morning after the previous day's winds died down. "I saw that my gun was a little to the left of the bird and I tried to compensate," he said later, "but my finger was faster than my mind, and pow! I missed. Well, the overall was the big one for me, anyway. I am quite satisfied with four major high-overall victories in a single season, all of them retrieved from a position behind that of the leader."
By the time the 12-gauge championship was decided, so were the onlookers. It was nearly "bull bat time"—that enchanted evening hour when the night-flying birds come out, and old-line Savannahans reach for the bourbon bottle—when the last shot was fired. Walt Badorek of Klamath Falls, Ore. finally missed on the 21st round of overtime and victory went to Bobby Lewis, 32, a farm equipment manufacturer from Baxley, Ga. Lewis, a member of the host Forest City Gun Club, had killed 762 birds straight to win the title—250 in the basic competition and 512 in overtime. That was a new record of its own for the most shots fired in a World Championship shoot-off. For Lewis the victory was doubly gratifying. Some time ago he totaled a foot in a motorcycle accident and for five years shot from crutches. He still wears a brace on the damaged leg.
So for Lewis, Laporte and Barnes, Joyce Luce and Karla Roberts, and so many other excellent markspersons, the long, ear-banging ordeal was finally over. Skeet shooting may not be much of a spectator sport—indeed it is even more painful for the watcher than the shooter, despite the lack of recoil—but it is certainly a worthy endeavor for anyone who cares for concentration. Now that it was over, though, happiness was a warm shower, a cold beer, and a mind free from the presence of phantom, flying clay birds, all of them spinning off unhit. The warm-gun fun would come again—and again.