By Michael G. Sabbeth
The New Year brings optimism, renewal and rededication to living an honorable productive life. For the Rocky Mountain Vintagers, January’s arrival commences another season of collegial side-by-side shotgun shooting with our annual Polar Bear Shoot, named to acknowledge the often freezing temperatures during the event. The shoot, now in its fifth year, is held at the full service Family Shooting Center in Denver’s Cherry Creek State Park.
This year our Vintagers club did something special. To express of our gratitude and respect for their sacrifice and dedication, we hosted as guests three Marines affiliated with the Wounded Warriors program. Our eighteen Vintagers shooters were joined by Sgt. Dean Sanchez, Nick Arguello and James Cathcart. Sgt. Sanchez, District Injured Support Coordinator in Colorado and tasked with helping injured Marines transition into the civilian world, orchestrated the Marine’s participation.
As some of our Vintagers were unabashedly festooned in stylish knickers and breeks and calf-flattering knee stockings, we were compelled to inform our Marine guests of our club’s origin. For readers not familiar with our organization, I share our background.
Formally known as the Order of Edwardian Gunners, The Vintagers organization was birthed in 1994 by Ray Poudrier in upstate New York. Ray intuitively sensed the desirability of non-competitive clay target shooting thematically linked by the appreciation for side-by-side shotguns and rifles wrapped in Edwardian overtones of dress and lifestyle. Our Rocky Mountain chapter is one of a dozen or so chartered affiliates.
Clays and Camaraderie
The sky boasted layered light; with a mass of blue gray clouds that cleared to the West, giving an unimpeded view of the sky-stabbing white-tipped Rocky Mountains. Sunlight reflected off the snow like a Titian landscape. From time to time our attention turned to formations of geese silhouetted against the luminous sky and to the report of a machine gun firing at the rifle range several hundred yards to the east.
Don Freuden, our dedicated treasurer, brought hot chocolate to challenge the chilly winds and boxes of cookies, muffins and donuts. Although, regrettably, not as sumptuous as the lobster bisque, warm consommé and the cases of Roederer Crystal and Lafitte Rothschild offered by King Edward VIII at the shoots at Holkham, Elveden and Sandringham, we gratefully consumed Don’s offerings like Great White sharks in plus-fours.
Two formats comprised the event; a round of standard sixteen-yard trap and a round of sixteen-yard wobble trap doubles for a total of seventy-five targets. We shot low-gun rather than modern pre-mounted trap style. Several white clay targets were placed among the orange ones, and the fortunate shooter that broke a white clay received five dollars, not enough to off-set the national debt but enough for a decent tip to the trap puller.
The targets were markedly easier when the wobble double trap threw them skyward. The clays that stayed low required the shooter to take shots like hawks diving into a prairie dog village. For most of us, the format was a humbling experience.
Although unorthodox for a Vintagers event, with an official waiver from club president Bruce Koranski, competitive shooter Jamie Blei and I brought our Beretta Teknys semi automatic shotguns for the Marines should they desire to use them. Although the recoil from the one-ounce Little Rhino ammunition generously supplied by Fiocchi is not unduly punishing for most shooters, I have participated in several Wounded Warrior clay target shoots and hunts where shooters, many wheelchair bound, cannot endure for long the recoil from non-gas operated guns, even with moderate ammunition. The warriors’ use of my Beretta Teknys has always been welcome.
As a grace note of appropriate elegance, the stock on Jamie’s Beretta was custom painted with an American flag and stars and stripes graphics.
Although our guests were modest and reticent about their combat tours and injuries, I did glean some information. Sgt. Dean Sanchez and James Cathcart were among the first Marines participating in Operation Vigilant Resolve, in and around the Al Anbar Province, the first push into Fallujah beginning April 4, 2004, following the killing on March 31 of four U S contractors from Blackwater and five soldiers near Habbaniya. Several Americans were hung from a bridge.
Nick Arguello, 2nd Marine Division, out of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, served two years in Iraq in Ar Ramadi.
I asked our guests how they liked shooting shotguns at clay targets. They all expressed relief that the clays were not shooting back. Nick made an intriguing comment. “For me, shooting is grounding. We are used to guns.” James offered an illuminating perspective. “It’s casual. It’s not combat. You can hone your skills and it doesn’t matter if you win.” Dean added, “I like the instant gratification when you hit the target. It’s a sense of accomplishment, plus I like the camaraderie you all have.”
James marveled at the beautiful guns, seeing them in an historical context. “Shooting these guns is a part of history. They are part of the evolution of weapons technology.” Dean saw a relationship between the Vintagers ethos and the Marine Corps. “The Marines are steeped in history and so are these guns. Shooting hundred-year-old guns is fascinating and educational.”
The Polar Bear Shoot was not the appropriate time to delve into philosophy or ideology and I did not do so. However, Dean volunteered a perspective that would not have occurred to me. It’s worth sharing. Society, generally, he said, does not understand the returning veteran. “They want us to fight and then to forget about what we did. There’s a communication block. War permanently changes the way you look at the world and it is difficult to communicate that.”
Then Dean spoke words that elevated my soul and, I confess, moistened my eyes. “We are hard working; focused, and invested in the success of our country. We want to learn how to lead what we have defended.” With intensity in his voice, Dean added, “Citizenship is not a matter of entitlement. We earned out citizenship.”
The 2012 Polar Bear Champions!
With skill that would have made the great Lord Ripon envious, Tom Bryant, shooting a stunning Doug Turnbull case-hardened Dale Tate hammer gun, triumphed as Men’s Champion. Nipping at Tom’s nattily-shoed heels, Jamie Blei was Runner-up, shooting a Charles Boswell boxlock. Shooting a beautiful Armstrong BLE, our Vintager’s incarnation of Olympian Kim Rhode, the always exquisitely attired Cyndee Nikkel was the Ladies Champion.
Not to get too sappy about this, but our guests are outstanding men. When I got home I spent an hour or so watching YouTube videos of Marines fighting in Fallujah and other battles. I cannot fathom what these young men endured. I cannot grasp their degree of mental toughness. Understanding their level of heroism stretches my mind to a degree rarely experienced.
Semper Fidelis, Latin for "Always Faithful," is the motto of the United States Marine Corps. It’s not just a phrase sewn onto a patch on uniforms. It’s a belief Marines live by and die for. If you meet these Wounded Warriors and take the time to talk with them, you leave an event a person different from when you arrived.
I am proud that our Vintagers club hosted these heroes. We had done something good, the intersection of honorable sport and civic virtue. I thank my Vintagers colleagues for making this day possible. As we left the shooting center, the moon shone like a flare high in the sky but our spirits were even higher.
Special thanks to Jackie Stenton of Fiocchi Ammunition for donating ammunition for the Marines and to Stephen Power at Briley for supplying the Helix chokes used in my Beretta Teknys.
Michael Sabbeth is a lawyer in Denver, Colorado. He lectures on ethics and rhetoric to law associations and civic and business groups. He is the author of the newly published book, The Good, The Bad & The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values. Please visit his website at www.kidsethicsbook.com.