It was cool but sunny and calm, another perfect Sunday afternoon. It seemed to always be that way for the big shooting match the weekend before Thanksgiving.  There were pickups parked all around and a crowd was gathering after church in the field behind Venable’s store where the 1954 Thanksgiving turkey shoot would be held. 

It was cool but sunny and calm, another perfect Sunday afternoon. It seemed to always be that way for the big shooting match the weekend before Thanksgiving.  There were pickups parked all around and a crowd was gathering after church in the field behind Venable’s store where the 1954 Thanksgiving turkey shoot would be held.  

The Smithson boy was there with his grandpa Lute, whom everyone seemed to know.  One fellow came by and slapped him on the back and asked him if he was going to let the boy shoot at one of the splatterboards. “Not this year,” he laughed, “but maybe next year he’ll be ready.”

Splatterboard shooting would come later in the afternoon, and it was just a matter of luck and long barrels.  Twelve or fifteen shooters paid their dollar and signed up to fire once at a “splatterboard” set up 45 yards distant. A white paper target with an X at the center was tacked on for each shooter, and whoever placed one shot from a shotgun shell in the center of the X won a ham or a turkey. A tie required another round of shooting until there was a clear winner. It took no skill whatsoever, just a tight shot pattern.

But the first part of the afternoon was for the real shotgunners.  Bales of hay were set up, and behind them was Mr. Venable’s trap-thrower, which sailed clay disc targets out across the field like a flying quail.  Shooters had to pay a dollar each, and then buy Winchester or Remington shells from Mr. Venable’s shell table when they signed up.  You could buy any number you wanted, at 6 cents apiece, and choose your shot size.  By using the same shotshell loads everyone had an equal chance with no ammunition advantage.

When any shotgunner would miss, he would drop out and as the number of shooters dwindled they had to step back five yards farther on their next round. The last successful shooter won the ham or turkey prize.

Lute Smithson knew them all, the men who showed up each year for those first contests were the best wingshots in the county.  There was Clem Sutterfield, a local farmer who owned a lot of land and cattle, and had some fine bird dogs.  He hunted quail, and was a better close range shot than he was at a distance.
And Shorty Evans was there, wearing his cowboy hat, smiling around that big cigar he always smoked and telling stories about some big bass he had caught during the fall.  Shorty was a businessman, one of the wealthiest guys in town, but also one of the most admired and well-liked.  His long barreled trap gun probably cost more than any shotgun there.  The young guy, Farrell Dablemont was there with his dad, the Big Piney johnboat builder and fisherman.

Tall and slender and quick, he had that pipe in the corner of his mouth and that old long barreled ’97 Winchester in the crook of his arm.  He and his father floated the river and hunted ducks.  He was good with that pump-gun, and had dropped many a woodduck or mallard at 50 yards.

But then again, Lute Smithson was fairly well known as a long-range shooter himself, one who always shot in the first contests. You could only win two hams or turkeys, so that lots of people could be successful before the afternoon was over.  The men who weren’t such good shooters waited until the good shots finished to compete, later in the afternoon.

The new guy didn’t know that.  

The boy and his grandfather watched him pay his dollar in small change, and then buy only eight shells for fifty cents.  He wasn’t smiling, he looked thin and haggard.  His old pickup had rusted fenders, and the paint was faded.  One side was banged up pretty badly.  His wife sat in the front seat with a small child in her arms, and a boy tagged at his father’s heels, his eyes big with the wonderment of this well-attended turkey shoot.

“That’s the new boy in school Grandpa, he don’t ever say much.” The Smithson boy said.

Claude Miller said he knew the man a little…  “They moved in from Oklahoma last summer,” he said.  “Got him a job at the factory, three or four kids… they’re rentin’ the old Beason place down on Brushy Creek.  Nice fellow I think, but poor.  They keep to themselves, don’t go to church, so they ain’t well known around just yet.”

The shooting began just after 1 p.m. and a dozen men started it off.  By the time they had stepped back to thirty yards, there were only five shooters remaining, and the stranger was one of them.  He shouldered an old single-shot long-tom 12 gauge, old as the hills, the blueing worn on that long barrel, the stock taped and the forearm cracked.  But he shot it well.  He stepped up to the mark and quietly said, “pull”.  The trap thrower thumped behind the bails of hay and a clay pigeon sailed out over the broam sedge.  The stranger’s shotgun roared and the clay target shattered before it had gained twenty yards.

Lute Smithson followed suit, and his grandson was proud of him.  “You’re the best shot out here Grandpa,” he said his face beaming.  His grandfather didn’t pay much attention, he was watching the new man, noting he didn’t seem to be enjoying this much.  He also knew he only had half his shells left.

In little time, there were only four men left, shooting from thirty yards back.  And he knew just by watching that this stranger was there because that turkey was more important to him perhaps, than anyone else.   No one noticed when he stood up to shoot his 6th shell, that Lute Smithson had called the other two remaining shooters to his side.  Shorty Evans and Farrell Dablemont were listening intently to what he said.
The younger of the two didn’t seem too happy with what he was hearing, but he nodded his head reluctantly in agreement.  When it came his turn, he laid his pipe on the shooters table, shouldered the old ‘97 and missed the target clean.  The crowd reacted, and when Shorty Evans followed with a miss himself, some oohs and ahs went up around them.  Everyone figured the match would last awhile.

The stranger blasted his target out of the air, and Lute Smithson came up, hoping his clay target would at least sail away low and at an angle.  He got his wish.  No one knew he missed it intentionally.  The winner was the stranger, who smiled just a little, and his worried face relaxed.  He had won a turkey for his families Thanksgiving dinner.

The boy wasn’t happy, but he had it figured out.  “Grandpa,” he said as he tugged at his grandfather’s sleeve to get his attention…   “You missed a’purpose!”

The grandfather smiled down at him and nodded.

“Yes boy, I missed a’purpose!  But the afternoon ain’t over, and I won’t miss a’purpose any more.”  

Then he kneeled down and looked his grandson in the eye.  “Sometimes losing is winning.  But I know that’s hard to understand at your age.  You’ll figure it out in years to come.”

He looked toward the old pickup where the young stranger was reaching through the window to hug his wife.  “Now boy, I want you to go in the store there and find your mother and tell her I want to see her in a hurry. We have got some people to get to know, and I’m thinking we may have to plan a bigger thanksgiving dinner than we figured on.  

And you take this dollar and buy some candy bars and bring them back to me without eating them.

Someone hollered, “Hey Smithson, you gonna shoot this next round?  It’s for a ham, and we need one more man!”