Here's another excerpt from Fobbit, similar to the previous "Don't Know Much About Guns" section I posted. This was today's early-morning writing exercise. I'm physically halfway through this second draft now; charging ahead, bayonet unsheathed, yelling at the top of my lungs.
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 tin voice crackling from the speaker with the loose wire—the one dangling from the side of the range tower like an eyeball popped from its socket. You dare not make one move—left, right, back or otherwise—unless given explicit permission. Else, 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 tendrils slowly melting from a too-distant sun. The skin on your hands is pinched, numb, and the bed 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 right now 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, 25 meters to 300 meters: sneaking from behind berms, barely visible through bushes bullet-stripped of leaves, jumping 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 you have pulled the trigger—impudent, disobedient players in this game.
Now you are standing in the foxhole which, you are certain, will soon be filling up with the blood from your elbows and knees. Your brain is swelling 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 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 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 as 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 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, at 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 which 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.