Charlie, get your gun|Love of outdoors has been his sport

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 3, 2010

On his wedding day more than 53 years ago, Charlie Crowther was so excited that a new gun he ordered had arrived that he took it into his apartment first.

“The gun went over the threshold before Annabelle did,” he laughed. “But I’ve still got ’em both.”

Born in Zimmermann, La., 87 years ago this coming Jan. 23, he grew up in Yazoo City and, in 1936, got his first muzzleloader shotgun — and he still has it. He saw it hanging on the wall of a barn, and the farmer gave it to him. It needed some repairing, needed some parts that were missing, and an old man, Kinsey Green, made them for Charlie.

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Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

Since then, he’s made his own parts, repaired guns that needed it and learned to make muzzleloaders. He’s made as many as three in a year, but usually turns out one or two. He uses curly maple or walnut for the stocks and often engraves them. He’s made 69 but has never sold one — he gives them to friends.

He’s done a lot of hunting in his time, but has about given it up — however not before he filled some shelves in his den with trophies he brought home from various competitions. In 1952, he took part in the first muzzleloading deer hunt in Mississippi and killed a deer. He was the first person in the state in modern times to kill a deer with a muzzleloading flintlock, but he modestly explained, “Nobody hunts with a flintlock but me.”

He also won the flintlock aggregate when he was 75, competing in open classes with shooters who were half his age. His competitors were usually lying down, using arm rests and score sights and everything else while Charlie stood up “with both hands on that flintlock and won the prize. Now they make a gun they call a muzzleloader, but it doesn’t even look like a rifle. They’re the worst-shooting guns I’ve ever seen.”

Charlie’s love of hunting was interrupted for a few years when he graduated from high school in Yazoo City and took a course in sheet metal work that led to a job with U.S. Aluminum in Bridgeport, Conn. There, he made cylinder heads for airplane engines. He didn’t want to stay there — World War II was under way and he tried to join the Navy, but couldn’t pass the eye test. The Selective Service board told him his job was essential, but when he came home to his grandfather’s funeral he went to the draft board and announced, “I want y’all to draft me.”

He went to Jackson on a bus and, on his way to the induction center, saw some Marine recruiters. He took his glasses off and, as he walked by, they told him, “We’re looking for a few good men. Come on in, and let’s talk.”

Charlie had “kind of memorized” the eye chart when he went by it “and, the next thing I remember, I was on a train headed to boot camp at Paris Island, N.C.”

He was wearing a suit but, by the time he got there, the smoke from the train had gotten it dirty. It didn’t matter, for “they took all my clothes off, sat me on a stool and sheared my hair.” The recruits were herded through a shower, then “we walked around all day with no clothes on. The first thing they gave me was a cap with a Marine insignia on it. Sgt. Lou Diamond — he was quite a hero because when flying he had dropped a bomb down the smokestack of a Japanese destroyer sinking it — looked at me and said, ‘You’re not a civilian, but you’re sure as hell not a Marine. But we’re going to try to make one out of you or kill you — we’ll do one of the two.’ I wondered why in the world anyone would want to get into the Marine Corps. I never heard a kind word while I was there.”

Charlie was in a unit slated to be in the invasion of Okinawa and was ready to board the ship when some officials from the Red Cross took him out of line. His younger brother, Carl, had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, and military procedure was that if one son in a family was killed, the other should not be put at risk.

Charlie figures that, if Carl hadn’t been killed, then he probably would’ve been, for many of his buddies died in the Okinawa invasion.

He went to Chicago to a teletype mechanics school after which he was sent to the Philippines, being stationed in several cities before he wound up in Zamboanga, where he lived in a tent with a parrot and four monkeys.

Charlie got his tentmates by trading cigarettes and beer (he never smoked or drank, but the items were provided to men in service) for them. He got the parrot first, who spoke only Spanish but loved to sit on Charlie’s shoulder and rub against his head.

“I loved that parrot and he loved me,” he said, then he traded for a monkey, then a female monkey with two babies. “I was the only one in the unit who had animals. Maybe I was the only crazy one.”

The men were preparing for the invasion of Japan when the atom bomb was dropped and the war ended. Charlie couldn’t take his zoo with him, so he gave them back to the one he got them from.

Back home, Charlie wanted to go to LSU, but he was from out of state and his grades weren’t exceptional. But, once again, his brother’s ultimate sacrifice came to his aid. A Gen. Middleton at LSU, who had been at the Battle of the Bulge, knew Charlie had learned some discipline — “I had to” — and suggested a course of action. He went to college in Monroe for a year, then transferred to LSU where he earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in forestry and wildlife and fisheries management.

He went to work as assistant manager of the White River Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, a 168,231-acre preserve where he did it all with no overtime because he was told, “We pay you by the year.”

Charlie got a promotion in 1954 and came to Vicksburg where he went to work for the Corps of Engineers, reviewing all the flood control plans and related projects from Cairo, Ill., to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He prepared environmental impact studies “and wrote a lot of reports with my left hand.” He never used computers.

Charlie’s life came full circle soon after he arrived in Vicksburg, when he attended a wedding and a girl he had known in the fourth grade was standing at the bridal registry.

“He signed his name, but kept hanging around,” Annabelle Coontz said. Later she asked him to deliver something to her parents in Greenville while he was on his way to Arkansas.

Annabelle was both busy and popular, and at one time he thought she was making excuses not to see him. But, typical of Charlie, he persisted until he popped the question and she said yes, then called her mother and said, “How would you like to have a son-in-law?” And her mother replied, “Fine, if it is who I think it is.”

It was years later that Annabelle discovered that on the day of the wedding, while she was trying to make sure everything was in place, that Charlie had gone fishing. He said he knew he was getting married that day, “and it might be my last chance to go fishing.”

In his many memories of his career, Charlie tells about one event that almost cost him his job. He had worked on the Buffalo River in Arkansas.

The Corps had plans for damming it, but Charlie said they shouldn’t do it — it was too beautiful. His advice was reluctantly taken, and later the Buffalo became the first National River in the country.

Charlie no longer hunts, and he hasn’t made a rifle in a long time. What does he do in his spare time?

“I sit in this rocking chair, read and then go to sleep,” he said.