We had several firearms on our Tennessee farm, and there were times when Daddy employed them for things much more serious than hunting or target practice. His use of firearms at times took the form of do-it-yourself law enforcement, with potentially grave consequences.
He had a Winchester automatic .22 caliber rifle, a 16 gauge Browning automatic shotgun, and a Beretta .32 caliber semi-automatic pistol. As my brother Nolen Robert and I grew up, Daddy would take us out to target practice with his rifle or pistol, always making sure he taught us never to point the barrel of a gun toward anybody–with the exceptions that I’m about to describe. He was a stickler on gun safety, and we paid close attention.
When we reached the age of 12 or so, Nolen Robert and I were allowed to get our own guns. We each owned a rifle and a shotgun. I don’t remember the particulars of his guns, but I had a .22 caliber, 7-shot Remington bolt-action rifle and a .410 gauge Mossberg shotgun. We hunted squirrels, rabbits, and sometimes quail, but never large game.
Three instances vividly stand out in which Daddy used his weapons, or had one at the ready, to protect our property or persons. While his personality was light-hearted and jovial, he had a strong sense of what he believed to be right and he was not one to back down or shirk from what he believed to be his duty.
When I was very young, we had a ramshackle cider house about fifty feet west of our kitchen. The building was very old when Daddy and Mother bought the farm during the Great Depression. In it was about five wooden barrels that had various ages and amounts of apple cider, some of it several years old and fermented with varying alcohol concentrations.
We had a hand-cranked cider mill in which we would grind up the naturally sour apples each September from the trees in our hog pasture just north of the cider house. I loved the
smell of the ground up apples and the juice that ran into buckets we placed under the chute of the mill. Leading up to apple harvest, my parents would consolidate the old ciders, pour the strong-flavored and overly dreggy fermented stuff into the hog trough by the fence about fifty feet away, and prepare one empty barrel for the year’s apple juice.
Word got out in the countryside that we had fermented cider stored in that old cider house. Late one night Daddy heard noises coming from the cider house, and he knew unwanted visitors had come to help themselves to our cider. He took his .22 caliber rifle out to the back porch and fired it over the cider house. As the thirsty thieves ran out into the night, Daddy fired several more shots above and in the general direction they were running to underscore how unwelcome they were in our cider house. Within a year or so after this incident, my parents decided to tear down the rickety old cider house and get out of cider-making altogether.
The second instance of late-night firearms use came a few years later. It involved our big yellow gas tank. It held about two hundred gallons of gasoline that was purchased for farm use from a petroleum supply distributor in Clarksville. The tank was mounted on a rack a few feet west of our front yard that we had built out of four thick cedar fence posts and heavy timbers, just on the edge of the low road bank that ran along the front of our house. The height of the tank above the road was perfect for driving our tractor and pick-up truck to the big tank for fueling.
Since this tank sat by the public gravel road in front of our house, it’s easy to see that this would be a tempting situatjion to some passersby. Daddy kept a very heavy-duty padlock on both the valve leading to the hose and on the thick metal filler cap at the top. On an especially dark, moonless night he was awakened by the sound of someone trying to cut the lower lock off of the valve. He grabbed his .22 rifle once again and walked outside, apparently more riled up than he had been years earlier when our cider was being pilfered. He fired several shots in the direction of the gas tank as someone jumped in a car and sped away with loose gravel flying in the air. Daddy never said whether he fired at the car.
The next morning soon after we got up, Daddy took us all out to the gas tank to take a look. One of his shots had hit the end of the gas tank and ricocheted off in the general direction of our barn. For months after that we would show visitors the rusty indentation on the back end of the bright yellow tank where the bullet hit.The incident became fodder for conversation at Uncle W. G.’s grocery store and over neighbors’ dinner tables. The word was out not to mess with Daddy. I don’t recall any subsequent attempts at thievery on our property after that.
The third instance involving Daddy and firearms was much scarier and potentially much more dangerous. Nolen Robert had graduated from high school in 1956. He was dating his future wife and high school sweetheart, Penny McWhorter. He was working the night shift at the B. F. Goodrich factory in Clarksville where he made rubber shoe heels. Late one cold Saturday night after he left Penny’s house, he stopped on the way home to get a snack at the Boogersville Café. Someone came in to tell him that the “Trotter boys” had backed into his 1951 Plymouth sedan as they were leaving the popular hangout and drove away. He went out to look at his car and there was considerable damage to a tail light and rear fender.
The Trotter boys were two brothers a few years older than Nolen Robert and they had a well-known reputation for getting into trouble. They had been in scrapes with the law, were brawlers, and hell raisers in general. Nolen Robert contacted the Trotter boys and courteously but clearly let them know that he wanted them to pay for the damages. As I was writing this story, I called Penny and asked her for any recollection of the story. She said,
“Yes, I remember that! Nolen Robert had just left my house shortly before they ran into his car. He was the first one to stand up to the Trotter boys. He wasn’t mean about it, you know, but he let them know they had to fix his car.”
