Friday, June 8, 2012

We used to shoot real guns at Linton Hall

When I was thirteen years old, I and other boys my age used to shoot live ammunition inside the Linton Hall Miltary School building every other Friday.
Officer Rifle Club at Linton Hall, Bristow, Va.

Because of the tragic school shootings that have occurred in recent years, it may be hard to believe that the Officers' Rifle Club once existed, but it did.

The rifles that we carried during drill and parades were realistic but non-working replicas. You couldn't actually shoot anything out of them, but they were made of wood and steel and had a working bolt. Those rifles came in different sizes, so that the smaller kids could have smaller rifles. But the rifles we shot in the rifle range were real weapons.

Just as it wasn't unusual for fathers to take their sons fishing, it wasn't unusual for fathers to take their sons along hunting once they had reached their early teens, or sometimes a couple of years before. Were kids more responsible then than they are now? I don't know.

Being in the rifle club was a special privilege extended to eight graders who were officers. It's possible that some non-officer eighth graders were allowed to join the rifle club, or at least got a chance to do some shooting at least a couple of times during the year I was in eighth grade, but I don't remember.

We had to pay five dollars to join (which was quite a bit of money back then, when the minimum wage was just under a dollar an hour.) The club was officially a chapter of the NRA, but I always thought of it as the Linton Hall Military School Rifle Club. We had to bring in the money in cash (or check) and couldn't just have the fee billed to our school account. I know I brought cash, my own money, because I wasn't going to risk being told by my parents that no, I couldn't join. Not that I cared that much about being in the club, it was more than I didn't want to be the only officer not allowed to join by his parents. Although my father (like many other men) did go hunting and owned a rifle, my parents never bought me a toy gun (something that most boys owned at the time, just like toy cars.) I don't know how anti-gun they were, but I didn't want to make a big deal out of it. I don't even remember whether or not we needed a signed permission slip. If we did, it's possible that I claimed that the "Officers' Rifle Club" was something like the drill team in which cadets marched with rifles, but didn't actually do any shooting.

The rifle range was under the Linton Hall Military School building, either under the classroom wing or under the main part of the building just next to the classroom building. It wasn't in a finished basement, but in a crawl space that had been dug out, by hand, with shovels, by other cadets years before. I am grateful to them for doing that hard and dirty work. It is likely that the rifle range still exists at Linton Hall School and that it remains much as it was back then, since it would have been a big job to dismantle the metal backstop, and I doubt there was any need to use that crawl space for other purposes.

We would shoot at heavy paper targets, the size of a sheet of paper. The targets were taped to a backstop made of welded steel that looked something like a large Venetian blind, about 8 feet high and 15 feet wide, with the "slats" about 3 inches wide and 1/4 inch thick steel. The bullets would go through the paper target, hit the steel backdrop and be deflected down at a 45 degree angle, then hit another metal slat, and go into some sandbags that were piled behind the backstop. This was necessary because a .22 caliber rifle bullet is extremely powerful; if nothing stops it, it can travel more than a mile or, if it's shot at solid wood, it can penetrate a couple of inches, depending on the hardness of the wood. The Commandant taught us this, as well as very important safety precautions. We would shoot at the targets from roughly twenty feet away and, of course, it was necessary for someone to periodically go to the backstop, take down the paper targets, and tape up new ones, thus being in what was the line of fire. Before targets were put up or taken down, everyone had to put down his rifle, and leave it unloaded with the bolt open, to prevent any possibility of an accidental firing. A rifle is much more lethal than a handgun, not only because of the power of its bullet, but because of its accuracy.

For safety, the rifles were kept in a gun safe in the Commandant's office. (For those who attended Linton Hall after it was no longer a military school, this would be the last office on your left in the main building before you reach the gym.) Several of us would carry the rifles between his office and the rifle range (one person could carry a couple of them, but not all because of their weight, although more than once someone tried (and maybe succeeded) in carrying most or all of them, just to show off his strength. The Commandant himself would carry the ammunition (separately from the guns, for safety,) but I seem to remember that one time early in the year, when the Commandant was delayed by a phone call, he might have entrusted the Battalion Commander, the highest ranking cadet, to carry them to the rifle range, with strict instructions not to take them out of the box until the Commandant arrived.

