Poring over some notes the other day, I found this quote:
“They call us crazy. But no one — no other organization in the world — has spent more millions over the decades to keep Americans safe.”
That was Wayne LaPierre, chief executive officer at the National Rifle Association, in January 2013 not long after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
Since he uttered those words, perhaps 24,000 Americans have died from gunfire, and that’s not counting the suicides. That’s 10 times the number of American dead on D-Day.
“Safe?” From what, exactly?
But now we’re on the subject of guns, so I want to remember my best hunting buddy, Tom Caloia, who’s passed over to the great milo field yonder, the one where it’s always a dewy-but-crisp morning, the pheasants aren’t running, the dogs are steel-still on point and the sun is never in your eyes.
The son of a New Jersey teamster and the son of a Missouri merchant/farmer, we were together through about all of it: Air Force Security Service tech training, NSA special training; Peshawar spook base in north Pakistan; SAC headquarters.
It was during that last posting near Omaha, Neb., that so many roosters burst up cackling, so much gunpowder was burned, so much camaraderie shared.
But first a little background. Thanksgiving had rolled around when we were studying Russian rocketry at Fort Meade, the NSA headquarters, and Tom kindly invited me to Amtrak up with him to share in his family feast.
First, let me say, I’ve never been kissed by so many people in my life — parents, aunts, grandparents. Even uncles who had never laid eyes on me grabbed me. (Just the cheeks now, not one of those “Saturday Night Live” cringe skits.) Considering I barely hugged my sainted mother at the time, it was a bit of a shock.
And the food, a groaning board of Italian dishes, then unidentifiable to me (remember, at my home the spaghetti came out of a can and was enhanced by ketchup).
Ah, the just-made pasta, the chicken and sausages simmering in their sauces, the soup! Soooo good! All the time, a little wizened grandmother at my elbow kept imploring me to “Eat! Eat! Eat! You’re just skin and bones!” Which, actually, I was. Had to run around in the shower to get wet.
Well, it was a belt buster, and all the men went dazed and moaning into a back room to watch football. I don’t know if we made it to halftime, when … “Come in now, time for Thanksgiving dinner!”
Yes, they’d prepared the Italian meal and then the American, complete with turkey and enough side dishes to put a grizzly into a carb-induced coma.
And there she was again. “Eat! Eat! You’re too thin!”
So, when we ended up in Nebraska a year or so later, it was only right that I bring Tom to my home. We decided to go out to one of our farms and shoot my firearms, something the city boy had never done (excepting maybe an hour or two with old M-1 carbines in basic training). We blasted away with the 12-gauge, plinked cans with the .22. Tom thought it all pretty cool.
Then I pulled out the Remington 30.06, put a couple of sandbags on the truck cab to rest it on so we could stand in the bed and try some long-range stuff. I tried to zero in with a couple of shots, then turned it over to Tom.
I wasn’t paying enough attention, and at his first shot exclaimed that he shouldn’t jerk like that. He calmly turned to me with a tight smile and blood running down his face. He had screwed his eye right up to the scope, not expecting the slam of the recoil. Yikes.
Well, I thought, that’s it for Tom and firearms. He’ll never touch ’em again. Cleaned his face off, no stitches needed. We drove back to town for dinner — some steaks cut from one of our Angus calves, the only decent thing that we could offer in return for the Newark bounty I had received. That night we watched men walk on the moon for the first time.
But I was wrong. Tom was hooked, got a cheap pump shotgun, and we’d drive out west of the base to shoot on the weekends. Cultivated some nice farmers, figured out their draws and hedgerows and got our share of the ring-necks over those two seasons.
Then our discharge orders were cut, and back to Mizzou I went. Tom stuck with the intel stuff, hired on with a contractor out near Denver. I still hunted some; I suspect he did a lot. It was only a couple years later that we met again on the old grounds south of Lincoln.
He arrived with a gorgeous 20-gauge Italian over-and-under. Quite the gentleman’s piece. I was still lugging my big meat machine, a five-shot 12-gauge Browning automatic.
Within an hour, I think, he had his pair. Took him three shells. Grasshopper had become the master.
I didn’t get anything that Saturday and tried to not let it bug me. On the next morning, however, two roosters busted on opposite sides of me, and I pulled off my first and only two-trigger-pull, two-birds-in-the-bag trick shot.
No grasshoppers here.
Good days, Tomaso, good days.