Melinda went to her first North-South Skirmish Association shoot as a tiny baby. By the time she was 8, she was running with a pack of similar-age girls from all over the East Coast. While her dad, Christopher, and his team members strove for accuracy and speed as they shot at targets with Civil War-era firearms or replicas, Melinda and her friends had their own mission: "We would chase around the older boys, throw french fries at them, and otherwise annoy the heck out of them."
Erick and his dad, Wayne, were - and still are - Christopher's teammates. His mom, Lexie, also participates in skirmishes. Erick remembers when Melinda ran with the distracting, bratty band of girls. But even then, she was interested in the muzzle-loaders and the competition and would stop running to watch. As soon as Melinda turned 15, she joined the team.
Melinda, who grew up in North Torresdale, was not able to compete much when she studied hospitality management at Syracuse, but she returned to regular competition after graduating in 2006. That was when Melinda, who is now creamery-operations manager at the University of Delaware, and Erick, a boiler operator at Kimberly-Clark in Chester, truly became friends.
"She was present more, and she was an adult," said Erick, who grew up in Aston, "and old enough to have a couple of drinks and hang out with the team after competition."
Melinda dated, but as she became more and more skilled with her rifle, "I wanted to shoot even more and be with the team even more," she said. A lot of guys didn't understand. Some, frankly, seemed a little freaked out. "Dating a girl who shoots a gun better than you is intimidating," she discovered. "I found it very hard to date someone who didn't do what I did."
Erick had been briefly married many years earlier. He dated, and had been in a longer-term relationship, but that didn't work out.
In 2009, Erick and Melinda decided to try out together for the U.S. International Muzzleloading Team. They spent a lot of time practicing, and feelings other than friendship slowly evolved.
Both made the team, and there was more practice, and traveling together, too. One of them eventually confessed to having romantic feelings, and the other did, too.
"He always did make me laugh, throughout my whole life, from the time he was just tolerating me," Melinda said. "We have fun shooting together and just being together."
"I didn't have to change anything," Erick said. "She lets me be myself. And we get along so well. I fell in love with one of my best friends."
But dating someone you've known so long, who is such a good friend and also your teammate, feels a little risky. "There were many discussions of, 'Should we do this? Is it time to try?' " said Melinda, now 31.
One night in 2010, after a competition in Winchester, Va., Erick, now 46, asked a different question: "What would happen if I kissed you?"
Melinda didn't say anything. She just kissed him.
The couple and their friends attend a gun show every January in Las Vegas. Last year, the group left the city to hike in Red Rock Canyon Park. Erick kept announcing his desire to climb some rocks. Melinda wondered why he kept announcing something so obvious. "What about that rock?" their friends suggested.
It also occurred to Melinda that Erick's hoodie was an odd choice of clothing for a hot day's climb, but the gorgeous view crowded out her wondering about it. At the top, Erick reached into his sweatshirt pocket and pulled out a box.
Fear of falling kept him from kneeling, but Erick turned to Melinda and asked whether she'd marry him.
Their friends, snapping photos the whole time, erupted in cheers when she said yes.
The couple, who now live in Aston, held their ceremony and reception on a Lancaster County farm where they've participated in many N-SSA competitions. They are friends both with owner Charlie, who also competes in skirmishes, and the Esh family, who farm the land.
Their wedding day was windy and cloudy, and the temperature was in the 50s, but the ceremony took place outside as planned, in front of a building made from old timbers. Their 240 guests sat on hay bales. "We froze a little, especially the bridesmaids and me, since we didn't have jackets. But our officiant - our friend Craig - kept it short and personal," Melinda said. The couple know Craig, a former mayor of Goldsboro, through gun competition. He was also a groomsman. Just as Melinda's mom, Lorraine, reminded everyone that God is love, and love is God, the heavy clouds parted and rays of sunshine poured through. "It was just like at the beginning of The Simpsons," Melinda said, "and everyone applauded and laughed."
Instead of a guest book, everyone signed a piece of cedar that Erick had found. The couple trimmed Mason jars with burlap and lace and filled them with flowers from the farm.
One Esh family member, Benul, owns a butcher shop and catering business. He and his team supplied beef, pork, chicken, homemade breads, and mini whoopie pies for the reception, held under two tents that mercifully had heaters inside. Melinda hired her team from the UDairy Creamery to serve up all that food, plus their own ice cream and a wedding cake.
Everyone, including the bride and groom, camped on the farm that night, hanging out around a fire until the wee hours. The next day, nearly 60 of those who celebrated together were locked in fierce competition with musket teams that had been chosen via draft at the rehearsal dinner. The Groom's Goons beat out the bride's team, Lead and Lace, as well as her sister and maid of honor Kara's team, the Maids of Dishonor.
When Erick's brother and best man, Andrew, asked him, "How's it going?" everything felt fine and totally normal. A moment later, "the girls came walking in, and then I saw her coming down the aisle. I thought, 'It's real now,' " Erick said. It felt wonderful, and extraordinary. Soon, it was time for him to say his vows and put Melinda's wedding ring on her finger. "It was the first time in a very long time that I saw him get emotional," Melinda said. "He doesn't show emotions on the outside like that, and for him to let go and show everyone exactly what he was feeling, that was so amazing."
A bargain: Heaps of delicious, traditional Amish food that everyone raved over.
The splurges: A little one: A popcorn machine, just because Melinda loves it. The big one: Hiring the photographer for a second day to catch the day-after competition.