Friday, June 14, 2013

How I Befriended a WWII Sniper

This post is not one of bragging or heroism.  It is a post the background story of which is necessary to convey the moral of the story.  Any criticism or accusations of bragging and blowhardism will be ignored.

It is here that I have to confess something, for in me telling this story I will tip my hand and belie what my next project is.  That project being the first in a new series of books I will be starting (for the rest of my life) called,

"The Crotch Rocketeer's Guide To X"

"X" being wherever my motorcycle travels take me.  The Canadian Rockies.  Tierra Del Fuego.  The Wild West.  You name it.

However, the first in this series of books will be South Dakota, specifically, the Black Hills, which is where I currently am.  I am taking photos, notes, and whatnot to compile a guide for everybody (not just crotch rocketeers) about how to avail themselves of the most the Badlands and Black Hills have to offer.  However, since I only have two weeks here I have to spend my time efficiently and judiciously, requiring me to make side trips and short stops along my general way...which is how I made friends with a WWII sniper.

I had met him once before on one of my previous trips to the Black Hills.  This was the byproduct of me hearing about a "barn dance" at some unheard of town, and because this town was so obscure and so out of the way, I was committed to experiencing this event.  Upon arrival I found out the townsfolk were going to go to "the" bar in town and get some drinks before the dance started.  I decided to tag along and upon walking through the door of "the" bar I saw "him."

"Him" being "Lee."  A man nearly 90 years old, thick glasses, a skinny and frail figure.

I was warned about "him."  I was told he was a curmudgeon, a pissed off old man, that he had a sawed-off dual barreled shot gun behind the bar, and that I shouldn't piss him off.

And they were right.

He was a curmudgeon.
He was old.
He was pissed off.
And there was the double barreled shot gun.

However, what they did NOT tell me was that he was a HAAAAYOOOOGE fossil collector and agate hunter.  They also did not tell me his house was attached to the bar.  And they also did not tell me that he left the door open from the bar to his house WHICH GAVE YOU A PERFECT VIEW TO HIS AWESOME FOSSIL AND AGATE COLLECTION!

As I was walking through the bar and looked to my right, I saw all this 90 year old man had collected.  The finest pieces, the finest specimens, the crappiest of which put my best to shame.

I turned to my left, gobsmacked, and like a little kid at Christmas asked if I could look at his fossils.

He said in a very stern tone, "no!"  And if my memory serves me correctly there was even a threat of the double barreled shotgun.

A little shamed, I realized what the townsfolk said was true.  He was an old curmudgeon.  He didn't like strangers.  And even though he had the world's greatest agate and fossil collection, my passion would simply be an annoyance to him and so I let it be.

However, my memories of this town and "the" bar still remained fond.  It is a GREAT TOWN, a LITTLE TOWN, a TOWN YOU WILL NEVER FIND UNTIL I PUBLISH IT IN MY BOOK.  And so, when I was on my way to my hotel and realized the sun still had about another hour to set, I figured I had the time to take a detour, take a snap shot of the bar, the town, and the streets for the "Rocketeers's Guide" and save myself a chore at a later date.

Upon arrival there were no cars in front of the bar.  I was thinking the old man maybe died or just retired, but when I parked my motorcycle near the entry I could hear a television and knew he was still in business.  I didn't want to piss him off so there would be no asking about the agates or fossils, and truth be told, I was a bit fearful of asking him if I could take a picture of the inside of the bar.  Old men like their privacy and this guy DEFINITELY was the type I could see getting pissed off, looking at some crotch-rocket-driving city slicker wanting to take a picture of his "cute" and "quaint" little bar. 

I walked in, took off my helmet, and sure as shit, there was the old man.  Just like I remembered him, but two years older.  However, though two years had passed since I last saw him, he looked 5 years older.  He was even more frail.  He was my height (5'9") and maybe 115 pounds.  His shoulders were also unlevel, suggesting to me his bones were going out of whack.  He was also more bent over, not to the extent of a humpback, but one of a man in his 90's.

Also at the bar was a man rolling his own cigarettes.  He was in fatigues and a muscle shirt.  Approaching 60's.  Looked like Sam Elliot.

Upon seeing me the old man made his way over to my position at the bar.  He used the bar as a crutch to make his way over.  He asked me what would I have and I said, "Whiskey."

I stroke up a conversation with the guy rolling his cigarettes.  Chit-chatting here and there, but as many men in this area of South Dakota, he knew about agates, fossils and the like.  We started talking about different places to hunt and the old man was listening.

