It was the guns that were making me nervous, the guns and the Anza-Borrego desert in dead silence, the broken beer bottles and the spent shell casings at our feet like seashells on a beach.
The indoor range was filled with good shooters and bad shooters. Indoor ranges are like bowling alleys, only noisier. On the first lane, the two men in business suits shooting .38 loads in a .357 Magnum Taurus weren’t shooting well at all, but they were having a good time. Over to the left was the Steady Guy with the Colt .45 Gold Cup, the precision shot. He was our hero. It took him a slow ten seconds to squeeze off a shot, and he shot at the maximum distance of twenty-five yards. He had a nice, tight grouping. He had yellow glasses to protect his eyes from the muzzle flash and a baseball cap with different shooting pins stuck all over.
A few lanes down were three teenagers firing a shotgun at a paper silhouette. The Steady Guy next to us pointed at them and said, “Hard to miss, heh?” and laughed. We laughed too. They’d reel out a new target and there’d be a BOOMBOOMBOOM and then they’d reel the confetti back in.
Kerry and I shot a nine-millimeter Baretta and a Colt .45. The Colt was reliable and never jammed. The Baretta was another story. We bought the handguns in Pacific Beach, at a gun shop that is now a flower stand. The day we went to buy the guns, it was hot and crowded in the little shop, and there was a line. Kerry thought about buying a spring-loaded shoulder holster so he could wear the Baretta around the house, and one of the other men in the shop, a fat man with a handlebar mustache, said, “Why don’t you buy two, and you can wear ’em crisscrossed like Frito Bandito.” Kerry rolled his eyes as the men laughed.
At the indoor range on India Street, Kerry and I are always mistaken for cops or navy guys because we are young, have short hair, and we know about guns.
Some of the others who come in, the curious, just want to feel what it’s like to shoot a handgun. The way some of them act, it’s as though they are walking into the F Street bookstore instead of a shooting range. They look at the men behind the counter, all wearing guns on their hips, and the “Nuke the Ayatollah” posters, or the “No One Ever Raped a Thirty-Eight” poster, and it is all very funny but uncomfortable at the same time because it is also very, very savage. They inevitably rent Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. For targets, they pass over the bull’s eye design and instead point at the ones shaped like men.
The Steady Guy came over and watched us shoot. He gave us tips, telling us how to stand and aim, and we all swapped guns for a while. His Gold Cup was a real work of art, a pleasure to shoot. He watched Kerry put three holes in the black center of the target with it, patted him on the shoulder, and said, “You got him. He’s dead.” Kerry blushed and smiled.
We left the range and went to Kerry’s father’s house in University City. He told us that indoor ranges were too sterile. “You want to be outdoors to shoot,” he said. A couple of weeks later, Wil called me and asked if I wanted to go shoot some assault rifles in the Anza-Borrego Desert with some friends of his from work. I said that would be fine.
It was long before the broken mirror in the bathtub that I came home to hear about what happened in San Ysidro. Tammy told me what was going on, and that’s when I first figured out where San Ysidro was. The news showed the McDonald’s and described it all as a “massacre.” Then, later that night, Phil came home from working at the newspaper with pictures of the dead. He had lots of shots of corpses and golden arches and bullet holes. Phil said Huberty was packing that day; he had guns, lots of guns, and everything about it had the feeling of not being real, the feeling of something very far away.
That was before the broken mirror in the bathtub.
Hiram’s is a combination liquor store and gun shop in El Cajon. We were outside Hiram’s early on Sunday morning waiting to buy ammunition. Boog said, “We must look like drunks wanting to buy drinks,” because we were all standing around in the chill with cold, red noses. But we just wanted ammo. Anyway, drunks seldom wear camouflage fatigues and canvas combat boots like Boog’s.
He had a Heckler and Koch HK-10 assault rifle, a Glock nine-millimeter handgun, and an AK-47 assault rifle. I had only my Colt .45 semi auto handgun, but I felt somewhat justified in having it over all that high-tech stuff because its basic design hadn’t changed since 1911. That seemed like something to me. If Boog wanted to compare guns, he’d have to wait until his guns designs were at least half a century old. Anyway, we were talking ammo.
