Oh, yes, I could hear the hounds a-barkin'. The moment I picked up the newspaper that morning and read about that crumbum with the semiautomatic rifle shooting up children on a school yard, I knew what was coming. All those spooks who want to disarm the country, this was just what they were waiting for. All the antigun crowd, all the media, listen to 'em now, quacking like ducks—sometimes it's like backing into a buzz saw and trying to figure out which tooth got you. Well, I'll tell you something right now—they can lock me up, they can hang me, but Ol' Joe is never going to give up his guns.
Guess I've got myself in the middle of another war, being president of the National Rifle Association. Well, that's nothing new for Ol' Joe. Knocked 26 Japs out of the sky in World War II, top Marine ace of all time. Got into politics after that, was governor of South Dakota for four years, then ran for the House of Representatives against George McGovern and lost, which shows you what kind of politician Ol' Joe was. Then was commissioner of the American Football League for its first six years, back when the NFL and us were like two cats tied by the tails and tossed over a clothesline—yep, same time as I was host of The American Sportsman on ABC-TV. So don't worry, I can handle all this yak-yak-yak that I'm getting now. You're talking to a fella who's been shot down four times, crash-landed nine or 10 more, lived through malaria, arsenic poisoning, hepatitis, arrhythmia and an infection in the lining of my heart that felt like somebody was jabbing an ice pick in my chest—got a pacemaker in there to kick-start that baby now. A guy knocked me down 11 times in a boxing match once, and I ended up lying there wondering why somebody was breathing in my ear, then realized my nose was so broken and turned sideways that it was me breathing in my ear! Stay down? Never! Ol' Joe's like a mushroom in spring, he keeps popping up: Here I am!
See, you can't just sit by the side of the road and bark at the moon, that's my philosophy. Get on the pot or get off it—no shagging balls when OF Joe's around. This is not a comme ci, comme ça world, my friend; it's black and white. Gray is a color for people who've never been in a battle where the alligators eat you. That crumbum Patrick Purdy should've never been on that school yard in the first place—do you realize he was arrested for seven felonies that were reduced to misdemeanors by our criminal justice system? Lock 'em up in the Bastille, throw away the key and slip their food under the door, that's how you treat cuckoos like that! Why are we letting these bozos roam our streets? You better believe if they try to break into my house, we've got fireworks ready, they're gonna get the reception they deserve! Why are we penalizing honest people with all this antigun hokum, penalizing us characters who like to go hunting ducks or plinking at the shooting range? We have to fight! Because if you let 'em take away one gun, they'll take away all guns—don't ever kid yourself!
I love guns. All guns are good guns. I also happen to be one of those birds who believe that if you come to accept the Lord Jesus Christ, you'll go to heaven. Yes sir, I'm a born-again Christian, international chairman of Campus Crusade for Christ, and that, of course, is in perfect harmony with being president of the NRA. Who do you think was the first hunter? God was. How else do you think Adam and Eve got those skins? And if you don't believe everything in the Good Book, lean your head sideways and watch the sawdust pour right out of your ear! Well, that's enough from Ol' Joe for now. Any questions?
August 6, 1989
In May 1943, at the age of 28, Joe Foss stepped to the podium before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He had just equaled Eddie Rickenbacker's World War I record by downing 26 enemy planes, 23 of them coming in one 34-day binge of blood and guts in the clouds over Guadalcanal. The congressional Medal of Honor was around his neck, the Distinguished Flying Cross on his chest, the scent of the kill still on his flesh. Reflexively, everyone in the ballroom stood to cheer for the new American hero.
He spoke for a few minutes, then the press asked him questions. What kind of fellow does it take, Captain Foss, to zigzag at 200 mph, alone, 10,000 feet above the ocean, a couple of Zeros on his tail shredding the sky with bullets? Explain to us, sir, what goes through a man's mind when he has just turned a Japanese aircraft into a ball of flame and metal fragments? Tell us, Captain Foss, what it's like to be a hero?
Joe would grin and say things like, Well, when you get yourself a Zero, boys, your hair stands up on its toes and your mouth goes dry and you get this crazy urge to stand up in the cockpit and holler, but you can't because the durn thing's like being strapped into an armpit. So you watch that baby's motor fall off in a crazy, lopsided whirl and the pilot pops out of his cockpit like a pea pressed from a pod, and the air fills up with dust and little pieces like somebody just emptied a big vacuum-cleaner bag in the sky. And the reporters would scribble and smile and leap to their feet to cheer again when he was finished.
