One early September day in 1962 the warm afternoon sun poured through the classroom window and reflected off the page of my notebook upon which I had neatly copied the geometry problem that Mr. Pierce had chalked on the blackboard. Beneath was drawn a thick black horizonal line that was perpendicularly bisected by yet another thick black line dividing the bottom of the page into halves. My list of statements was precisely printed on the left of the vertical and the corresponding numbered reasons on the right.
As a freshman I had fought my way through the barbicans, drawbridge, and portcullis of algebra to reach the inner courtyard of geometry. With a year of mechanical drawing under by belt I was anxious and eager to deal with Euclid in all his forms.
Mr. Pierce had been grinding chalk on slate for nearly 40 years and was just a year or two from retirement. It was a commonly held belief among the young students at New London High School that the old gentleman was so well versed in his subject because he had been a student of Euclid’s. Tall, thin, slightly bent, and nearly bald, the frail looking Mr. Pierce resembled, if you will, a kindly C. Montgomery Burns, the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and Homer Simpson’s boss. Like Burns to Simpson Mr. Pierce released his hounds on me in the form formal proofs. For the next ten months my name and the compliment, “Excellent” would rarely occur in the same breath, particularly when I spontaneously snorted a not too well concealed horse laugh on the day he introduced the Pons Asinorum or “Bridge of Asses” theorem. In my defense I was a sophomore and who has more right to be sophomoric?
Hardly the bell stopped ringing on the first day when he assigned seats and distributed books. It was then Mr. Pierce made it clear that there was hard work ahead and no way around it. There was a new vocabulary of symbols to be learned and axioms, postulates, and corollaries to be committed to memory. “Geometry”, he told us, “was coldly logical.” If we adhered to strict methodology we would be successful but gave us a warning by telling us a little tale, perhaps apocryphal, of Euclid and Ptolemy.
Euclid of Alexandria was a Hellenic mathematician who lived in Greek ruled Alexandria, Egypt, probably during the reign of Ptolemy I. Euclid had written Elements, perhaps the earliest comprehensive mathematics textbooks. Ptolemy, as the story goes, employed Euclid as a tutor but was somewhat flummoxed by geometry. He asked Euclid if there were an easier way to master the subject, to which Euclid famously told his patron, “Sire, there is no royal road to geometry.”
Success in any endeavor requires hard word, be it geometry or rifle shooting. I learned that lesson from, among others, Mr. Pierce and the man who is to shooting what Euclid is to geometry, Lones Wigger.
Wigger is arguably the greatest rifleman who ever lived. He was quite candid about this ability. He believed that he was not a natural rifle shot and only achieved his three Olympic medals, 99 other international medals, world records, world championships, and countless national championship by dint of hard work.
He knew that there is a big difference between wishing and willing. Almost everyone wishes they might be an Olympic champion, but only those who are willing to do the relentless day to day hard work of preparation can possibly achieve that goal. Wigger was not sure he could outshoot every one of his competitors, but he was certain he could out work them.
As he often said, ““It’s persistence that pays the biggest dividends—constant, steady practice, week in and week out, all year long. I truly believe that anyone can be a champion marksman if they work at it long and hard enough.”
Hard training, coupled with another lesson he taught me, brought me a bit of fame and fortune. After toiling as a journeyman rifleman for decades I turned 55 and became an intermediate senior. I was usually in the top ten per cent at the national position championship, but not good enough to win the big bannana. That being said I was one of the best 55 year old position shooters, so I set myself the goal of winning the Intermediate three position title. From late April through July I trained five days a week, without fail,and won.
Ten years later I was 65 and, now a senior, thought I might make history repeat itself with a run at the geezer trophy. I trained hard, but after the first day of the championships found myself 17 points behind the leader.
The first day was blessed with good conditions but the Perry weather turned vicious on the second day. The range was swept by 30 mile per hour wind gusts from two o’clock which drove a hard rain nearly horizontal. I survived prone and was a hero with only three visible misses standing. Hard holding and luck allowed me to climb back to within striking distance of the leader. It was then that I remembered Wigger’s second lesson.
He had once mentioned to me that short squat guys, like us, have an advantage shooting kneeling in the wind. All you had to do was to take up a couple of notches on your sling and slouch low. I did so and ended up winning the sought after title by 17 points. Mr. Pierce amd Wigger both taught me the value and rewards of hard work. Mr Pierce’s reward was a hard earned B- in geometry. Wigger’s was a good-humored prank: while presenting me the Robert K. Moore Trophy on the stage at Camp Perry he pulled it back with a grin, accompanied by a collegial congratulatory clap on my shoulder as I staggered off balance reaching for the hard won prize.