We needed all sorts of ammunition: 7.62 NATO ammunition, and .45 ACP, and nine-millimeter speed. We waited with runny noses, grinning at each other and tapping our feet in the cold.
I said, “Have you seen those new Glaser slugs that go through hard things but explode when they enter anything ‘liquid filled’?”
“Yeah, actually, I have.” Boog peered into the window of the store, looking for signs of life. “Me and Norm had some of that when we went shooting last time. We shot at a cactus.”
“Well, nothing, actually. We each took a shot, but the cactus didn’t even budge.”
Later, Wil whispered to me, “I think he missed the cactus. Twice. I wasn’t going to say anything; we’re talking about a man’s aim here, by God, but I think he missed the cactus or the cactus wasn’t liquid-filled enough to explode when these bullets hit it.”
I had read about Glaser bullets and their one hundred percent energy transfer and what they did to bodies. The destruction of bodies is what they were designed for, what they did best. The article claimed that of all the people that were ever hit by one of these things, each and every one of them has died. So, bodies we know about.
But cactus is a gray area. We’re not quite sure what happens to cactus. Even if Boog was on target with one of these super bullets, it wouldn’t matter. Because cacti aren’t human bodies. Not by a long shot.
We got our ammo and packed ourselves in the back of Norm’s four-by-four for the trip out to the desert. There were seven of us; two sat in front, and the rest sat facing each other with our legs stretched out across the bed of the truck. The back smelled like car exhaust, potato chips, and (most of all) grape Bubble Yum. Our heads bounced against the fiberglass shell. We couldn’t wait to be there.
The two men in front are brothers. Norm drove and Boog rode shotgun. Norm is older and has kind of a gut. Boog is what some people would call “strapping.” They are in their late twenties; adults to be sure — they have jobs and wives, and Norm has three baby daughters, but they looked like Boy Scouts that day because they were wearing camo fatigues and canvas haversacks and webbing with places to keep everything, and they were like big guys playing war, pretending to drive a truck into a battle.
I was in back with Wil and Rudy and Rudy’s two boys. Wil and I had just graduated from UCSD some months ago. Rudy has never been to college, but he had been in the army. Rudy had the any-age look of a tough, comfortable, hardworking man; he looked anywhere between thirty and fifty years old. Rudy’s boys were the grape Bubble Yum chewers. Wil pointed to them and said to me, “You see these boys? They’re points of references. We can look at them and say, ‘We are not children because we are going to run around playing war in the desert wind, some of us wearing fatigues, all of us shooting guns. Those are children right there. We are adults.’ Okay?”
Rudy, Boog, and Norm are Wil’s friends. They work delivering things around the school that Wil and I had attended. They are not fond of the college boys they pass as they deliver on campus, but Wil is the exception because, dammit, he put himself through college, used his back to feed his mind, that sort of thing, and Wil is all right to them, he is a good guy. The jury was still out on me. I wanted to tell them that Wil was a Communist, for chrissakes, but the thing about Wil is that he fancies himself to be a real chameleon, able to spout Marxist doctrine one minute and then turn into a good old boy the next. I could only spout Marxist doctrine and could quote a little Mao: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
I saw the broken mirror in the bathtub and then I saw the broken window over the bathtub, and I figured it out. I went into the bedroom and woke Tammy. She looked tired and disheveled and beautiful. She just smiled sleepily and said, “Hmmm?” and reached for me. So maybe they were after the TV, but maybe more. And I decided that if they wanted to take the chance, I d be willing to cap the motherfuckers then and there as they stood in my living room. No one was doing anyone any favors here. So I decided on a handgun and got into bed. That’s among the things love can do.
Our truck made it out Highway 8 beyond the San Diego County line, where it’s legal to shoot guns outdoors. We drove off the highway up into the In-ko-pah Mountains, and we scrambled up ghost trails to a place so empty that we knew we weren’t in danger of shooting anyone except ourselves. When we got out to look around, I felt sorry. We had driven all this way, climbed over a mountain in a pickup truck loaded with five men, two children, and a half-dozen or so guns, to shoot rocks and cactus.