Now it is March 1989, and Joe Foss, 73, steps before the National Press Club a second time. The world has changed, the war is on American streets. It has been two months since that gunman, Patrick Purdy, killed five children and wounded 29 others with an AK-47 semiautomatic rifle on a school playground in Stockton, Calif.; two months of a nationwide outcry demanding that lawmakers stand up to the NRA's awesome lobbying muscle and enact stricter gun-control laws. Foss is the president of a 2.85-million member organization under siege—a job that pays him nothing—a man who gives 100 speeches a year, half of them for guns, the other half for Jesus.
Forty-six years have passed since the hero's last appearance before the National Press Club—years that brought a daughter with cerebral palsy, a son with polio, two other sons dead at birth, a wife dead of diabetes—but those shoulders, they're still wide and square enough to darken a doorway, and they're still rocking with each long stride, like a battleship in ornery seas. This time no one stands. This time no hands turn red from clapping. Any questions? asks Joe Foss.
Oh yes, sir, they have questions: What possible reason can there be for the average citizen to use armor-piercing bullets? Are deer wearing steel jackets? Has the NRA lost touch with public sentiment? Have you ever hunted with an AK-47, General Foss? When more people are accidentally killing themselves—and their relatives and friends—than are protecting themselves from assault or home invasion, how can your organization in good conscience go around frightening people into thinking they need guns for safety? Isn't the NRA distorting the meaning of the Second Amendment: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed"? Even in a free society, aren't there always some conditions on freedom, so that one man's right to possess an AK-47 for target shooting doesn't infringe upon another man's right not to take a bullet in the skull?
The lights glint off the silver clasp that binds his Western-style string tie, off the metal of his big belt buckle, off the sheen of his cowboy boots, off the gold of his AFL Championship Game ring. Joe Foss peers through eyes nearly closed up from all the pummeling his face has taken from wind and sun and knuckles and laughter and pain. And he thunders: "No sir, you're dead wrong on that baby! That amendment guarantees everyone the right. . . . America isn't overarmed! The way the justice system is working these days, we need more arms!"
Why can't the old hero distinguish shades or degrees, why can't he see that some guns might be banned and others permitted? Why can't the old hero's critics see that the very thing in this man that made listeners rise and beat their hands together in 1943 is what makes them squirm and roll their eyes in 1989? No compromise, no going halfway, no throwing every cell of his body into a battle for part of an idea, for a piece of freedom. Absolute, that's what the old man is, by God, and get this straight: His wars shall be absolute, too.
So don't go cluttering it up, now. Don't go quacking like a duck, claiming that with 200 million guns and 70 million gun owners in the United States, banning some guns is hardly likely to lead to the banning of all guns. Don't go gargling with a mouthful of marbles about the possibility that, psychologically, a man carrying a snub-nosed semiautomatic rifle with a 30-shot magazine and a pistol grip and a short stock that lets him spray-fire it from the hip might be more likely to slaughter a sidewalk full of people than a man with a deer rifle or a knife or a hammer. Or that a doctor who has to pull one slug from a victim instead of five is more likely to prevent a death. Or that a compromise might be found that would let sportsmen play on Saturday mornings and cops' wives sleep on Saturday nights.
That is ambivalence. Ambivalence is weakness. Ambivalence is death.
All guns—or no guns. Total freedom—or no freedom. Unconditional surrender, like that time in '49 when Baa Baa Black Sheep ace Pappy Boyington—who knows, maybe Pappy was still seething because Ol' Joe was officially credited with more kills than he was—attacked Foss in a hotel ballroom full of VIPs, drove him against the wall again and again, until Ol' Joe braced his heels against the wall and blasted off, sending them both crashing through chairs, senators, congressmen and mayors. Then Ol' Joe flipped Pappy over backward and drilled his head into the floor, knocked him colder'n a pickle—and stayed there, pinning the unconscious body, roaring to a friend: "Count the sucker out!"
His speech to the National Press Club finished, Ol' Joe flies back to Scottsdale, Ariz., to his winter home where the big American flag whips in the breeze. On the walls of the NRA president's den are the heads of 15 animal trophies. On a shelf in the NRA president's family room are his 60 teddy bears.
