In 1980, at the suggestion of a friend, I signed up for a class in “Basic Pistol” at the American Pistol Institute, in Paulden Arizona. My friend was new to shooting, while I thought I pretty much knew what there was to know (in that way I was a typical American male) and so I showed up expecting very little.
What I got was quite different.
The class was taught by Col. Jeff Cooper, who died at his home on the grounds of API yesterday. Col. Cooper, as most people who read his works or dealt with him indirectly – as I did – called him, was a commanding presence. He was loud but not profane, gruff but always civil, and a wonderful combination of earthy and erudite. He represented a certain ideal of American manhood; John Wayne without the mincy little shorts and man-bag. He’d ‘seen the elephant’ and served in the Marines and as a private military instructor in Latin America.
He was also by my standards (and pretty much by any contemporary standards) a racist and sexist, and his conservativism dial was set so far to the right as to be literally medieval.
He codified the body of doctrine and training that became the modern small-arms manual, and served as the center of a loose web of men and women who advance and teach the art of practical shooting worldwide. Our military and police today are taught by instructors almost all of whom learned at or from those who learned at, Jeff’s school.
There I was affectionately – I hope – known as “the hippie” and it was only my knowledge of the 30 Years’ War (a subject he challenged me on out of the blue) and some other random historical facts I managed to dredge out of memory that got him to tolerate me. I was a very good student, if only a decent shot, and managed not to piss off any of the other instructors too badly (except for Clint Smith when he asked me the “Bozo” question).
Col. Cooper had stage presence to burn. He used that presence – all of it – in the service of his teaching and craft, and after hours in wide-ranging discussions in his library with the students who – like all good students of a sensei – gathered around to soak up his mannerisms and wisdom in the hope that they would translate into mastery.
I never became a master, but the things he taught me in that class – and in later discussions – really did become core “truths” for me. I may have completely disagreed with Col. Cooper about female police officers (who he called “copchicks”) and on the root causes of political issues in Africa and Latin America – but he was always willing to engage in respectful argument, and when you’d made a point he couldn’t parry, he’d grunt softly and acknowledge it generously.
I hope to grow into someone with strong opinions and still keep that kind of honesty, and if I got nothing else from the Colonel, I’ll take that.
Col. Cooper and others of his ilk that I have been lucky enough to know represent a real kind of uniquely American ideal that I hope never goes out of style.
In the middle of a shoot-off (class-ending competition that settled your rank within the class – none of this touchy-feely non-hierarchical learning for him) he stopped two of us, fixed me with a stare, and reminded me that “You can’t miss fast enough to win, Marc.”
Like many things he said, that is still and will always be absolutely true.