SON OF A GUN
by Vicki Ellis Griffis
“Audie Murphy had smooth, slender fingers, made perfect for a hair-trigger marksman,” Michael Dante said at the last Audie Murphy Day celebration in Greenville, Texas. He was Audie’s costar in the movies, Apache Rifles and Arizona Raiders. “Audie handled his colt pistol lovingly. He would place it back in the holster, putting it to bed so gently. He was lightning fast, feline like a cat. I can understand why he survived (the war).”
Although Michael was describing his actions on the set of his movies, “survived” was the perfect word to use, as it seemed like that is what Audie had to do from the day he was born.
In boyhood and manhood, there was a good reason Audie cared about his weapons; they kept his family from starving when his father deserted them for weeks, and finally one day left for good. Audie was left to be the man of the family at the age of fifteen. He taught himself deadly aim with rocks, slingshots, rifles, and if need be, his bare hands.
Today, not many of us have ever been hungry or broke enough to have to go out and hunt for our supper. In 1939, it was not all that unusual, but the Murphys actually went to bed hungry and woke up hungrier more than once. Boyhood friend, Neil Williams, told Bryan Woolley of The Dallas Morning News, “The Murphys was as broke as the Ten Commandants. They actually didn’t have enough to eat sometimes. A fellow I knew had a turnip patch. One winter, when the ground was froze, he looked out the window and saw Audie out there with a short-handled grubbing hoe, trying to dig some of them turnips out.”
Someone made Audie a slingshot, and he not only learned to hit a standing target, but he could bring down a bird in flight or hit a scurrying rabbit. Robert Cawthon, Audie’s Celeste neighbor and boyhood pal, recalled seeing Audie hit and kill running rabbits with rocks on several occasions.
As per Colonel Harold B. Simpson in his book, “Audie Murphy, American Soldier,” Audie shot his first gun, a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun, at the age of eleven. Bob Sullivan, borrowed the weapon from his father, bowing to peer pressure from his friends, loaded it with Double 0 Buck, and brought it out into the backyard. They placed the barrel of the gun in the fork of a nearby tree to steady it, and Audie volunteered to fire the first shot.
After several balks with Audie laughing as his buddies squinted their eyes and flinched in anticipation, he finally pulled the trigger. Audie, being small in stature, was knocked down on his backside, while his friends rolled on the ground laughing.
According to Sarah Swindell, my co-author of “Memories in Blue and White, a History of Celeste Schools,” the Murphy family were not the only ones having a hard time keeping food on the table. She related, “I have heard W. T. and Brud (Glyn) Swindell speak of going hunting with Audie with only a shell or two. Buckshot was scarce, even though it only cost five cents apiece, that was a lot of money back then. Most times they didn’t have more than a dime’s worth of shells in their pockets. Whether they (and their families) went to bed with food in their stomachs depended on whether the moving target of rabbit, squirrel, etc. was hit or not. Some days there were no kills, and the young hunters would parch or popcorn meant for the farm animals, or make water gravy. That was their meal.”
Keith Kirkland tells that his Dad, Earnest Berry, was several years older than Audie during the time Audie lived at Lane. Earnest said that Audie would come to the store there and would dance for pennies and nickels so he could buy candy or bread for his family and himself.
However, It did not take Audie long to become very proficient with a shotgun. Although he was small, he had large, strong hands and long fingers which allowed him to easily handle a gun. He shot rabbits and hunted birds with his .22, using short cartridges. It was the cheapest gun made and ammunition for it cost about a half cent per cartridge. His chief targets were the plentiful squirrels which lived amongst the mighty oaks and hickories which covered the fields where he roamed.
Audie’s best and life-long friend, Monroe Hackney, attested that, “Audie had eyes like a hawk and could spot squirrels in the tallest, bushiest tree when no one else could.” Hackney added, “A quick shot by Audie would invariably follow the sighting, and the little gray would come tumbling down through the branches.”
Audie’s nearly perfect eyesight and hearing skills no doubt added welcome meat to the dinner table. Jake Bowen, a man for whom Audie worked in Greenville just before he left for the service, remembered how well Audie could shoot cottontails with that .22 – – from a moving car.
Back then, there were no video games, televisions, computers, or air conditioning to keep kids inside. So, the boys would get together and create their own fun. Boys will be boys, and perhaps they lived too dangerously and played too rough, mostly out of sight of their parents. If they had only seen what went on when they weren’t looking, the parents would never have allowed the boys out of their sight. But, probably if someone had told them, they would never have believed it . . . .
To be continued . . . .This is the fourth in a series on Audie Leon Murphy, born in Kingston, Texas, reared in Celeste, who grew up to become the most decorated soldier of World War II.
Used with permission and courtesy of the author.