There is no glory in rocks and cactus. Rocks, unless in an avalanche, do not charge you. Cacti do not ambush. They sit and grow and evolve and erode and wait for humans to destroy them. Hence the guilt. No cactus ever called me Jap.
Which brings up another issue. After we climbed out of the truck, I wandered off a bit, looking at all the gravy-colored rocks precariously balanced on each other as though some big, strong monster child had come along and stacked them as a joke. I was looking at the variety of sand, the sunburned, broken Corona bottles and what seemed to be millions of spent shell casings on the ground, more brass than in the Pentagon, when Boog said, “If you see anything brown come up over that ridge, go ahead and shoot it.” What he meant was that we were close to the Mexican border, and if any refugee had the misfortune to run into our line of fire, feel free to shoot him.
I had problems with the statement. First of all, it’s murder. Second of all, I am an ethnic; my color is not far off from brown. Unlike the other people on this cactus-shooting expedition, my eyes are like slits. Theirs are nice and round and able to sight down their H&Ks. Forty-five years ago, people like Boog were saying, “Anything yellow comes running up that beach, shoot it.” Except they wouldn’t have been shooting with a German H&K. It would be an American Colt .45. Like the one I have.
I was thinking thoughts like that as we climbed out of the truck in the middle of Anza-Borrego Nowhere, hanging out with these guys in camouflage fatigues who call Chinese “Chinamen” and mean it. I thought these thoughts no matter how nice they were to me or how much coffee they offered me. The sight of the assault rifles being loaded and the fatigues makes all that nice politeness and right/wrong shit slip off the edge.
But what am I saying? These were good men, overzealous to a fault, maybe, but not killers. Hell, Rudy is of Samoan descent. Wil is a liberal Communist activist actor. It was the guns that were making me nervous, the guns and the Anza-Borrego desert in dead silence, the broken beer bottles and the spent shell casings at our feet like seashells on a beach. Guns are what we suffered to get out here for. Guns are what could kill us. But they were here for us, too, and we wanted to do nothing more than to shoot them, to shoot the stationary rocks and the passive cacti. It was what we wanted more than anything at that moment.
So we did. We shot a lot. We shot until my ears were ringing, until my shoulder and the ball of my right hand were sore from the recoil. We shot until the cordite burned in our eyes. Volleys of brass were sent skittering through the canyon, and every once in a while, one of the Coke cans we set up would pop and fall and there’d be the shooter’s cheer and the back-patting of his shooting comrades and we’d start up again until another can popped. I found it hard to stop.
The men in fatigues struck classic shooting poses with their Heckler and Koch’s, legs apart, right arm kicked out. They looked like big, intricately detailed toy soldiers. After a while, Rudy’s boys took turns shooting his H&K. They picked right up on it, maybe from playing war or the movies. The little olive-skinned boys shooting men’s guns looked familiar, like newswire photos of boys around the world in real wars, shooting for keeps.
Wil, being a Communist, loved the Soviet AK-47. He was wearing jeans that must have beer, one hundred years old, completely creased at his body’s sharp edges, with big knee holes and dried black tar splattered all over the thighs. His T-shirt was stretched too tight over his frame, and the front of it said “Coca-Cola” in Arabic. Shooting the AK, Wil resembled a terrorist.
Rudy shot steadily but without the intensity of the others. He was the very definition of “fire economy,” in no hurry to pull the trigger, while we couldn’t wait. With the hood of his hunting jacket up to shield his eyes from the sun, he looked like a lethal monk, or Yoda as a sniper.
Rudy was the best shot but didn’t want to talk the talk. As the others started up a conversation about how the Soviet AK-47 was specially designed so that even ignorant Third Worlders would be able to break them apart and clean them, Rudy changed the subject to how he liked Wil because Wil ate bread sandwiches for lunch: rye on pumpernickel between two slices of whole wheat. Stopping power, muzzle velocity, none of that entered into Rudy’s shooting commentary. All he said was, “You got one,” or “Almost.” He could have been talking about fishing or golf.