However, though interesting, our conversation was interrupted when two large men walked into the bar.  Both drunk.  Both very large.

They weren't loud drunk, but their body language gave it away.  Slow talking, slurring, not getting to their point.  Inevitably they wanted two beers and already I knew something was up.

This bar is a far flung bar in the middle of nowhere.

It is in a town you would not know exists unless you already know it exists and if you're going to get a drink  when you're already drunk this is not the place you'd go.

Also, when you're hammered, you don't ask for a Bud Light.  You go for something heavier with more of a punch, especially if you're over 2 bills.  So when these large men asked for two Bud Lights, I knew something was wrong.

Confirming this was when these vermin started giving the old man shit about the price.

The price for 2 beers was $6.  The gas alone was more than that to get their drunk asses out to this bar from the main drag.  So when they started not "heckling," but complaining, even acting like they weren't going to pay, then (truthfully) I was glad South Dakota recognizes Minnesota's carry conceal laws.

The man rolling his own cigarettes didn't seem to notice.  He was talking to me the entire time.  I was trying to keep two conversations up, responding to the guy with "Uh huh..yeah...yep...uh huh" while watching the two thugs interact with the old man.  Then one of the thugs went to the bathroom, while the other one asked to bum a cigarette off of the other guy.  Funny thing was, the other guy was rolling his own cigarettes, which meant there would be some work required of the thug, which actually put him off.  Regardless, while they were going over the basics of rolling one's own cigarette I strode over to the old man and said under my breath,  

"you alright?  You need me to stick around?"

The old man said,

"Yeah, I'm fine.  Thanks for asking, but I've handled these types before."

Taking the man for his word, I paid my tab and decided to leave.  Grabbed my helmet, walked outside, and there was a truck with a kid who was nowhere near the age of 16 in the driver's seat.  Hand over his face once I walked out.  He obviously drove these two guys to the bar and was sitting just a like a getaway car.  Too damn fishy.  "Oh well," I said to myself, "the old man is a piss and vinegar sort, he's got that shot gun, he'll be fine with the other guy in there."

Put the key in the ignition, started to done my gloves and helmet, and then I just couldn't do it.  I couldn't let the old man be.  Piss and vinegar and anger and weaponry all aside, he was just too damn old and too damn frail.  They could overpower him easily ensuring he never reached the gun.  The large thug could easily hold down the cigarette-roller.  And who knew what role the adolescent thug would play.  I couldn't leave.

So I returned.

Walked back into the bar and somewhat brashly said, "Eh, I decided I'm going to stick around a little bit!" and took my old seat.

The old man came up and asked me under his breath if I wanted a drink on the house.  I said no, but I'll take water.  I asked him quietly if he called the cops, which he hadn't, because he wasn't just a tough, old, curmudgeon man in reputation, but in reality as well.  His pride wouldn't let him.  I figured the best thing to do would be to get the cops to come in and so I walked outside in the vain hopes of having reception.

For some ungodly reason, there actually was reception for both cell AND data in this town.  Got the local county cops on the line, started to give them the information, and then the two thugs walked out.

Apparently, they had had enough.  The two "Bud Lights" were enough for them.  They got in the car their 12 year old son/daughter (I couldn't tell) was driving and as they drove off I saw them open a bottle of tequila.

They already had the booze from the get go.  Stopping by at the old man's joint was something more nefarious, at minimum, ulterior.

I told the cops what was happening, telling them they were leaving, but they may want to send out a squad anyway given a 12 year old driving two men with an open bottle of tequila usually isn't good news for others on the road, and then returned to the bar.

I said to the old man, "looks like they're gone" and before I could ask him about how long it normally takes the cops to get there he said,

"You are really observant.  Most young men don't even pick up on that.  YOu knew what they were doing."

Kind of shocked how somebody couldn't sense something was wrong, I said,  

"Oh, I don't know about that.  It was pretty obvious they weren't up to any good."

I then decided to throw one from his generation to lighten things up,

"Besides, you may have that shot gun, but I don't think you can draw as fast as Glenn Ford."

And mercy did that get him on my side.

"Oh yeah!!!  Glenn Ford was fast, but let me tell you!  This isn't the first time!"

He then regaled me with a tale that I will not repeat as I assume he would like to keep it private.  However, the story consisted of a thug, taking advantage of an old frail man, out in the middle of nowhere, and that old man rising to his own self-defense.  But while the old man was telling me this story he slipped and belied why he may be so curmudgeonly in the first place.  He said,

"I was a sniper in the Pacific and by golly I know how to handle myself!  Ain't nobody going to get me!"

