For much of my traveling in the United States, I want to avoid interstates. I made my first such drive for part of the way down to Florida, driving from Savannah, Georgia to Jekyll Island on highway 17, making a 2 hour trip into about 6 hours (with stops).
Driving the smaller roads, I got to watch the roadside change slowly from the green entanglement of South Carolina into the Spanish Moss filled trees and the black water swamps choked with palm fronds. I passed a field filled with dead black sunflowers, taller than I am, with their dark heavy heads nodded. I saw a trailer surrounded by junk with a giant arrow shaped sign out front like you would see in front of a store only this time the sign said No Trespassing. I saw a yard with two small sized trees whose branches held glass bottles of many different colors and they glowed in the sun. I drove past the “Betch-Yers Bar and Grille” the “Hair 4 U salon” and the “Great Swamp Baptist Church.” I walked down an old decommissioned bridge and startled a scruffy otter and then I chased the birds on the Georgia coastline. Just outside of the “Friendly People Town”, I passed “Big Ass Farm”. I occasionally drove down random roads and took random pictures of places not noted in guidebooks or even the internet. I had a lovely, lovely drive.
Recently, I visited a friend. Said friend shall remain anonymous since his piercing gaze, socially awkward personality, and frankenstienan walk might give the impression to a casual observer that he could be the next Unabomber and, to add to that concern, the friend has a closet full of (very legal) guns. He’s a collector, but he was once an avid skeet shooter, so during my visit, I said (having never shot a gun before), “I’d like to shoot skeet.”
Now, honestly, I thought I’d come back with some great stories for y’all. I imagined writing of wirey men in camouflage pants, socks, and underwear, with missing front teeth, and lit cigarettes in one hand and Budweisers in the other discussing NASCAR, monster trucks, and fart jokes. The entire gun range experience was, in my mind, rife with the possibility for humor.
The Unabomber and I arrived at the skeet range and entered a beautiful log building (no obvious dilapidated vehicles on bricks in the yard). Sure, there were a few more than average stuffed animal heads on the walls, but even that wasn’t excessive. I could still see the walls, mostly. The owner of the gun range did, indeed, have a thick southern accent and I thought he likely used the nickname bubba with high frequency, but he had all of his teeth. He and the Unabomber had some small talk involving new gun laws and the right to use reloaded ammo and outrage at needing to sign forms to buy regular ammo. The Unabomber signed us into a range. We hoisted a heavy black gun case out of the back of the Unabomber’s pickup truck, and we were off to shoot at stuff.
Now, I’m jumping into things just a bit. There was some preparation before a gun was dropped into my hands. Before we left the house, the Unabomber showed me how to break open a shotgun, how to carry it over my shoulder so others could tell it was unloaded, and how to hold the butt braced against my shoulder with my left hand under the gun and my elbow down for extra support, and…..this is the part that got to me…. to put the top of my cheekbone against the stock of the gun. I knew from some inherent knowledge from the television ether that when I pulled the trigger the shotgun was going to kick backward. Kick. That is the word I had heard. I knew that. My shoulder, sure, no problem. But the idea of the shotgun kicking while I had it against my face…this I was less keen on. That made me nervous. While we were still at the house, the Unabomber had me properly positioning the shot gun, line up the sight, aim, and pull the trigger. Just aiming it once had my arms trembling…not from nerves – the gun was heavy and the position awkward. Oh, and there was that small “kick back into your cheek” detail.
So, back to the action, so to speak. The Unabomber and I were assigned to range number 5, which was right in front of the big glass windows of the lodge. The Unabomber jokingly complained that the lodge owner would see how out of practice he was. The lodge owner laughed and said he never watched folks anymore. I was given giant (very attractive) bright yellow noise cancelling headphones and giant (also very attractive) 70’s style metal frame protective eyewear. I couldn’t help but notice that the Unabomber got the less ridiculous sunglasses and small ear plugs. I guess if one is the Unabomber, one should get the better looking equipment. Out we went. The Unabomber set up the traps to launch the targets and then he walked onto the concrete semicircle that had 7 standing positions indicated. The Unabomber showed me where to stand while he shot and had me use the controller to release the birds from the low house or high house or combination when he said “Pull”. I don’t know what percentage he shot, but it seemed like he got nearly every one. I was surprised that the sound of the shooting didn’t bother me at all but I did notice that every time the Unabomber pulled the trigger, I could see the kick of the shotgun and there was a red mark on his face when he was done. Finally, I said I was ready to try.
