I’m standing on a dirt road holding a rifle somewhere in Montana. There are no bullets in the gun so, as of right now, it’s really nothing more than a fancy club. I look around and, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but pasture. It’s not even farm land. It’s just… grass and weeds and rocks. I suspect that people call it “God’s Country” because it looks just like it did on the day He created it.
I’m at a shooting range just outside Billing’s city limits with my two brother-in-laws, each of them flanking either side of me, all of us trying to gather in the dwindling shade of the SUV’s popped hatch. The first, to my left, is Jarod. He’s just entered his mid-30s and has the body of a guy that used to be a wrestler (because he was) and dark wavy hair that covers his earlobes. When he heard we were going to go shoot guns, he rolled out of bed and hopped in the car, sweatpants still on from the night before. He holds a coffee and rubs sleep from his eyes.
On my right is Jarod’s younger brother and my other brother-in-law, a red-haired man named Jordan who is one of these people that, once you meet him, you won’t forget him.
He has bright red hair that wafts out into tight curls, creating the illusion of sun-fire surrounding his head. Underneath that, a scraggly red beard encompasses his face, ending somewhere around his collar bone. His skin is pale and covered in freckles. He’s one part Ronald McDonald and one part Unibomber. He also has, what one may consider, an encyclopedic knowledge of guns and gun history and gun production and the mechanisms of guns and gun safety and what, in his opinion, is best and why and why you’re probably wrong.
As I set the rifle down on the table, Jordan begins walking over the gun with me; Wikipedia giving me my own private lesson. “This gun is called a such-and-such,” Frankly, I can’t remember all / any of the details that were being thrown at me in rapid sucession so you’ll just have to bare with me, “This is the safety. Red means fire. You’ll see how the ergonomics of this gun works. Your left hand goes here, your right hand goes here,” and he moves my hands so I know. “Hug the gun, rest your cheek against the side of the stock and look through the scope. Let me tell you about parallax,” and he does, “Here is the magazine, it’s loaded, insert it here; pull this back,” click-click, “Okay, you’ve got one in the chamber. Once you take this gun off of safety, it’s ready to fire. Keep your finger off the trigger until–”
I turn sideways and see a heavy set man approaching our car. He’s got a shaved head and a mustache that resembles Monterrey Jack from the old Chip n’ Dale cartoon; shaved right down the middle but dangling in waxed shoestrings on either side of his mouth. He looks like a Mongolian Warlord……. a white Mongolian Warlord. His cream colored vest has a million pockets and a name-tag attached to it that reads, “DALE”. He’s got, what appears to me, in my extremely limited knowledge of video game firearms, to be a shotgun slung over his shoulder which he carries around like an electric guitar.
“WHATCHYOO FELLAS UP TO OVER HERE?!” He talks like this, in all caps, his eyes enormous white orbs. He laughs after almost everything he says and his jolly belly jiggles; Santa with a gun. Jordan steps forward and tells the man that he’s just out here teaching me how to shoot a gun. The subtext of this statement is, of course, “Leave us alone, we’re in the middle of some stuff.”
“TEACHIN’ SOME GUNPLAY, HUH?,” Then, noticing the rifle, “OH! SHE’S A PURTY ONE! JUST A BEAUTIFUL STOCK! BEAUTIFUL STOCK! SCOPE TOO?! I HAD A BROTHER-IN-LAW THAT WAS A CRYPTOLOGIST IN THE MILITARY BUT THEN HE QUIT AND BECAME A SNIPER AND NOW I HUNT WITH HIM! THE MAN CAN HIT A GOPHER AT 1/2 A MILE AWAY WITH A HANDGUN……..NO SCOPE! NO SCOPE!”
Having no idea if this is possible or not, I look over at Jordan, who slowly crosses his arms and says, “Sounds like a real sharp shooter.” Subtext, “No, he can’t.”
Monterrey Jack continues, “I WAS WATCHIN’ IN MY BINOCULARS! SAW THE LITTLE CRITTER FLIP INTO THE AIR ON THE FIRST BLAST AND THEN, GET THIS, BEFORE HE EVEN HIT THE GROUND, MY OL’ BROTHER-IN-LAW SHOT HIM AGAIN, POPPED HIM RIGHT UP IN THE AIR AGAIN! AND SIX BLOCKS AIN’T EVEN AN EXAGGERATION! BELIEVE IT OR NOT, WE GOT BACK IN THAT CAR AND WATCHED THE ODOMETER AS WE DROVE OVER TO THIS LITTLE FELLA. 1/2 MILE, THERE IT IS!”
Jordan says, “Impressive,” and then turns around and begins organizing his truck, hoping to shun the man out of existence. Dale continues, “I WAS IN VIETNAM, ONE OF THOSE TINY BOATS; 1000 ROUNDS PER EVERY HIT OVER THERE! HAR-HAR-HAR! TODAY I MAKE MY OWN DYNAMITE! MAKE MY OWN FUSES AND ALL!” at which point he goes into very long-winded detail about the best way to make a fuse. Jordan, being a man that re-shells his own bullets and a perfectionist of the art, speaks up and says, “Okay, so you make this fuse. Certainly we’re talking about human error in the process; how are you able to gauge how long the burn is? How can you KNOW?” and Dale looks at him and says, “I JUST LIGHT THE SUNNABITCH AND THROW IT!”
