Propped up in a float that looked a little too close to an S&M harness, my grandmother gleefully used her new plastic boat paddle to propel herself across her five-foot-by-five-foot mini-pool. It was a typical afternoon at my grandparents’ house outside Austin, where I had spent every summer for as long as I could remember. During the school year, I dreamed of the home's wooden wrap-around porch and the outdoor shower, the living room’s high ceilings and granite floors that provided a welcome respite from the scorching heat as well as the late afternoons making beaded necklaces with my grandmother in her art studio, surrounded by her paint and canvases.
But that day, while looking for sunscreen in the bathroom, I found five shuriken, also known as throwing stars, the spiky discs you see in martial arts movies but hardly ever in real life.
With my grandparents, you really never know what you’re going to get. They may be 80, but Bubby, my grandmother, wears Vans and loves Jackass. Ducky, my grandfather, tells dirty jokes at the dinner table and has a license to carry a concealed weapon.
When I inquired about the shuriken, Ducky asked nonchalantly, “We never told you about our home-defense training?” He was sitting in a lounge chair sipping his signature drink: red wine with a splash of vodka and a squeeze of lime. I shook my head, no.
Bubby and Ducky, or Bubbaduck, as my brother calls them, signed up for the class after moving to a new home on the outskirts of Austin about 20 years ago. They built the house themselves, a four-bedroom ranch-style kingdom with an art studio outside and a sizeable amount of Hill Country woodlands around it.
It’s a lovely neighborhood, but one that was also seeing its share of crime at the time. Knowing that burglars head straight for the bedroom during break-ins — that’s where most people keep their valuables — Bubbaduck became worried about protecting themselves at home, especially at night. And so, Ducky signed them up for a home defense-class.
Little did they know what they were in for.
A Master Class in Defending the Master Bedroom
Taught by a retired Texas policeman named Jerry Simmons, Bubbaduck’s class was actually a 75-hour course in home defense. The final test would test them on every skill they'd acquired.
The program started with ammunition and firearms, and Bubbaduck took turns shooting at a 12-by-24-inch target at 100 yards away. The lesson ended when they both hit the target four out of six times. (This took a while.) Next, Simmons took them out on the road for moving target practice. As my grandmother leaned out of a pickup truck, her short gray hair waving in the wind, she took shots at a paper target hanging on a clothesline. Crouched next to her, my grandfather popped off a few rounds, too.
Then, as unlikely as it seems, Bubbaduck practiced jumping out of a moving car while simultaneously shooting a bad guy running in the opposite direction. The idea being: If anyone kidnapped my senior citizen grandparents from their beds in the middle of the night, they would at least know how to exit the moving vehicle, grab their concealed handgun from its ankle strap under their pajamas and shoot at the second bad guy lurking on the street as they ran to safety.
Despite this being Texas, the course wasn’t all about guns. Simmons also demonstrated how to throw kitchen knives and — here we go — Chinese throwing stars. Throwing stars are illegal in many states and regulated in others, but thanks to Texas’ generous weapons laws, they’re 100 percent legit in the Lone Star State. My grandparents practiced hurling them at targets for an hour or so (but admitted to not mastering this particular skill).
Later, I checked with Robert Palm, a certified Krav Maga Worldwide instructor who grew up in Japan. He strongly recommended against throwing stars for home defense tools.
“Ninjas weren’t killing people with throwing stars,” he told me. “They were distracting people and getting away.”
That might have been Simmons’ intention with teaching Bubbaduck to use these particular weapons but, as Palm pointed out, “If you nick a burglar who only wanted to rob you with a throwing star, you’ve just pissed him off and made him want to really hurt you.”
The same goes for throwing kitchen knives, which aren’t made to tumble correctly.
“I have no confidence that I could use a kitchen knife to hit anything that was moving,” said Palm, who has logged hundreds of hours of practice with real throwing knives. Before even grabbing a gun, Palm recommends a baseball bat.
Most home defense classes aren’t nearly as involved as Bubbaduck’s — though many are just as paranoid. Some experts recommend building a safe room where you can hide with your family when a serial killer attacks. This can be a simple closet with a deadbolt or a dedicated room custom-built for protecting yourselves. Either way, don’t forget to keep your cellphone charged and ammo handy.
The better idea may be preventing burglary in the first place. Home security systems and alarms — and big dogs, for that matter — go a long way. And though it smacks of common sense, plenty of us go to sleep with our windows open. Keep your keys near your bed, and don’t forget to lock the door between your garage and the main house. If you hear a worrying noise, don’t hesitate to trigger your alarm.
Simmons taught my grandparents plenty about prevention, but he clearly preferred to work on defend-and-escape tactics.
The Futile Folly of Fleeing
Bubbaduck’s final exam wasn’t a written test. It wasn’t target practice or demonstrating mastery of their new throwing stars. It was a mock invasion, staged by Simmons.
On a designated night, around 10 p.m., with my grandfather’s infamous snores beginning to punctuate the night’s silence with their staccato rhythm, a sudden bang! startled Buddaduck. The sound had come from the living room. They exchanged knowing looks and quickly jumped from their bed. Bubby removed a small loaded handgun from her nightstand; Ducky grabbed the heavy Maglight he kept handy.
They had a plan. They wouldn’t yell-whisper at each other while trying to locate the intruder. They wouldn’t go barreling into the kitchen with a baseball bat (and full bladders). Instead, weapons in hand, they would run, crouching, down the long hallway to the grandkids’ playroom in the back of the house. From there, they would sneak out the sliding glass door into the dark backyard — and bang like mad on their neighbor’s door to call the police.
Bubby stood by the doorjamb, clutching her gun in both hands by her face, as she’d seen cops do in movies. Ducky grasped the door handle, looked at her for approval; Bubby nodded, and Ducky creaked open the door. The two ran into the dark, and —
Hit Simmons straight on. Ducky tried to employ the Maglight the way his teacher had showed him: not as a light but as a weapon. (“He taught us how to use it to bring a lot of pain to someone,” he would tell me later.) But Simmons was too quick. He wrestled Ducky to the floor, yanked away the Maglight and used his own weapon against him, pressing on Ducky’s wrist until he couldn’t even scream out in pain.
Meanwhile Bubby stood frozen above them, the handgun pointed at the two wrestling men. As she tried to get into the appropriate handgun-shooting position (knees bent, weight resting on the balls of your feet, arms straight out with one hand pulling and one hand pushing), Simmons kicked Ducky and jumped up, grabbing the gun out of my surprised grandmother’s hands.
Since they weren’t near the kitchen, their butcher knives were of no help. And they hadn’t yet bought their own supply of throwing stars.
This wasn’t the first time Simmons had tested his would-be bedroom defenders. In fact, this was the third time that same night. Their final exams hadn’t gone so well.
“He killed us dead,” my grandfather said. “Every time.”