For 50 weeks of the year Vandalia, Ohio is a sleepy mid-western town tucked beneath the wing of nearby Dayton. Its population is 6,342, its major industry is selling gas to motorists going elsewhere and its mood is lazy. But at the end of each summer, for nine days in August, Vandalia undergoes a startling change. From every corner of the U.S. and Canada—from big towns, small towns, cities and hamlets, by car, plane, train and trailer—more than 10,000 men, women and children pour into Vandalia. They disrupt traffic, clean out the shelves of grocery stores, jam the streets and fill the normally quiet air with a steady rumble of noise. The peaceful citizens of Vandalia love every minute of it.
Since 1924 Vandalia has been the home of the Grand American, the biggest, most important, most prestigious event in the sport of trapshooting. Permanent highway posters at the boundaries of the city announce this fact; the week of the roaring Grand, bunting and flags along the main street boast of it; and the townspeople themselves wear their pride in the sport like a bright badge. Vandalia schoolchildren follow trapshooting the way other youngsters follow football or baseball. The heroes they worship and whose autographs they collect are not Jim Taylor or Stan Musial but Roy Foxworthy, Steve Barringer and Milton Youngs—men who have won the highest prize in trapshooting, the Grand American Handicap.
This championship, the climactic contest of the nine-day Vandalia program, is the ultimate prize for every shotgunner. Because there is so much prestige attached to it, the Grand American Handicap draws more participants for its single day of shooting than any other sporting event in North America. This year an unprecedented 2,527 shooters—the 10th year in a row that the number of entries exceeded 2,000—took part.
There were doctors, mechanics, schoolteachers, corporation executives, housewives, salesmen, clerks and cattle ranchers. Some of the competitors were from the wealthiest families in the country; others have never had any reason to file their income tax on the long form. Predominantly, the shooters were men, but women—with and without children—were strongly represented. Dressed in everything from figure-hugging stretch pants to maternity blouses, they kept up a fast pace on the firing line.
Many, like Mrs. Punk in Flock of Miami, who broke 192 clay birds out of 200 to take the Class A Ladies' Championship for the second year in a row, were as efficient at rustling up hamburgers on makeshift portable grills as they were at shattering targets. This ability to carry out the double role of gunner-camper was particularly valuable to those who stayed right on the Grand American grounds. In a vast compound behind the east traps more than 500 gaily colored tents sprang up in assorted shapes and sizes. And as the week wore on, it was not unusual to find a woman cleaning the barrel of her shotgun one moment and rinsing her lingerie the next.
Along the firing line itself parents hastily exchanged baby-sitting chores as a father's squad stepped down and a mother's was called up. Many a toddler dozed peacefully under the stands, and one young mother arrived at the line pushing before her one baby, two shotguns and four boxes of shells, all carefully stacked side by side in a stroller.
Not all the youngsters were content to sit by and watch. Many of the teenagers, and a few who were even younger, got into the act, too. More than one adult shooter would have been just as happy if the competing kids had stayed at home. With their quick reflexes and relaxed attitude on the firing line, the teen-agers tend to put heavy pressure on their adult rivals. This pressure increases sharply when an old and experienced gunner finds himself in a head-to-head shoot-off with a cocky adolescent who not only expects to win but often does. The frustration of such defeat has been known to lead otherwise peaceful men to express themselves in words not always fit for the ears of children (Keep That Damned Kid Away From Me, SI, Aug. 14, 1961).
The youngest competitor at this year's Grand American was 11-year-old Frank R. (Bobby) Fincel of Dubuque, Iowa, who stood all of 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighed a hearty 74 pounds. But size is no more a drawback than youth, as Bobby proved when he won the Iowa State Handicap a few weeks ago. At the Grand American, Bobby was not so successful: he only came in seventh out of the field of 2,527.
The Grand American Handicap has been won twice by 14-year-olds: the first time in 1930, by Rufus King of Wichita Falls, Tex.; the second, in 1954, by Nick Egan of New York City. This year's doubles championship was won by a 16-year-old, James De Filippi Jr. of Oglesby, Ill.; and a 15-year-old New Madison, Ohio girl named Laura Louise Mote won the Ladies' Clay Target Championship of America on the third day of the program by breaking 197 targets out of 200. Asked how she became such a remarkable shot, Laura Louise looked faintly surprised. "I've been hunting for years," she said (lay translation: "since 1958"). The apparently easy victory made her a formidable contender for the Grand American Handicap.
