Monday, November 09, 2009
My Life As An Observer: Target Practice – Part 2
By Norman D. Costa
Note: The following is a true story, but the names of certain individuals, and other identifying details, have been changed.
Part 1 of this story can be found HERE.
The story so far: I learned to hit a bull’s eye with an M14 rifle in U. S. Marine Corps officer training at Quantico, Virginia, the summer between my sophomore and junior years at college. I still remember, and have recalled throughout my life, my thoughts at hitting a long range target on my third shot, using only two rounds to adjust my aiming point. I had the immediate realization that I just put a bullet through the head of someone who was 100 yards away. And it was easy. It also brought up a memory from six years earlier – a memory that had been entirely repressed, and now overwhelmed me on the rifle range. I had spent my early teens hanging out with Felix Crimmins, a mildly retarded neighbor boy, and hero-worshiping his father, Fred. Mr. Crimmins carried a 38 caliber revolver on his job as an armed toll booth collector in New York City. Felix’s mother, Lena, was to my naïve eye an embarrassing religious fanatic, sometimes neglecting to leave supper for her children while rushing out to her weekly meeting of the Holy Rosary Society. The scope of Lena’s hypocrisy, her betrayal, and the desperation it engendered in Fred, were beyond my ability to comprehend, though not to observe.
The Final Trip to the Farm
Felix (he was 16, and three years older than I) got permission from his mother, Walena (Lena) Crimmins, to invite me to come with the family on a long weekend visit to his grandparents. I had been there before, and going to the farm was like landing in our own personal theme park, except we made our own adventures, and the food and desserts were much better and free. Put a kid on an old farm with 112 acres, and a rain free summer day, and it's like dying and going to heaven. Felix's grandmother had been a pastry chef, and still supplied two restaurants and the one hotel in town. The confections at the farm were nonstop and the best in the world. The milking barn, tool and tractor sheds, wood shed, long unused pig sty and chicken coop, and farm equipment idle for years were made to order for discovery, preoccupation, and play. The woods, the hay fields now harvested by a neighbor farmer, and a creek with a swimming hole, were gifts from God Almighty for young explorers on safari.
The best part of the trip, itself, was sitting in the rear-facing back seat of the Ford station wagon with Felix. We were entertained by the panorama of things gone by, and making eye contact and getting a wave from the driver behind us. The front hood of a car is a huge obstruction to your view. Facing forward you adopted, unintentionally, some of the attentiveness and stress required to drive a car, like keeping eyes AND mind on the road. The rearward view was easy and relaxing on the eyes, and free of the stress of watching where you were going. In the days before car seat belts, seating arrangements could be as fluid as in the TV room at home. Fred and Lena Crimmins were in the front seat, Felix and I were in the back seat, and Penny (13) and Maureen (10) were in the middle seat, always. It was a different story with Tommy (7), Harry (3), and Michael (6 months). Tommy and Harry, at different times into the trip, could be in front with their mom and dad, in the middle with their sisters, or in the rear with Felix and me. The baby, Michael, was freely passed back and forth between the front and middle seats, but he never made it all the way to the back seat. The inside of the car was like a room at home with kids coming and going, and occasionally stepping on each other.
That Friday when we departed from the Crimmins's house, the only thing that seemed to be not normal was Mr. Crimmins. Fred was distracted and unfocused. He appeared a little sad. He didn't even offer a token rebuff to Lena who was complaining that he didn't know how to pack the car for a trip. “Stupido,” she used to call him. At another time he would be, at least, attentive to his children either to make sure everyone was all right, or issuing the usual threat to turn the car around unless good behavior was restored in the family vehicle. He had always been a very good driver, and took great pride in his car, which he kept in tip-top condition. Felix and I were always helping Fred Simonize his car on the weekends. For effect, he would throw water on the hood to impress upon someone, proudly, how the water beaded and danced. None of that pride in owning and operating a car was apparent the day we left for the final trip to the farm.
On the road, I didn't pay much attention to Fred's other-worldly demeanor. No one else seemed to notice, or care either. Lena started caring when Fred passed other cars across a double line while going into a curve. Twice I heard Lena say something scolding, and Fred dismissed her with, "There was no one coming." I didn't see what was going on, a result of rear-facing backseat oblivion, and thought there was nothing new in this exchange.