Nolen Robert waited two or three days and nothing was heard from the Trotter boys. So Daddy called the father of the two brothers, explained the situation, and calmly concluded by saying:
“. . .so I fully expect those boys to make this right.”
Soon afterward one of the Trotter boys called and said they’d like to come to our house on a late Saturday afternoon to look at the damage to Nolen Robert’s car. This ominous news sent a chill through our whole family. Clearly this had the potential to be a threatening and even violent confrontation. The feeling was similar to the mood in Western movies when the news arrived that notorious outlaws were coming to shoot up the town.
When Saturday finally arrived tension was in the air in our house. What were the Trotter boys thinking? What were they going to do? Daddy was unusually quiet during the day but he had an aura of steely determination about him. Nolen Robert didn’t say much, but he was calm and pretty quiet as well. Mother was tense, on edge, and worried out loud that
“The damage to Nolen Robert’s car isn’t worth fighting over. Somebody could get hurt or killed.”
The day was cold with a wintry gray overcast that added to the foreboding feeling. Daddy had let his beard grow for the two to three days since we had learned the Trotter boys were coming to look at the damage to Nolen Robert’s car. As the appointed time approached, Daddy and Nolen Robert began to put on their coats and hats. Daddy was wearing an old wool plaid work coat and a heavy cap with ear flaps pulled down over his ears and a bill that sloped down over his eyes. The ear flaps were thick and long with tie strings, but Daddy left the strings untied to dangle down his chest. With his extra growth of dark beard, he had a pretty ominous look himself, something he had clearly calculated. Then he took his .32 caliber semi-automatic Beretta pistol, double checked the clip and made sure it was loaded, and put it in his right coat pocket. Nolen Robert wore his heavy coat for farm chores and a heavy wool cap, but he didn’t do anything special to make himself look like he was spoiling for a fight.
Nolen Robert had his Plymouth parked in front of the house in a small parking area that had been carved out of the low bank along the gravel road. About another fifty feet down the road, up on the road bank, stood our big yellow gas tank that still had the dent from the rifle bullet that Daddy had fired at would-be gas thieves several years earlier.
The Trotter boys drove up and parked their car behind Nolen Robert’s. As soon as they got out of the car, Daddy and Nolen Robert walked out to meet them. Mother and I stood in the living room looking out the window at the four of them. From the time Daddy walked out the door, he had his hand on his Beretta and he pushed it forward to make it evident to the Trotter boys that he was armed. As the four of them met between the two cars, there were no hand shakes. We could not tell what they were saying. There were no smiles or laughter, no apparent pleasantries, all was serious.
The Trotter boys walked back and forth looking at the damage to Nolen Robert’s car. They leaned over to look at the tail light and fender up close, rubbed the surface with their hands, and talked quietly to each other. Daddy kept his right hand in the coat pocket with the pistol, constantly pushing it forward so the point would not be missed. There was a brief conference of the four of them. Then the Trotter boys got in their car and slowly drove away as Daddy and Nolen Robert stood and watched their departure.
Daddy and Nolen Robert came back in the house, smiling and greatly relieved. The Trotter boys had agreed to pay for the damage. No questions. No arguments. Daddy removed the pistol from his pocket and he and Nolen Robert removed their coats and hats. Finally there were smiles back in the house. I was about thirteen years old at the time, and this standoff in its entirety had been the single scariest thing I remember from my growing up years. The whole episode was a modern version of a gripping, suspenseful Western movie scene.
I wonder if Daddy’s firing his rifle at the cider thieves and later at would-be gasoline thieves in those earlier years had given him his own reputation in our part of the country and in the minds of the Trotter boys. I’ll never know. But I do know that his personal courage, however unwise from a safety perspective, his insistence on doing what’s right, and his sense of fair play all made a big impact on Nolen Robert and me.
Some might say that this risky episode is a classic example of testosterone gone wild. Some might say Daddy set a terrible example for his boys by this act. Some might say it was just plain stupid.
In my mind, it is an example of “Don’t try to push me around.” Or, “If you cross me, I’ll kick your ass.” Or even, “Don’t mess with one of my boys.”
Whenever I faced difficult circumstances in my personal life and career, whenever the potential for confrontation was great, and when it occurred, this episode with the Trotter boys remained steadfastly in the back of my mind.
My thanks to reviewers Glen Russell, Plant Manager at Zurn Corporation, Commerce, Texas, who is Daddy’s grandson, Nolen Robert’s son, and my nephew; and Joy Stollings, administrator of the Northwest Rural Community Center, Travis County Health and Human Services, Jonestown, Texas, who is Daddy’s granddaughter and my daughter. They both knew Daddy well.