You’ve always been afraid of firearms.
When you were a kid—twelve, maybe thirteen—your Dad entered your bedroom at 5:30 in the morning smelling of aftershave and sweat, and said, “It’s time. Get up.” And then, after a breakfast of dry toast and orange juice, the two of you drove twenty miles in silence, the cab of the truck filling with your dad’s scent, the sweat overtaking the aftershave. You stopped at a Forest Service campground, found a path in the dark, and started out on your hunt for elk, high in the mountains of Wyoming, the two of you walking for hours into what at the start looked like distant purple folds of landscape but soon turned to the hard reality of scree and slope. Along the way, the two of you heard an elk bugle. It sounded like a cross between whale song and a creaking door and it got your Dad all excited, like the animal was calling, “Here I am! Come get me!”
This was only the second time he’d taken you out with a gun; the first was the previous hunting season when the pair of you had gone after sage grouse near Riverton. That day, you carried the shotgun in two hands, holding it out and away from your body, forgetting everything you’d learned in the hunter safety course in the basement of the 4-H building—which, anyway, was two years ago and even then you couldn’t keep things in your head.
As you walked that field outside Riverton, the gun grew heavy and you wondered if you’d be able to lift it to your shoulder. But when your Dad stopped short and whisper-shouted, “There!” you brought it up, like a barbell, and slammed it against your collarbone.
You shot wild and high when the grouse exploded from the prairie. Then you fell backward, sagebrush snagging at your clothes, and writhed on the ground, your shoulder burning from the kick of the gun. At the time, you were certain a bone was broken.
Your father looked at the vanishing bird, then spit off to one side and left you on the ground, his pants whispering through the sage as he walked back to the car.
So, you were surprised when he shook you awake at 5:30 that mid-winter day and told you to get dressed, and not to dilly-dally like you always goddamn did because the elk were waiting. You’d never known your Dad to be one for second chances.
The gun you carried this time was even heavier and smelled of fresh oil. Your mittens turned black where they held the barrel.
You and your Dad climbed the hill toward the meadow where, his co-workers at the warehouse assured him, there were easy elk to be found. The two of you post-holed through the knee-deep snow, churning faster after you heard the elk bugle. Your Dad didn’t even stop to give you time to eat one of the candy bars you knew he was carrying in his coat pocket, one of which was a Heath bar, your favorite. Your Dad had slipped it into his pocket without a word, but you knew he hated Heath bars and this was his way of conceding you some kindness.
You panted and high-stepped. You were all for finding the nearest log and telling him to go on while you waited, and maybe he’d give you an early reward, handing you the Heath and saying, “Okay. Catch up when you can.”
But he had his back to you and you didn’t have the extra breath for words as you made your way through the forest.
Then the two of you stepped out of the trees, the promised meadow opening before you. Three hundred yards away: a young bull, neck as long as a swan’s, coat the color of toast. The elk lifted its head and the small rack stood up like a candelabra.
Your Dad grabbed your shoulder and pulled you forward. “Hurry, before he bolts.”
You stripped off your mitten, tossed it to the snow, and lifted the gun. The barrel wavered and dipped, that’s how heavy it was.
“Safety!” he hissed, then he reached over and pushed it off himself. “Okay, now, breathe…aim…pull!”
You looked down the length of the gun. The elk looked back along that same shaft of barrel. Unchewed grass poked from both sides of its mouth like whiskers. It stared, chewed once, then snorted a puff of breath, a challenge, through its nostrils.
You jerked the trigger.
At once, the world was filled with thunder and you toppled backwards, the sky rushing down across your sight like a curtain, the gun flying out of your hands and soaring through that same lakeblue sky. Your head hit the snow with a loud WOOMPH! digging a skull-shaped tunnel. The snow crumbled down over your face. You couldn’t feel your right arm and thought it had been severed at the shoulder. You heard your Dad’s muffled voice and the crunch of snow as he walked over to yank you up from the little grave you’d dug yourself.
