They don't shoot turkeys at turkey shoots these days. And if a medicinal sip of whiskey is needed to steady one's aim, it has to be imbibed in a parking lot beside the fire house. Say what you like about civilization, the straight shooters in this crossroads town on the edge of suburbia say it has come too far.
"Real turkey shoots are getting few and far between," complains Bud Reingruber, a tile setter from Falls Church who is spending this Friday night in the Ashburn Volunteer Fire House, 35 miles west of Washington, shooting at paper targets through an open window to win frozen turkeys and precut bacon. "Wherever they build houses, they push out the turkey shoots."
For $1.50 a shot, the folks here keep their fall and winter Friday nights thick with tall tales, the smell of gunpowder and maybe a friendly wager on the side.
"There is only one fever worse than this one and that's poker," says Frank Carver, who is about as big as your average NFL lineman, wears a 20-gallon black cowboy hat and looks enough like Kenny Rogers to be mistaken for the singer a few times each week. He brought four shotguns to the Friday night shoot and said he didn't particularly come to win. "You come here when you can't get up into the mountains. You come to let off steam."
In winter, when hunting season has ended but the pressures of daily living are in midseason form, turkey shoots are a release. In volunteer fire departments far enough removed from neighbors that complain, the turkey shoot provides a forum for matching aims and wits. And for pure, bare faced bragging, there is no better stage.
"I'm probably one of the winningest guys that comes up here," says 24-year-old Tonly L. Channell, a construction worker from Manassas who talks about his shotgun the way some men talk about their kids, then asks, "Do you want to get a picture of me holding the gun?"
Friday night Channell was competing against 40 other shooters, some of whom had driven from as far away as Upper Marlboro in Maryland. Most were men, although there were some women and children carrying 12 gauge shotguns. And most were out-of-action hunters, although not all were after the same game.
"Ginseng is what I'm after," says David Yokum, who works for the Postal Service in Merrifield and stalks the Blue Ridge for the wild root. "You talk about a fine hunt. There is something about going after ginseng. There's the lure of the woods, the fresh air . . . plus it goes for $165 a pound."
Ray Muth, the Ashburn fire chief and postmaster, claims his town's turkey shoot is the oldest one in the area. How old, nobody can say for sure. But there have been so few major changes in Ashburn over the last half century that long-time residents say dates get kind of swallowed up in time.
"There hasn't been a new house built in Ashburn since we built ours 10 years ago," says Melvyn Byrne, the president of the Ashburn fire department. "We would like to see a little more development out here, but everybody else in the county seems against it."
While the rest of eastern Loudoun County has been suburbanized in the last two decades, Ashburn has remained a small village of wood frame houses surrounded by grassy pastures. The land is beautiful, but it doesn't drain well. Without a major investment for a centralized water and sewer system, Ashburn can build a new house only when an old one burns down.
"When our kids get old enough to get married, they don't have anywhere to go so they move out," says Muth. "And our fire department keeps getting older. We don't go to as many parades as we used to."
To hear that kind of talk on a Friday night, however, you have to ask. At the turkey shoot there is little enough time to talk about hunting and guns. The bragging is done in jest and the accusations of cheating are thrown out like yeast to get things cooking.
"There's a lot of games with guns you can play," says Carver, taking off the gun's stock to show where holes can be drilled to affect the distribution of the birdshot. "But I'm one that says if you can beat me, you can do it anyway you can."
At Ashburn, the shooting is done through two back windows. Donald Polen, 16, whose great grandfather farmed here, loads each gun only after the barrel has been pointed out the window. His 19-year-old brother Allan works in the target shed 30 yards away, protected from stray birdshot by metal sheeting. Both Polens go home with headaches.
"I thought I was just coming to watch," said 8-year-old Brian Ogle, after he fired a shotgun for the first time; he was blown off three soda cases and halfway across the cinderblock shooting room by the impact. The kid was smiling. And it wasn't until congratulations were over and the adults had turned away that he rubbed his aching shoulder.
Esther Starkey followed Ogle. She fired her first shotgun 25 years ago, then retired to raise five children. Just this year her husband persuaded her to come with him to Ashburn. First night out her husband was skunked while she won a turkey and a $23 side bet.
"I think he was proud of me," says Starkey shyly.
The huffing and puffing comes after each round of shooting when Ray Muth spreads all the targets on a table to pick a winner. Like any umpire, Muth is accused of every visual impairment known to man.
"This isn't anything to brag about," says Reingruber, looking at another losing target. "But I take them all home. It proves where I've been."