In late June 2017 a Canadian Army sniper killed an ISIS militant from a distance of more than two miles, which is the longest confirmed rifle shot on record. With the best equipment available, it still took 10 seconds for the bullet to reach the target. Given the conditions and all the variables involved, this is an amazing accomplishment. However, I submit this was only the second greatest shot in history. Nearly 60 years before, in the summer of 1958, four months shy of my 9th birthday, I killed a hippopotamus in Africa with one shot from a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun while sitting in my grandparent’s living room in rural southwestern Indiana. Since you won’t be able to find any information on the event on Google and two of the three people who were present that day are long dead, this account will have to stand as the historical record. Perhaps some background information will help you understand this amazing feat.
My dad was a crack shot, a great teacher, and a stickler for weapon safety. The first lesson I was taught was to treat all guns as if they are loaded. I learned quickly and was on my way to be a good rifle shooter when he bought me a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun for my 8th birthday. For a time, I was the scourge of paper targets, sparrows, and starlings in our neighborhood. Then my weapon stopped working. Try as he could, my dad could not get it to shoot BB’s. The weapon would cock and discharge, but nothing would come out of the barrel. My weapon had been reduced to an “air rifle” because air was the only thing coming out of the barrel. Even so, it was my constant companion in neighborhood battles between cowboys, Indians, or whatever groups we decided were going to fight on that day. The number of “air bullets” I fired at my playmates from both long and close range was in the thousands and I never missed.
In early June, Mom and Dad had to go out of town on business for a few days, so that meant I got to stay with my Grandpa and Grandma Shawhan at their farm. It was a great place to be a kid because there was always something to do from hunting, fishing, or skipping rocks across the pond. L. J. and Minnie had married young and raised eight children. That would have been tough enough on its own, but challenges brought by The Great Depression and the rationing that accompanied WWII tested their mettle. Still, Minnie leaned into her faith through it all. Though she seemed to be perpetually tired from all her responsibilities around the home, there were no complaints and she bore her burdens with a remarkable, quiet grace. I don’t recall ever hearing her laugh out loud, but there were times when you would see her smile and the joy would show in her eyes. Strong language, tobacco, alcohol, and playing cards were not acceptable under her roof. Grandma Minnie was just one of the kindest people I ever met.
How L. J. and Minnie got together and stayed together is one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. Grandpa was just about the opposite of Minnie in every way. He was loud, coarse, overweight, and smoked Kool Menthols for years. Perhaps L. J. had other talents, but the one he was known for was the ability to expel methane at a volume loud enough to rattle the windows in the old farmhouse. He greeted the arrival of grandchildren with a feeling similar to seeing locusts descend on his fields. In L. J.’s world grandchildren would only eat his food and tear up something before leaving. His opinion was based on certain experiences. He had been ejected from the back of a farm truck by one grandchild, had his car’s gas tank filled with water by another who was playing gas station, and had his morning reverie of a peaceful breakfast shattered when another grandson surprised him by discharging a small explosive device that showered him with confetti and ribbons. Reflecting on those events, I think his view of grandchildren was justified.
I tried to give Grandpa a wide berth and stay on his good side. He didn’t put up with a lot of crap and was quick to let you know when he had enough. Usually, Grandma heard the ruckus and, like Jesus on judgement day, intervened on our behalf.
L. J. didn’t have many valuables, but one of his treasures was the 21” black and white console television that sat in the living room. It was here that everyone gathered to watch Gunsmoke, Have Gun – Will Travel, and Wagon Train. This was also the only time L. J. thought grandchildren could be useful. Grandpa was not skittish about using us as two-legged remote controls.
The day that would change my life started out like most others on the farm. After getting dressed, I walked through the living room and propped my BB gun in the corner before going to the kitchen for breakfast. Grandma didn’t allow guns at the table. Following the meal, Grandpa went off to do some chores, Grandma cleaned the kitchen, and I headed to the living room to watch TV. Picking up my gun by the barrel, I made my way to the television and turned it on before plopping down in a small upholstered swivel chair to watch one of my favorite shows: Ramar of the Jungle. It was the story of Dr. Tom Reynolds whose parents were missionaries and he returns to Africa to treat the natives. In this episode, the good doctor and his faithful sidekick Professor Howard Ogden were crossing a river when they were suddenly menaced by a hippo that was about to flip their small boat.
