John J. Pershing VA Medical Center
Straight Shooter Aims for Good Health
If life gives you lemons…shoot ‘em.
That’s the philosophy of Mr. James “Diamondback Billy” and Mrs. Dena “Snake Charmer” Alphin, anyway.
James and Dena Alphin are the sort of people everyone wants to hang 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 the age of eighteen. Alphin served as a crew chief on a Chinook (Army tandem blade helicopter) at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and Ft. Eustice, Virginia.
“When I got out of the service, the VA helped me become a parts man with an apprenticeship program through Ford Motor Company. I started at $78 per month and eventually ended up working with NAPA Auto Parts for 31 years,” Alphin says.
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 says. 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.
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 (Mayo Clinic). “I’d never heard of it,” Alphin says. 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.
Because of this, the Department of Veterans Affairs 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 says. “You can’t beat VA as far as I’m concerned. I want everyone to know how much they’ve helped me.”
For years, Alphin attended VA blood thinner clinics, and was monitored regularly by pharmaceutical staff. “I got to know the people,” Alphin says. “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.
“This is my medical facility for everything,” Alphin says. He tells a story about having diverticulitis and finding himself in the VA hospital. “They took good care of me. Once, when I was at an appointment, my wife had a seizure in the waiting room. Before you could bat an eye, they’d taken her to urgent care and took excellent care of her!”
Then he received a wheelchair and braces through VA. “When I got that first set of hand controls on my pickup, I hit the road!” Alphin says. “That (wheel)chair’s got a million miles on it.” Dena Alphin agrees. “It’s been such a blessing,” she says.
While suffering from depression due to his condition, Alphin visited a VA counselor. “She got to talking to me about interests, and encouraged me to take up a hobby,” Alphin says. “She’s the one that brought me out of my slump; her and CFDA.”
“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 says.
“When she (the VA doctor) told me to find a hobby, I got to messing around with old guns – cleaning them up and selling them,” Alphin remembers. “A guy came in and traded a holster that was stamped, ‘CFDA approved.’ I went online and found out what it was. The next weekend Dena and I went to a shoot in Texarkana to see if we could sell the holster.
But CFDA participants weren’t having any of it. “They told me, ‘You’ve already got a holster, let’s get you a gun!’” Alphin recalls. “They were so nice and welcoming. That was in 2010, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The Cowboy Fast Draw Association has over 5,000 members worldwide and started in 2002 in Deadwood, South Dakota. “There had been other fast draw competitions, but this started because it got so expensive to compete, with their fancy equipment,” explains Alphin. “With CFDA, all guns must be stock guns, and in leather holsters at all times unless they are being cleaned or used in competition.”
“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 says.
His enthusiasm was infectious. Dena Alphin 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 club has about 30 members, including six children (must be over the age of 8) and monthly “shoots” are accompanied by food and fellowship.
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 (Cowboy Fast Draw Association.) That’s why Alphin is known as “Diamond Back Billy” (with a hat to match) and his wife is “Snake Charmer.”
James Alphin has accumulated over 15 titles such as 1st place, Louisiana State Championship; Sheriff’s Brackett, 1st place, Texas State Championship, 2nd place Virginia State Championship; Men’s Shootist, and 3rd place, Jessie James Territorial, Men’s Senior Division. At the 2017 World Championship, he secured a position in the “Magnificent Seven” – the top 7 shooters in the world. Not to be outdone, Dena’s titles include Kansas State Ladies Champion, 1st place Kentucky State Championship, Women’s Senior Division, 1st place overall in the Bluegrass Fast Draw Virgil Earp Shoot (two years in succession) and South Dakota Ladies State Champion.
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.”
Cal Etrik (“Quick Cal”) is the director of CFDA and his wife is Dinah “Lotta Lead,” Dena Alphin says. “When James received the True Grit Award, there were probably 400 people there. Lotta Lead gave him that award and there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
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,” Alphin says, with a grin.