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Grays Best

Buying Rifles in Twenty Minutes or Less

by John Hewitt
Along with speculations on child rearing, modern technology, left versus right, and matters of national security.
From the February/March 2008 issue.

While I’m no fan of technology—for all I care the process could have stopped in 1898 with the Model 98 Mauser—sometimes the telephone ringing turns out to be something good. Not so often that I’ll ever own a cell phone, mind you; these and television I’ll outlaw as soon as someone puts me in charge.


As usual, this wasn’t even a call for me. I was busy anyway, on an extension ladder tying a third canoe on top of the two already atop the superannuated Suburban while an unruly mob of my offspring tied a fourth canoe on top of the van they totaled last winter but which will still cripple around if the mission doesn’t require more than one headlight, one side mirror, and one or two doors that work.

It was for Clyde. He listened for a while and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Do what?” I inquired after he gave the phone back to his mother.

“Be at the airport at eleven tomorrow to catch the plane to Anchorage and Kodiak. I think I quit my job, only they don’t know it yet.”

“Kodiak?”

“Yeah, Vern was thirty-five minutes from the boat harbor there and his seine crew must have mutinied or something, so he hired me. Said I’ll need rubber boots and a rifle.”

Clyde has neither rubber boots nor a rifle, but has unfortunately discovered that my boots fit and his sister’s Remington 7mm-08 doesn’t kick too hard, so he didn’t think he had a problem. Which doesn’t mean that his dad didn’t. One of my many ticklish tasks is maintaining some semblance of family peace. After a few weeks in a saltwater environment, being taken care of by Clyde, even a stainless bolt action in a synthetic stock would look like an ack-ack gun on one of those cruisers that have been decorating the bottom of Iron-Bottom Sound on Guadalcanal since August of 1942.

The boy seriously needed a rifle of his own and on my nickel, as he had been investing his own construction paychecks in a canary-yellow motorcycle that sounds like an annoyed bumblebee on steroids. And this wouldn’t be easy on short notice, as Clyde is one of those misguided souls unable or unwilling to fire a rifle from his right shoulder. I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but the ratio in Fairbanks sporting goods stores of right-handed to left-handed bolt actions is 50:1. Forget finding the make you want; forget the model you want; forget the barrel length you want; forget even the caliber you want. Make up your mind to be happy with anything that will kill a deer, which is what I assumed Vernon needed the rifle to do.

“So, think we ought to bail on today’s trip and head to town right away to get your kit together?”

“Naw,” Clyde said confidently. “I can pack tomorrow. Let’s go fishing.”

Off the top of my head, I could think of five stores in town that might have what we needed: a left-handed bolt-action .30-06. Without looking it up, I’m pretty sure that Remington, Ruger, Winchester, Savage, and Weatherby all make such a beast, and practically speaking any of them would work—for Clyde. Children are very useful guinea pigs to try products on and see whether or not the outdoor press’s annual gun hype is bogus or not.

Two stores opened at 0800 and three at 10. So assuming we could find one, getting it suitably adorned with a scope and adequately sighted in by check-in time seemed unlikely. The scope would be easy. All the stores in town were well stocked with Leupolds. If we Alaskans had a state riflescope, doubtless it would be a Leupold 3-9X variable. The state religion is the .338 Winchester Magnum, but we won’t go into that beyond admitting that I’ve shot one myself the last 35 years.

One antidote to old age, it is said, is a busy mind, and now I had a lot to think about. Besides the primary task of herding my brood downriver with no fatalities to them or the fish (it being a catch-and-release river), I had to pick out a gravel bar to cook hot dogs on, compose a mental list of items Clyde’s new career would require, and begin worrying in advance about getting him to the airport on time. I learned the latter skill from Terry, and I knew that 23 hours isn’t adequate lead time to get a sufficient amount of worrying done. Which someone had to do, since Clyde most certainly would not.

My wife decided what bar to cook on and it was sumptuous: two magnificent parallel spruce logs eight feet apart for seats, a birch log mere yards away for fire-starter bark, and a free pile of firewood gathered but not used by someone else. While the wieners sizzled on the little grill, I cut sticks for marshmallows and fine-tuned the operations order I would issue to Clyde in the morning. I had already achieved the trip’s main objective: to give the canoe piloted by my liberal Canadian sister-in-law its annual ramming while making it look like an accident. Some days, life is good.

