"One thing about good losers . . . they usually do. People as what I do to relax . . . I win ." - Lones Wigger, king of riflemen
It is fitting that we find Lones Wigger on the side of a Caribbean jungle mountain at the dead end of a winding tropical dirt road.
This champion of a traditional, yet anonymous, American sport deserves a setting both exotic and unknown.
Here, at an obscure rifle range far out of the world's line of vision, Wigger is doing what he always does - shooting in reality the way Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett did in myth.
Wigger is "on the line" now - the place he loves to be.
At 41, this smallish, roundish man with short hair and direct sharp eyes has won more medals, including two Olympic golds, and set more world records than he can count.
This week alone in the Pan American Games, Wigger, the oldest man on the United States Squad, has collected four more gold medals - two individuals and two team, and set a world record that had somehow eluded him for 15 years.
The young musclemen of these Games look quizzically at the comfortably paunchy middle-aged man who shambles casually through the Pan Am Village, with four shiny new gold bars, symbolic of gold medals, on his USA hat.
They don't know a legend when they pass one, nor recognize the man whom the captain of the U.S. rifle team calls "the greatest competitor, no . . . the greatest killer, that shooting has ever seen."
Just as it is difficult to find the Poligino Tiro (firing range) in the Puerto Rican town of Caguas, so it is a hard and twisting road to get to the center of Lt. Col. Lones Wigger. (His first name is pronounced Lone-iss.)
To locate this Gary Cooper spirit trapped in a squatty body, it is necessary to go "on line" and watch him become a giant. How can we know the king without a glimpse of his kingdom?
It is the afternoon of the 4th of July, Wigger has been shooting for 5 1/2 hours in the three-position competition. Riflery's most versatile and prestigious event, this is Wigger's specialty.
The scene in a cinder-block one-storyy compounded is delicious.The air is full of gun oil and the scent of freshly fired cartridges. The pop-popping of the 22-caliber target rifles is almost the only sound.
The targets are set 50 meters away against the side of the jungle hill. Farther up, black brahma bulls, goats and chickens, watch the proceedings with benevolent disinterest. This, too, is fitting, since many call Wigger a wise, patient old bull.
The mood behind the firing line is as sober as that of a chess tournament or billiard shootout with all the kibitzing done sotto voce between initiates who can communicate volumes with a word.
The line itself is a mixture of superstition and science.
Almost every conceivable mechanical contrivance has been tried in the quest for a smidgen of advantage.
A modern free-rifle like the Walther GX-1 has a stabilizer bar, palm rest, butt hook and hand stop. The shooter is swathed in every sort of elbow, knee and shoulder padding, with gloves, orange earplugs and special boots finishing the costume.
In the midst of this technology are a hundred talismans for luck - most notably the ancient hats, caps and jackets that obviously go back to the early days of many careers. While many a shooter begs for good luck, Wigger makes certain that neither his costume nor his face reveals anything.
"I want to eliminate luck. I want nothing to fall back on, no excuses," Wigger says. "If I lose, I want to blame myself entirely. If I win, I hate to back in on someone else's failure."
In this shooters' world, each gun is a polished object of infinite care with all manner of sights, straps, balancing rods and personal wood-carving for con dirt or style. Wigger's beauty has the look of age about it.
Spotters look through telescopes and write up the score for each shot on a big bowling-style chart. But even that is unofficial. An all-night target tabulating is necessary before a winner is named.
If Wigger's surroundings are almost scholarly, like a lab with 100 shooters each working on his own project, then the essence of Wigger's task is pure sport - the performance of an incredibly difficult act under pressure.
This task is both simple to define and almost incomprehensibly difficult to the nonshooter.
Holding a 17-pound rifle, he aims at the center ring, smaller than a dime, of a bull's eye 50 meters distant.
On Wednesday, Wigger hit the perfect "10" ring with 39 of 40 shots from the prone position. His one "miss" hit the nine-point ring which is the size of a quarter.
From easy prone, Wigger progressed to the most difficult position - standing. Here it is humanly impossible to hold the gun utterly motionless, fixing the sight picture perfectly so that a well-squeezed shot is a certain "10."
Instead, the shooter must endure the nerve-racking torment of feeling the gun swing tantalizingly off the bull's-eye even as the trigger finger is in its slow midsqueeze.
The rifleman, his breath held throughout the shot, must wait for the gun to swing back into a perfectly aligned sight picture before he once more starts the agonizingly slow pressure with his entire trigger hand.
Sometimes, the breath runs out and the whole thing is a foozle.The shooter must break position and start again.
"You must pull the trigger so gently and slowly that you never know when the gun will go off. And, of course, you must only squeeze when you are perfectly on target," U.S. Shooting Team captain Joe Barry expounded.
"No wonder we shooters are so warped," Barry continued with a grin. "We spend our whole life suppressing the normal instinct to flinch at a loud noise."
"It has taken me a month of solid practice to peak for this match," Wigger allowed. "But that's nothing. It will take me nearly two months to feel normal again after what I've gone through in two days."
Let us join Wigger for just one shot - one long squeeze - out of a career. It is his 120th bullet on the 4th of July, his last shot for a gold medal after 5 1/2 hours of pressure firing.
Wigger, after finishing his prone and standing portion, has assumed his serpentine kneeling position - the most awkard and painful of all, and therefore the last.
"I entered the kneeling with a five-point lead on Rod-Randolph, but I'm a notoriously bad kneeling shooter - especially in the wind," said Wigger.
Because of that wind, Wigger knew he had only Fitz-Randolph, 20, the leader of the S. young guard, to worry about.
"Most shooters just give up and say, 'What the hell,' when the wind blows," Wiggins went on. "The concentration - all the variables of gun and ammunition and light conditions and your internal feelings - are so brutal that when you add a huge factor like a crosswind, it just destroys your will."
Will, however, is one thing Wiggins has never lacked.
As a boy in the tiny Montana town of Carter, he learned that "I could never grow up to be what I wanted to be - a baseball player. I was just too small. I still looked at the paper every morning to see what my team, the St. Louis Cardinals, did - especially Lou Brock,"
In riflery, little mattered but Wigger's inner strengths. "They say, 'How can you tell a great shooter?'" Wigger relates. "I say, 'You can't tell 'em nothin'."
"We're all total individualists because we're almost all self-taught. And we come in all shapes and sizes, including small and handsome, like me," he joshes, giving his cherub face and blue eyes a glow that his opponents seldom see.
"You don't need strength, just nerves of steel, psychological stability and the concentration of a demon," says Dave (D.I.) Boyd, the marine captain of the U.S. Rifle Team. "That's why so many women have gotton good at it in recent years . . . women have a tough mental makeup.
"But nobody's tough like Wig. When you've shot a great score, keep it secret. Never brag to Wig, 'cause that's all he needs to go out and shoot a greater one.
"He doesn't 'play' at anything. He always has to win."
So, when the wind blows the other shooter away, Wigger stays rooted.
For Wigger, shooting has always been a hard road. "I joined the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit when it was formed in the early 60s - a great idea," he recalled. "But I'm the only one left - the only one who beat the Army system.
"Begin a rifleman doesn't get you much. I won the gold medal in '64 and three years later I was in a rice paddy in Vietnam. I don't think the Army cared a hoot who I was. I was a body, a seat on an airplane.
"I got sent to Vietnan twice. I told that to some Russian shooters in the Soviet army and they couldn't believe it." CAPTION: Picture, Lones Wigger bears up under Pan Am gold. AP