Horns blared, brakes were applied, screeching came from the tires of several vehicles, disorienting g-forces threw us left and right in our seats!.Screams from the children transformed quickly into loud crying from fright! Fred had made another attempt at passing multiple cars on a curve. We were back in our lane, and there were no sounds of collisions, or vehicles running off the road. Lena was yelling at the top of her lungs at Fred. "What are you trying to do? Are you try to get us all killed?”
"I didn't see him," was Fred's equally dismissive, but sneering reply. Lena gave it to him for a few more moments. She turned around to Penny and said, "Here, give Michael to me. I want to make sure he's OK." Tommy was sitting up front between his mom and dad. "Tommy," she said, "get in the middle seat with your sisters. I want Harry up here with me." Only Felix said anything about what just transpired and showed some concern. "Dad, are you OK?" "Your father's just fine," answered his mother. Fred never gave an answer to Felix.
The approach to the farm was scenic and designed by nature to get all of us eager and build excitement as we got closer. We drove up a long hill with a winding road. We crested on a long plateau with a large farm on the left and another on the right. As we started a downhill run after the plateau, we could see the farmhouse, apple orchard, and barns across the valley and halfway up the facing hill. Whatever was going on in the car – sleeping, game playing, crying, and parental discord – was immediately dissolved. "There's Grandma's and Grandpa's house!" was motioned and seconded several times. "I get the tree swing first," someone said. "You got it first last time. Now it's my turn," answered another someone. "Yeah, but I said it first," came the rejoinder.
The usual sequence of events was for all the kids to run for their favorite place, or the tree swing, or spot in the barn, or the white and red current bushes alongside the farm house. Lena would go straight away into the house with the littlest child to greet her parents. Fred would unload the car and carry the family belongings into the house. About forty-five minutes after arrival, all the kids would make their first entrance into the large country kitchen and exchange hugs and kisses with their grandparents and ask Grandma what goodies had she made for them. This gave the grownups time to sort out sleeping arrangements for the kids, match the small satchels for each child with the bed they were to occupy, and then relax for a few minutes before kids and bedlam invaded the farm house. The customary question, after the inquiry about Grandma's baked goodies was, "When do we eat?" The kitchen table was pulled away from the wall, an extension leaf inserted in the middle, and every available chair in the house was pressed into service for six children, one guest, and four adults on the crowded and noisy perimeter – seating for 11.
As Fred pulled into the long gravel driveway, Felix and I knew exactly what we were going to do without even discussing it. We were going to jump out of the car and run down the sloping driveway, past the farm house, to the milking barn. Two-thirds of the height of the barn was the hay loft above the milking level. Although there had been no live stock for a number of years, there was plenty of bailed hay stored in the barn. Several thick ropes were suspended from the high rafters. Tarzan never had it so good. We built forts and tunnels with the hay bales, and swung like buccaneers from the rigging of a Spanish war galleon onto the decks of an English prize ship. The hay loft of the milking barn was THE place to be.
Mr. Crimmins came to a full stop, put the car into park, and pulled up on the emergency brake. The 'crank and ratchet' sound of the hand break was our cue to abandon ship with all dispatch. Felix pushed up the rear window and locked it in place, pulled the handle to drop the tail gate, and was out in a flash, running around the passenger side and down to the barn. I was a bit slow in getting out – probably the stiffness of a long car ride. As the last one to exit the back I had to lift and close the tailgate, and unlatch the rear window to pull it down. This took another few moments. By this time the center seat was already vacated, with the former occupants fighting over who was going to get the tree swing first. I was still a bit stiff so I didn't launch myself into a sprint down to the barn door. I walked around the driver side where Mr. Crimmins had slowly emerged from the driver’s seat. He didn't seem to be paying any attention to me, and certainly wasn't making eye contact.
As I neared him, he took something out of his pocket and held it out to me, all the while looking over my head and past me. My hand went out, instinctively, to take what he was offering, even before I knew what it was. This was the man I trusted, and looked up to – he was the first adult male with whom I identified, other than my father. Without looking directly at me he pressed the object into my hand, and I took it without thinking or comment. Still avoiding any direct eye contact, he said something indistinct about me using it for target practice. He turned away, went around the front of the station wagon, and followed his wife into the house without unloading the family luggage. I was holding in my hands a loaded, 38 caliber police revolver.
