feature By: Mike Lannoo, story and photo | November, 17
So when it came time for me to learn the craft of upland hunting – how to shoot a scattergun and train a Labrador – Dad stepped aside and let his best friend Willis (Ole) Oldefest take the lead. For those of you familiar with Upper Midwestern Norwegian jokes, I will point out that while Ole had three wives (sequentially), none of them was named Lena.
Ole was a member of the Greatest Generation. A basketball star in high school, he got drafted after graduation and in early 1945 found himself in Patton’s Third Army fighting in France. As his company advanced against determined German resistance, Ole heard the incoming whine of mortars and dove into a foxhole. When the explosions quit, he crawled out over the bodies of the two GIs who had jumped in after him. Dazed and shocked, he walked a half mile back to the aid station. It was only then, after a medic gave him a cigarette and, as Ole exhaled, the smoke exited sideways through his cheek, he realized he’d been hit. He had other wounds: his right heel was gone and his back was shredded with shrapnel. Ole spent the next 18 months in hospitals and finally came home a year after the war ended with a GI Joe scar on his left cheek and a stiff back but no limp.
While Ole could no longer be called an athlete, he could still mount a shotgun, and the name of the postwar shooting game was skeet. Ole went at it like he went at everything else, and before long he was using his self-customized Belgium Browning A-5 (augmented pistol grip, hacksawed-off barrel, filed-down trigger) to win more than his share of local and regional tournaments. He developed, or maybe was born with, one of those natural swings that always characterizes great shooters – from a distance you could recognize him by the way what was left of his barrel followed through on his shot. When it came time to tutor me in his art, his assessment of my performance was either, “Gee, Mike, you shot like crap today,” or “That gun sure shoots well, doesn’t it?” Ole did not hand out participation trophies.
We enjoyed a typical kid-dad-mentor outdoorsman relationship: winter weekends hunting pheasants in Iowa and then, when I was 12, the long drive and the big weeklong fall hunt up in Saskatchewan for ducks and geese, Huns and sharptails. Ole was a sportsman first, and to him gun ownership and conservation were two sides of the same coin. He raised and released bobwhites and would take me with him to Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever banquets.
Perhaps because of his long wartime convalescence, he learned to think for himself and after a while grew to trust his thinking. When he started to go bald, he shaved his head, long before Michael Jordan made it fashionable. In 1995, when the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre referred to the FBI as “jackbooted government thugs,” Ole, up until then a lifelong member, severed his ties to the group then wrote them a letter telling them why. He quit competitive skeet after shooters were allowed to mount their guns before calling for the birds: “Made good shooting too easy. It’s supposed to be hard.”
After Dad died, Ole and I stayed in touch – more so than when Dad was alive. I’d call a couple times a month on Sunday afternoons. We usually never said anything important. I just wanted to hear his voice and know what he’d been doing, and I believe those feelings were reciprocated. But the best times were the three or four visits a year when I’d go home to see Mom, and Ole and I would meet at the gun club to catch up and shoot a couple rounds of skeet.
It was early October 2002. The rally monkey Angels had just beaten my Yankees in the American League Division Series on their way to a World Series championship, and I had driven four hours to meet Ole at 8 a.m. when the club opened. We were sitting at a picnic table telling stories and nursing burnt tongues from the standard gun club coffee while the trap boys filled the clay target throwers and strung the heavy electrical cords for the controllers.
Ole wanted to hear about my son, who was then 7 and had just finished his first baseball season, and I was interested in catching up with Ole’s son, who was my age and lived out West. As we talked, two shooters interrupted.
“Mind if we join you?”
Ole looked at the empty skeet fields on either side of ours then gauged the shooters. Both in their thirties, mid-level-manager pudgy, mesh Bob Allen vests with patches signifying shooting accomplishments. Both had over-unders, and one was clearly the alpha.
They sat down, and Alpha attempted to extend his obvious dominance over Beta onto us. It started innocently enough.
“You guys shoot often?”
“Not much anymore,” Ole replied.
“You shoot competitively?”
Then Alpha started talking, nonstop, about how many rounds he’d shot over the past month, his best scores, his wins, how he had spent two hours the night before loading shells and on and on. We were supposed to be impressed, maybe even intimidated. Ole looked at me, rolled his eyes, got up and walked over to help the trap boys.
We reassembled at Station 1, and Alpha said to Ole, “Go ahead, Pops, start us off,” with no consideration in his tone.
He had sized us up and dismissed us, probably when he first saw us, and now that we were shooting together, Alpha had no doubt we were about to make his day. Ole gave him a look – half smile, half smirk – but didn’t say a word until he called for the bird, gun down, of course.
And there it was, like it always had been – even they saw it – the Ole follow-through. Of course he hit the bird, and the low house bird, too, and the double. We all did. On Station 2, Beta – having now had time to process just what that follow-through meant – hurried and missed the high house double then hesitated and missed the low house bird, too. Beta was now out of the competition Alpha had at first wanted but now was not so sure about. (And in case you might be thinking otherwise, my shooting skills, or lack thereof, had no bearing on the outcome.)
Despite having lost his backup, Alpha hung in there until Station 4, when he led the high house bird too far, and I can to this day hear Ole’s dismissive snort. Like Beta, Alpha’s miss begat a rattled follow-up miss on the low house bird. Ole shot over the high house bird on Station 6, but by then – we all knew it – the competition was over.
As Ole and I were picking up our empties, Alpha came up to us.
“Ahem. ... We’ve decided to go over and shoot sporting clays,” he announced and started to walk away.
Ole let them get far enough out so when he said what we had to say, the folks milling around the clubhouse would hear.
“Hey!” he growled in a voice textured by half a century of cigarettes and bourbon. “You sons of (guns) don’t know (bunk).”
First and only time I’ve seen people scurry at a gun club.
“Gee, Ole, you sure showed them.” I smiled.
Ole didn’t. “No, that was easy. Those guys are all about the outside – the Eye-talian guns and the ‘100-Straight’ patches and the talk. They’re like balloons: pop the outside and all you get is gas. I made a career shooting against guys like that. When they figure out the inside part – that good shooting comes from what you’re made of, not what you wear or talk about – then they’ll be good shots. But those two will probably never get it. Let’s go grab a cup of coffee and shoot another round. You’ve got to work on picking up that high house bird quicker.”
When I saw the movie Gran Torino, I swore Clint Eastwood’s character was modeled after Ole. I told him that. He said no, but he smiled.
When Ole died in 2011, I found myself living the lyrics of that old Guy Clark tune, the Jerry Jeff Walker version of which is my favorite, “Desperados Waiting for a Train”: “The day before he died I went to see him. I was grown, he was almost gone. … To me he is one of the heroes of this country, but why’s he all dressed up like them old men. … We was friends, me and this old man.”
I’ll never know how much of who I am today is due to Ole; it’s so deep in me I can’t see it. I still hunt pheasants and shoot an A-5. And when I follow through on that long crossing South Dakota rooster and it drops, I’m not surprised when – even before my little chocolate Lab can finish the retrieve – I can hear ol’ Jerry Jeff sing: “When I was just a kid, they all called me his sidekick.”