One room dead bears, one room teddy bears. One room black, one room white. See, a man has to cleave the things that matter in two and send the halves to different rooms—he has to do that to stay alive, to stay a man, doesn't he? How else could Ol' Joe cup a pigeon egg in his hands, incubate it and nurse the newborn bird to health, name it Mort and keep it as his pet—and blow 700 pigeons out of the trees with five pals one day at Guadalcanal? How else could he strafe the decks of Japanese troop transport ships, watch the men drop like stalks of wheat, and never have a war dream?
He knew an ambivalent fighter pilot once, a man who let his black paint drip and smear his white. "I'm grounding him," Major Foss confided one day to Greg Loesch, one of his best buddies and pilots. "He's not sure up there anymore."
"Joe, come on, give him another chance," said Loesch. "It's not as bad as you think. Let me go up with him and see." So Ol' Joe stood on the ground and watched the two men go up in their Corsairs, wing-to-wing, that brilliant blue fall afternoon. Suddenly, the uncertain pilot's instincts failed him, the planes collided. In a particle of a second, both men no longer existed.
He didn't cry. All his life, all the tragedy and horror, he wouldn't cry. He clenched his teeth, went to break the news to Greg's wife and watched the widow circle her house, looking behind the bushes for her husband; oh, that crazy Joe, he had hidden Greg out here somewhere; that Joe was such a kidder.
People in his family wondered why Joe seemed different after the war, harder somehow. Didn't they understand a damn thing about tactics? It was like the time they sent him and his boys on that near-suicidal decoy mission against the Japanese battleship just off Savo Island, ordering the pilots to engage the ship's guns so a second wave of American torpedo bombers could come in clean and destroy it. If you aimed the nose of your F4F Grumman Wildcat straight down the battleship's smokestacks, plummeted toward the sonsabitches at a 90-degree angle from 20,000 feet up, you might make it out alive—an aircraft at 12 o'clock was the most difficult for antiaircraft guns to hit. But the moment a man pulled out of his dive, the moment a man changed angles and turned a little bit, that's when he was naked.
A Bible, which he barely ever glanced at, in his shirt pocket, a pair of green craps dice, which he cradled all the time, in his pants pocket, Ol' Joe was the first to peel off for the battleship. "Keep it steep, girls, steep!" he shouted over his radio. Straight down he went, down, down, staring at the tongues of red flame and the puffs of black smoke spewing up from the turrets, at the pom-pom guns pumping like milking machines, spellbound by it now, almost lost in fascination—all those shells hissing at him, all that lead; how could they be missing him? He watched turrets and tongues and puffs grow larger . . . and closer . . . and larger—my God, Joe, snap out of it! You're going to hit the damn ship! You've got to turn away!—until finally he wrenched the stick, banked his plane, missed the ship by a few yards, came within a few feet of clipping the ocean with a wing tip and cartwheeling his Wildcat across the Pacific. "All the balls of any man who ever walked the earth," Roger Haberman, a member of Foss's squadron, would say.
Head-on: That was the secret. Full speed, head-on! Fill your sights with the bastards, ride right up their friggin' tailpipes, don't go wasting your ammo from seven or eight football fields away, don't go tipping them off that you're coming! Twice during dogfights he found himself on a collision course, roaring straight toward the teeth of a Zero's propellers—the first pilot who flinched and turned away would expose the belly of his airplane to the machine guns of the other. Twice it was the Japanese pilot who turned first, twice Ol' Joe blew him away.
Simple, wasn't it? Play chicken—or turn chicken. Twenty-seven years old and leading men through a sky filled with death; 74 years old and leading the NRA, it didn't matter. That was life, by God, get that straight. Any questions?
Oh yes, sir, yes, they have questions: How can America allow former mental patients and criminals to plunk $29 on a counter and walk out with concealable handguns? How can your organization keep arguing against a waiting period for the 28 states that don't have it—time to check a buyer's background before selling him a gun—when Maryland state police report that their seven-day waiting period enabled them to turn down 732 people with criminal records who were attempting to buy handguns in 1986? How can you keep insisting there's no real difference between a semiautomatic hunting rifle and a semiautomatic assault weapon, which comes with a barrel designed to accommodate a silencer, with a flash suppressor so the shooter can remain hidden at night, with a folding stock that shortens the rifle so a man can conceal it beneath his jacket? How can you say that when the gun magazines carry advertisements like the one pushing the semiautomatic called the Street Sweeper, urging customers to "buy the machine designed to clean thoroughly on the first pass"?
