Recalling Senator Barry M. Goldwater in My Rifle Sights

Political historians and older Arizonans know the history of Barry M. Goldwater and the role that he played in conservative politics over 30 years in the United States Senate.  Much has been written, cussed and discussed about the man and the legend, but my recollection has a different element to it.  I found myself in standing in public looking at Senator Goldwater through the sights of my .30-30 Winchester Model 1894 rifle load, loaded and ready to pull the trigger.

November 2, 1964 was not only my 13th birthday, I also found myself lying in a Sioux City, Iowa hospital bawling my eyes out.  I was crying not because I had just had my appendix removed that day, but because one of my heroes, Senator Barry Goldwater, was losing in a landslide U.S. Presidential election favoring Lyndon B. Johnson.  I had only known Dwight D. Eisenhower as President for most of my life, and who really knew that guy?  I thought being President was like being a king – I was shocked when I saw the Kennedy-Nixon debates and realized that, one way or another, we would have a new President (what a great country we are!).  For some reason, Senator Barry Goldwater resonated with me, as did Governor Ronald Reagan years later when I was an adult.  I feared for my country that day in 1964, but it only hurt when I laughed (stitches back then were actually metal clamps not unlike binder clips but with long, sharp barbs).

Less than nine years later in 1973, I moved from Iowa to Arizona.  Was that possibly because of the Goldwater allure?  Maybe to some extent, but I attribute my interest in Arizona to a girl name Renee I had been fond of years before.  I quickly learned that in regard to Arizona politics, Barry Goldwater was a name quite synonymous with the name God.  As I began my career as the 2,052nd Certified Public Accountant ever in Arizona, I also couldn’t shake my childhood fascination with law enforcement.  I quickly became heavily involved as a reserve sheriff’s deputy in Yavapai County, Arizona under Sheriffs Al Ayers, Bob Scott and Curly Moore.  I was certified under the same state law enforcement officer certification courses as were full-time deputies, qualified on the shooting range just as all deputies were required to do, and became a “car commander,” which meant I was on my own with a car pulling shifts and filling in for vacations just like any other deputy.  There was legally no difference between a certified reserve and a paid deputy in uniform and responsibility, except that my badge said “Reserve Deputy” on it.  I eventually became a Sergeant and Lieutenant on the force and was given a regular “Deputy Sheriff” badge by Sheriff Scott.  Scotty called me “Crash,” as I tore the rear bumper off is car once pulling a shift in Bagdad, Arizona.  He didn’t mind, because I captured a felon that day and wrecked his car during an off-road chase to capture the bad guy.  Yes, the Chevy pickup fought the Ford Torino and the Ford won!

Yavapai County Sheriff Deputies were charged with the safely of the grounds of the Yavapai County Courthouse in Prescott, Arizona.  While we had jurisdiction throughout the county, the Prescott police primarily handled Whisky Row while we handled the courthouse square across the street.

When, in 1978 or 1979, Barry Goldwater kicked off his final senate campaign, he did so from the north steps of the Yavapai County Courthouse, just as he did all of his other campaigns (across the street from his old Goldwater’s department store on South Cortez Street).  As fate played out, it was my honor to be assigned as one of several deputies to patrol the courthouse square that day.  I was an alternate on the sheriff office’s competition shooting team, and often carried my Winchester Model 1894 rifle while on patrol in addition to my .357 Smith & Wesson Model 19 service revolver.  I was very confident in my ability to shoot that gun between 50 and 150 feet.  And so it was that while Senator Barry Goldwater was introduced and started his speech from the top step that fine day, I was in the crowd of supporters in front of and below him, out about 2/3rds of the way to Gurley Street, standing by one of the big trees, with my trusty .30-30 rifle in hand.

Perhaps every town has a town drunk like Newberry’s Otis Campbell in The Andy Griffith Show.  I forget his name, but Prescott, Arizona had its “Otis” so I’ll call him that.  Come most weekend nights, Otis spent the night in the country jail.  No, he didn’t walk in, grab the keys and lock himself up, but he always had a place in the holding pen down in the basement (the regular jail was on the third floor).  I felt sorry when one of the Lieutenants sprayed him with mace one night down there for no good reason, but few, if any, of us knew much about Otis, especially about his politics.

Senator Goldwater had a small detail of Arizona Department of Public Service officers escorting him (no Secret Service agents) when he entered the courthouse from the south entrance, but when he emerged out the north entrance to sit in a folding chair next to his wife Peggy and whichever local politician introduced the Senator, the officers stayed indoors.  After the introduction, the Senator began his address from a small podium at the top the center handrail of the steps.  I, like everyone in the crowd, was in awe of Senator Goldwater and settled in to listen to him.  Everyone included Otis.

