A Pistol of a Grandma
When the surest shot is the family matriarch, you’d be smart to keep your elbows off the table.
From Hooked On The Outdoors
By Jean Weiss
My grandma, Leora Pauline Reed, could drive a nail into a tree with a bullet from her bolt-action, single-shot Winchester rifle while standing 20 feet away. She was a better shot than her three older brothers, her son, and although she refused to go up against her husband, chances are she was a better shot than he was, too.
Grandma is 90 years old, and although I’d never seen her shoot, I accepted this family history as naturally as the fact that I inherited her ability to play music by ear and was born with my mother’s brown eyes. Grandma Reed was an expert marksman, a bona fide trick shooter from the old West. She could shoot a fish out of the water, pluck a bud from a dandelion and knock the tip off of a cigarette. At family gatherings, she’d win the shooting matches every time and her brothers would get so mad the party ended and everyone went home. These are the stories I grew up with and never doubted.
I’ve often been told that I am like my Grandma in spirit, temper and talent, yet even though we are similar, I have never had the desire to become a shooter. That was Grandma’s outlet for adventure and competition as a young woman growing up on a farm. I, on the other hand, have spent most of my adult life pushing myself as a climber, mountain biker and telemark skier while living in the Rocky Mountains. Guns never interested me, they seemed dangerous and incongruous with my lifestyle.
Not long ago, I was invited to learn how to target shoot at the Blackwater Lodge and Training Center in Moyock, North Carolina. I wasn’t excited about the idea at first, but then I thought about my family’s history as shooters and agreed to go only if I could bring along Grandma. She was 88 years old then and I knew it could be the only time I’d have a chance to see her shoot. I also wondered if I’d inherited her ability as a marksman.
My family was abuzz with the news that Grandma and I were going to North Carolina to shoot. The pending trip sent a flurry of emails and phone calls all around. “I remember shooting with her and Uncle Rich and Uncle Lambert,” my uncle wrote to my mother. “She could out-shoot them easily.” My sister, a doctor, said Grandma was healthy enough to make the trip. My brother, a hunter, said, “A gun is not a toy, it’s a tool.”
As for grandma, she left a series of high-pitched, alarmed and excited messages on my telephone. She told her Sunday school class of 70- and 80-year-olds about the trip. She checked with her own doctor to see if he’d let her travel. She let it be known she was looking forward to getting free “schwag.”
I flew from Denver to St. Louis, to pick her up the day the trip began. In St. Louis I discovered that, wanting to look more spry, she’d “forgotten” her cane. We flew to Norfolk, Virginia, where she was hoisted into the Blackwater van, and we took off for Moyock. At Blackwater, we checked into our rooms and Grandma got down to business. Within two hours, she’d talked the cook out of a salt and pepper shaker set, complained about the dessert selection in front of the president of the facility and had seven navy Seals—in between practice missions and loudly playing pool in the lounge outside her bedroom—dashing around to find her blankets, figuring out how to turn up the heat and promising to be quiet so she could sleep.
The next morning Grandma and I drove a golf cart out to the shooting range where Chris Edwards, the director of law enforcement training for Glock, had agreed to teach me to shoot. Grandma sat watching from the golf cart several yards behind me as I aimed at my first target. We wore earmuffs to protect our hearing, and I was surprised that the muffs allowed me to focus on my breathing in the same calming way I do when I snorkel. Hearing my own deep breathing relaxed me. I squeezed the trigger of my Glock 17, but still my arms jerked slightly. The first bullet hit left of center. I squeezed more smoothly after that and my next seven hits were near or actual bull’s eyes. I had inherited some of my Grandma’s finesse after all.
Next it was Grandma’s turn. She hadn’t shot a gun in 30-some years. Edwards gently walked her closer to the targets as I stood behind her. Her hand shook as he helped her steady the gun. She let go with her right hand, which she brought for a moment to her mouth. She took a breath, reclasped both hands on the gun and shot. Her first try was off. Her second and third were bull’s eyes.
“Grandma, that was awesome,” I said as we walked back to the golf cart with her. At the time awesome was my favorite vernacular. “It wasn’t bad, was it,” she said, not really asking a question.
We spent the rest of the weekend learning different kinds of shooting. Grandma’s favorite was the cowboy trick shooting where you dress up in period costume and use firearms patented before 1900. My favorite was practical shooting, a type of fast-action, hi-tech firearm shooting that requires strategy, athleticism and precision as you navigate a series of shooting problems—it was part math, part “mod-squad.” At every station, the expert instructors, most of them champion shooters, wanted to talk to Grandma because she reminded them of the roots of their sport. Her stories were reassuring. They weren’t just the history of my family; they were part of the history of shooting.
The thing that surprised me the most about the sport of shooting was that the same skills I rely on as a rock climber, mountain biker or trail runner served me. Good shooters are agile and in shape. They are fast thinkers, have quick reflexes and excel at strategy. I’d never made the connection between my high-risk adventure sports and my family’s talent as marksmen. “You’ve inherited your Grandma’s genes,” one of the Blackwater instructors said to me as Grandma and I walked by.
“Oh, she’s inherited some of them,” my Grandma said.
Grandma returned to the St. Louis airport, and went on to Quincy, Illinois, wearing a new pile jacket and toting a suitcase stuffed to capacity with a backpack, a water bottle, a small water purifier, earmuffs, the salt and pepper shakers and a couple of baseball caps. All of it schwag. And once I’d received photos from the weekend, I shipped them off to her. Grandma thinks I don’t write of call her enough, so she considered herself lucky to get any photos at all and refused to send even a couple of them back so I could put them in my scrap book. Despite the snag with the pictures, I know she had a good time because every family member wrote or called to tell me so.
My favorite comment came from my Aunt Beth, who lives a few towns over from Grandma, and emailed me several weeks after our return. The note said, “Grandma was very pleased with the trip you took her on. ‘Awesome’ was the catchy descriptive she used over and over.”
I haven’t held a gun in the few years since our weekend in Blackwater. I enjoyed shooting, but don’t prefer it above climbing, biking or skiing. Even though I decided not to follow in my Grandmother’s footsteps and become an expert markswoman, my aunt’s note gave me reason to pause. Grandma and I had shared more than shooting during that weekend. We’d shared with each other a glimpse into her past and my future. Later, while standing at the base of a climbing route, I was struck with the thought that if I’d been born two generations earlier, or if she were my age now, I’d be the one outshooting my brothers, and she’d be at the bottom of this rock face, racked up and ready to climb.