That's an ol' crock, Ol' Joe would bellow. And as if he were a traveling campfire, men would form a circle around him and warm themselves by the flame that men have always sought—certainty. And nudge each other in the ribs and grin and whisper "Isn't he a pisser?" Because even if they thought he was wrong, he was still that rare thing, an original, himself. Even if they thought he was wrong, he was still the voice and breath of America at its dawn, an individual. That was what made him so effective as president of the NRA: He was the man most of its members wanted to be.
I'll tell you why it's an ol' crock, he'd roar, and I'll tell you in plain ol' cowboy talk! Make cheap handguns illegal and you're saying only wealthy people can own guns—that's discrimination! Waiting periods? Why do we need to wait? I say, set up a national network system so when you go to buy a gun, the salesman checks your name to see if it's on the jailbird list or the nut list, just like they run your credit card through to see if your credit's good, and beep, just like that, you either get your gun or you don't. I hate it nowadays when they hold you up at airport security while some doddering old lady fumbles through your bags. That's not necessary—you can tell a schmo by looking!
Now, as for all these semiautomatics they're calling assault weapons, let's get one thing straight right now, he'd thunder. A semiautomatic is a gun that gives you one shot for each squeeze of the trigger, without reloading each time, and Ol' Joe has been hunting with a semiautomatic since he was a boy. This black plastic some manufacturers have started to put on it so it looks like a Rambo gun, and the folding stock and the pistol grip and the bipod, that's all just cosmetics—it's the same insides, the same technology that's been around for nearly a hundred years. You gonna ban that? As for automatic guns, machine guns like these Uzis, there's already a registration law requiring people to pay a $200 licensing fee, to get fingerprinted and pass an FBI check before they can buy one of those babies, and in the 55 years we've had that requirement not a single registered automatic has ever been used in a crime, not one! That proves what we've been saying all along, that only the honest people will comply with all these gun laws anyway—the ones who enjoy owning a gun collection or going down to the shooting range and squeezing off a few rounds. They are the ones who'll suffer if you ban these guns, not the criminals. The bad guys, these birds half-baked on crack who are liable to blast you away or cut you right in half, they're going to get guns and use them no matter how many laws you pass. They'll find a way to kill even if they have to drive over you with a truck. I don't give a rat what you say! Geez, they're smuggling in dope by the tons, you don't think they could smuggle in a few guns with it, even if we make them illegal? What the Sam Hill kind of dingbat thinking is that?
And if we let them do away with certain semiautomatics because of cosmetics, he'd bellow, what's to stop them from saying. Look, any gunsmith can shorten the stock on Ol' Joe's semiautomatic hunting rifle, add on a pistol grip and a big magazine and turn it into one of these things the media keeps calling an assault weapon. Easy as pouring sand into a sleeping man's ear—so we better make Ol' Joe's hunting rifle illegal too. Then the next step'll be to take away the pump guns, and then they'll want the repeating guns, and then the single shot. Oh, you betcha, criminals would love that—they would be the only ones with guns. And all these characters who are fuming at the mouth about guns, let's see if they're willing to put a sign on their front doors that says NO GUNS HERE. NO, of course not! Those hamburgers are getting a free ride on the coattails of all of us who keep guns and make the bozos at least a little leery of walking right in.
Wrong? What do you mean, he might be wrong? How could a man who saw the world with all-or-nothing eyes not believe that his enemies secretly saw the world that way too? Wrong? No, impossible; he knew all this to be true not in his head, but in his gut, by his instincts—and who on this whirling ball of cooled lava had tested his instincts more times than Joe Foss? C'mon, raise your hands, all you out there who've approached a runway with three Zeros on your fanny and 260 bullet holes in your plane, your power gone and an ambulance at the edge of the runway to scoop up your bones—and brought it safely in at twice the sane speed for landing.
Or listened to your engine cough out over the Pacific in the middle of a war, been dragged 30 feet beneath the surface while you fought to undo the leg buckles of your parachute, swam alone for nearly two hours through the dark in an ocean full of sharks . . . into the arms of island natives in a dugout canoe.