We would normally get to do target shooting every other Friday, on the Fridays when we did not get to go home for the weekend. After target shooting, we got to go back to our dorms and impress the other cadets with our paper targets. Even if you weren't a good shot (I know I wasn't) they were still impressed that you got to shoot a real gun. We also got to keep the spent shell casings, which were about an inch long and bright, shiny brass. Bright shiny metal objects are appealing to kids, especially boys in a military school, where shining shoes, leather belts, and brass insignia is an obsession. What could you do with shell casings? Everyone had a metal folding chair next to his bed, and the seat had holes in it that made up a star pattern, and the shells would just fit into the holes, so a couple of us officers put them there to decorate our chairs.

I've been wondering a long time whether I should write about the rifle range. You'll soon see why.

One day, the Commandant told us we could no longer take away the spent shells, but that they had to be turned in and counted, to make sure that the number of spent shells each one turned in was the same as the number of live shells he had been given, so as to make sure that no one was holding back live ammunition. He counted the number of holes in each person's paper target too, but that method wasn't very reliable, since someone who was a really good shot could sometimes end up shooting two bullets through the same hole, or a particularly bad shooter could miss his paper target entirely, as by mistakenly closing the wrong eye when shooting, which had been known to happen. (I won't mention who did this.)

Why this sudden precaution? Rumor had it -- and I'm just repeating what I heard, without any knowledge of its accuracy -- that one of the officers had threatened to shoot another officer. This would have been an extremely serious threat, since a .22 bullet can kill. I wondered why, in addition to the precautions, the one making the threat had not been either permanently banned from the range, or expelled. But every time after that, when it was my turn to put up or take down the paper targets, I kept my eye on the guns to make sure they remained down and with the bolt open.

But there's more.

When we carried the rifles to the range, we would walk as a group, but not marching in formation, probably because it's not practical to march while you're carrying a bunch of rifles.
Military School

One time, when we were walking down the stairs to the rifle range, I overheard snippets of a conversation between two officers who were walking behind me. "We could take over the school with these rifles," one said. A second or two later, I heard another snippet, "We could put blankets over the windows." I didn't want to turn around and see who had said this, because I didn't want to let on that I had heard them. There was no way to see them out of the corner of my eye, I didn't recognize their voice, and although I could see their clothing with my peripheral vision, that was of no use, since we all wore the same uniform. So I never found out who had said this. I wondered what good it would do to to put blankets over the windows during an armed takeover, since obviously a blanket wasn't going to stop a bullet that could go through a couple of inches of plywood. Later, I figured out that it would have been a way to stop sharpshooters outside from seeing inside the building.

I dismissed this as probably being just idle talk, which is what it turned out to be; thank God, nothing like that happened. To be on the safe side, I should have reported what I heard, but I did not.

Having said that, I was in a difficult situation. A 13-year-old in my shoes would want to ask his parents for advice on what to do, but there was no way I could write home and ask, without the letter being read by the Principal, since all outgoing mail was censored.

I feared, and did not trust, both the Commandant and the Principal, and was afraid that if I talked to either one of them, there was a high risk that they would not safeguard my identity. If those who had discussed a possible armed takeover had been serious about it, I would have been in serious danger, especially while sleeping.

I also didn't know whether the Commandant or Principal would believe me, or would think that I was making something up, either to get attention, or to get taken out of Linton Hall Military School.

It would have been near-impossible to report this anonymously in an environment with so little privacy and so much regimentation. Perhaps I could have written an anonymous note in the dorm without being seen, but I don't know how I could have slipped it under the Commandant or Principal's office door without being observed. I would have had to go there in the middle of the night, risking that someone would see me leaving the dorm, or going down the stairs, or in the hallway. I didn't know this back then, but when I read Louie LeMoine's obituary I learned that he not only did landscaping, but also was night watchman. I had always assumed that the ground floor would be deserted at night.

It's always best to report something like this, even if it might turn out to be idle talk, just because of the grave risk that the threat might be serious. I wish I had reported it, but I did not.

I shudder to think what could have happened. This was the 1960s, and there were a lot of protests and sit-ins, many of them about the war in Vietnam and the lack of civil rights for blacks. College students had taken over university buildings, mostly using nonviolent means. Yet even in nonviolent protests, protesters had been killed, as at Kent State in May, 1970. What would have happened during an armed school takeover? I don't even want to think about it.

Thank God this was all idle talk.

Copyright 2012 by "Linton Hall Cadet."
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