Deep in the heart of North Texas is Dallas, and what’s sizable about the “Big D” is its Western boots, ten-gallon hats, guns and swagger

Yeehah! Welcome to Dallas Texas!

Flying in on Richard Branson’s airway I avoided the newer and bigger DFW airport, instead landing at the old Love Field airport. Celebrating its 100-year anniversary, the airport staff were busy giving out free bite-sized cupcakes for all passengers. Southern hospitality at its finest.

Everyone is super polite and friendly in Texas, which could have something to do with the fact that everyone is packing heat. So I was on my best behavior and took pains not to let my usual combination of inherited German bluntness and Aussie twang cause offence.

My Uber driver, like so many people I met in America, was an old service veteran who, on hearing I lived and worked in Vietnam, instantly became animated, telling me he had been stationed in Hawaii as an aircraft mechanic during The American War. He related that hundreds of planes landed in Hawaii every day to refuel on their way to Tan Son Nhat and Da Nang airports.

On the 30-minute journey to the hotel we talked a lot about how General G. had helped USS Army Major Allison Thomas create the Allies’ OSS Deer force to fight the Japanese, Vietnam’s dream for independence, freedom and happiness, and the follies of war. The cabbie, in his Texas drawl and wisdom of age, was simple and matter of fact: “Yeah… we could have handled that situation a whole lot better than we did.”

Entering my hotel, I noticed the large sign on the front entrance, which read: “Pursuant to Section 30.07, Penal Code (Trespass by license holder with an openly carried handgun), a person licensed under Subchapter H, Chapter 411, Government Code (handgun licensing law), may not enter this property with a handgun that is carried openly.”

So, you could bring a gun into the hotel, but you just couldn’t let anyone see it. Now I knew there were people with guns in my hotel, however, I didn’t know who had one and who didn’t.

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Robert Cray was playing at the beautiful old Majestic theatre built in 1921 on Elm Street in downtown Dallas and my friend had booked us front row seats. The musician’s soulful act soothed the crowd and he was in perfect harmony with the band. The metal detectors we had to pass to enter the venue also eased my fears of gun violence in the Majestic, and I was comforted this wasn’t going to play out tonight like the second act in the Ford theatre.

Question: You are at Fort Worth Stockyards, Texas. What do you buy to blend in with the locals?

Answer: A Stetson cowboy hat.

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The Stetson Company was founded in 1865 by John B. Stetson, who was well known in the Wild West for helping a wayward traveler and making fine quality handmade felt hats. The hatter at the store was almost like a reincarnation of  JB himself. As he fitted me up with the perfect hat, he asked if I wanted to mold and shape the hat using the steam machine on his workbench. I thanked him for his attention to detail but said, “It looks just perfect the way the craftsman made it.”

As I stepped out of the Stetson shop wearing my new Stetson and an old weatherworn brown leather jacket, my friend quipped that I just needed my stock whip and I’d be Indiana Jones.

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was setting over the stockyards, so we moseyed on down to Billy Bob’s for some honkytonk. Security was tight getting in and even a damsel with a dainty Derringer pistol in her garter belt wasn’t getting a gun into this mammoth establishment. Purchasing a derelict 100,000 square foot department store, the owners had retro-fitted it into a mega bar entertainment complex. It seemed everybody in there was wearing a cowboy hat and the place was so big it even had its own rodeo. I approached the bar and asked, “What do the locals drink in these parts?” She said, “What’s your poison?” I answered, “Whiskey!” She said, “Well, how ‘bout a Fireball?”

Fireball is cinnamon Whisky (that’s without the “e” because, like basketball, it was invented by the Canadians and adopted by the Americans). The Whisky company’s slogan is “Tastes like Heaven, Burns like Hell.” It certainly warmed my belly while I listened to the live country and western music belted out by a band of brothers in Stetsons.

Leaving the safety of the bar, I asked my friend, “So, if everyone carries a gun in this town and Billy Bob’s doesn’t allow weapons, where do they leave their guns?” “Oh…in their cars,” he said nonchalantly.

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Time to Reload

Deciding it was time to see what makes the locals tick, the next day we booked into a gun range. I joined a bunch of international novices and we all stood around in the reception area waiting for the attendants (who were all open carrying) to register our passports. We were ushered into a training room where we were briefed on gun safety for two minutes and then the trainer asked the group if any of us had used a gun before. I raised my hand, having had the experience of a bachelor party in Phuket, where we shot 10 bullets, each for a dollar a bullet, next to a go-cart track. The trainer then ejected me with all the other people who had raised their hands; it seemed I’d passed the test. Time to choose my weapon. There was a bit of a line for the guns so I hovered by the open door of the training room. Seemed they were very thorough explaining the safety and correct usage  of a firearm to the greenhorns, much better than that attendant in Thailand who said, “You point target, pull trigger, bang, bang!”

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The attendant, like the hatter, fitted me up with the perfect companion. He asked what I would feel comfortable with and we settled on a Glock 22, 9mm handgun, a dartboard gun target and 100 bullets (two boxes of 50 rounds). He then handed me safety glasses and earplugs to make sure I didn’t go deaf or blind. As I walked through the soundproof doors with a sign declaring “live firing range,” the sound was intense yet comfortably bearable as my earplugs muffled the muzzle fire. I passed rows of gun enthusiasts firing off round after round, right to rows 21-24 at the end, where my international friends were already shooting live rounds under the watchful eye of the instructor.

I entered my stall, pinned my target to the board, using the mechanical pulley to winch the target down the lane. The greenhorns had it at 5 feet—almost point blank range—so I pushed mine out to 15 feet, being the seasoned veteran with my 10 bullets in Thailand. Taking out the weapon, magazine and bullets, I suddenly realized I didn’t even know how to load the gun, but in Texas it was self-service! I waved one of the instructors over, who looked like his parents could have been Vietnamese but sounded 100 percent American, and was politely shown how to load the magazine: he did one bullet then I was on my own. The magazine holds 15 rounds but by round 10 I was struggling to get the next bullet in. Stuff it! 10 rounds was easier to calculate anyways and I was keen to get started playing Around the World with my dartboard.

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I held the gun firmly with two hands, adjusted my stance, aimed between the two pins and the site, took a deep breath and fired on the exhale. The first round was a big jolt but by bullet ten I was getting the hang of it. I slowly reloaded a total of five times, by which time my fingers were sore from reloading. I never did manage to hit the bull’s eye dead center but neither did I miss the target completely. I decided though after one box of 50 bullets I’d had enough. I returned to the front counter and cashed in my remaining box of bullets. The total cost of this cultural experience came to USD46 dollars. Returning on the flight to Vietnam, I reflected on how far Vietnam had come in these last 40 or so years since the end of The American War. As I am writing this, Vietnam will be hosting the APEC Summit in Da Nang with many of our world leaders in attendance. Perhaps the Americans will change from the MTV channel or put down their guns for just one moment to see their President Trump experiencing the true beauty of Vietnam and how great a country can prosper under peaceful development.

Images by David Muller