Working At The Trapshoot

Originally posted April 13, 2007

There weren’t a lot of ways for a kid to make money in St. Cloud when the 1960s were turning into the 1970s. Supposedly, you could work when you turned sixteen, but with a state college in the city and two small private colleges within twelve miles, there were plenty of college-age kids available for employers; younger kids didn’t get many of the jobs.

I suppose there were paper routes, and one always saw ads in the back of comic books for stuff that could be sold door-to-door, but I never tried any of those. My first crack at any kind of employment was a hot, dirty, somewhat dangerous job that I got through my pal Rick.

There was – still is, for that matter – a gun club southeast of the city that hosted the state trapshooting championships every year in early to mid-July. Rick went to school with one of the club owner’s sons and worked at the gun club for various events. By the summer of 1968, he managed to get me a job at the gun club for the four days of the state trap shoot. I was what they called a “setter.”

Trapshooting, as you might know, involves contestants with shotguns trying to shoot clay targets that fly through the air, propelled there by a machine located in a small structure dug into the earth. It was my job to sit in one of those little structures for about ten to twelve hours a day. As the whirring machine threw each target out into the open for the contestants to aim at, I took another clay target – called a “bird” – from the stack in front of me and placed it on the machine’s arm, which oscillated slightly from right to left to provide differing angles for the bird’s trajectory. The small pit was filled with boxes full of birds, and along with making sure to place a new bird on the machine every fifteen seconds or so, I had to open the cardboard boxes and make certain I had access to more birds when the stack from which I was currently working ran out. 

Every once in a while, I’d be a little slow getting the bird onto the machine, and the throwing arm would hit the bird as I was lowering it in place, shattering it and leaving me worrying about the safety of my hand. If that happened too many times, the gun club manager would mention it, not out of concern for my hand but out of concern for the convenience of the shooters, who were annoyed when their call for a target brought no target. It was even worse during the doubles competition, when a setter had to get two birds onto the machine, first with the left hand, then with the right hand.

A sonic digression: The traditional call for a target is for the shooter to shout out the word “pull,” probably from the time when targets – live birds at one time – were released by the pull of a rope. Shooters tend to develop their own versions of that traditional call, much in the same way umpires develop their own calls for strikes and balls. It’s hard to guess how to spell some of the sounds I heard shooters use as they called for a target, but this is what some of them sounded like: “Wheeeeeeeeeent!” “Poooooooooooowell!” “Hrant!” “Houp!” “Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” And so on. Some of them, of course, just said, “Pull!”

I only got to hear the shooters for a limited time, during my three or four breaks a day. The vast majority of the time, I was down in the pit, unpacking boxes of birds and setting them on the machine arm. I did that for, as I said, ten to twelve hours a day for the four-day run of the trap meet. It was boring, and it was dirty, as the targets were made out of what I would guess was some kind of petrochemical mix that resulted in a substance very much like hard tar. I’d come out of the pit at night with my face and hands covered with the thick black dust the birds gave off. There was something toxic in the dust, so that about a week after the trapshoot, the skin on my face would turn dark and brittle and then peel off in wide strips. I doubt if it did much good for my long-term health.

So why do it? Well, as I said, there weren’t a lot of ways for kids to make money back then. And I got $40 for my first state shoot in 1968, $50 in 1969 and $60 in 1970, pretty good money for four days back then, when the minimum wage was less than $1.50 an hour. I don’t recall what I did with the cash from the other two years, but in 1969, I used my money to buy a cassette tape recorder.

So why am I writing about the state trap meet and toxic clay birds? Because one of the ways in which we setters – those of us consigned to the pits with their oscillating machines – kept our sanity was by bringing radios. Tuned for the most part to either KBWB or WDGY, the two Top 40 stations in the Twin Cities, our radios gave us at least something to listen to above the whirr of the machine and the sound of shotguns going of along the line all day long.

As a result, there are songs that I call “trap shoot songs.” Those are songs that I either heard for the first time or else heard so frequently during a trap shoot, that when I hear them now, almost forty years later, I am for an instant back down in that dusty pit, keeping a stack of birds in front of me, taking advantage of a lull to open a new box of birds and doing my best to make sure that the whirling arm of the trap machine does not have a chance to whack at my fingers as I place another bird.

Some of those songs are: “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams; “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors; “People Got To Be Free” by the Rascals; “Get Together” by the Youngbloods; “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & the Shondells; “Make It With You” by Bread; “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon & War; and the song that leads off today’s album rip, “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric.

The version of the song on the album – also titled Are You Ready – is longer and a bit different than the single was. The slow recitation at the start of the song was edited off for the single, and I imagine that some of the repeated choruses might have been, too. As a whole, the album is a pretty good piece of San Francisco blues-rock, with the highlights being the title cut, a good, gritty version of the traditional tune “Staggolee,” and an interesting cover of “When A Man Loves A Woman.”

Not many of the members of Pacific Gas & Electric remain well known (the best known would be lead singer Charlie Allen), but the group got some help from a few well-known friends: Rusty Young of Poco provides steel guitar on “Mother, Why Do You Cry?” and the background chorus on both “Are You Ready?” and “When A Man Loves A Woman” includes session singers extraordinaire Merry Clayton, Venetta Fields and Clydie King.

(Thanks to Peter Patnaik at Honey, Where You Been So Long? for reminding me I had this album by posting “Staggolee” the other day. It’s a fine blog, focusing mostly on pre-World War II blues. Check it out!)

Track listing:

Are You Ready?
Hawg For You
Staggolee
The Blackberry
Love, Love, Love, Love, Love
Mother, Why Do You Cry?
Elvira
Screamin’
When A Man Loves A Woman

Pacific Gas & Electric – Are You Ready [1970]

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6 Responses to “Working At The Trapshoot”

  1. Saturday Single No. 77 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] written about a few summers (or parts of summers) of my youth: working at the annual trapshoot for three years, mowing lawns and scrubbing floors at the college in 1971, the 1972 trip to […]

  2. First Friday: July 1968 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] only thing that was really new that summer of ’68 was that I worked out at the trap shoot for the first time, maybe at the end of July but more likely a week or two later. As I wrote more […]

  3. First Friday, August 1968 « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] I earned a substantial sum of money for the first time by working at the first of three annual state trapshoots at a nearby gun club. As I wrote some time back, I earned $40 that first summer and learned that […]

  4. ‘Now It’s Been Ten Thousand Years . . .’ « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] on my radio that summer as I huddled in the traphouse during my four-day stint working at the state trapshoot. So it’s no wonder the record insinuated itself into my marrow. (And yet, I recognized its flaws […]

  5. Time To Rake Some Leaves « Echoes In The Wind Archives Says:

    […] written before about working at the state trapshoot, sitting in the little concrete hut and putting targets on the machine while […]

  6. Summer Songs, Part One « Echoes In The Wind Says:

    […] listening to Top 40 at home yet, but that was the first summer I worked as a setter at the state trap shoot, spending about ten hours a day for four days straight placing clay targets on a scary machine. As […]

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