By Brian M. Howle
The previous two issues sorted out my days at the Citadel Boys Camp in Charleston, SC. Last issue, I had just recounted leading my squad in an all-out charge on a cute little Mustang full of college gals who had come to visit their cadet boyfriends. As fate would have it, our little “black op” was witnessed by the President of the Citadel, General Harris.
As penance for our unwanted intrusion on the Mustang, we pulled KP duty for most of the remaining days at camp. And as any good soldier knows – as a bottom feeder, if you screw up on the base level, you develop daily, personal relationships with zillions of potatoes in the never-ending quest to provide the troops with adequate amounts of starch and carbohydrates.
Say what you want about Asians … from the perspective of feeding the troops with a minimum of fuss, that whole rice thing suddenly made a lot of sense to me.
The first weekend at camp was a mixed event for yours truly. One the one hand, it meant I had reached the halfway point – my suffering would soon be over, and I would be back in the comfort of my house, in my hometown, with my now-very-normal;-no,-more-than-normal friends.
On the other hand, it meant I would come face to face with being the only kid in the house for the first time in my life – as my brother had been commissioned to attend the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO.
My parents spotted me among the sea of camp clones (hundreds of kids dressed in white T-shirts, blue shorts, blue baseball caps, white socks and tennis shoes) and waved me in the direction of our car. Jack was all decked out in his Air Force cadet dress uniform, looking sharp and drawing envious looks from some of my counselors. I had all year to figure out this thing that was about to happen, but for reasons unknown to me to this day, I just didn’t realize that the day would come when he would actually leave.
Looking back, it was an emotional day for everyone as we made our way to the airport. My brother was about to plunge into military school without the benefit of close proximity to home and friends, and among a sea of total strangers. My parents were watching their second-born and oldest son, leave home for a school almost all the way across the nation. And I was about to lose the protection and comfort of my big brother out in the real world.
I can’t remember how it went at the airport. I vaguely remember watching his plane quickly disappear into the horizon, winging its way to Colorado. And I don’t remember what we did afterwards, or where we went to eat.
I only remember how hard I cried myself to sleep that night, when I realized how much I missed my brother. I couldn’t understand why I was so upset – but I would have my answer sooner than I thought.
The following Monday, I finally got my chance to hit the skeet range. Mom’s failed attempt at having me tutored during my stay resulted in missing sign-up at the start of camp, and after I managed to extricate myself from the debacle I had to wait until the following week. Now, it was time for me to face some unspoken demons.
During the previous year, my Uncle Claude Martin (my mom’s oldest brother) had been killed in a hunting accident near his home. A 10-year-old boy – my age – on his first hunting trip, was left alone at the edge of a field. As Uncle Claude tried to slip through some hedges, the boy – startled, scared and much too young to be left alone with a gun – wheeled at the sound and pulled both triggers of his shotgun. It was clearly a tragic accident, but Uncle Claude was dead.
My mother’s father was a banker and a state senator from Branchville, S.C. In 1929, the stock market crash virtually wiped out the bank. Then in 1930, while returning to Columbia to vote on pending legislation, he and another senator were killed by a drunk driver in a horribly violent, head-on collision. My grandmother was suddenly a widow with five young children to raise.
Mama Ruth was not a meek woman. She had the intestinal fortitude of a Marine drill instructor when it came to raising her children, amid the pain and loss of her husband and their father. Uncle Bubba (as family and friends called him) took the mantle of oldest son and ran with it, completing college and then law school. His younger brother, Uncle G.W., completed college and then medical school. The girls – my mom, her sisters Margie and Minnie Claire – all completed college, and all pursued professional careers.
Yes, they all had great strength and were very goal oriented. But it was Uncle Bubba’s constant vigil at the helm of the family that saw them all through the hard times. I saw how much his death devastated my mother, aunts and Uncle G.W., but I didn’t realize at the time that it literally crushed my grandmother. She was never quite the same woman after Bubba’s death.
Making its way into a confusing cauldron of mixed signals about that same time was my desire to spend as much time as possible with my dad. It became confusing when we went hunting – up until my uncle’s death, I was only allowed to use a .22 caliber rifle and a .410 shotgun, and then only for target practice. Seeing his youngest boy on the cusp of adolescence, my father deemed me ready for the “big” shotgun.
There was no Andy Griffith episode for me to refer to on this one. I really knew only two things about shotguns: (1) They were very, very loud and scary; and (2) They killed my uncle.
So there was my paradox – trying to please my dad’s desire to see me through a rite of passage that all Howle men had conquered, while reeling from the subconscious raging fear and horror of suffering the same fate as Uncle Bubba.
I managed to placate my dad for a few hunting trips by having the “good” bad luck of a lack of game to shoot. He would try to get me to shoot the 20-gauge at tin cans (first thing I learned about the shotgun: little number, big kick), but I evaded his attempts. And I avoided that 12-gauge like the plague.
Now, here I was at a military summer camp where guns were praised and touted, with a variety of firearms programs for campers to pursue. Because I didn’t have the same anti-gun link with a rifle, I had been kicking butt at the indoor rifle range for a week, earning my Marksmanship medal in short order.
Now it was time to step up to the plate.
