If life gives you lemons…shoot ‘em.
That’s the philosophy of James “Diamondback Billy” and Dena “Snake Charmer” Alphin, pictured above.
James and Dena Alphin are the sort of people everyone wants to be around. Kind and hospitable, they smile often, laugh easily and always find the “glass half-full” way to look at life. They are so positive and warm, it’s hard to imagine they have ever faced troubles … but face them they have. Straight down the barrel.
An Arkansas native, James Alphin was stricken with polio as a two year-old child. One of the fortunate ones, he recovered and was healthy enough to join the Army at 18. He served as a crew chief on a Chinook (Army tandem blade helicopter) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina and Ft. Eustice, Virginia.
James Alphin with phlebotomists Rhonda Ruckdeschell and Steve Murphy
“When I got out of the service, VA helped me become a parts man with an apprenticeship program through the Ford Motor Company. I started at $78 per month and eventually ended up working with NAPA Auto Parts for 31 years,” Alphin said.
Unfortunately, Alphin’s health began to deteriorate mysteriously. Soon, he had such difficulty walking he was forced to leave NAPA, unable to work. Life got hard, and his wife worried about leaving him at home while she worked. Alphin saw 13 private specialist physicians but no one could figure out what was going on.
Nerves in his legs died, his circulation was affected, and “They thought I was going to have to have a leg amputated,” Alphin said. He couldn’t drive, he couldn’t walk. Mentally and physically, he admits, he was “a mess.” Virtually housebound for over a year and a half, Alphin began to suffer depression.
Post-polio syndrome – “I’d never heard of it.”
Finally, Alphin was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome. Post-polio syndrome “refers to a cluster of potentially disabling signs and symptoms that appear decades – an average of 30 to 40 years – after the initial polio illness.
“I’d never heard of it,” Alphin said. Though uncommon, one of the risk factors for post-polio syndrome is “excessive physical activity.” The more active you are during your lifetime, the quicker the onset of post-polio syndrome.
VA determined Alphin’s Army service had contributed to the development of post-polio syndrome and deemed his condition to be service-connected. It was then that he started coming to the John J. Pershing VA Medical Center in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.
“Those folks bent over backwards to help me,” Alphin said. “You can’t beat VA as far as I’m concerned. I want everyone to know how much they’ve helped me.”
Step back in time to the old west
For years, Alphin attended VA blood thinner clinics, and was monitored regularly by pharmaceutical staff. “I got to know the people,” Alphin said. “Those two (phlebotomists) in the lab are a hoot – I love them – they make it fun,” he says, describing the individuals who routinely gave him blood tests…which – require a needle.
“CFDA” is the Cowboy Fast Draw Association – a step back in time to the Old West. Participants line up to shoot wax bullets at targets with electronic sensors that determine who is the fastest – and most accurate – “draw.”
Their motto is “Safety First, Fun Second, and Competition Third,” Alphin said.
“They made it where the average person can afford to shoot. It’s only about six cents per shot to practice. My wife and I can practice all day for three dollars,” Alphin said.
His enthusiasm was infectious. Dena joined him in the fast draw world following her retirement, and the two of them along with their friend, John Palmer, started a local chapter in Pocahontas, Arkansas called the “Randolph County Rangers.”
The Cowboy Fast Draw Association strongly recommends the use of an “alias” when participating in CFDA events, because it adds to the fun and spirit of the game. That’s why Alphin is known as “Diamond Back Billy” (with a hat to match) and Dena is “Snake Charmer.”
James Alphin has accumulated over 15 titles and at the 2017 World Championship, he secured a position in the “Magnificent Seven” – the top seven shooters in the world.
Not to be outdone, Dena’s titles include Kansas State Ladies Champion and 1st place overall in the Bluegrass Fast Draw Virgil Earp Shoot (two years in succession).
But the award of which they are both most proud is James Alphin’s recent “True Grit Award.”
The Cowboy Fast Draw Association presents this award to the CFDA member who “no matter what challenges life throws their way…they face them and never lose faith in the Cowboy Way” and “serve as an example for the rest of their CFDA family to follow.”
The award was a testament to James Alphin’s strength of character and resilience.
Alphin believes the VA and CFDA combination is a powerful one that could benefit other Veterans.
“It’s done wonders for me,” he says, with a grin. Dena agrees.
About the author: Angela Smith is the VA Public Affairs Officer at the John J. Pershing VAMC