I began to be certain the next day wouldn’t be good when I heard the familiar racket from Clyde’s bumblebee at 2200 and saw him flying down the drive wearing his older sister’s bulging backpack, which, I was informed, contained his largest begonia, a “Bodacious” by name. Going to Kodiak to seine pink salmon with Vern is probably the closest the boy will ever come to going to war, and one had to guess he had shifted his love life into Fast Forward.

The next day began inauspiciously at 0320 when a Labrador did something in the upstairs hall that happens too often lately to be termed an “accident,” rendering the available air supply too toxic for sleeping even with it cleaned up and the window wide open, so I gave up, made breakfast, and settled in as far from Ground Zero as I could get in our house: my reloading bench in the basement. Concurrent with Clyde’s flight at 1100 was a registered shoot at our trap club for which Deborah would require a dozen boxes of 7⁄8-ounce #9 target loads, and with League having finished the Wednesday previous we were down to three. I was, like the marines at the Chosin Reservoir in December of 1950, not so much retreating as attacking in a new direction.

My worrying ceased to be speculative and became real about 0900, after the shells were loaded and Clyde’s duffel was packed with my boots and rain gear and the only clothes of his I could find: six very dirty socks and two pairs of clean boxers, and his motorcycle still not back in the yard. So I threw in a few of his sisters’ T-shirts, the more pastel the better.

His mother was puttering around the kitchen letting me do all the worrying, and when I asked her what the girlfriend’s last name was, she suggested I call him on his cell phone, which, though he had loaned it to some other girl at a bluegrass festival a week before (and never seen again), was doable because, as is apparently the fashion in technology these days, he had gotten a new number faxed (or something like that) to himself off the Internet. He answered on the fifth ring, apparently unaware both that it was 0915 and that he had to be at the airport with a gun at 1100, and it wasn’t going to be his sister’s (which fact was in Paragraph 5 of the operations order he hadn’t been home to have heard). Said he’d be home
in 15 minutes.

I ushered him into the car the minute he shut off his motorcycle and dispensed with issuing any orders, as he had a case of hiccups that made the car smell like a concrete stairwell that someone had just thrown a case of malt liquor down. Breakfast seemed like a sensible plan. It had been six hours since my first one and 16 since Clyde’s two hot dogs on the river.

In our booth, I explained the next step: “We have exactly forty minutes to eat, buy a rifle, mount the scope, sight it in, and get you to the airport. I have the spotting scope, targets, tripod, thumbtacks, and two cardboard boxes in the car, so as soon as we get a rifle we hit the range to sight it in.”

The kid behind the gun counter was new, and I had to show him where his only three left-handed bolt actions were. All Rugers.

“Good.” I said.

“Why?” Clyde asked.

“They’re the only ones that come with scope mounts right in the box.”

Two were stainless-on-synthetic super-superb ultra-short magnums of some kind. Not good. The third was a blued-steel-on-walnut .270 with a 22-inch barrel.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” I said. “We’ll take it. And this scope right here,” pointing through the glass countertop at one of a dozen Leupold 3-9Xs, a VX-1 for $199.95. I haven’t bought a Leupold since the advent of the VX-1, VX-II, and VX-III models and was anxious to try out the cheaper number. On someone else.

“A wise choice,” the kid said, replacing it in its slot. “This may be our most popular scope.”

“Who knew everyone else was as cheap as I am?” I replied. “Why are you putting it away? Didn’t I just buy it?”

“Oh, you’ll get a new one in the box.”

“Oh.”

“And our gunsmith will boresight it for you.”

“In how long?”

“Twenty minutes, if he’s not busy.”

“Get him started while we screw around with the paperwork.”

“He can’t touch it until it’s paid for.”

“Then that settles that. Just sell us the damned thing, if that’s possible.”

“Okay, and will you be needing a boresighter? We have good laser ones on sale.”

“Partner, by the time you finish the paperwork on the boresighter we’ll have the scope mounted, the rifle sighted in, and they’ll both be on the plane.”

On the way out, I tossed Clyde the keys to the car.

“You drive while I mount the scope.”

“Okay. Who’s going to boresight it?”

“Nobody. Listen up: I could have boresighted it in our basement. It takes half an hour we don’t have. Boresighting is a shortcut to save ammo at the range, but we’re leaving that part out because one of us overslept. If the boys at the range will let you run two targets out to 25 and 100 yards as soon as we get there, we can have this rascal sighted in in five minutes, marking our shots with the spotting scope. Then we just leave the targets downrange and run for the airport.”