Later I walked through the dry brush, tripping over half-buried rocks, the .45’s weight against my hip giving me a feeling of security. I walked away from the shooting, far enough out so the shots were just handclaps and there wasn’t even any litter on the ground, and I looked at the mountains around me and the teetering rocks and felt the hidden rattlesnakes and the coyote’s eyes, and I thought that this would be as good a place as any to make love.
Then I unholstered my .45 and shot a dead tree.
Later, Wil said, “We have spent all that energy for what? For some very brief moments, moments that did not balance out for the time and energy spent to get those moments. That drive, that desert...”
We were like the ATV riders and dirt bikers that went out there: we had lust for the Anza-Borrego but seemingly little love. Wil said, “It was all so, well... sordid.” Then he added, “But fun.”
On the way down the mountain, bouncing around in the truck, Rudy told us war stories. He was the smallest Samoan man I’ve ever met and was about the sweetest a rough man could be. He had parachuted thirty-seven times from airplanes for U.S. Army Airborne, and later they sent him to Vietnam. He explained that the reason he even mentioned he jumped thirty-seven times was because the ride down the hill was so scary and rocky at times, the trail was so narrow and steep, that he brought it up to remind us that there were narrower and steeper things.
He said the last few times he jumped, the vibration of the plane would put him to sleep and they’d have to bang their fists on his Special Forces helmet to wake his ass up. I said it must have been quite a trip to jump from an airplane half asleep. He just smiled.
I asked Norm and Boog if they had been in Vietnam, and they both said “nope” without turning around. It was impossible to tell by their voices if they were sad nopes or happy nopes, nopes of relief, anger, or sorrow. All I could see was the back of their camouflage baseball caps swaying and bouncing in unison with the truck.
Rudy told two more stories, darker stories that seemed to roll out of his good nature. He was much like that, all happy and smooth, but the invisible thing would slip out, reminding us of hairy nightmares he’d seen in daytime, and he being so near to them that sleep would be something less than escape, something else altogether.
As we rolled down the mountain, he told us about jumping out of airplanes and how being in the middle of the line was good because the ones in the middle had the best chance of hitting the drop zone. Of course he was in the shit in Vietnam, and the story he told, the one that must have stuck close to him in jump school, was of 500 paratroopers that jumped into the la Drang Valley in 1967 just to be shot as they lazily floated from heaven. They were shot to pieces. He said that there was nothing that they could do except hang and wait for it. Wil said, “It must have been murder,” and Rudy agreed, well, yes, it must have been.
The way he looked, the way he held his boys, it didn’t look as though Rudy had ever killed anybody. He had so little to prove.
The second and last story he told was of a landing zone at a firebase and of a helicopter he had seen. He was watching it hover in the air, maybe thirty feet off the ground, when it was hit by an F-40 rocket. It blew the chopper apart, making it crash to the earth. The rotor blade kept swinging, and it cut ten men on the ground to pieces like blades of grass.
“And it was Christmas day, too. God damn,” Rudy said.
His sons weren’t listening; they were trying to put a cushion between the expensive rifles and the bed of the truck. I was hoping they had heard it and understood it, but I wasn’t sure if I had myself.
The day after the night of the broken mirror, I bought a handgun. Now there was reason to. It took two weeks, but it finally came; a Walther .380 automatic. I figured Tammy could shoot a gun in a caliber that size. I showed her how to load it, how to put the clip in and pull the slide back to cock it, how to point and shoot. She held the gun as though it were a live snake. The trigger was almost too difficult to pull; she didn't have the strength. I took her to the indoor range and watched the gun bounce and jump in her hands as she shot it. Little holes were scattered all over the silhouette target.
Later on, I traded our Walther in on a Colt for me and we moved to a better neighborhood.
By the time we made it to the highway heading back to San Diego, Rudy’s kids were asleep like baby sardines in the back of the camper, and their father and I watched them in their easy nap. On the long drive back, Norm told us to watch for cops, and all I wanted to do was wash the cordite out of my eyes and shake the hiss from the gun’s shock waves out of my ears. For a long time afterward, the high hum from the slap of the assault rifles wouldn’t leave me. But eventually it did.