Three years ago I had a magazine assignment to do an interview with Rodney Dangerfield. It was one of his last interviews, only a few months before his death.
I asked him about the unusual and offbeat nightclub acts he appeared with during the 1940s and 1950s, before television drove hundreds of those clubs out of business. Dangerfield described a family vaudeville act known as The Shooting Mansfields: "The act consisted of the mother, the father and their two kids shooting things from the stage. Before the show, they'd be in the basement rehearsing--shooting their guns."
Instantly, I recalled the sharpshooter and his wife who drove into the small East Texas town where I lived from 1952 to 1955. The day this couple arrived to give a performance at the school auditorium in 1954, the high school classrooms emptied as everyone packed into the auditorium to see what promised to be an exciting event. Actually, so little happened around there that any show would have been exciting.
The rifleman's wife arranged various objects and targets on the stage, and then he shot at them while standing in the aisle in the middle of the audience. For one segment of the show, he used a metal disc containing a circle of white ping-pong balls. The disc was mounted vertically on a stand about four-feet high. The wife held her hand flat against the disc with two of her fingers spread apart and a ping-pong ball in the space between. As he aimed his rifle and successfully smashed a ping-pong ball to smithereens, she rotated the disc to the next position, and he fired again. When only one ping-pong ball was left in the disc, he grinned and said, "So... is there anyone here who would like to take her place?" This brought a few chuckles, followed by gasps and guffaws when other students saw that I had volunteered.
I could see he was fascinated by the audience's reaction to my raised hand. He walked over and talked to me in a low voice, asking me a few questions. People in front began twisting around and looking back, trying to hear this conversation. Then he said, "Okay. Go on up there." I stood up amid much laughing and hooting at the very notion anyone would be foolish enough to do this.
When I stepped onto the stage, the wife immediately began talking to me in a quiet voice, giving me instructions about what to do, where to stand, how to hold my hand flat, and so forth. While she was doing this, the rifleman was entertaining the audience with jokes at my expense.
I stood with my fingers stretched as far apart as possible. He got ready, took aim –- but then lowered his rifle and told another joke, getting bigger laughs each time he did this. My finger muscles tightened as the seconds ticked away. "Wider, wider," whispered the wife.
The tension in my hand increased. I wondered if a sudden muscle spasm might cause my fingers to snap shut at the very moment he pulled the trigger. Finally, he aimed, and the room fell silent. He fired. The ping-pong ball shattered. I held up my hand, showing all fingers intact. The audience burst into wild applause with screaming and cheering. The wife smiled. The sharpshooter grinned. He shook my hand as I went back to my chair.
Later that week, I wrote about the experience for my weekly column in the mimeographed high school newspaper. To illustrate the column installment I drew a cartoon showing a large drill press-type hole through my hand -- just like the big cookie-cutter bullet holes in Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick
Years passed. The incident faded into the back alleys of my brain as the decades flashed by. But about ten years ago I started thinking about that day in terms of the present. Between 1995 and 1999, there were a startling number of incidents where students brought guns into schools and began killing their classmates. Every few months, another news story. This prompted some schools to adopt what they called a "zero tolerance policy" – which meant they began to closely examine items they interpreted as weapons or drugs. One six-year-old was suspended because he gave a friend some lemon candy, and another kid was kicked out of school because his mother had placed a bread knife in his lunchbox. A little girl's Looney Tunes keychain was confiscated.
Recalling the sharpshooter, I wondered what schools in the 1990s would allow a stranger to ride into town and aim his rifle at students. But wait! Why would a school allow such even in the 1950s? Why didn't a teacher speak out and say, "Sir! Don't shoot at our students, please! Just shoot your wife, okay?" But no teacher stepped forward. Why?
As I thought about this, the answer suddenly became clear. Certain people must have been told in advance that no real bullets were in the rifle. With that realization, I immediately understood how the trick was accomplished.
The wife used her left hand to hold the disc steady. With her right hand hidden from view behind the disc, she was able to shatter a ping-pong ball at the precise moment the rifle fired a blank. I remembered she had positioned me so that I never got a glimpse at the rear of the disc. With the sound of the rifle echoing through the years, the final pieces of the memory puzzle fell into place.
Labels: gun, high school, memoir, rodney dangerfield, sharpshooter, texas