Or lost your oil pressure and had the engine of your little charter plane freeze in ferocious thunderstorms somewhere outside Minneapolis, gone into a dive with the passenger next to you pulling out his rosary beads and revved that baby like a bicycle chain, landed in a farmyard, yanked back on the controls to lift the plane over a five-foot-high trellis, bounced down again through a herd of Holsteins, hit a stump and spun through the air, ending up nose down in the top of a tree. And had the farmer's wife refuse to let you in the door until you stuck your wallet through the window, and then heard her say, "Ohhhh, Joe Foss. Aren't you the fella that was on the cover of LIFE magazine?"
Or ridden your motorcycle down Main Street of Sioux Falls, S.Dak., while standing on the seat; or sent your Chevy over a 12-foot-deep street excavation in Chicago; or climbed out on the wing of a biplane at 10,000 feet to take photographs of the other pilot; or flown a jet upside down across a lake, a few feet above the water, in order to get a good look at the mallards . . . and every time, at the critical moment, instinctively made the move that let you live.
Wrong? How could he be wrong when all of his beliefs came to him first as instinct, as feelings, and over and over his instincts kept proving him right? The world itself was consorting with Joe Foss; he and the forces of life were in cahoots! All these screwballs who wanted to ban guns, all these pipe-smoking professors of statistics and logic, couldn't they see? If Ol' Joe was wrong he would be dead wrong, 30 or 40 times over, lights out, party's over, all gone.
Life insurance? Why would a fellow need life insurance if he were dead? he asked his second wife, DiDi. Property insurance? So what if two floods and a fire financially walloped his charter flying service in Sioux Falls, after the war. A man couldn't truly trust the world—and his instincts—with an insurance policy poking out of his pocket, could he? A man couldn't wake up each dawn and bellow, Good morning, DiDi Bell! It's a beautiful morning! Hmmmm? Dunno what I'll do today! Think I'll just let it happen!
Okay, so maybe a man did bust up some airplanes and bones and loved ones' hearts living that way. He would come home to a crisis after a month on the road, put his three children on his knees and say, "It's all right, Ol' Joe's here now. Ol' Joe'll take care of you." And for a few days he would make faces and tell stories and put together words in ways that made you giggle half the night. For a few days he would do bird calls to you from the other side of the grocery store, play Santa Claus, pull out 15 or 20 of the windup toys he collected and send them barking and squeaking and whirring across the floor. And you'd forgive Ol' Joe, dammit, you'd forgive him.
Then a few days would pass, and Ol' Joe would get tense and growl, "I'm gonna go bore holes in the sky," and then you would see him, a fleck of silver in the blue, climbing for the clouds like a homesick angel, going off to another battle. After all, as long as a man stayed at war, who could fault him for not being at home? Every hunting and fishing pal wanted him at the campfire spinning yarns; every Elk, Moose, Owl, Bear, Eagle, Jaycee and Legionnaire wanted him at the head table of his banquet, banging down his fist for The American Way. Why did he often seem more at ease among acquaintances and strangers than among the ones he loved? Well, if it ain't Powerful Pete! he'd boom, making up nicknames for folks right on the spot, making everyone want to be his friend.
His son's bulbar polio, the kind that was supposed to have killed the boy but somehow didn't, his daughter's cerebral palsy, his first wife's diabetes—he could show how much they made him hurt inside, not by staying near, but by turning them into a campaign. He became president of the National Society of Crippled Children and Adults; helped found a school and hospital for the handicapped in Sioux Falls, his hometown; flew off at the drop of a hat to give a speech. A man who stayed at war could keep his blacks black and his whites white—a man at war needed to keep them that way. And then, too, maybe a strong man went mushy if he lingered near weakness, maybe Ol' Joe had a cold, dead spot somewhere inside—maybe that dead spot was what made him a hero. Over and over his parrot, Molly, would repeat the same three words: Joe Foss. Airport. Joe Foss. Airport. When he would land at the local airport after weeks on the road, his first wife might find him at a restaurant, his hand wrapped around a whiskey and his teeth clamped around a cigar, chewing one end and trying to beat the fire to the middle. "Doesn't take two shepherds to watch three sheep," he'd say.