The rear scope-mount base and ring is taller than the front one, so of course I didn’t notice and put them on backwards the first time. I had all eight ring screws loosened and the bases swapped when Clyde ran out of pavement. The last mile is washboard gravel, and by the time we pulled up behind the firing line I only knew for sure where three screws were.

“Take the pad and boxes up to the bench and get the targets tacked to ’em so you’re ready if someone hollers ‘Clear!’ Then run them down, come back, and set up the tripod and scope. Remember, one at twenty-five and one at a hundred yards.”

I had the scope on and thoroughly tightened before noticing that, although it looked correct for a lefty, one turret on top and one on the left, there is no such thing as a left-handed scope. It was 90 degrees out of whack, so that the adjustment that said down meant “right,” and the one that said right meant “up.” This is a lot harder to remember when making adjustments than you might think. Once it was sighted in, it would make no difference, aside from perhaps looking a little stupid—which was okay, it being Clyde’s gun. I didn’t try to explain it to him: He was downrange putting boxes out.

He returned ahead of some real masochist who had hiked clear to the 300-yard butt, and I sent him out with a third target to put up at the real 25-yard line, once I noticed he’d put the first two at 50 and 200. You buy ’em books, you send ’em to school.

“What about the one that’s supposed to be at one hundred?” he asked when he got back.

“No time. Dead on at twenty-five and you’re on the airplane. That should put you two to three inches high at a hundred, and you aim right at any deer you want to kill out to, well, about three hundred with these loads.”

I then got what my daughters term anal and expended 11 of his 40 cartridges, centering one precisely at 25 yards, then tried just one at the 50-yard target. Dead center left to right and 3⁄4 inch high.

“Perfect!” I said when he described the location of the shot from his post behind the spotting scope. “Good to go.”

“Can I try it?” he said.

“I guess,” I said, glancing at my watch. It said 11:40.

He fired three shots in a row down the vertical line through dead center, starting 21⁄2 inches high and finishing 1 inch high, a bullet width above my last shot.

“The gun shoots better than you do, Clyde,” I concluded. “And a lot better than Vernon’s seven millimeter that he shot the sheep with. Just remember to really slather the oil over it every night. That salt water down there eats rifles alive.”

Twenty minutes later, the ample TSA lady cut my 30-year-old el-cheapo gun case a critical look once we’d snapped the rifle and the “We promise it’s unloaded” card inside, and asked suspiciously, “Do that thing lock?”

“Oh yes, ma’am,” I lied. Technically, it wasn’t a lie: It used to lock, before I lost the key 30 years ago. This tiptoeing around the truth like it was a live land mine was a trick I’d learned from a recent president. Or two recent presidents and one vice president. The lie worked until a vast right-wing conspiracy, disguised as an overly ambitious young TSA minion, tried the hasps after it exited the X-ray machine and it sprang open noisily. For some reason, Clyde was getting whiter and whiter. No stomach for what passes for living on the edge in the 21st century.

Just when I was convinced that he might fly but the gun would not, an older TSA fellow mentioned that they sold cable locks in the gift shop that, fixed through the handles, would make it legal. Off I galloped, only to be brought up short by the original lied-to woman hollering that I had no boarding pass so the gift shop was off-limits. She sent Clyde, whose top speed was a leaning-forward shuffle.

Eventually, after much TSA toe-tapping, I volunteered to ride the escalator up and peek into the gift shop and see what was taking him so long, and he was nowhere to be seen. Then he came out of the men’s room with some color back and paid for a cable lock with one of those plastic cards all the young folks carry.

It was a combination lock that no one knew the combination to, and Clyde pretended to read the tiny instructions in five languages while all the TSA people fiddled with it.

“Try zero-zero-zero,” he said.

They did. No dice. Finally the older fellow got it to open by pulling the correct end of the cable, snapped it on the case, and the lady advised Clyde very severely that it might be a good time to hurry.

“Are the shells in the duffel bag?” he asked on the shuffle back to the escalator, ticket in one trembling hand. I couldn’t tell if the noise I was hearing was the pilot cranking on the starter of the 737 or me grinding my teeth.

“Yeah, but tell Vern you got no socks, no shorts, and no sleeping bag.”

“Really?”

“Trust me.”

“Oh, right. If you’ll lie to an angry woman in a uniform who outweighs you by twenty pounds, what are the chances you’ll tell me the truth?”



John Hewitt lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, and implies more untruths than he tells, such as that he uses a rifle with a Mauser action, when we know he hunted moose last season with a .30-40 Krag, which the Mauser rendered obsolete 109 years ago.

 

 
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