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During my boyhood, hardly a month passed without a road show of some kind coming to my hometown of Clarksville, Texas. They invariably came to town on a Saturday, when school was out and when the farm folks from all over Red River County were in town for the day to trade. Circuses, tent shows (as we called carnivals), medicine shows, minstrel shows: those were our diversions, and welcome ones they were in those times of the Depression and the Dust Bowl.
As I was growing up, the changes taking place in the outer world began to be reflected in these touring attractions. Now came barnstorming airplane pilots, teams of motorcycle stunt riders, daredevil auto racers. From out in the country, people came in creaking, horse-drawn wagons to marvel at these pioneers of the new age of speed.
In the fall of 1936, my 12th year, and the last one that my father would see to its end in his short stay on earth, there came to town a performer from out of that older time that was being so speedily replaced: a touring trick-shot artist. Once—back in the days of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley—the trick-shot artist had been the stellar attraction of circuses and Wild West shows. Now, when mechanization and urbanization were transforming the country and relegating the mighty hunter to the nation's past, to find an audience the trick-shot artist came to places like Clarksville where that vanishing America lingered on, and where men of the mold admired by that world were admired still. The act was admission-free, sponsored by one of the sporting arms and ammunition manufacturers, and meant to stimulate interest in shooting and to promote the sale of the company's products. I bear upon my body, and will take with me to my grave, a memento of the trick-shot artist's visit to my hometown.
On the fair grounds that day to watch the trick-shot artist perform was almost the entire male population of the county, among them men who, once the hog they butchered in the fall was eaten, went into the woods in bland disregard of the game laws (no attempt was made to enforce them in our parts) and by their woodcraft and marksmanship furnished meat for their table until hog-killing time the next autumn. To these men ammunition was a medium of exchange, one more acceptable than the currency of the realm, which was not edible in any case and was subject to fluctuations in value beyond a common man's control, whereas a cartridge was still worth the same as always: one head of game. Their fathers had made hunters of these men just as they had put them to the plow, and at about the same early age, and trained them never to waste a bullet. Now they had put aside for the day their cotton-picking and crop-gathering to come watch a man do better than they what they themselves did surpassingly well, and to judge whether he was a better shot than their local champion, whose son and only child I was.
When the trick-shot artist was satisfied that all had come who were going to come, he picked one rifle from his array of automatic .22s. It might have been a piece of chalk, except that his blackboard—actually a sheet of copper two feet wide and three feet tall, mounted on plywood—was 50 feet from him. With a noise like a woodpecker attacking a telephone pole, which was barely interrupted as his assistant passed him a fresh, loaded rifle, the trick-shot artist drew on his copper sheets, in bulletholes, a profile of George Washington, a bonneted Indian chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt with his cigarette holder in his mouth. He asked for requests from the audience and drew whatever comic-strip characters were called for: Mutt and Jeff, Maggie and Jiggs, Barney Google, Krazy Kat. He tossed handfuls of colored glass balls into the air and shattered them. They were like rockets bursting. He snuffed lighted candlesticks, drove nails in boards. He struck a match in his assistant's hand with a bullet, then when that cool customer had lighted a cigarette and put it between his lips, the trick-shot artist turned his back to him, laid his rifle over his shoulder and, sighting with a pocket mirror, shot the ash from the cigarette.
A man in the audience called out to my father, "You reckon you can beat that, 'Ump?"
The trick-shot artist, whose job it was to foster local shooting talent, was quick to pick this up. Too quick for my father to steal away, which was what he would have liked to do. For it was one of the many contrarinesses of my contrary father that while he was a showoff in everything else and never refused a dare to fistfight, wrestle, race cars, drink, he could never be coaxed into displaying the skill for which he was famous, his shooting. Maybe that was a way of showing off, too: above having to prove to anybody that he was as good as he was said to be. Whether calculated to do so or not, this only magnified his legend. At our annual county fair he was the one man who could never be drawn near the shooting gallery, and of the men present that day, few had ever seen him fire a gun; they knew of his prowess because he hunted on their land and they were regular recipients of game from the full bags he brought in.
"Pretty good, is he?" said the trick-shot artist, sizing up my pint-sized father and concealing any doubts he may have had. "Well, 'Ump, show us what you can do. Maybe you can teach me some new tricks."
"Mister, it don't look to me like anybody can teach you anything. Certainly not me," said my father. "I don't know any tricks. I do a little bird-hunting, that's all."
"Don't bet your money against him, Mister," said the local man who had addressed my father earlier. "Lose it if you do."