Freedom. No, that was not an abstract for Ol' Joe, it was a raw wound—touch it and he'd howl. Ever since the night when he was 17 and the world fell in on him, the night his dad died in the heart of the Depression and left Joe with a farm and a mom and a mortgage and a younger brother and sister to take care of, he had handled love like a live grenade—oh yes, Ol' Joe knew the shards that could fly off that baby. Seven hundred and fifty grand, Joe, for the rights to your life story, and John Wayne to play your character—that's what the movie people crowed in 1955. He took one look at the script of Brave Eagle, saw all that gooey love stuff they had him cooing to women . . . adiós, amigos. See you again some sunshiny day.
Nobody or nothing would ever corral Ol' Joe. Look! Do you see him? That crazy cat in the orange flight suit doing loops and Cuban 8's in the F-51, the leader of the Red Devils stunt team—that's Joe Foss, state legislator from Minnehaha County! No, over there! That big lummox wearing the orange mop and greasepaint and the gigantic necktie, hopping from one foot to the other and blowing the saxophone, the leader of those 25 clowns parading down Main Street—that's Joe Foss, governor of our good state! No, over there! That thick man in the white cowboy hat, walking through the stadium in a snowstorm, shaking the hand of every single fan in the Polo Grounds—that's Joe Foss, commissioner of our new football league!
Oh no, Ol' Joe didn't care what people said about the Joe Namath signing being the turning point for the AFL. If he hadn't been there in the early years, laying the whip to the owners when they were ready to buckle, working 16 hours a day, renting a plane and flying himself to every training camp, traveling a quarter-million miles a year to beat the tom-tom at every plumbers' and hairdressers' convention that would have him, that league would've been deader'n a duck!
By mutual agreement with the owners, he walked away from the AFL in '66. "Can't beat a tom-tom too long without getting a headache," he'd say when people asked about the twists and turns in his résumé: from private in the Army to major in the Marines to colonel in the Air Force to brigadier general in the National Guard; from farmer to dishwasher to waiter to janitor to gaspumper to meat-packer to butcher to charter airplane pilot to state legislator to car dealer to governor to football commissioner to TV host of The American Sportsman and The Outdoors-man: Joe Foss to PR director of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Christian fundraiser to president of the NRA. And he would clear out of town each time without looking back, belting out his goodbyes just as heartily as his hellos, one eye on the horizon for his next cause.
Maybe a cause was easier to attach yourself to than a human being. Maybe an animal was easier, too. He would disconnect the electricity to an outdoor light fixture when a quail built her nest in it, or roll apples to deers so they would keep paying visits, or catch grasshoppers to feed his pet trout in the backyard stream of his Wyoming summer home. "See that? That's a Philadelphia grackle!" he'd boom, pointing out the window of a car going 60 mph at a speck in the sky a quarter-mile away. Then he would fill you in on the intimate details of the Philadelphia grackle's day, imitate its call, maybe even stop the car and climb out, poke his beak up and imitate its funny little Philadelphia grackle walk. Hunt? Never within 30 miles of home; Ol' Joe knew all those animals, they were his friends. Heck yes, DiDi Bell's a great gal, but do you know what he really used to love to do? Throw a gallon of ice water in the car, a half dozen bananas, a large bag of Oreos, giant bags of M & M's and Red Hots, his parrot, Molly, his pigeon, Luke, and his schnauzer, Augie-Doggie, laugh himself silly at their shenanigans and try to bust his world-record time of 23 hours and 57 minutes driving solo from his house in Arizona to the one in Wyoming, just two stops to hit the John and fill 'er up. And when he got there, the first thing he would do would be to run Old Glory up the flagpole, then fill the feeders in the yard with grain for the wild turkeys and the outdoor tanks with water for the doves. "Did you feed my birds? Tanks all full?"—those would be his first questions when he called home from a safari on the other side of the earth.
One day in 1963, when his wife June's diabetes had begun to debilitate her, when the arguments between them had become too sharp, he came home to Sioux Falls from another long road trip. "I'm divorcing your mother," he told his three children. He left behind his underwear and socks and shirts and suits, left behind all the documents and photographs and mementos of his life.
Inside the suitcase he carried out the door was the little windup dog that went arf-arf. The little duck that went quack-quack. The miniature clown that did somersaults. The stuffed teddy bear that beat the drum.
