The sand grinds its way into my elbows and I settle my body behind the rifle. My ribcage aches from the weight that has consistently been placed on it, and my ankles speak to me from my torqued and flattened feet. The familiar poke in my ribs reminds me that my spotter has his scope tripod in my armpit. My unfocused eyes gaze down at the green and tan of my receiver, relaxing my vision until the target appears. My fingertip (the ultimate tease, when you must always use “just the tip”) is flat on the trigger, feeling both sides. My cheek is in the exact same spot as the shot before it, and the one before that, and so on. My non-shooting hand has a firm, but relaxed grip on the sand sock beneath the buttstock. When my spotter’s lips part to begin the words, “Target’s up,” my eye snaps into the scope, the reticle crystal clear as it quarters the chest of the steel target.
My daughter sprints across the field, her platinum hair a river of pale ribbon behind her. The soccer ball makes its erratic way over the grass, and for a split second it appears that it will move her direction. I leap up, screaming her name in a frothy-mouth rabidity. “GET THE BALL, HONEY!” Spittle leaps from my gaping maw as I yell encouragements, admonishing my baby girl to “get the ball,” “kick the ball,” “get in there,” “score!”
The common denominator in both situations is the human effort to control variables. In one case, the physical manifestations of the power of nature must be accounted for to make a precision shot: wind, gravity, angle, relative humidity, barometric pressure, any number of elements that would be rattled off by Mark Wahlberg in a movie. The shooting position must be the exact same every single time to ensure consistency, and therefore accuracy. In your mind you memorize every aspect and sensation to make sure that even your breathing is consistent, your arms are exactly the same, your face almost making a dent of familiarity on the stock.
The second instance is my effort to control the most erratic force in nature; an American pre-teenage girl’s movements. During youth sports, no less. It’s almost cliché that every parent on the sidelines of their child’s game yells their random bullshit, believing that those unheard screams will contribute to their kid making the winning goal, basket, touchdown, or whatever sportsball terminology your kid uses.
Pro Tip: Those kids can’t hear the parents, and the parents usually don’t know what to yell anyway. I firmly believe that I could invent terms and yell them on the sidelines, and other parents would start repeating those words just to have something to yell.
Maybe I’ll do that. When my son begins wrestling season, I’ll start shouting invented phrases like, “Bump it up, son!” or, “Choke it in, boy!” and see who begins to repeat my nonsense.
Some efforts work better than others, attempts to account for variables rather than control the uncontrollable. Planning for wind, or having SOPs that allow for reaction to contact. Other times, we do stupid shit for all the other things we haven’t thought of. We stare into the cold, jagged eyes of the future and grasp for straws.
Don’t take a picture before a mission, because someone will die.
Wear a medallion of the Archangel Michael.
Keep the same unwashed underwear for two weeks straight.
Rub a troll doll’s head.
Don’t eat Charms. Ever.
Go on a patrol where you have “that funny feeling,” then make a deal with God. “Dear God, I promise that if you get me through this, I’ll stop watching bestiality porn, and I’ll swear off Copenhagen.” Because quitting a bad habit out of desperation will control the Almighty, and essentially force him to curve the bullets away from you. Don’t kid yourself. You’ve probably got a tin of dip in your pocket right now.
Enter the civilian world, where suddenly your safety blanket of armed and watchful buddies isn’t constantly around you. You begin walking around carrying enough ammo and tourniquets to retake Ramadi. You meet civilian friends and make futile attempts to turn them into your “squad,” so you don’t have to walk through a city street wondering if anyone is watching your back. Meanwhile, they’re wondering why you get pissed when they take the seat in the bar with their backs to the wall, or why you keep trying to get them to buy guns they don’t even need.
“I’m just a computer programmer, man,” my friend says to me in a bewildered voice. I respond with an incredulous, “Yeah, but you have no idea how much you fucking NEED a Glock 19, an AR, and an OSS suppressor, dude!”
Write tweets and comments on social media about politicians who don’t care about you, on a medium run by people who don’t care about you, to earn the hard currency of “likes” by people who don’t care about you. Bitch about this or that politician, as if your words would affect national policy. Scream into the electronic winds of the internet to fool yourself into thinking the President will then pull us out of Syria.
Drink whiskey before bed to stop the nightmares that inevitably come anyway.
Wear tactical clothes and make go-bags for that active shooter scenario (knowing that you secretly hope it will happen).
Don’t leave the house, ever, because you can’t control the action of the crowds in malls and restaurants.
Which of these are feeble attempts to tame the mighty winds of chance, and which ones are planning for eventualities? The controlling efforts end in confusion, anger and resentment that the world did not go your way. Planning ends in flexibility, being able to shift fires onto a new target.
It’s one thing to reach and grasp for any semblance of hope in desperation. It’s another entirely to turn that method into an action plan for the rest of your life.
Sometimes the wind changes as you squeeze the trigger. Sometimes God tells you “no.” Sometimes you can’t connect with your wife. Sometimes you fail SFAS. Sometimes you EAS, but then you don’t get your dream job of making viral videos on the internet.
Adjust your windage. Make a new plan and request. Take your wife on a date to get to know her. Find your weakness and fix it for the next go around. Find another job where you can contribute to the society we have all abandoned in one way or another.
Keep another round in the chamber. Be prepared for that follow-up shot.
The rifle bucks in my shoulder, jumping slightly out of its dug-in position. Shooting down at a forty-degree angle changes everything, and before the scope settles back on target I know that I’ve missed from my lofty position on the Mountain of Rockets.
“Point three off the right side, aim point four left, and point one high,” my spotter mutters as I rack the well-worn bolt.
I exhale until my lungs are relaxed.
I close, then open my eyes and see the target bright and still as the unseen ghost of a reticle hovers on its steel chest.
“Reengage,” he whispers in a voice of soft steel.
I still my soul.
I fire again.