My First Bow by Eric Vance
Well, I might have to make this about my first two bows, because they bring the story full circle. While compound bows dominate the market and practice of archery, they have only been around for a few seconds of the last minute of the last hour of the time clock of human experience. So, most of us seasoned archers who enjoy the many aspects of this sport had our start with an old recurve or longbow. Therein begins the passion which continues to fascinate devout archers the world over.
Like many kids, I shot the cheapie fiberglass bows as a peewee in schools & summer camps. I always enjoyed that particular activity, and for my birthday when I was 12, my Dad gave me Bear “Little Bear” 25# bow with a set of really cool spiral wound skinny fiberglass arrows to go with it. I immediately took it out to the woods behind our house and proceeded to loose and break a few of those rather expensive arrows with the same grin on my face the whole time as when I opened the packages. I didn’t have a target at this point, so I “improvised” with some clay pigeons we had laying around, and then finally a box, which almost stopped the arrows from getting lost. Dad went out and got me “proper” target and some slightly less expensive aluminum arrows after that first semi-tragic outing. The aluminum arrows flew much better than the heavier fiberglass arrows, so I was able to get out to some reasonable distance with fair success after that.
Dad gave me the set before my birthday in September because I was off to the boarding school before then, and he wanted me to be all setup to shoot more competitively, knowing I wanted to climb the ranks of achievement as well as be on the archery team. I guess I was one those “privileged” kids in that I went away to school, but I never thought of that. It was just the way things were for me. But the point of mentioning it is that there are choices kids have in their classes & activities that kids in public school systems don’t have, so there tends to be a more serious & dedicated group of kids in any particular activity. As a result, the group of us in the archery class were all about competition and kickin’ butt at the archery meets with other schools. There were a few jokers that signed up for archery because they thought it would be “easy”. They were quickly sifted out and forced to take other sports with real tough coaches due to their goofing off and lack of enthusiasm – more on that later.
The name of the school was Cardigan Mountain School, located in the hills of northern New Hampshire. In case any of you are already thinking, “oh, spoiled little rich kid in country club school”, let me tell you that while certain aspects absolutely include some privileges, I was not a “rich kid”, and life at an all-boys boarding school at that age is positively animalistic. Ever read “Lord of the Flies”? Well, it’s all true. I dunno about girls at that age, but adolescent boys in a closed environment are tough and unforgiving. If you don’t stick up for yourself, no one else will, and respect came from confrontation with those you could not avoid. But, it was obviously not a bad place to be, and I did well for my little self.
My first year there, in 1967 – ’68, I climbed halfway through the ranks of achievement in the CAA (Camp Archery Assn.), which I believe is the branch of FITA for schools & camps. The names of the awards are the same with “Yeoman”, “Bowman”, etc., all the way up to the coveted “American Archers Award”. Our little team was pretty much unbeatable. I honestly don’t recall ever losing a tournament with other schools or camps, and it was always either my older friend Doug or I who were the top archers on the team. By the end of my second year at Cardigan, I had achieved my American Archers award with that little 25# bow, scoring well over the required points at 50 yards. Now I shoot 25 yards with a 50# bow and take my good days with the bad! There was one award beyond the “American Archers” called the “Olympian”, which qualified at 70 yards, I think. If you made the award, it qualified you for a tryout for the Olympic team. I was not told about that because the school did not think it terms of turning out “Olympic archers”. Too bad – I’d have been on that like flies on stink!
My third & last year at Cardigan looked like there was going to be no archery program for lack of an available instructor. I asked the headmaster, now that I was an “American Archer”, if I might be allowed to teach the class. He agreed and I was happy. Sure enough, I got saddled with a mixed bag of genuine enthusiasts and miscreants. The hackers really did not respect my “authority”, and stretched the rules and my patience constantly. Some of them were tough kids that could easily “take” me in a fight, so I didn’t go that direction. When a few of them decided to ignore me and my instruction, they deliberately left a couple of the scoring clipboards carefully perched against the target stand so that an “errant” arrow would ricochet up into the air. Unfortunately for them, the area behind that was the tennis & hockey building that had constant traffic in and out of it. I told “offenders” to cease & desist with no response. So I let them know if they did it again, they’d be out of the archery class and into the dreaded “work detail”. Needless to say, they laughed at me and persisted. I said “fine” and proceeded, against their threats of bodily harm, to tell Coach Marion of the incident and recommended an hour of work detail to each of them along with expulsion from the class. Well, little did I estimate the seriousness of the offense! They were put on two full weekends of work detail and forced to take strenuous sports directly under Coach Marion, who was definitely “not” to be trifled with! Bodily harm from that incident never did come my way because those kids were on watch from then on.