Without missing a step, I continued walking down to the barn. My thoughts immediately associated to the uncomplimentary adage about not being able to hit the side of a barn. I thought about putting the revolver in my pocket, but I was afraid it might go off. Give any kid a toy gun and the first thing he does is point it at something and start pulling the trigger. I did no such thing with the revolver. I knew I was in a very dangerous situation, but I was unable to speak or act, or to take in what had just happened. I was very scared. A revolver is a very heavy piece of steel in the hands of a 13 year old, yet I had no perception of its weight. It was as if it were made of unsubstantial ethereal matter. There was a pressing tonnage, though, on my consciousness, disabling a normal assessment of a very dangerous reality. I continued walking down to the barn, a dazed awareness of danger crowding out other thoughts.
I know that I had the revolver with me in my bedroom that night, but I remember nothing after walking toward the barn cradling it in my hands. I don't remember telling Felix or showing him the weapon. I don’t remember anything about what we did in the barn, eating dinner, or playing afterward. The next day remains a complete blank, with regard to both events and feelings. My first recollection of an event in the real world was on Sunday afternoon. I don't even remember a trip to church that morning. In my mind's eye, I can still see Lena Crimmins driving off with her parents and the younger children. They were going to visit her brother at whose house her two sisters would gather, as well.
I must have said something to Felix about the revolver. His mother's departure seemed to be a cue for Felix, and myself to ask his father about our deferred target practice. I still had the revolver, and must have produced it. There was a log on the side of the tractor shed and perpendicular to it. Fred Crimmins seemed to regain his awareness and directed us to fetch some old cans, jars, and bottles and prop them atop the log. He had us stand back about 30 feet and lined up parallel to the log, Felix to my left, and Fred Crimmins to my right. I gave the revolver to Felix who wanted to go first. He had never been shooting with his father, or held a real revolver, mindful of his mother's prohibition against teaching any of the children to shoot a weapon. Felix and I watched enough cowboy movies, though, and played with enough toy guns to know how to aim and fire a revolver -- at least in theory. He took aim at a bottle on the end of the log closest to him.
A police revolver is a single action handgun. A bullet is fired with a single squeezing of the trigger. As you begin to squeeze the trigger, the cylinder, which has separate chambers for each of six bullets, begins to revolve. The cylinder clicks into place aligning the next chamber with the barrel. At the same time the spring loaded hammer with the firing pin is being pushed back from the cylinder and chamber. When the trigger is squeezed all the way, the retracted hammer is released and the firing pin strikes the primer at the bottom of the bullet's shell casing. The gunpowder inside the shell casing explodes, propelling the bullet through the barrel and out the muzzle of the revolver. Felix squeezed the trigger and missed his first shot, hitting the log below his intended target. On his second shot, Felix shattered an old Mason jar.
Now it was my turn. My hand was not very big, or strong, nor my fingers very long. I could not get a comfortable grip on the handle and trigger. My trigger finger was not long enough. So I used my longer middle finger to curl around the trigger. A small weak hand is not very good when it comes to aiming and firing a large heavy handgun. I did my best and fired one round. It was obvious I missed the can I aimed at, or any other target sitting on the log. Where the bullet landed was a complete mystery. My second shot was just as unsuccessful, and the final resting place of the bullet just as mysterious.
I handed the weapon to Mr. Crimmins for his two shots. He said very little to us, not even so much as a few words about gun safety or help in aiming or holding the pistol. He took the weapon, and assumed a demeanor of control, confidence, and command. It was awesome watching him handle a firearm. I even felt proud to be there with him during target practice. Felix was clearly proud at the sight of his revived father with his revolver in hand. He aimed it right away at a bottle on his side of the log and shattered it on his first shot. On his second shot he aimed at a lidded baby food jar, the smallest target on the log. It still had the picture and logo of the Gerber baby on it. He needed a few more seconds of concentration and careful aiming, and then obliterated the target. "Wow!" I said. Felix was in awe. "Did you see that," he exclaimed.
I expected to see Fred putting away his revolver. Instead, I watched as he pushed the cylinder release on the revolver with the thumb of his right hand, and let the cylinder swing out from the barrel, exposing all the chambers. He pointed the pistol up so that the spent casings would fall out of their chambers. With a couple of shakes the casings were on the ground and all the chambers were empty. Even as he pressed the cylinder release, he reached into his left pants pocket and pulled out a handful of bullets. He jostled the bullets in his hand, and with fine finger manipulations with his thumb, all the bullets were lined up perfectly in his palm and reloaded quickly into the revolver. It was as if he executed a flawless slight-of-hand that was practiced a thousand times till it was second nature. With a snap rotation of his right hand the cylinder was swung back and clicked fast into its normal position. I don't think it took more than a few seconds to reload the revolver.