But all you hear about us in the NRA is that we're a big bunch of bullies and zealots, and I've got to sit there every night and watch some dolly on the news with a pretty face getting all her facts wrong, or pick up the newspaper and read some bunion-eater making us all out to be a bunch of rednecks with big beer bellies hanging out over our belts and Rambo guns slung over our shoulders—as full of crap as a Christmas turkey! Nobody ever mentions all the support we give the Olympic shooting team, or all our free training programs for gun safety and hunter ethics—that's why we can advise people in good conscience to get guns. Learn how to use the durn thing, don't just throw it in a drawer and wait for an accident to happen, and run off like some goofy geese and leave the silly box to baby-sit your children. Teach them how to use the gun and how to respect it, the way my father taught me. He took my gun away from me for a year once for shooting at the insulator on a power line. . . . My dad, now there was a man, stronger'n horseradish and ready teddy for anything. . . .
Yes, come to think of it, his dad did use to travel with Ringling Bros, circus, blowing baritone horn in the band. His dad did use to wander into carnivals across the Midwest, offering 25 bucks to anyone who could step into a boxing ring and flatten him. Foxy Foss was the kind of guy who, if you wondered what was under his house, would lift up a corner of it and let you look. Who would laugh when the young bulls got lusty in the spring and would roar, "I'll change your mind from ass to grass!" then body-slam them bare-handed and do the snipping right there on the spot.
Settled down on a farm just outside Sioux Falls, Foxy did, married one of those pioneer women who wore an undershirt instead of a bra, and taught his oldest son Joe how to box and play saxophone and shoot a duck in snow fanny-deep to a giraffe—oh jeez, the memories, the kind those screwballs who want to do away with guns would never understand. That day in autumn when Joe was eight, when his dad took the hogs to town and made enough to buy him a two-buck Iver Johnson shotgun; the feeling, which moved from its wood into his hands, that he was accepted now, trusted, that his father had invited him into the tribe. Shivering with excitement on the eve of his first hunting season, staying up half the night lifting his rifle to the full moon and shooting at its fat, happy face. The touch of his father's hand on his shoulder at 3:30 a.m., the cool floor on his feet, the bread and jam together and then the stalking through the fields, mimicking every move his old man made. Dawn breaking over the prairie, a pheasant snapping out of the brown stubble of dead cornstalks, little Joe lifting that shotgun and—whomp—knocking that very first one out of the sky, then turning to look up at his dad.
He could show you that spot right now. He could show you where he got his first duck, in the cattails near the pond; and where he got his first rabbit; and where the old windmill was that he would climb and then blow his saxophone. He could show you the grass field where the barnstorming pilot, that night in '31, lit a half-mile row of oil drums filled with kerosene-soaked burlap sacks to illuminate his takeoff, and took Foxy and Joe up into the darkness, up and up into the infinite sky . . . and an ecstasy ran through the 16-year-old boy, and he looked over at his dad and knew what he was going to do one day.
And the spot on Highway 16 where, two years later, he saw the sparks shooting up into the sky that night of the big windstorm, and drove toward them, just curious, still humming the Sousa songs he had played that night with the high school band, and saw his dad lying there, Foxy's foot near the running board of his '27 Buick and his chest on the concrete, electrocuted by the downed power line he hadn't seen in the dark when he got out of the car.
The neighbors had to hold Joe down that night, hold him back from running to his father. To touch the one he loved would kill him, too.
No. They couldn't take it away—not with death, not with Depression or war, not with marriage or family or disease—they couldn't take away his childhood, his innocence, his freedom, his guns. He refused. The family, the farm, the bills, they're all yours now, Joe. No, he refused. He wouldn't let them drag him from a world where everything had been sunlit and simple into this smoky new one where all was uncertainty, confusion. For three years after his father died he fought the land and the dust storms, just waiting for the day his younger brother was of age. Take it, Cliff. The whole farm. It's yours. In 1937, for $65, Joe bought eight flying lessons. He called home one day a few years later and said he was flying for the United States Marines. When he came back from the war, he joined the NRA.