For the second time in as many years, you had been shamed by a gun that threw you to the ground.
The two of you walked unspeaking and empty-handed down off the mountain, not even stopping to have a post-hunt candy bar along the way.
It is the sixth of eight weeks at basic training and you are standing chest-deep in a foxhole on the M-16 firing range. You have placed the rifle on the sandbag, as instructed, ejection port side up, and are under no circumstances to touch the weapon until told to do so. You take all instructions from the firing-range tower, the tin voice crackling from the speaker with the loose wire. You dare not make one move—left, right, back or otherwise—unless given explicit permission. Otherwise, the wrath of the drill sergeants will come thwapping down on the crown of your helmet in the form of a metal rod similar in size and heft to a martinet’s riding crop. The drills stalk the line of foxholes looking for the weak and disobedient whom they can smite with the holy fury of The Rod. Two groups ago, your battle buddy Kidner came wobbling off the line saying his head was still ringing like a bell. You’re prone to migraines so you are determined not to let yourself get thwapped.
It is bitter cold on this Kentucky morning, three weeks before Christmas. An icy fog still grips part of the firing range, the white tatters slowly melting from a too-distant sun. The skin on your hands is pinched, numb, and the beds of your fingernails sting with the pain of the constricting cold. You are so paralyzed with obedience that you dare not even bring your cupped hand to your mouth for a puff of warm breath.
You have just completed firing the first half of your forty rounds, sprawled prone in the gravel just outside the foxhole. The rocks have cut so hard and deep into your elbows you’re certain that blood is trickling down your forearm as you stand, muscles jumping, near the back of the foxhole. You know you have done poorly thus far in the qualification exam, the results of which will determine whether you graduate from basic training or remain behind in the barracks at Fort Knox for an extra two weeks of remedial training before having another go at the firing range. You know you have done poorly in the prone because even though the ill-fitting helmet kept tipping forward onto the bridge of your nose, you could see well enough through the rifle’s two sights that a very, very small percentage of your pop-up targets were falling backward in response to your bullets. They came and went in a narrow line in front of you, twenty-five meters to three hundred meters: sneaking from behind berms, barely visible through bushes bullet-stripped of leaves, springing up from rocks.
You think of all that the drills have—excuse the expression— drilled into your head about proper firing technique: firing-side knee cocked at 45-degree angle, left hand loosely cupping the forward handguard, resting the rifle on the heel of the hand in the V formed by the thumb and fingers, butt of the stock placed in the pocket of the firing shoulder, cheek welded to stock, tip of nose to charging handle, steady breath in, steady breath out, steady breath in—don’t hold it—out, in, out, ride the crest-and-trough waves of the oxygen, that’s it, that’s it…then, slow steady squeeze of the trigger with the meaty tip of your forefinger. BAM!!
The pop-up men were not obeying your bullets. They were not dying, one by one.
They were coming too fast, too fast, these green, hunched men with their plastic rifles. How were you supposed to relax and breathe when they came up and fell back down at the rate of prairie dogs doing the pop-and-duck from their holes?
The gravel bites at your elbows, your chest presses into the ground, you cannot breathe, you cannot see, you cannot hear around the sponge of the earplugs. You are encapsulated in your own world of sinus breath and muffled gunshot, watching the little hump-shouldered men spring from the earth, mock you for ten seconds, then melt back earthward long after trigger-pull. The green men are impudent, disobedient players in this game.
Now you are standing in the foxhole that, you are certain, will soon be filling up with the blood from your elbows and knees. Your brain swells beneath the helmet and you can already feel the prelude of a migraine roaring toward you. A drill sergeant crunches past in the gravel and you flinch, waiting for the metal thwap.
Now the tower is telling you in its rattley, loose-wire voice to step forward, secure one twenty-round magazine, lock and load, then get a good sight picture downrange. It is telling you to rotate your selector switch from SAFE to SEMI-AUTOMATIC and “Scan. Your. Lane.”
