Best Friends are
worth the tears

31

Bob Johnson firing a .480 Ruger Dave was testing at the time.

Lifelong pals are the gold standard; the ones with whom you share a campfire, your personal triumphs and tragedies, your deepest thoughts and your highest adventures.

Friends like that are very rare, like a fine wine, a perfectly aged whiskey or a steak so tender you really can cut it with a fork. So it was with Bob Johnson, a man about whom I hoped I would never have to write about in such a way as now.

First time we met, he was working his way through college by pulling shifts in a gas station within walking distance of my mom’s house. I was a 14-year-old fledgling gun nut and we would chat for hours about all things “gun,” with some interesting misadventures along the way. Hanging out in a gas station can be dangerously educational.

He once assembled a diabolical airgun, using the station’s air hose and compressor, replacing the attachment used to fill tires with a nozzle to which he had cleverly added a piece of straight brass tube. The projectiles were small bolts, and he could launch them with a muzzle velocity that might just clobber a small deer. I was a young teen and instead of prudently running for cover, I stood there and cheered him on as he fired those bolts across the street, over the roof of a competing gas station and out into a swamp area beyond.

Then one day when he appeared to be assembling the airgun, I quickly learned instead he had crafted a different nozzle with a tube hanging down into a mug of gasoline. Bingo! He had constructed a flamethrower — in the gas station, mind you! Bob pressed his luck sometimes, and mine as well, but we survived.

When he moved his young family across the state, I was there with my beat up pickup to help him haul some furniture. When his marriage fell apart, I was there as best as I could be, but he quickly landed a job working for a communications outfit in Alaska, getting as far away from his disappointment as possible. He worked at radio sites from Alaska’s Southeast out to a little island called Shemya at the far end of the Aleutians, closer to Russia than the U.S.

He bought a tape recorder for me so we could share recorded messages. Listening to friendly voices is a good way to fight isolation and boredom. One year he showed up back in Washington and we headed for the mountains to try out his new Ruger No. 1 chambered in .243 Winchester, with which he was eye-popping accurate. He also bought a Remington bolt-action XP-100 pistol in .221 Fireball, for which I built a holster.

He needed a glove to deal with the recoil, but Bob keep on firing — in many ways — until the end.

We hunted deer together and grouse in the mountains south of Mount Rainier National Park. He lost track of me in the brush one afternoon and dropped a bird almost on top of me with a shot from his side-by-side 12-gauge. I think it rattled him more than me.

I once bought a pistol from him, a .32 ACP Beretta, while I was attending the University of Washington. One afternoon high in the mountains, we fired it at a stump on the far side of a canyon, with dust puffs telling us when we missed, which wasn’t often. It had to be better than a hundred yards across that canyon, and I quickly appreciated just how far a .32-caliber, 70-grain bullet could travel accurately.

When he remarried and settled outside of Anchorage, I took my vacation to visit. I was editing a small weekly newspaper in a logging community east of Seattle at the time. We had a ball, shooting magnum sixguns, driving up toward Mount McKinley, with me seeing things I could otherwise only read about. I got to see the Alaska pipeline over at Glennallen. The week went far quicker than either of us expected.

He worked several years up on the North Slope, week-on, week-off. Toward his retirement, he and his wife moved first to Arizona and then back to Washington, with him commuting back and forth to finish out his time. I was working as editor of a now-defunct weekly outdoor news tabloid at the time.

When his wife Diana died from cancer, I was there to listen. By then, I was working at Gun Week, a tabloid devoted to gun-related news. And then one day he called to tell me his own diagnosis. He had developed a rare form of cancer. The doctors were trying several different drugs, all of them hideously expensive, and none promising a cure.

But he still liked to get outside. Our final trip to the “High Lonesome” was bittersweet. At the time I was doing a test on a Ruger Alaskan in .480 Ruger. It was a surprisingly comfortable handgun to shoot, and the cartridge — though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to even some experienced shooters — was very accurate out of the short barrel.

He needed a glove to handle the recoil, but he did rather well. It was on that trip he briefly mentioned the drugs he was currently taking had some nasty side effects. That afternoon, he said something that haunts me to this day.
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a great day.” It was as though he was telling me good-bye.

The next summer, we were all set for another day in the high country. About a half-hour before he was to arrive at my place, the phone rang.

“Dave,” he said sadly, “I just can’t do it anymore. I’ll have to back out.”

It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. The drugs were no longer working. A few months later, as I checked into my room at a Chicago hotel where I was attending the annual Gun Rights Policy Conference, my cellphone rang. It was Bob’s brother-in-law. My friend, with whom I’d shared so many good times, and some bad, was gone. There would be no more conversations about guns and reloading; no more sessions planning another trek afield or discussions about the stupid things we’d survived together.

I was asked to be at the memorial. Damn right, I would be there. When I told the crowd about the airgun and flamethrower, the room erupted with laughter. Evidently, his current crop of gray-haired retirement community friends never suspected his dangerous past.

Bob left me something more than just the priceless memories of a friendship that had spanned decades. It was the 12-gauge double with which he’d shot that grouse out of the air, over my head, all those years ago. I suspect he had a last smile with the bequest. He knew I’d remember. I hope he also knew I’d never forget.

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