It’s a cold Thursday afternoon and I’m at the gun range. But this time my usual shooting buddy isn’t with me. There’ll be no good-natured banter. No burgers and beers afterwards. I’m here to learn how to kill.
“Ready?” the instructor, an old ex-marine, asks.
A small .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol is holstered on my belt with a round in the chamber. When I thumbed the bullets into the magazine earlier I couldn’t help but notice how they felt like big, heavy pendants in the palm of my hand. By themselves they are nothing, little brass and lead curiosities that cost eighty-five cents a piece. But when they explode out of a gun and are headed your way they become everything.
“Ready,” I reply.
Picking a plastic training pistol off the counter the instructor says, “Okay. We’re gonna do some of that shooting from the hip stuff I showed you. Come here.”
I walk over to the instructor. He abruptly grabs me by the shirt and shoves the plastic gun into my gut.
“Gunfights aren’t what you see in the movies, kid,” the instructor says, his breath so hot against my cheek I can tell what he had for lunch. “They’re dirty, nasty and personal. Get it?’
Taken aback, I can’t speak. But as I look into the instructor’s eyes I know I’m peering into the soul of a man who’s taken lives. He’s heard bullets whip crack past his head and watched villages burn. People have tried to kill him and he has killed. This man bears the Mark of Cain.
“When somebody attacks you they’ll probably be this close,” the instructor rasps. “You’ll have to fire point blank into him.” Feeling the fake gun pressing into my navel I reflexively suck my stomach in, trying to make myself a smaller target. But if this were the real thing I’d have no chance.
“But when a gun goes off this close,” the instructor says, “The bullet won’t be the only thing that screws the bad guy up. The flames’ll go into him too. The gasses will blow his flesh open. His blood will be everywhere – on you, the gun, everywhere. It’ll be a mess. He’ll scream. It’ll be awful.”
“Jesus,” I mutter. “What about shooting him in the shoulder or something?”
“When it goes down you’ll probably be off guard,” the ex-marine says. “You’ll be so scared your vision will tunnel. Your hands will shake. You’ll have the motor skills of a three year old and you’ll probably piss yourself and take a dump the same time. There’s no time for sharpshooting. Stick it in his belly and pull the trigger.”
Prior to this private lesson I’ve only shot guns for fun and relaxation. But now I’m not relaxed. I’m jumpy and nervous. Imagining burnt bits of someone’s intestines on my hands is not my idea of a good time. I want to go home. But I instinctively realize why the instructor’s giving me all those gory details. He’s doing his job. He’s training me. He’s acclimatizing me.
“Okay,” the instructor says, pulling the plastic gun out of my stomach. “Let’s go.”
I walk into the gun port. Hanging two feet in front of my face is a paper target with the vital areas of the human body mapped out.
“Now you’re firing an auto,” the instructor says. “So if you really stick it into a guy’s stomach you could knock the slide out of battery. So when you clear the gun from your holster tuck it in close to your side and let off three rounds. Just like I showed you. Got it?”
“Watch your muzzle. I don’t want you shooting yourself.”
I gulp and shake my head in the affirmative
“Wait for my command,” the instructor says.
I take a deep breath. I can’t believe I’m doing this. What possessed me?
My hand flies to my pistol. Once it clears the holster I rotate the barrel towards the target and fire three rounds from the hip. I don’t hear the noise or feel the recoil. The only outside sensation that makes it into my brain is the smell of gunpowder. But in my mind I’m not seeing a paper target. I’m seeing a flesh and blood man trying to kill me. And as my bullets rip his flesh open a shadow deep inside my soul suddenly roars.
“Not bad,” the instructor says. “You got him in the spine and the left lung.”
I don’t say anything and holster the pistol. I’m shaking. Frightened.
The instructor knows what’s up. Putting a hand on my shoulder he gently whispers. “You’re a good person, Steve. I know you. You deserve to live. Him?” he says glancing at the blasted target. “He does not. ”
I feel my eyes well up. I trust this old man. There’s no bravado about him. No swaggering cowboy machismo. Underneath his clipped speech and gruff manner sadness flows within him like dark, impenetrable river. He has seen things I’ve never seen. He’s done things I’ve never done. And he’s paid a very high price for being who he is.
We finish our session and I go home. I’m fine in the car but the moment I get into my apartment I start tearing up again. When I visualized that someone was trying to kill me it was so anathema to my being that when I started shooting I exploded with incandescent rage. I don’t want to go out that way. I want to be here. Training to kill ironically reminded me how very much I want to live. I have books to write, places to go, experiences to savor. And somewhere, hidden amongst a sea of faces, the love of my life is waiting. It’s then I realize what the shadow was. It was the Ghost of Cain. And he roared a terrifying truth – sometimes the terrible thing is the right thing.
“You’re a good person and you deserve to live,” I say aloud, my words echoing through my empty apartment. I silently pray that will always be the case.