The Owlkill's rangemasters, whose word is law when it comes to safety, are a husband-and-wife team. Norman Getman, 64, is a crusty retired carpenter who served as an infantry sergeant in Patton's Third Army and has the slanguage to prove it. Norman, who constantly puffs a malodorous pipe, even while he shoots, never lets off talking, breaking doubles and bon mots in the same smooth swing. "Nothin' to it," he says, chortling, when the clays "smoke" for him. (Back in the 19th century, trick shooters like Annie Oakley and Frank Butler broke glass balls filled with feathers to simulate hits on real birds. Today's clay pigeons, when they're "centered" in the shot pattern, explode in a puff of brown smoke—as satisfying to the gunner as a dead-solid perfect drive is to a golfer, or a clean open-field tackle is to a defensive back.) "Must have left the BBs out of that shell," he grumps when he misses, which he rarely does. "You've got to have your excuses ready before you shoot," he explains to a newcomer. "That's the most important rule in skeet."
Norman's wife, Laura, also 64, retired seven years ago after a long career as a high school math teacher. A dainty, gray-haired lady who's more at home with a volume of Euclid's theorems than with her well-oiled Browning 20-gauge over-and-under, she's nonetheless a better shooter than some of the club's male members. "I taught her everything she knows," Norman brags when Laura smokes one. "Never saw the woman before in my life," he says when she misses. "You've got to be careful what you say when a woman's got a loaded gun in her hands," he cautions. Laura smiles sweetly and blasts another double.
Among the club's newer members is Chet Cummings of Greenwich, N.Y., a nationally known trainer of field trial dogs who's now retired. Since his first amateur field trial in 1928, Chet has probably killed more real live pigeons over his canine pupils than there are Columbidae in Central Park, yet during his first few weeks at the skeet range he shot dreadfully. He'd been watching shooters who use the American style—mounting the shotgun to their shoulder, Elmer Fudd fashion, before calling the pull. Because of a cataract in his shooting eye, he wasn't picking the bird up visually as quickly as he should. So he reverted to the low-gun style he'd used as a hunter. He'd hold the shotgun at port arms position until the clay had been launched, and then, when he could see it, he'd quickly raise the shotgun and—pow!—smoke the clay, as he had so many live birds over the years. His scores climbed from the low teens to a respectable 20 or more of a possible 25.
"The worst enemy on the skeet field is a break in routines," says Abb Wiley, 68, a quiet, almost scholarly maestro of the .410 gauge who serves as Owlkill's unofficial guru. "It's got to feel so natural—the mounting of the gun, the swing, the shot coming almost as a surprise—that you don't have to think about it."
My own scores had climbed from their early abyss to a decent 20 or 22 as I learned the routines of the skeet field. Then suddenly they fell off again, slumping lower than I'd shot at the beginning. Abb watched me through a round or two. "You're pointing your toes too far to the left on those high-house birds," he said, "so when you try to swing through you're forcing it. Bring 'em around over here." I shifted my stance roughly three inches to the right, and was back to my best scores.
Still, I've yet to "go straight"—break 25 birds in a row. It's a bit humiliating. Last year only one Owlkill member had achieved that baby step on the way to skeet greatness, but this year it seems everyone except me has done it.
I look for clues in their styles, but there's no unifying principle. Tom Burnside, the jolly, almost Pickwickian computer consultant who wooed me to the game, swings his elbows out like a strutting partridge as he calls for his bird, but that technique doesn't help me. Howard Slocum, the silo salesman, stands straight and slim as a teenager, so solid in his swing that not a hair of his graying mustache twitches as he pops a tidy double. Reggie Tschorn, the veterinarian who once shot on the U.S. Army skeet team, crouches, postures, purses his lips and seems to spring at the bird as he shoots. Bob Coombs, a high school English teacher, stands pigeon-toed, slumped, with the gun stock tucked tight between chest and biceps as he awaits the flight. Butch Von Haggin, a cop who bears an uncanny resemblance to motor racing's Dan Gurney, seems to glare the pigeon to pieces with his ice-blue eyes. Stance, swing, psyche, I've varied them all.
Too often I hear Norm's voice as a missed bird soars off unchipped into the distance: "Quack, quack, quack! You want the dog to fetch that one, or will you try again?" When I recall how our stern-eyed superstar, Ray Wrubleski, broke 125 straight this summer to lead his team to the club's intramural league championship, I'm inspired to try again. And again and again and again. After all, I'm a skeet junkie now, and I really don't have much choice.