Heh, the old frail man who stood in front of me was a WWII sniper in the Pacific.  He was the badest ass mofo for at least a 40 mile radius.  Sure he was 115 pounds.  Sure he was weak.  But he was never going to go down without a fight and that made him the coolest guy I was guaranteed to meet this entire trip.

I wanted to say something a little cocky, but lesson-teaching, about large, multiple, younger thugs, up close and personal, vs. Japanese officers at 1,500 yards in the hopes it would convince him to retire, hire some muscle or maybe call the cops sooner, but I opted to shut up instead.  He offered again to buy me another drink, but I said,

"No thanks, I'll take you up on it next time I'm out here.  Should be a week or two, but I'll be back."

And before I got up from my seat he said,

"Thank you for making friends with me."

It wasn't until about 10 miles later did I fully realize how freaking cool and awesome it was to have a guy like him thank me (THANK ME????) for being a friend and considering me a friend.  It means more to me than "earning a degree" or "getting a promotion" or some other such lame ass shit that passes for "achievement" or "success" today.  Besides, pissed-off, curmudgeon, angry, WWII sniper, agate hunter, fossil hunter that could put me to shame, now doesn't hate me so much!?   I mean, come on, how do you beat that?


Anonymous said...

The Black Hills area is one of my favorites...
and you do tell a good tale.

good to hear it.

Drop the Hammer said...

Great story man. Thanks for sharing.

Patsplace said...

Yep, it was a good and normal thing that you did. Too bad that normal behavior is often regarded as exceptional today.

Thugs of any sort can be bad medicine for everybody around them.

Good on ya'


Anonymous said...

Lovely story captain - take care on your travels

Anonymous said...

I never leave comments but had to on this. What a fantastic story!

Dr. Coyote said...

Publish a book of that quality stuff and you'll never have to work again. Thanks for the sample. Keep typin' brother, keep typin'.

Donttreadonmatt said...

Awesome story. Well done.

Jesse said...

Thank you for sharing this. js

Ken (Kulak) said...

I'm happy I read this. Great story.

wanderling said...

This is why wandering rocks. Not all those who wander are lost.

Unknown said...

Strong smart men quietly watching each others' backs, is a cornerstone of human civilization. Heroic? Epic? I don't know. It shouldn't be, but I have goosebumps after reading this article.

Anonymous said...

I haven't met any snipers, but befriended a ww2 gunsmith about a decade ago when I was a hospital volunteer. His usual stories were about clearing boobie-traps from farmhouses as the nazis retreated. He didn't talk a lot (neither did I), but he sure could enjoy a good, companionable silence. There's a lot of good older folks out there, if you're willing to listen at the right time. And help, when they need a hand or ear that they'll never admit to.

Anonymous said...

Now that's a man's story. Good writing.

So what wide spot in the road was this?

Differ said...

outstanding - I have a 95(+?) yr old WW2 B-17 pilot friend - I, too, sometimes don't feel worthy.... greatest generation isn't hyperbole.

Peabody said...

Great story, Cap!
The old guys often amaze me.
Neighbor of ours when I was a kid had no wife or kids and kept to himself, mostly. Kept up a farm house but leased the land to the farmers on either side of him. They kept up the outbuildings. He was retired but I never knew from what until a pack of feral dogs attacked his neighbor's sheep. My uncle told me this guy heard the ruckus and saw his neighbor plinking ineffectively at the dogs. This guy came out of his house with a scoped rifle and started shooting. Killed the entire pack, one shot/one kill, with no more than three seconds between each shot. Reloaded at least once. Turns out the guy was a retired Wehrmacht sniper. That was forty years ago, now. Wow.

Charlie said...

Can't wait for the book !!!

Stretch said...

The nice gray haired man showing pictures of grandchildren to us?
UDT in Korea. Instructor to the FIRST class of SEALS.

That guy joking about his prostate problems? Had been on the radio link with the landing party at Bay of Pigs. He had to tell them JFK wouldn't OK air cover. The other stories he told may still be classified.

My father-in-law Joe telling of the Hürtgen Forest, a Scottish castle use as hospital, no SS prisoners taken and my wife and mother-in-law looking on in amazement 'cause they'd never heard any of those stories.

I've been blessed by these friendships and hold them dear.

My Take said...

A story of superb courage simply told. Truly the greatest generatiion. (You did well also!)

Jennifer said...

Well done! I hope you meet many more dangerous strangers on your journey. Like the sniper, not the thugs.