No woman has ever won the handicap, nor has it ever been won twice by the same shooter. But the fact is that anyone (a number of entries even fired from wheelchairs) who shoots trap with some skill and is in good practice has a chance of winning the most important prize in the sport. This circumstance, as much as the prestige and sizable cash purse that accompanies it, is responsible for the tremendous popularity of the handicap.
There are other reasons, not the least of which is the efficiency of the Grand American operation. Every one of the more than 24,000 members of the Amateur Trapshooting Association (the number of people who actually shoot trap in the United States and Canada is considerably higher but many do not register with the ATA) has a record of his shooting performances on file at the ATA headquarters in Vandalia. Every time a member takes part in a registered shoot, whether it involves 100 people or ten, the score he fires is sent to tournament headquarters in Vandalia and recorded in his file. At the end of the year a full-time ATA staff averages his total performance, adjusts his official tournament handicap on the basis of this average and sends him a card on which his current yardage is stamped.
In most competitions, trap is shot from five positions each located 16 yards behind the machine that tosses clay targets into the air. In a handicap event, however, depending upon his most recent annual average and the handicap assigned him by the ATA, a shooter must fire anywhere from 18 to 27 yards behind the trap.
A thousand rounds to qualify
In order to compete in the Grand American Handicap, a shooter must qualify by firing at least 500 regular targets and 500 handicap targets in ATA shoots during the previous year. (If he has failed to shoot the required targets he may still take part but he automatically will be handicapped at 22 yards or higher.) When he arrives at the Grand his records are checked, his handicap is verified and he is classified at a specific yardage from which he will compete in all but regulation 16-yard contests for the rest of the tournament. Before each handicap event he is assigned to a squad of shooters with yardages comparable to his own.
In theory this is simple, but when more than 2,500 shooters show up for the same event it becomes a monumental task of bookkeeping. To handle it and the entries, scores, records, files, 44 traps and the million and a half shells used at the Grand, the ATA employs a staff of 200 with a payroll for the nine-day period of $60,000.
Part of the staff and many of the shooters who come each August to Vandalia are oldtimers who can look back on two and even three decades of Grand Americans. This year was the 38th for 74-year-old Chuck Hinkley of Aurora, Ill., and it was the 25th year for so many shooters that the ATA issued a special emblem to them.
For 61-year-old Albert G. Kees of Richmond, Ind., there had been 14 other visits to the Grand, all of them exciting but none successful. This year it was different. In the waning hours of the long day, after more than 2,000 people had already fired, Kees—who is known by the misleading nickname of Blind Al—stepped up to the 21-yard line and broke 100 straight targets to take the biggest prize of them all.
Besides collecting $8,000 first money, Kees was the seventh man in the 64-year history of the Grand American Handicap to win it with a perfect score. Only once before had such a score been shot from a distance greater than 20 yards. It was only the third time in his entire shooting career that Kees, a foreman in a phonograph record-pressing plant, ever shot 100 straight. The two other triumphs were both from 16 yards.
But this was Albert Kees's day, and no handicap—distance or anything else—was going to stop him. On his 94th bird, a broken target was thrown from the trap. When this happens, a shooter may refuse the bird and wait for another one. But if he fires—either on reflex or for fear of throwing off the hair-fine timing of the sport—the bird is considered legal. It is then up to the shooter to hit some part of it. Kees chose to fire. Swinging the scarred, nickel-steel barrel of his 32-year-old Winchester Model 12 at a minute particle of the broken target, he exploded it in a puff of smoke.
"That's why we call him Blind Al," said one of Kees's friends from the Richmond Trap and Skeet Club. "We line up the cars after dark and shoot targets for practice in front of the headlights. Al can break those birds when nobody else can see them."
When it was over, quiet, gray-haired Blind Al, one of the oldest men ever to win the Grand American Handicap, summed up his remarkable skill with a sentence that carried charming echoes of the confidence of his teen-age rivals. "You feel like you can shoot," he said in a quiet, somewhat awed voice as a crowd of almost 10,000 pressed about him, "when you have lived with a gun all your life."