The Unabomber lined up several old birds on the ground at the front of the range. He had me practice, again, breaking open the empty shot gun, pretending to load it, getting into position and then pulling the trigger. Finally, he stood behind me. I broke open the gun. He put a single shell into the top of the two barrels. I placed the gun butt into my shoulder. I put my hand under it. I pressed my cheek against the stock, and looked down the sight. I was really nervous, still about the cheek part and that horrible word “kick”. I did not want to not put my cheek against the shotgun at all, but I had this image of me not properly steadying the gun against my cheek, pulling the trigger and the gun kicking back wildly and the muzzle going up and somehow shooting the group of people I could hear talking on the other side of a concrete barrier. The father of the family would be seriously wounded and no longer able to work and they’d have no income and their son would never finish highschool and end up working at the Piggly Wiggly where he would marry a girl with a cocaine habit and raise crack babies and all because I was afraid of a red mark on my cheek from a shotgun kick. I think I had an image of firing a gun being like tuning on a water hose full blast- if you didn’t have a hold on it, who knew where the water would go. So, I, um, bit the bullet, and pressed my cheek against the stock. Finally, I looked down the sight at the clay bird ,moved my finger into the trigger, inhaled, held my breath, squeezed….and the clay bird disappeared. I didn’t even hear the gun go off or feel the kick. I just saw the bird wink out of my vision like it hadn’t been there at all. And I was thrilled. Exhilarated. And I said “I did it I did it I did it!” perhaps slightly almost maybe jumping up and down and the Unabomber said calmly, “Control your muzzle.” Speaking of the gun, of course. So I broke open the shotgun and the spent cartridge popped out hitting me right in the face. Then, I celebrated.
Next, the Unabomber set me up to shoot the easiest of the moving skeet. I positioned myself with the shotgun again, he released the bird, and I shot at it without any fear at all. It took me a few shots but eventually I hit two out of the eight birds I shot at. And if hitting that still target made me feel exhilarated, it was nothing in comparison to hitting the moving birds. With each attempt, I could sense in my body an adjustment I would make for the next shot. I should wait longer. I’m anticipating too much and shooting too soon. I should lead out in front of the bird a little. I should keep my right arm up. Every attempt felt so full of a need for precision and skill. Every muscle felt engaged. I felt entirely aware of my body standing there. It was excellent and I would gladly shoot skeet more in the future. I would like to claim that when I broke open the shotgun after each attempt that I remembered to hold the gun properly, that the spent cartridge did not hit me in the face, over and over and over again. Three times. Three times I hit myself in the face with the cartridge.
As the day started to get dark the Unabomber took me to the handgun range. We followed a dirt road around to an area where there were bunker type dugouts in the ground with a target area on one end and a wooden structure on the other. All of the bunkers were occupied so the Unabomber and I joined a round woman who introduced herself as a 4H Leader and four thin teenagers in jeans and baggy shirts. The Unabomber took out a handgun and began loading it, explaining the details to me, but my attention was with the 4H group. One boy had been given a handgun and had stepped out into the shooting area. He tipped the gun and opened the cylinder. He looked down the gun. He looked over his shoulder to see if the group was watching him and they were. He shot a few of the targets. The Unabomber gave me our handgun and described how I should sight differently than with the shotgun. I walked out into the area for shooting. I could barely even see the targets because it was so dark. I lifted the handgun. A different teenager came out onto the range with the 4H handgun. He spun the cylinder and the flipped his wrist trying to get it to close on its own. It didn’t close. He flipped it again and again trying to make it snap shut in a snazzy way. It still wouldn’t shut. He let the gun droop in his hand as he fiddled with the cylinder and I was suddenly very, very nervous. The other teenagers behind him were laughing and joking about something and the 4H leader had her back to the boy with the gun. Finally, he got the gun fixed, lifted it, and shot rapidly at the targets. I watched little puffs of dirt rising from each of his bullets as they missed the targets and hit the dirt hill behind. His friends laughed loudly behind him and he walked back toward them. I didn’t like their laughing. I didn’t want handling a gun to be something funny. I sighted down my own gun, pulled the trigger and hit nothing. I emptied the rest of the bullets into the bank beyond the target, never hitting a target.
Ultimately, I really enjoyed shooting at skeet with the shotgun. It felt like it required precision and skill and it wasn’t scary at all. I felt comfortable and unworried about safety the entire time. The handgun made me nervous. It felt too light to be dangerous, too small to be taken seriously. It looked like a toy. It felt like a toy. It didn’t feel important or real and that made it seem dangerous.
The Unabomber asked if I wanted to try again with the handgun and I said no. We packed up all the guns and headed back to the lodge to check out. I had a much better time than I expected to, shooting skeet, but came away with few stories. No camouflaged trucks. No Your Momma jokes. Nobody chewing chaw. Nothing even funny. At the lodge, the Bubba man was still working the desk. He made small talk with the Unabomber and tried to sell him some ammo. Then, as we were leaving, the Bubba man said, “I was watching when you were teaching her how to shoot. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw that first empty shell hit her in the face,” and then he demonstrated by laughing again, good naturedly, his mouth opening wide, confidently displaying his two full rows of teeth. I grimaced and turned red. I’m pretty sure the deer head mounted over the doorway snickered at me on my way out. In the end, I was the only humor found at the shooting range.