Jordan walks away, back to organizing his truck. His nature won’t allow him to entertain such idiocy. Meanwhile, Jarod keeps throwing out the casual, “Wow, sounds like you’ve got a great thing – anyway – we’re just trying to–” “I JUST SOLD ALL MY GUNS! HAD TO MOVE INTO A DIFFERENT APARTMENT! BOUGHT THIS ONE INSTEAD! FRONT LOADED, BLACK POWDER, SOMETHING-SOMETHING!” Me, I can’t help it. I find the man fascinating, like Daffy Duck with a shotgun, and just keep asking him questions. “How long were you in the military? What branch? How many guns did you sell? What is this one here? What is black powder? You make your own DYNAMITE?! You make your own FUSES?! Why do you need to make your own dynamite? What are you using it for?”
No pause, “BLOW SHIT UP! HAR-HAR-HAR!”
I give a laugh but it’s sort of nervous.
“WELL, BOYS!”…. and just like that, he wanders back to his Jeep, presumably to leave. Jordan shouts at me, “Let’s go, Cocheese!” (side note, I have no idea where this nickname came from but it has become a staple, along with Buford.) I straddle up along the rifle again and find all the grips. I shut my left eye against the sun and gaze through the scope. I find the bright yellow gopher target we’ve placed at the end of the path, roughly 70 yards away, line up my sights and slowly exhale. I’ve never sighted anything on a scope before and I could count the number of guns I’ve fired on two fingers and everything is silent and the wind is blowing and I’m trying to figure out how much the wind would effect my trajectory and mostly, I just want to nail that fake gopher to the ground and show my brothers (by law) that I can.
I push my thumb against the safety and hear it click. To my right, Jordan says, very quietly, “That’s a live gun. Just pull the trigger.” I pull my index finger off the trigger guard and place it on the trigger proper. “Lightly,” Jordan whispers. I raise the cross-hairs from the gopher’s guts to his head. We’re gonna make this one count. I squeeze the gun to my body, brace myself, everything goes quiet and BANG!!! It’s the loudest recoil I’ve ever heard… and I didn’t even have to pull the trigger.
I pull my face away from the sight, push my thumb onto the safety again and look over the gun stock. Fifteen feet to my right, Dale has just fired his front loading shotgun into the wild. He’s not aiming at anything, he’s just… firing huge bullets at dirt.
“YEE-HAW! SONNABITCH! WUNNA YOU BOYS WANNA FIRE THIS BABY? HAR-HAR-HAR!” We all smile and turn back to our target. I line it up again, test the wind again, pretend I’m a sniper again, exhale my breath, hold it, kick the safety off, touch the trigger and behind me Dale is yammering on about a magnum and blowing up gophers and the proper boar butter to use on a crossbow and world records and his old gun collection and statistics and how things have changed in the last 30 years and I am silent, trying to aim and Jordan is silent, standing in blatant refusal to partake in conversation with this man and Jarod just drinks his coffee, occasionally spitting and giving heavy sighs that are indicative of him being exhausted with your presence.
There is a blessed lull in the conversation and I take full advantage of it. Pull the trigger and PHHTT! The gun pops and barely kicks at all. 70 yards away the gopher spins on it’s stand; a direct hit. “YEE-HAW! NAILED HER! HAR-HAR-HAR!” Jordan cracks his neck without using his hands and says, “There ya go, Cocheese. You’ve killed the mama gopher. Now, while all her youngins are moping around, mourning her death, you need to peg each of them,” and he points at the shattered remains of various clay pigeons. “Make every shot count. Clean house.”
I miss all of the imaginary fake gopher babies.
I kill a lot of dirt.
ABOVE: How I feel when I hold a gun.
BELOW: How I look when I hold a gun.
I look up and Dale is packing things up. He says, “I GIVE YOU BOYS MY CARD?” and Jordan says, “Nope,” and Dale says, “WELL, HELL! WHERE’S MY MANNERS!?” and he snaps a card out of his vest pocket. Jordan stares at it for a moment before he says, “I knew I knew you! You used to come into (insert famous Montana Sporting Goods Store here) a couple years ago! I knew you looked familiar!” and Dale says, “OH, YEAH! OH, YEAH! I USED TO COME IN THERE BUT THEY SCREWED ME OVER,” and Jordan says, “I worked there for a couple years. I knew I knew your face,” and the way Jordan says this makes me think something is up.
“SURE! SURE! SUPPOSE YOU DID! I APPLIED TWICE BUT THE IDIOT MANAGER NEVER HIRED ME! WHOEVER WAS RUNNING THAT GUN DEPARTMENT SURE AS SHIT DIDN’T KNOW WHAT THEY WAS DOING!” and Jordan says, “Well… Corporate America.”
Dale gets into his Jeep and shouts, “HAVE FUN!” and then he’s driving away, gone forever, plumes of dirt chasing him down the road.
ABOVE: Guns don’t kill people. Richard kills people.
Jordan turns around and says, “That man would come into (insert famous Montana Sporting Goods store here) for hours and hours and ramble endlessly to anyone that would listen to his “knowledge” of guns. He applied twice and the idiot manager who worked in the gun department that refused to hire him was ME.”
Har. Har. Har.
As I watched Dale’s car shrink into the distance, I couldn’t help but wonder if all of his puffery were just a subtle F-You to the unforgettable face that wouldn’t hire him. “LOOK HOW MUCH I KNOW! LOOK WHAT YOU MISSED OUT ON! HAR-HAR-HAR!”
I fire the rifle again and the fake mother gopher spins on her stand, leaving another round of imaginary gopher children orphaned.