One day I was practicing out behind my dorm, and upon returning to my shooting station, I turned to see a young bull moose standing right next to my target. Young, maybe, but it was still over 6 feet tall with a spread of almost the width of my 48″ target. Not knowing just what to do, I loaded one of my only two broadheaded arrows on the string and drew down on the moose… Tim & Bart from the room next to mine were looking out the window on the whole scene were shouting “Shoot it, Vance, shoot it!” Well, good thing I didn’t. It wasn’t moose season, I had no license, and a dull broadhead from a 25# bow would have surely resulted in a severe trampling of my 14 year old body! That arrow flew to the arrow god, knocking a squirrel off a branch about 40 feet up in a tree on a later expedition.
At my next school, Northfield Mount Hermon, I found a new Wing Thunderbird, 52” 43#, at the local sporting goods store in Pittsfield, MA. It was marked “blemished”, and they were selling along with a 62″ 60# Thunderbird for $1.00 per #. I could not pull the 60# T’bird, so I laid down my $43.00 of hard earned allowance for the little Thunderbird. What wonderful bow. While there were no archery programs at my next schools, I always had my bow with me and went out to the woods with it every chance I got for stump shooting and small game hunting. My next scholastic effort was at a Darrow School in upstate New York. Here I really had the chance to get into some deep woods and try my hand at hunting. I never took a shot at a deer, what would I do with deer bagged in the woods at school in the 11th grade?, but a few unlucky critters found the tip of my arrows. Boys will be boys. One day, one of my dorm mates came running to my room say “get your bow, get your bow!” I grabbed it and followed him to the fire escape that overlooked the garden out back of the dorm. A “huge” woodchuck was waddling along the top of the stone wall in the garden. Silly me, instead of stepping out onto the fire escape, I took the shot from inside the dorm through the door. Taking careful aim, I released. “Whack” went the tip of the bow on the low ceiling and the arrow careened lazily into the stone wall. So much for my other broadhead.
The Little Bear bow that dad gave me was broken in a “sitting accident” while at school. From then on, it was my T’bird and I. I loaned that bow to a good friend of mine when I bought a Ben Pearson Shadow 300 compound bow. I shot that bow for about 15 years, but actually did not shoot that much during those years. Then I found out about 3-D shooting and a whole new world of fun opened up. I always shot the compound bow with fingers & no sights. One day on the course, a fellow archer with a longbow saw me shoot and said, “You’re pretty good with that thing, but as long as you’re shooting ‘bare bow’, you ought to try a traditional bow”. Well, I got on the phone and asked my friend Lester for my little Wing bow back. From then on, there was no turning back. I sold the Ben Pearson and used the money to by proper arrows. Countless 3-D shoots later; I still have the Little Thunderbird, although I’ve now moved into the realm of longbows. I’m pretty settled in with longbows now, but I still take the wing out for a shoot now & then, and it always hits the mark like touching my finger to my nose with my eyes closed.
I ran into Bob Lee, the founder of Wing Archery, at the Eastern Traditional Archery Rendezvous in Coudersport, PA, a must for you traditional archers if you’ve never been. I had the Wing with me and asked him why it was marked “blemished”. I never could find any defect in it. He took the bow from my hands and looked it over like it was a prodigal son. He remembered the very bow and when he made it. He told me it was marked as a blemish because it went to finishing before the quiver mounts were installed in the riser. Fine with me – I’d rather not have them in there anyway! He said it was the only one that ever went through that way. I now hold that bow even more near & dear to my heart for that as it is now a one-of-a-kind collectable. Still, when I come across an old “Little Bear” bow, I zoom right back to my childhood, Dad, and times I’ll never forget.