Instinctively, I grabbed my rifle and cocked it as I brought it to my shoulder. Just as Dad taught me, I lined up the sights on the hippo, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. Like it had done thousands of times before, the air rifle made a slight popping noise and the hippo slipped to the bottom of the river. In my mind the beast was a goner because I don’t miss. Ramar and Howard would thank me later. But I immediately sensed something was different about this shot. The familiar popping noise of the gun was quickly followed by a distinct ping. The place where the hippo had been on the TV screen was now occupied by a small hole surrounded by a circle of broken glass fragments a bit larger than a quarter.
For a short time, I had an out of body experience and time stood still as I examined what happened. On the floor in front of me was a BB, which, at that moment, appeared to be nearly as big as a softball. It had been lodged in the barrel for months and picked this moment to come out. It struck the glass plate in front of the TV tube and then rolled back toward me. There was no fixing the glass. It would have to be replaced.
The moment I reentered my body, everything began to move at hyper speed. I knew I wasn’t going to see my ninth birthday. My folks would kill me for embarrassing them and having to buy Grandpa a new television. But I also knew that wouldn’t happen because L. J. would take me out as soon as he saw the TV. I didn’t know what he was going to tell Mom and Dad about my disappearance, just that I would be in an unmarked grave somewhere on the farm. My heart was pounding. I knew there were only moments before my misdeed would be discovered and I had to do something to buy enough time for my getaway.
Using all the logic my eight-year-old brain could muster, I had a stroke of genius. Running to the bathroom I returned with a bath towel. I stuck one end of the towel under the planter Grandma kept on top of the television and draped the rest over the front of the screen. No one would notice that. In the time it took me to cover the fifty feet between the TV and the front door to the house, I realized there was no place for me to run. The best I could do was get to a safe place beyond L. J.’s reach and stay there until he calmed down or Grandma would show up and save my life, though I wasn’t sure she was up to this task.
There was only one option; the big sugar maple tree in the front yard. It had lots of leaves for cover so it would be tough for Grandpa to get a clear shot at me with one of his guns. He was too overweight to do any climbing, and though there was a concern that he might be mad enough to cut the tree down with me in it, I knew the sound of the chainsaw would get Grandma’s attention.
As I reached the highest limb that I thought would support my weight, I heard the front door open as Grandpa bellowed my name. “Ron! Ron! Where the hell are you?” “Up here, sir,” I replied. “Did you shoot the TV?”, he inquired. Young as I was, it was still clear to me the list of suspects only had two names; mine and Grandma’s since we were the only people in the house. I briefly thought about asking him if he would be willing to spare my life if I pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of improper use of a bath towel but decided to do the right thing. “Yes, sir, but it was an accident”, I said. “You get your ass down here right now”, he emphatically responded. Based on the volume and tone of his voice, I determined he wasn’t all that interested in my motives. There was a dead TV in his living room, and he was going for some biblical retribution. “No, sir. I’m just going to stay up here,” I replied.
That reply led to more threats, which made me more determined to wait until Grandma Minnie arrived on the scene. Luckily, it was only a few minutes. Once she heard from both sides, Grandma said something to Grandpa that I couldn’t make out and he unhappily walked away. When he was out of sight, she convinced me it was safe to climb down and assured me that nothing bad would happen to me. I knew her word was good.
As it turned out, the TV wasn’t dead, only wounded. My folks offered to buy L. J. a new one, but he declined, saying, “Leaving it this way will be a reminder to all of the other little shits that come here to visit.” It was, but not like he intended, or perhaps it was exactly what he hoped for. The cracked glass would remind all my aunts, uncles, and cousins to ride me about shooting the television for the next 40 years. Not one of them talked to me about my incredible accomplishment of killing a rogue hippo with a single shot from a BB gun at a distance of over 7,000 miles. I’m still waiting for a thank you card from Ramar and Howard.
The sugar maple tree is still standing in front of the farmhouse. It looks a bit worse for wear, but so do I. The last time I visited, I had an inclination to climb it one final time, but my good sense took over. I did accept its invitation to sit in the shade for a while with my back against the trunk, which was just as comforting as its branches had been 60 years before.