I had sprinted back the last hundred yards and dropped into a prone position, snugging the sling into the meat of my bicep and trying to get sights on target as quickly as possible. The front post was still a slightly unsteady blur and I already knew the rifle was no tack driver – it had never been better than a four-minute-of-angle gun and had a tendency to shoot right – but I was suffering from a mild case of “run-and-gun fever” and needed to make some holes in things.
Bam! The solid smack of the round impacting the backstop was accompanied by a sharp knuckle-punch into the meat of my shoulder. A hit, but a glancing one, just barely clipping the outside edge of my target. My form had been adequate but sloppy – I hadn’t tucked the stock fully into me before firing, leaving enough space for the steel butt plate to get a running start at my deltoid. The Russian 7.62 isn’t exactly a powerhouse round by rifle standards but physics are final and free recoil is no one’s friend. Of course, as I often tell my students (on a variety of topics), there is no greater educator than the word “Ow” if you’re willing to hear its lesson.
Simple rules, simple concepts, simple lessons. Those things which are most easily taken for granted, ignored and forgotten. Until Ow comes to town.
This summer has been hell. I have been taking graduate-level courses from Professor Ow, earning my degree in being a human being. I have no idea when the final will be presented or how well I’ll do but I’ve surprised myself with a few recent pop quizzes and I have learned much. Simple things I should have learned as a child, not as a forty-year-old man with children of his own.
Things like how “I love you” is not a threat. It’s something humans say to each other to express connection. Tenderness. Affection. Caring. It doesn’t need to be met with indifference or contempt. It should be welcomed and returned with sincerity.
And how the phrase “I’m here for you” is not an indictment of your weakness, inviting attack. It doesn’t need to be met with aggression or hostility. It’s something called “compassion” and should elicit not punishment but rather appreciation and gratitude.
That crying is not some wound to be swiftly staunched and cauterized. That humans – children and adults alike – need to let their feelings out and give voice to their fears and pain, not simply provide body damage assessment and move on.
That words can slice to the bone and lies can shatter the strongest of foundations. That in life, in love, in most all things, it is far easier to destroy than it is to create or repair.
That there are limits, once exceeded, that result in permanent damage and loss. That you can’t recall bullets or unring bells. That some wounds can never be healed no matter how desperately or tenderly you try to treat them.
That life is not a series of disconnected vignettes but rather a contiguous stream of interactions with the world around you. That the future is propelled by the past but isn’t fleeing from it. That who you are will always contain who you were, like it or not, so you’d better make peace with it instead of trying to shred, burn and bury to escape it. And that, in every moment of your life, you can choose who it is you want to be, knowing that echoes of your past do not have to be directives for your future.
That sharing your life with another human being isn’t an admission of failure, a confession of your inability to handle things yourself. And that sharing it with someone who loves you means opening yourself up and sharing it all, not treating them like a guest in your soul. Offering them trust and letting them freely wander instead of suspiciously restricting their travels and access.
All simple rules, simple concepts, simple lessons. Things that most anyone should already know but that were missing from my makeup. Lessons I’m learning the hard way and that I now carry in fine Jacob Marley style, captive, bound and double-ironed.
I couldn’t tell you if these lessons will stick for a lifetime or might ever need to be learned again (nightmarish thought, there, given that Professor Ow charges quite a premium for remedial instruction). I can’t even predict whether I’ve learned enough to serve me worth a damn in the present. Sadly, my Magic Eight Ball seems to be stuck on, “Too little, too late, fuckwit.” But I’m really bad at giving up without a fight so….
Back to the forgotten basics. I pulled the stock in a little tighter and held my last half-breath a beat, ignoring the range’s pea gravel digging into my elbows. I held slightly left and compensated for the rise in the round’s rainbow trajectory as I pressed back on the trigger. I fired my second round, double-tapping a third the instant the sights recovered. A comfortable push this time and two center-mass hits a football field away. Not perfect but certainly an improvement over my prior miserable mishandling.
On closer inspection, I found that the rounds had struck almost precisely at my point of aim and within two inches of each other. Not bad at all, all things considered, and a far better performance than I thought the gun was capable of delivering. Stupid to read too much into that, to look for portents in what might just be a fluke and yet, fool that I am, I find myself clinging to the tiniest hope for this imperfect and previously imprecise tool. And for the rifle.