Fred handed the 38 back to Felix. Felix emulated his father's demeanor and stance, even imitating his aiming and taking extra time to line up his sights. He scored another one for two as he did in the first round. I was no better on my second round than on the first. Mr. Crimmins closed the repeat performance by making two soda cans jump straight up and spin in the air. "God, he must be a real professional," I thought. With each of his father's shots, Felix again shouted, "Did you see that?" Felix was eager to try again for a perfect two for two score. His father said that was it, that he had no more bullets.
Mr. Crimmins appeared to snap out of his foggy inattentiveness when we began our target practice. However, his demeanor seemed professional and detached, and not like that of a father giving his son tips on marksmanship. He gave no compliments, no encouragement, no advice, and no admonitions. Seeming impatient to get this over, and relieved that it was, he put the revolver into his pocket and went back into the house without a word. I remember thinking that if the entire family were there, including grandparents and children, everyone could take one shot at a target. There was one bullet for everyone, and one left over.
Felix and I saw each other less and less after I started high school in the fall. I had a long commute on public transit to Mount St. Michael Academy, and always had a ton of homework. Felix graduated from vocational school a year later. His father got him a job with the union for building maintenance and custodial workers. He started work right away at the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan. Like his father, Felix had to do shift work, but he loved his job and fell in love with the Chrysler building. He knew the exact height of the building to the inch, how many floors, how many windows, how many toilets, how many offices, and how many door locks. At some point in his career he must have serviced or changed every single door lock in the building.
Fred Crimmins died later that year in a horrible automobile accident. He was driving on East Tremont Avenue, passing under the elevated tracks of the Pelham Bay subway line, and crossing Westchester Avenue. It was in the day time when he hit, head on, one of the steel support girders holding up the elevated tracks. His obituary said that he died instantly. My parents told me that the police report claimed he lost control of his vehicle at high speed. I heard them say to each other that he was too good a driver, and too proud of his car, to lose control. I thought they were simply complimenting Mr. Crimmins on his driving ability. Lena Crimmins remarried about six months later to Patrick O'Connor, president of the Holy Rosary Society. Before the wedding, Felix moved out of his mother's house, and rented a basement apartment in the home of his father's sister. My parents received an invitation to the wedding, but they never replied and never attended.
After scoring a bull's eye on my third shot, with only two rounds to adjust my aiming, I lost all concentration on my shooting. The corporal, my personal instructor, didn't know it, but I was preoccupied with my sudden recovery of this long repressed memory. I got 'Maggie's Drawers' on my next two shots with my M14. The corporal took the rifle from me, took out the empty magazine and inserted another magazine with five rounds. He handed me the rifle, coached me on my seated position, the holding of the rifle, my aiming, and told me to slow down and take my time. Then he slid back the receiver, released it, and loaded a new round into the firing chamber. "Now slow down," he said.
I remember everything about the experience of my first three shots. After that I don't even know if I was looking at the target, let alone trying to aim it properly, and control my breathing. All I could think about was putting a bullet through someone's head at 100 yards. During my second magazine of five rounds the corporal kept telling me to slow down, slow down, slow down. It meant nothing to me because I was obsessed with the thought of putting a bullet through someone's head. I missed the target each time. I handed the M14 back to the corporal. As I was getting up to return to the waiting area with the rest of my squad in G4 platoon, the corporal tried to encourage me by saying, "Marine, you just got yourself a bad case of 'buck fever'." I knew better.
I sat down on the ground with the rest of my squad. I put my knees up, crossed my arms over the top of my knees, put my forehead down on my arms, and closed my eyes. I just wanted to fall asleep and dissolve away from the memories of that day of target practice, six years earlier. Sleep or diverting my thoughts was impossible. I kept doing the arithmetic. There was one bullet for each of his children, one for his wife, one for each of her parents, one for me, one for himself, and one left over.
George Doyle, http://www.life.com/image/57441018
Posted by Norman Costa at 12:05 AM | Permalink