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Croatian Joe

It was just before Christmas, years and years ago, at a cozy pub in northern Vancouver Island. When gatherings, minus Covid masks, social distancing and uncertainty, were not only allowed but understandably popular.

I sit with friends, enjoying some holiday cheer. An elderly man at the next table leans over, haltingly asks about the silver fern motif on my polo shirt. The fern is the symbol of the New Zealand All Blacks, the best team in the world, I tell him. He nods. He has heard of them.

His name is Joe, and he hails originally from Croatia. His hair, iron grey, rests above a well lived in face and a powerful, lined neck. Hulking shoulders and massive, gnarled hands, fingers like thick sausages, complete his makeup.

Croatian Joe emigrated to the west coast of Canada in 1952, following a stint in the Yugoslav militia. We chat a bit, and I learn he played some rugby as a younger man. Though now the other side of 80, he looks like he still could.

What did you most like about the sport, I ask.

The contact, he replies. I hit hard. I nod that indeed he probably had.

Now he views the very occasional game on TV. However, he doesn’t understand the rules. I suggest he need not worry, as this puts him on equal footing with most who play and watch on a regular basis.

The conversation then turns to the outdoors. He indicates he is good at two things. One is fishing, the other is skeet shooting. And he will be my guide.

And so, three days later, linked only by choice of watering hole and a brief conversation about rugby, I find myself with Croatian Joe at the local Skeet Club. It is a frosty, late December morning. A pale-yellow sun takes residence in a cloudless sky while the snow crunches pleasingly under our heavy boots.

I am nervous, even sweating a bit. Joe hands me an old 12-gauge shotgun and a package of shells. Relax, he counsels.

He is an excellent instructor. I learn the safety protocols, then how to open the shotgun, pop in a shell, and set the sights on the concrete bunker some 25 meters away. On my signal, a bright orange disk will be released. I am to track the disk, keep the gun sight just in front, and fire.

Demonstration being the best teacher, Croatian Joe shows exactly how. Open goes the breech, in goes a shell, out comes the disk, bang goes the gun. The sound echoes through the woods. The disk disintegrates into a million pieces. I imagine that fifty years ago opposing fly halves would have had about the same chance of escaping his clutches.

Now it is my turn. After an age of fussing and fidgeting, I am ready. Joe wiggles a thick forefinger in the world-wide signal for shooting. Pull, I call.

The disk arcs right to left across the field, just below the tree line. Holding the gun tight, I fire. Uninterrupted, the disk continues through the air before settling softly on the ground.

Many more times I try, only once, in cricketing parlance, troubling the scorers. Registering a hit certainly proves to be a challenge. Still, the recoil of the gun against my shoulder is bearable. And the coach in me appreciates the discipline and crisp efficiency required to ram home the ammo, close the breech, track the disk, and pull the trigger.

Almost without warning, the afternoon is upon us. The sun fights a losing battle against the trees, and the shadows lengthen. It grows even colder.

I barely notice, but many other skeet shooting enthusiasts have joined us. It looks an interesting crowd to me. Tough talking, latter day Rambos with camouflage jackets and dirty 4-wheel drive trucks. Names like Mack and Hank and Clint. Guns rest jauntily on shoulders, beneath the obligatory cigarettes and a wide variety of headgear, from toques to baseball hats to stetsons.

Behind the range, in the best of sporting traditions, tailgate parties are in full swing. Skeet shooting is obviously thirsty work, and the beers are going down a treat. Moose and elk meat, sausages and bacon, sizzle in over-sized frying pans. Not a vegetable in sight.

Today, you enjoy, Croatian Joe asks.

I allow that I have.

Very good, he says. He then glances at his watch, screws up his face. Gives a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

Must go, I’m already late, he announces. My lady will give me hell.

And so, we depart. Me with my memories and him to his wife.

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