One of the perks of this gun writing gig is that I get to meet interesting icons. R. Lee Ermey was one. You may remember him from “Full Metal Jacket,” or as Dr. House’s dad, John, in “House,” or from a collection of other popular movies and TV shows. He hosted 2 shows on the History Channel: “Mail Call” and “Lock ‘n’ Load with R.Lee Ermey.” He also appeared on Outdoor Channel in “GunnyTime.” Known as “Gunny,” he served in the United States Marine Corps as a drill instructor. He died on Sunday, April 15, from complications because of pneumonia. He was 74.
I will remember him as a quick-witted, common-sense kind of guy. I spent an hour interviewing him in St. Louis a few years ago, alone in a room with his agent, and that interview focused on his attitude toward hunting. You can see the article here, from Realtree, but here are a few of the highlights.
Baird: How’d you start hunting?
Gunny: I grew up in Kansas, pheasant hunting and whitetail. I lived on a farm, so I had to walk on a dirt road along a riverbank to get to the bus stop. It was a mile-and-a-half. I’d take my old single-shot shotgun, with five or six shot shells, and I would hunt my way over to the bus. I’d stash my old shotgun, my hunting vest and everything in a culvert, hop on the bus, get my reading and writing and ‘rithmetic fix for the day, hop back on the school bus and then, I’d get off the bus, fetch my hunting gear from the culvert and hunt my way home. This was in the wintertime. There were rabbits, there were quail, pheasants and ducks.
When I was a kid there were six boys in our family. We lived on a farm and we’d knock a cow in the head once a year, but we had big chest freezers and you’d find wild game in there. That’s healthy … I’m 68 and I’m doing pretty good. My grandparents – one made it to 102, one made it to 98, one made it to 86 (and she broke her hip) and one committed suicide when he was 70, so longevity runs in my family. I got four freezers full of wild game right now.
Baird: What’s in your freezers?
Gunny: I go up into the mountains of northern California every year, and there’s a herd of buffalo every year and I shoot an old bull, the trophy bull, and it’s the best hamburger in the freakin’ world. I don’t buy meat out of the supermarket freezer because I don’t like hormones and I don’t like the idea that these poor animals are standing knee deep in their own muck in a stockyard someplace.
This is one of my favorite sections of the interview:
Baird: Do you ever wear camo as a lifestyle statement? You’re not going hunting, but you might just throw on a camo jacket or hat?
Gunny: I do, and Realtree, as far as I’m concerned, has great camo. You can quote me on that. They do have the best out there. If I go outside and I don’t have a hat on, I feel as though I’m breaking a rule or regulation. You know, I grew up as a Marine and in the Marine Corps, you “hat up” every time you go outside.
Baird: But, you didn’t wear a hat when you were House’s dad when you were on that television show, did you? In fact, your character was never nice to House in that series.
Gunny: (laughing again) Well, House is a punk.
This is the other favorite bit of that interview, where you’ll see his quick, off-the-cuff response.
Baird: I’m a South Dakota native and we have jackalopes. Have you ever hunted one of those?
Gunny: (laughing) No, I’ve never hunted them, but I’ve seen one occasionally in gas stations.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a media director for an agency that works for GLOCK – one of our new partners here at Women’s Outdoor News – and the subject of Gunny came up. The director said that R.Lee Ermey had incredible staying power, as I witnessed for several years at either Media Range Day or on the floor of the Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade Show or at the National Rifle Association’s annual meetings. Mr. Ermey would not only sign autographs for hours – necessary, since the line snaked around for hundreds of feet – but also, he visited booths, met with veterans and basically, walked the walked. Said the director, “One year, he was on the floor for 8 hours straight every day. He was a machine.”
I met up with Mr. Ermey a few months later, after that interview in St. Louis, and he told me about his special hearing protection – 2-9mm brass cartridge cases. He said, “Barb, you have to know the size of your ear holes. Some people might require a larger caliber!” And then, we had a good laugh over that.
The Gunny will be missed sorely in an industry that needs more of his type – not afraid to speak his mind, not afraid to shake people’s hands and make them feel as though they matter in this world, and not afraid to be himself.
R.I.P., R. Lee Ermey.
Here’s an article about Range Day and Gunny.