The following is an excerpt from the first book by Air Force veteran and Hollywood writer Dan Martin. Titled Operation Cure Boredom, it’s a hilarious collection of short stories chronicling the adventures of Martin’s 1990-1994 enlistment in the world’s best Air Force.
This chapter, called “Guest on the Range,” is about the extraordinary lengths Martin went to in order to qualify on the firing range as a junior enlisted Crew Chief:
One of the things I learned while holding a loaded semiautomatic rifle was that I shouldn’t “goof around.” Apparently it’s distracting and unnerving to the other participants at the firing range. The angry sergeant on duty pointed this out, adding that it was irresponsible and unsafe. But everyone was so serious, so uptight, so concentrated.
Colton continued making the rest of us laugh, lightening the mood. We only managed to annihilate the dirt mounds behind the paper people. At the end of the session, when I learned that I had failed the firing range test and had one more chance to pass it or be discharged from service, I stopped goofing around.
In order to maintain a good standing with the U.S. Air Force, one must complete the annual firing range test. If you fail the retest, pack your bags because you’re heading home on an early discharge. Not wanting to go back to Long Island so soon, I concentrated and passed the retest, barely. For the following annual firing range test, I made arrangements to get help, mostly by ensuring that I was out of the country on assignment, whereupon the test was lost to bureaucracy and ultimately waived. But the year I got married and stopped going on so many TDYs was the year the test came back to haunt me.
I had taken a second job at this point, working in a liquor store not far from the Louisiana Downs racetrack, not because I was saving to buy a house and raise a family, but rather to help pay off all the loans. We had financially backed ourselves into a corner between the cars, furniture, and vacations we simply charged on credit cards. We had to have them because we were a responsible adult married couple. In my third year of military service, now that I was no longer on TDYs, I was unable to escape the firing range.
At the time I had enlisted in the Air Force, it is key to note that nobody, with the exception of the security police, the special ops guys, and maybe a few fighter pilots, had a useful knowledge of weapons, let alone were able to locate the safety. For the rest of us, the firing range seemed to only serve the purpose of reminding us what weapons looked like. I hit my targets by mistake, and self-defense skills were measured by how fast I could run a mile. Although the chow hall on the base displayed a sign upon entering that read “Those Carrying Automatic Weapons May Go to the Head of the Line,” I can guarantee that had my base ever been attacked, it would have been captured within minutes. A massive army of children riding atop Saint Bernards and wielding broomsticks could have charged the main gate and I’d have to think twice about holding my ground. Broomsticks hurt.
Now faced wit having to take the firing range test, I came to the conclusion I needed someone to help teach me how to pass it. Unfortunately, asking for help within the military community was not exactly the option I wanted to exercise. I was all too aware that I had joined the one branch of the military that didn’t require you to use handheld weapons. But asking for help was like a plumber you hired asking you to show him what a pipe fitting looked like.
We were supposed to at least pretend we knew what we were doing. There were a few guys in my squadron who grew up hunting the small animalsI always associated with my local park or the garbage cans on a trash night. But even one of them managed to book himself a trip to the emergency room. Firing a hand cannon with one hand and a large ego, he managed to adorn his forehead with a welt the size of a grapefruit, the recoil smacking him with the pistol hard enough to make him forget the date. Knowing that I was proficient in neither accuracy or emergency room small talk, I decided to search for a teacher who was not in the military.
I knew I could find someone, I had done it before.
My brother piqued my interest in firearms when he shot our father with a flare gun. To be fair, it was a misunderstanding. My father had explained to Peter that he was grounded for some infraction of the rules. Peter said no, then shot him. From the moment my father stepped into his room to confront him, he should have take notes of Peter’s nautical emergency rescue kit, now open on his desk. Normally tucked away on his lobster boat, the flare gun was now strangely instead in Peter’s hand. Moments later, the flare bounced off my dad’s chest and zipped around the carpet, finally coming to a halt near the hamster cage, melting a small hole in the synthetic rug the size of a potato.
