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THOMPSON: Divine intervention or sheer luck? The day I almost killed my brother

December 30, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Have you ever killed someone? Strange question? Perhaps. But a long time ago…precisely 60 years ago this week…I almost killed my brother, Clark, on New Year's Day in 1960. He lives today only because of a split-second decision that cold Winter morning…divine intervention if you believe in such things…sheer luck if not.

I was just nine years old…Clark was almost 12. Home was a small two-bedroom, one-bath home in Anthony…a town of about 400 hard-working folks mostly born and raised there.

Our dad was a master carpenter by training, and mom managed a luncheonette in a Rexall Drug store on the town square in nearby Ocala. While certainly not wealthy, our parents made a comfortably good life for us.

Our home was within walking distance of school, but on New Year’s Day - a Friday - we were still enjoying our two-week Christmas break. I don’t remember whether our parents went out for New Year’s Eve…but they left Friday mid-morning to visit a number of friends and neighbours and wish them a Happy New Year.

Clark and I were left at home…my brother old enough to watch over things in the few hours mom and dad would be gone. Even so, mom left the telephone numbers of where she and dad would be…just in case.

Clark busied himself that morning putting the finishing touches on a Revell model of the USS Constitution…a three-masted war ship commissioned in 1797…one of his Christmas gifts. Clark was artistic and pretty much a perfectionist. Everything about “Old Ironsides” would be exactly right when he finished...even the ship’s paint and rigging.

With my brother engrossed in his model, I was left to myself. I played with our dog, Pal, but apparently had too much free time on my hands. I started to explore…and what better place with mom and dad gone…than their bedroom.

I rummaged through their closet looking for nothing in particular…when my eyes fell on my dad’s two shotguns. One - a Browning Light 12-gage Semi-Automatic was in a leather case…but my attention turned to his Winchester 37 single-shot, full-choke 12-gage shotgun. It was easier to operate…a breech-loader with a single hammer.

Columnist Don Thompson’s brother, Clark Thompson, with the 12-gauge Winchester shotgun 60 years after the incident that all most ended his life.
Columnist Don Thompson’s brother, Clark Thompson, with the 12-gauge Winchester shotgun 60 years after the incident that all most ended his life.

Dad was a true sportsman - a great fisherman and hunter - but he never kept a loaded gun in the house. Even at nine years old I had always heard him preach gun safety…and loaded weapons in the house were the biggest no-no.

I took the shotgun…and as I recall…marched down the hallway gun on shoulder…first into Clark’s and my bedroom, then making a right face…and continuing into the living room. Our living room looked like most American living rooms of the era…a sofa, with two matching end tables and lamps, with a huge mirror above the sofa on one wall.

I stood in front of the mirror…posing with my dad’s shotgun…emulating a military drill even though the gun was as big as I was. Clark was in the kitchen…painstakingly working on his model ship at a table against a kitchen wall that backed the living room wall where the huge mirror hung.

I continued to admire myself in the mirror…and resting the gun stock firmly against my leg near my groin…I pulled back the single hammer and squeezed the trigger.

Unless you have ever heard a 12-gage shotgun go off…inside a house…you cannot imagine how deafening…how utterly terrifying the sound. Despite what my dad had always said, there was a shotgun shell in the barrel…probably 8-shot that he often used to hunt Dove and Quail.

A full-choke shotgun means that 70 percent of the load in a shell hits within a four-foot circle 40 yards away…the design makes bringing down a game bird much more likely…but you have to be a good shot. After I picked myself up from the living room floor…the blast had spun and thrown me like a rag doll in a strong wind.

My ears rang…and I could not hear as millions of almost microscopic pieces of glass from the mirror that no longer existed settled on me and on every surface in the living room. Our dog had run from the room to the bedroom…under the bed. Had I not been in shock...I might have joined him.

As I stood…terribly disoriented…I noticed a six-inch hole in the wall where the mirror once hung. The hundreds of lead shot went through that wood wall…and through the kitchen wall…leaving an even bigger hole.

It broke windows in the far kitchen wall…splintered wood kitchen cabinets…broke the kitchen light fixture. Some shot embedded in cabinets and the far kitchen wall. There was no trace of “Old Ironsides.”

Literally, moments before I pulled that trigger, my brother Clark got up from his model and went to the bathroom…a fortuitous call of nature. He ran from the bathroom into the living room…still pulling up his pants.

Had Clark remained at his table working on the model, the blast would have hit his face…literally blowing his head off. I was in shock…terrified. I remember screaming…and crying. Clark - to the best of my memory - remained relatively calm given what had just happened.

He called one or two numbers before reaching mom…I believe he said simply, “Don shot the gun in the house.” I could not see my mom’s face…but I’m sure it reflected a terror she never felt before. She and Dad showed up within minutes.

I don’t know whether I thought I was in trouble…I probably did. All I knew is that I had fired a shotgun in our house. But mom and dad did not punish me…they comforted me…as best they could.

As I remember, my dad caught hell from my mom. She let him know that there would never be a loaded gun in our home…ever again. Dad offered no defence…he knew he had made a mistake…one that he would never repeat.

I don’t know whether Clark - approaching 72 years of age - thinks much about that day. I do on occasion…not so much the details described here…but what might have been.

Except for divine intervention...or sheer luck, Clark’s life would have ended that day…at age 12.

He would not have met his beautiful wife…had a son…and four grandchildren. He would not have served his country in a 27-year military career…or in an equally lengthy law enforcement career.

I’m not sure what would have come of me that morning…alone except for the family dog…with a brother I had senselessly killed. I can’t imagine my life would have been the mostly charmed life I have led the past six decades. What it might have done to mom and dad…one can only guess.

Clark and I grew up with no fear of guns. Dad taught us gun safety…and we hunted everything from squirrels to deer together for years. I don’t keep a gun in my house today…a choice made unrelated to the events that day 60 years ago. Clark does. In fact, he now owns the very Winchester 37 I shot that day so long ago.

Brother, all I can say is that I am so very glad you’re here — that you lived — and continue to live a rich, full life. As you read this, know that I love you and you’ll always be…big brother. Happy New Year!

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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