Blaine Friedlander remembers a time when Wilbert Tucker Woodson tear-gassed him in the face. It was during World War II, and it was the beginning of champion rifle shooting in Fairfax County.
Two rifle teams date back to that time, the Acorns and the W.T. Woodson Rifle Team. The Woodson team was not yet formed, because Woodson High School didn’t open until the 1960s; however, Woodson himself began its legacy. Woodson, superintendent of Fairfax County Schools from about 1930 to 1960, helped train some of the first rifle pupils of that time, which is why Friedlander said it only seems fitting that Woodson High School has a great rifle team today.
"It was his baby," said Chris Holman, one of the Woodson Rifle Team coaches.
Friedlander, 79, was a soldier in the Virginia Reserve Militia — a military organization formed when the National Guard was called up and sent to fight in World War II.
"It left no police force or national guard to protect the society," Friedlander said.
The Virginia Reserve Militia’s men in ranks were "high school kids, and I was one of them," he said. And W.T. Woodson was one of the militia’s first sergeants.
The group used to drill in the gym of Fairfax High School, or today’s Paul VI High School. They would simulate war scenarios, and one time W.T. Woodson was the man to catch. He had a grenade full of tear gas, and when he pulled it and threw it at Friedlander during a simulation, another officer gave the "gas command" so the soldiers could put on their gas masks in time.
The only problem was that Friedlander’s mask malfunctioned, and tear gas got into his eyes.
"It was terrible stuff," he said.
Friedlander and Woodson had an inside joke about the incident for years. Woodson never felt particularly bad about it though, remembers Friedlander.
"He was a very rigid, straight-shooter type of fellow," said Friedlander. "When he gave an order, he gave an order. The only time I really saw him smile is when he was giving orders in the Virginia Reserve Militia."
ABOUT 60 YEARS later, the Acorns and the Woodson team, as well as the Fairfax VFW Post 8469 rifle team, are linked in excellence. The teams, for the most part, consist of the same members across the board. They like the practice time, and since range space is somewhat scarce in the area, being on multiple teams gives members access to more shooting time, said Holman.
The shooters range in age from about 11 to 19. It started with the younger children during WWII, said Floyd Houston, the Acorns coach and the VFW Post 8469 senior vice commander. An Army general gave a pre-induction riflery class to young Fairfax-area men during WWII. Their younger siblings watched in awe and wanted to learn how to shoot, too.
"It became very popular with the younger brothers and sisters of servicemen," Houston said.
The Acorns team is affiliated with the Arlington Optimist Club, but has been in Fairfax for about 30 years, he said. The Acorns is a traveling team, and Houston said they’re one of the best in the nation.
"The Acorns are a really storied junior rifle club. We’ve won more national championships than any other junior rifle club in the nation," he said. "In 2003, our kids beat the Army Marksmanship Unit — the people who had won the championship the last 15 years in a row."
The shooters are not just in it for the competition, though. Many of the teammates are thinking ahead toward their futures. Until this year, Holman said all of the Woodson graduating seniors have had college scholarship offers. But the Woodson team is not where they get seen, Holman said. It is the Acorns that take them to that next level.
The Acorns compete against colleges and semi-professional teams. The college coaches and scouts keep their eyes open, but they’re not just looking for good shooters.
"They recruit kids who have talent and ability in shooting, but they’re also looking for good scholars," said Houston.
And the rifle teams have plenty of good scholars, said Holman and Houston. Riflery teaches concentration. While some physical ability is required, the majority of the skill comes from the mind, Houston said.
"The focus and concentration that’s necessary to become good in the rifle competitions is the exact the same kind of focus and concentration and self discipline that kids need to do well in school," he said. "Mainly, it’s controlling your mind to stay focused; this is all a concentration game."
Houston’s daughter, Emily, is the captain of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) rifle team. She was also a valedictorian at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Holman’s daughters are rising riflewomen and scholars too. His daughter, Meredith, will start at the University of Mississippi on a rifle scholarship this fall, and his daughter, Emma, "is a rising junior at Woodson." Emma Holman, along with a couple of other female shooters on the Woodson team, is a high prospect for making the Olympic team, he said.
"I’m very blessed with a large number of exceptional shooters right now," Chris Holman said. "But we’re very limited in the number of kids we can take."
Emma Holman said she likes the community aspect of the rifle team. Since it’s such a small group of people involved, and since they all generally start fairly young and stick with it for several years, "everyone pretty much knows everyone," she said. And the concentration definitely helps her with her academics, she said.
"It’s a discipline," said Emma Holman.
THE POPULARITY of the rifle teams has not diminished since the WWII younger siblings fell in love with it. What is happening now, though, is a rise in women shooters. Holman said the ratio of those trying out for the team and sticking with it is about six girls to every boy. He is not exactly sure why the surge in women getting interested in the sport has occurred. Houston said young women typically take coaching better than boys, though, since they are not as stubborn.
"It’s a marvelous opportunity at this point in history for women to get into college," said Houston. "A lot of the colleges, the NCAA Division I schools, because of Title IX, opened up women’s teams." [Title IX was a federal statute implemented in 1975 that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.]
Emma Holman got started shooting around fourth grade because her father shot in college and is a coach. Emma’s best friend also shoots, because her older brother did too and it caught her interest. Emma Holman said she hopes to take it all the way to college, following in the footsteps of both her sister and her father.
In the mean time, before the shooters start weighing scholarship offers and college choices, they can shoot year-round with three local teams that have a history of taking people to the top.
"The beauty of this program is we’ve got a ton of national champions and All-Americans," said Houston. "The opportunities for these kids are just huge because they rub elbows with the best shooters in the world."