There was a firearm safety class before we were allowed on the skeet range, and everyone got the basic skinny on the do’s and don’ts of shotgun etiquette. Then we trotted outside to the range, and I tried to fade to the back of the line. But one of my counselors, who witnessed my tirade after being forced to miss that first week of skeet shooting – and then had to put up with my ensuing attitude – made dang sure I was up at the front of the line for this one.
While I was busy praying for a 20-gauge to be among the fold, God sent a clear message when I realized that they were all 12-gauge.
The kid in front of me eagerly took his place, adjusting his glasses and placing the shotgun up against his shoulder. He bobbed for a second, then called out “PULL!” The clay pigeon sailed from its launching hut, high over the reeds of the marshes along the Ashley River. He fired and missed, but he was not deterred. He was ecstatic, and he grudgingly shuffled to the back of the line to await his next turn.
Rich, my counselor, took me under his arm and led me to the shooting mark. I was never more terrified in my entire life, and as I tried to raise the heavy 12-gauge my whole body was shaking. The only comforting benefit was that with my back to my peers, they couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face.
But Rich had sensed my uneasiness around the shotguns, and through his persistent daily chats, he had come to figure out my phobia. I was seconds away from heaving the 12-gauge into the marsh and having a massive breakdown when he leaned over and whispered, “It’s just birdshot, Brian. You’re shooting over the marsh. There’s no one out there for over a mile. You don’t have to be scared, just yell ‘pull’ and lead the pigeon a little; keep the barrel moving and gently squeeze the trigger. You’re not going to kill anyone.”
I wasn’t shaking anymore, but I was still crying, and unable to shoot.
Rich took a deep breath and said, “Your Uncle Bubba would want you to do this, you know.”
Something clicked. Well, yeah, of course; Uncle Bubba was an avid outdoorsman. He hunted, fished and camped regularly, and his main getaway was a little concrete block cottage nestled on the white, sandy banks of the Edisto River. And now that I thought about it, I realized that just every memory of visiting with Uncle Bubba included a drive out to the river cottage.
The tears abated, and the rush of fresh courage and understanding flowed through my being with soothing warmth. I tightly gripped the shotgun, pulled it close to my shoulder and calmly called out, “PULL!”
The clay disc flew out of the little hut, silently gliding across the still afternoon sky. I followed it about halfway through my turn, leading it like Rich had told me, and then I shut my eye and pulled the trigger.
The gun didn’t sound like a cannon this time. And the much-feared kick of the big gauge gun was nothing – not at all like I had imagined. And about the time I was realizing all of this, I opened my eyes at the same moment I heard my fellow campers screaming in delight – and watched as the disc exploded into dust.
A crowbar couldn’t have pried the smile from my face as I made my way to the back of the line, as my friends shook my hand and slapped me on the back while they heaped congratulations on me. Uncharacteristically for me, I didn’t showboat or gloat. I just took it all in, enjoying the conquest of my fear while understanding – for the first time in my life – that this thing called life could be handled.
Oh, I was still galaxies away from maturity and growing up. I had a penchant for doing things the hard way and I successfully kept that foible intact for years to come. Umm … from time to time, still do.
But here – among an environment that I absolutely hated; among kids that I initially avoided; among disciplines and routines that were the least of my character traits; and among counselors that I initially provoked and constantly disrespected – we were all fortunate enough to have these cadet counselors. They were all fine young men of character who listened to their “kids,” and then set about helping them conquer their demons. Over the last few days of camp, I discovered every kid in my squad had some little “issue” that Rich and his counterparts helped to overcome.
That last night, as I listened to my little AM radio playing The Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” through my earphone, I honestly thought I might have found a way of life that I needed. Sure, there was all that unnecessary (to me) military protocols stuff – but if it helped me overcome my deepest fear then maybe, just maybe, this was the life for me.
My epiphany was cut short when a hushed whisper beckoned my roommate and me to “come watch the fun,” as blurry shadows danced across the screen door to our room. We quickly tiptoed outside, where a line of kids was scurrying up the staircase at the entrance to our corner room. Following the group, we serpentined up to the fourth floor (a serious violation of rules made clear on day one, but disregarded on the final night because, hey, what could they do?).
The line disappeared into the doorway of an unoccupied room, where we could discern the stifled laughter of all the kids standing in the darkened room. At first, I couldn’t figure out what we were doing there. And then, I heard a muffled cry.
There was a kid who had been a major pain-in-the butt the entire two weeks. The typical “troubled loner,” he had been responsible for ratting out almost every person who did the least little thing wrong during our stay. When he wasn’t being a snitch, he whined and complained and played out major scenes of conflict with just about every kid – and this was payback time.
Lulled into the room with the promise of purveying the latest issue of Playboy, he had been shoved into one of the standing, metal lockers. The door was then slammed shut and locked, and the entire locker was tipped over – door first – onto the floor. He was trapped in a now unvented metal coffin, in the Indigo blackness of night, screaming and kicking and crying as the others laughed at his misfortune. As much as I disliked the guy, this just didn’t seem very funny to me. I slipped back to my room, popped the radio earpiece back in and thought some more about my earlier revelations.
Fortunately for me, I got over my thoughts of military life.
And that first Monday after being back home, at my weekly Boy Scout meeting, I think I wore my school clothes and took the demerits for not being in uniform.
And for some strange reason, I didn’t mind.
After all, I had a shotgun.
The previous article originally appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, August 29, 2002.