And all his life would be like this. Whenever he felt tense or irritable, whenever he felt something vital in him leaking away, he would take a gun or a sax or the controls of an airplane into his hands, the holy tools that helped a man like him become more than a man, something purer and stronger and freer. He would go to war for those things in a minute, for freedom and for innocence, for guns and saxophones and airplanes, because one of them was all of them and you either had 'em all the way—or suddenly, like a dad, they were gone.
Not even one gun, Ol' Joe; wouldn't you take away the one Patrick Purdy cradled in his arms in the school yard that day?
No! Disarm the country and the communists will be here quicker'n jackrabbits! Disarm the country and you have what Hitler did in Germany in the '30s and what Noriega's doing in Panama—every time I see his face on TV it grinds me—and what they're doing in dear ol' China now! Put all the guns in the hands of the military and the po-lice and they can do anything they want. Look what happened to the kids in China, they got creamed! If I was there it'd drive me mad not to be able to shoot at those birds. If some scruffy character shoved a rifle in my midsection, I'd turn around and make him eat it! People say it could never happen here—take away all the guns and you'll see what could happen, the demagogues will run wild! This country was founded on guns, guns saved our necks time and time again. I never could've shot all those Japanese planes down if I hadn't grown up with a gun in my hands. I fought a war for these rights, men who were my friends died for these rights, and now they want to take them all away. . . .
One day in 1966, Ol' Joe started dying. It was not a spray of bullets, a collision with a mountain; it was not a hero's death. It was a death by increments: losing the use of his feet . . . of his legs . . . of his hands and arms . . . losing 10 pounds, 25, 40 . . . sagging, at last, into a wheelchair, the Marine ace being spoon-fed by a woman. It would take months for doctors to recognize and treat his arsenic poisoning, from the insecticide he had swallowed while chewing on weed stalks during the taping of his outdoors TV series. And during that time when he was finally made to be still and afraid, he felt something very different from the arsenic coming to shackle him: he heard it huffing from its long, long chase. Imagine, Ol' Joe a prisoner—a captive of the sins of his past. The times he had neglected his children and his first wife, the times he hadn't been there when they needed him, they were what came to him in the night, trampling right over all the brave and generous things he had done in his public life.
He hobbled into a church on DiDi's arm. All a man had to do, the minister kept saying, was accept Jesus into his heart completely, turn over total control of his life to Him, and every one of his sins would be forgiven; his soul would fly when he died, like that homesick angel, straight up to heaven. There it was, the irresistible thing, the clear, clean, simple thing, all or nothing. Just raise your hand, cried the minister, raise your hand if you're ready to be born again, if you want to be truly free.
Freedom. . . . All these years, had Ol' Joe had it all wrong? He closed his eyes and shook inside. If he raised his hand, if he made the trade, that would mean it was not Ol' Joe's astonishing instincts that had pulled him through that fall into the shark-infested ocean, that dive at the battleship through the hail of pom-pom fire, that landing with the dead engine and 260 bullet holes, through all the skidding, spinning, death-defying touchdowns after that; not Ol' Joe who pulled the trigger on the 26 kills—it was God. It was not Ol' Joe who said all guns were good—it was Of Joe and God. His arm twitched, began slowly to lift—oh Lord, it was like lifting the roof off the building. Up it went, up, up . . . freeeeeeeeeeeee.
He found himself trudging through knee-high snow in the mountain woods of Montana one afternoon six years ago, hunting elk. Looking up, he realized that the clouds had dropped and covered all his landmarks. Darkness was coming, he had forgotten his compass, there hadn't been a sign of human life for miles. Ol' Joe was lost.
The temperature was dropping. His knee was killing him—he had fallen and smashed it a few weeks earlier on his daily five-mile run. He had no food. He trudged through the snow for hours, with no idea, for once in his life, which way he was going. A man could die here if he stayed out all night in this, it occurred to him. A man could die.
This death, at least, would be swifter than a slow, invisible death in the wheelchair. More dignified than the pericarditis that hit him like a knife in the chest in '73, put him on the floor at a party with his heart stopping and starting and the ambulance screaming. Death with his Remington bolt-action Model 700 on one shoulder. Death with God on the other. Death like a fighter pilot, alone.
A pilot. Yes, maybe an airplane would fly overhead, maybe he could signal to it. Ol' Joe came upon a break in the forest, a clear patch of snow, and with his boots, in huge letters, he began to stomp out the word. He didn't write HELP. He wrote FOSS.