He's a shooter, that's what he is. He shoots when he is happy and when he is blue, when the weather is cold and when it is humid. He shot when he was a kid and the world was ahead of him. He shoots now that he is 82 and nightfall is approaching. • He shoulders the shotgun, follows the target with the barrel and fires. One moment the clay pigeon is sailing through the air at the Skyway Trap and Skeet Club in Pinellas County. The next instant it is gone, obliterated. • George Silvernail Jr. seldom misses. Serious shooters know his name. He competed in the Olympics in 1968. At the time, he was living in Puerto Rico and represented that land. He didn't medal. He still enjoyed competing with the best shooters in the world. • "Pull!'' he says tersely. • Standing on a platform at the range, he commands a worker to release another clay pigeon. Small and orange, shaped like a disc, it spins out of a concrete building at 60 mph. • BLAM! Misses the first shot. BLAM! Gets it with the second load. Cracks open the shotgun. Empty shells tumble out. Smoke. Smell of gunpowder.
He was born into it. His daddy, George Silvernail Sr., was a shooter too. During the Depression, the Silvernails moved from Pensacola to St. Petersburg, where father gave the son a .22 rifle and instructions: "Go out and get us some squirrel for supper.''
Seventy years ago, when St. Petersburg and Pinellas County had more trees than people, nobody batted an eye at the sound of gunfire or the sight of a boy with a rifle and a sack of dead squirrels.
The boy stalked squirrel in an oak hammock. He lay on his back under the tree, got quiet, just waited oh so patiently. A squirrel, curious, came out from behind a limb and looked down. He shot the squirrel off the limb. He shot a mess of squirrels. He brought them home in a sack to his mother, who fried them. Southern cooks seldom worried about cholesterol.
The place he shot squirrels in 1938 is now paved. There's a grocery and a liquor store on the corner. The interstate is a half block away.
He misses the first shot. He misses the second. He stares with disgust at his shotgun, as if it failed him. Maybe it did. He says, "Maybe I'm talking too much. Shooting takes focus.''
He was too young to fight in World War II. His job at home was putting food on the table. He killed doves when they rose from fields that are no more. He shot quail in pines and palmetto woodlands that are no more. He says, "The whole county is a bird sanctuary," implying disapproval.
His family ate rabbits he hunted in Pinellas County at a time when citrus groves covered more than 50,000 acres from Tarpon Springs to Pinellas Point. Grove owners seldom objected to a young man looking to kill a few rabbits between the orange trees for supper. In the 21st century, the county is down to 1 or 2 acres of groves. Lots of people keep bunnies for pets and would never consider eating them.
• • •
His daddy helped establish Skyway Trap and Skeet Club in 1945. His daddy was a good shooter and one time shot skeet with the movie cowboy, Roy Rogers, who was the real thing, a good shooter.
George Silvernail Jr. studied business at the University of Florida and was drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He was stationed in the Midwest where he served as a bodyguard.
He married. They had two children. After the war he joined his daddy in the mirror and glass business. They did all right, eventually expanding to the Caribbean, where the younger George worked off and on for 30 years. They were good shooters down there. They shot live pigeons. Live pigeon shooting has almost vanished from the face of the earth. It's still done in Spain legally, illegally here.
He qualified for the Olympics and headed to Mexico City with high hopes. He was careful about drinking the water, instead quenching his thirst with beer and Cokes from bottles. On the morning of competition he thought a cup of coffee would be all right and focus his mind even more.
Maybe the coffee didn't boil long enough.
The diarrhea hit first.
In the opening round, he still shot 96 out of 100 targets. There were real shooters competing in Mexico and he was fourth.
Next day — final round — he felt worse. He hit 92 out of 100 targets and finished in 31st place. John Braithwaite of Great Britain, who knocked down 198 of 200 clay pigeons, won gold.
• • •
George Silvernail Jr. is a shooter. "I'm a natural,'' he tells people. He doesn't aim. Aim a shotgun behind a moving target and you'll miss it. He points in the general direction and sweeps the barrel to keep up with the clay pigeon spinning away. He doesn't think. It's intuitive.
At the trap club he is the only shooter who belonged in 1945. Everybody else — "Broadway the fortune teller. Bradham, who had a liquor store'' — are deceased.
He had cataracts until a doctor removed them. He wears thick glasses but he sees well enough. He shows up every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, which happen to be the days when the range is open. He shoots 100 targets, sometimes alone, but usually with shooters who are many years younger. He has taught many of them.
For the record, he shoots a Browning over-and-under, though he also has a Remington over-and-under he likes as much. At home he still has the .22 rifle his daddy gave him in 1938 with orders to kill squirrels for supper. He doesn't hunt anymore.
The world never stops changing. He is married for the second time. She is from Scotland. She isn't a shooter, but she is a beautiful woman and doesn't complain about his shooting. He has a daughter, 58. His son died two decades ago. AIDS.
Target turns into dust. We'll all be dust one day.
He says, "See how an old man can still shoot."
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.