You breathe. You squint. You squeeze.
This is the beginning of your Army career and, seventeen years later when you deploy to Iraq, you will still suck at putting rounds downrange. There will be better qualification scores than the one from this first trip to the range at Fort Knox. There will also be worse scores when, to your humiliation as a mid-level NCO, the battalion training sergeant will hand you the computer print-out and in a too-loud voice in front of your subordinates and peers announce you’re a “No-Go.”
But this is your first time and you will carry this moment with you the rest of your life, this first humiliating “No-Go.” And later that night you will be sitting bent over your tray of food in the chow hall, not able to look any of your fellow basic trainees in the eye—not even your best bud Kidner. You’re having a hard time swallowing the mashed potatoes for the lump that is lodged in your throat because you’re certain you will not be going home for Christmas break but will remain at Fort Knox, Kentucky, remedially practicing over and over the essentials of breath and trigger squeeze. That day, you hit twenty-one targets, two short of the minimum required to pass the qualification exam. You are a failure, a wash-out, lower than a snake’s belly in a ditch.
You think about how you’d better start liking these mashed potatoes because you’ll be getting more than your fill of them over the next three weeks.
You hear a noise behind you, a warm breath on the back of your neck, and the next thing you know, the drill sergeant—the bug-eyed one who seemed to have it out for you from the first day you stepped off the bus—is leaning over, his voice soft in your ear: “Congratulations, private. One of Santa’s reindeer just shit in your stocking.”
You gasp and straighten. “What does that mean, drill sergeant?” you squeak.
“What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know, drill sergeant.”
“It means you passed the qualification range. Merry Fucking Christmas, private.”
“For real, drill sergeant?”
“Yes, for fucking real, private. You calling me a liar, private?”
“No, drill sergeant.” The squeak in your voice has been joined by a shake.
“Private, are you calling me a liar?”
“No, drill sergeant.”
“If I say strings were pulled, then strings were fucking pulled.”
“Yes, drill sergeant.”
“Now finish your food and get the fuck out of my chow hall.”
The drill straightens and continues stalking the chow hall. He bellows: “Awright, privates, get a move on, shovel it in, you got five minutes before you gotta be standing outside front and center in formation. FIVE MINUTES, HEAR? Don’t even worry about breathing, just shovel it in. Shovel it in, privates!”
Such relief and exhilaration and, yes, Yuletide joy floods your chest that you slap the table with the flat of your hand. The others at your table look at you, the visible tears standing in your eyes. “What’s wrong with you?” they ask, but you shake your head, unable to speak around the mashed potatoes that have gone dry in your throat.
You have gotten the first—and probably the last—break in your Army career. That bug-eyed bastard of a drill sergeant has just broken some sort of rule on your account, finagled a dope deal with the training NCO—all for a thin, anxious private who will leave this place still not knowing how to properly fire an M-16 rifle or kill a pop-up target.
You will never, ever forget those hot, grateful tears rolling on the rim of your lower eyelids. Or the happiness you feel when Kidner takes one look at you and calls you a pussy.
In the micro-instant between trigger-pull and the forehead exploding from the impact of your bullet, this is what goes through your mind: Oh God I hope I don’t miss. This Baghdad heat is a motherfucker Barrel hot Barrel heavy Kidner’s got my back, doesn’t he? DOESN’T HE?! Oh God oh God Steady breath in, steady breath out, steady breath in—don’t hold it—out, in, out What the fuck?! Is that a goat or a woman in my peripheral? I hope I don’t miss Whacka- mole Prairie dogs Terrorist pops up Terrorist pops down Up Down Up Down Get him while you can Kidner where are you??!! This terrorist better be a fucking terrorist and not a—Lady, watch out! Oh God Oh God
Explosion of grouse
This story appeared in Consequence Magazine, Spring 2013 (Volume 5).