I first noticed Otis standing at the bottom of the stairs, hanging on to the center handrail, well out in front of the crowd, looking up at the Senator.  I felt a little uneasy as my mind played out several scenarios, none of which were good.  I should have run up in front of the crowd and escorted Otis out of the area, but I was shy and the opportunity passed much too quickly.  Soon, dressed in his normal drinking attire of beige suit coat and tie, Otis began to slowly walk up toward the Senator as he addressed his supporters.  The crowd began to gasp with each step Otis took.  Otis stopped half way up the stairs, but far too close to the Senator.  “What might be under that coat?” I thought as I watched intently.  “Did I recall that Otis carried a knife that he turned in when he checked himself into jail each night?  Who is this guy, really?  Are the other deputies looking at me because I am the only one with a rifle?  What must the Senator be thinking?  I know Otis, a little, but the Senator knows nothing of the sort.  Is this the slippery slope of disaster I have heard about?”

After approximately 30 seconds that seemed like ten minutes, Otis resumed his ascent up the steps.  Gasps from the crowd became more audible with each step, culminating in dead silence as I decided what I must do.  I wasn’t a 13 year old watching election on a hospital room TV any longer, I as the only law enforcement officer that could confidently take a shot should a knife or pistol (or cap gun or rubber duck, for that matter) be pulled out of Otis’ jacket.  With confidence, I cycled the lever on the rifle to load a cartridge in the chamber.  It was one of the loudest sounds possible in the quiet crowd, one that Otis and the Senator must have heard, too.  After that sound, I leaned against the tree and raised the rifle and aimed it at Otis as he slowly climbed to within two steps of the Senator.  My finger was on the trigger, and I had already decided to pull the trigger should anything move as I was anticipating.  To the joy of the crowd, the Senator stopped his speech mid-sentence, stepped out from behind the podium and reached down to shake Otis’ hand.  The crowd applauded, but as far as I was concerned things had only gotten worse as I recalled that Otis was left-handed (actually I recalled that he wore a watch on his right hand and I surmised the left-handedness).

After the hand shake, with my finger having pulled the trigger ever so slightly (I knew that gun well), my mind took a visual snapshot that will stay with me forever.  I was looking at Senator Barry Goldwater (and Otis) through the hooded front sight of my rifle in broad daylight absolutely ready to pull the trigger that was a hair away from the point of no return already.  My mind focused, my vision sharpened and I was at peace.  The Senator is in no danger from me; I was in the zone.  What happened next is the part that embarrassed us the most.

As the Senator stepped back behind the podium and resumed his speech, Otis walked (staggered) around behind him and sat down in the folding chair next to Mrs. Goldwater.  The solidity of my decision to pull the trigger became much more difficult.  “New scenarios… what would I accept now?”  After a painful minute as many of us agonized over the situation we were witnessing, Otis got bored, stood up and walked behind the Senator once again.  Behind the Senator were the courthouse doors and as Otis passed behind him, deputy Robert Campbell (also a certified reserve) and a DPS officer stepped out and, in one quick movement, picked Otis up at the elbows and pulled him into the courthouse.  The difficult situation had ended, but the remaining hour was surreal.

I un-cocked the hammer on my rifle and lowered it.  Only then did I realize that I was soaked with sweat.  Several in the crowd gave me signs of approval as they dispersed, thinking that at least someone might have prevented a nightmare, but what must the Senator and his wife be thinking?

When the speech was over, I hurried around to the back of the courthouse and through the long, open hall.  And, can you believe it; I had the audacity to talk with my hero, Senator Goldwater, after he very briefly made some comments to the media.  You see, I was interested in running for public office and had decided days before that I would seek his advice.  As he hurried through the courthouse, I walked beside him and asked my question: “Senator Goldwater, I want to have a career in Republican politics, and how should I get started?”  Quick, pointed and without stopping, he told me to start small with the school board or city council and make a name for myself first and then build upon that.  He wasn’t happy with me or any of his security detail, it was obvious, but those words turned out to be good advice.  I just wish he had looked at me as he spoke.

I transferred to Houston, Texas shortly thereafter with my job in a CPA firm, served two terms on a local water board and intended to continue to dabble in politics.  I hoped to return to my home town to seek an Iowa and, eventually, a U.S. Congressional position, but life happened and my public life never really got off the ground.

I think of that day in Prescott often, certainly every time I visit the courthouse lighting, etc., but I always feel badly about Barry Goldwater’s not knowing that I had his back and the very impersonal chat that we had.  I still have the rifle, and cannot look through the front sight without thinking of that day over 30 years ago (it scares me now much more than it did then).

Later in life, however, shortly before the retired Senator Goldwater passed away, I spoke to him via amateur radio from Illinois (he was K7UGA and I was KF9PG) and mentioned asking him about how to enter politics that day so long ago in Prescott.  He was slow to respond, and asked how my politics worked out.  I told him that Ronald Reagan was going the work for me.  I didn’t ask about the town drunk, however, and whether he saw me and the end of a rifle.  I don’t even know if he recalled the circumstances of that day.  With that nice, relaxed chat, my hero Senator became a real person to me and I was finally at peace with him, may he rest in peace.

Copyright 2011 – Dennis V. Niven. All Rights Reserved

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