The room immediately turned a blindingly bright white color only the Coast Guard could love, and by the time my father regained his vision and looked through the smoke, presumably to grab Peter’s neck and snap it, my brother had used the diversion to jump out the window, eluding punishment for yet another night. Peter was not the best communicator, nor was he ever considered a good candidate for “negotiator,” but I quickly learned by observing his actions that perhaps I didn’t need to learn to communicate with words. Being a shy teenager who was also lacking command of a large vocabulary, talking problems out and reasoning with each other just seemed time-consuming. That night, I came to understand the power of a gun and realized aloud, “Guns are awesome.”
I wanted to test it out for myself. So I found an instructor who chose as my first target the happy, winged creature symbolizing love that perched outside my bedroom window each morning. It was just sitting there on the branch, singing, ruffling its feathers like most swallows do. I was seventeen. My instructor was twelve. The BB gun was pumped with enough pressure to launch a kitten into space. Then I aimed and pulled the trigger, sending the bird reeling over backward in a cloud of feathers and guilt. When it was all over, Jason explained it was normal to feel nauseated:
“It’s okay. You’ll be fine. But I gotta go. My mom’s taking me to see The Little Mermaid.“
That would be the last time I let a twelve-year-old whisper “kill it now” in my ear. While I learned that it was an amazing feeling to hold an object that has the ability to sway opinions, after the incident with the swallow, I decided guns weren’t really for me. Though committing arson on my father’s vegetable garden was acceptable, a gun was just taking things too far.
Now face with the firing range test, my search for a weapons instructor finally came to an end the day I met Barry, the assistant manager fo the liquor store where I worked nights. The day I walked in and inquired about a job, he was sitting behind the manager’s desk. I explained that I was looking for employment. He regarded me for a moment, then asked if I’d mind working with a fat pig name Clarence, pointing to the skinny guy behind the register. I said I thought this would be fine. He then led me on a tour through the massive walk-in refrigerator to show me where all the different beers were stacked. He asked me if I had any back problems preventing me from lifting boxes. I said no, then noticed his back brace and realized this was the best possible answer I could have given. Barry nodded his head up and down, seemingly trying to decide if I was going to work out, then wrenched open a bottle of Boone’s wine and washed down a handful of unknown pills. Needless to say, I was intrigued. Then he pulled a .22-caliber, long-barreled pistol out of his pants. It was fitted with some sort of custom-made silencer and he asked me if I’d ever seen such a thing of beauty. I said I hadn’t. Then he aimed it at a can of Milwaukee’s Best and fired, leaving a fountain of amusement in his wake.
I accepted the job on the spot.
It wasn’t until a week into the job that I learned that Barry hadn’t been the assistant manager at all. He was just an unstable employee whom the actual manager was afraid to fire. He called himself the assistant manager, and nobody argued with him. Although, looking back, it should have occurred to me, since Barry had given me a bonus one day for a job well done with a case of Miller Lite. But this guy could handle a weapon, even while hallucinating and mumbling, so who was I to question it?
Initially, I was a little nervous about taking a second job because the supervisors in my squadron tended to frown upon moonlighting, even though many of the enlisted guys I knew did it anyway. I had reached out to may coworker Tony Coloccini, who had confided in me that he also had a second job at a liquor store chain and would put in a good word. A week later, I was standing in this rundown liquor store. Needing money, and not wanting to be seen, this was the perfect job. Barry, the firearms expert, was the gift I was looking for.
Barry would walk up and down the aisles with an aimless purpose to do nothing but strut. Occasionally, he’d say he was going to take inventory or stock the shelves. But there was always some condition that prevented him from doing any actual work. He could never bend over to reach the bottom two shelves because of a bad back, nor could he stand on small ladder, claiming he once fell off one and preferred to avoid them. He couldn’t ever read inventory lists or do the ordering because he always forgot his glasses and, I suspect, couldn’t write.
This always left me wondering what Barry’s function in the store actually was until one night some suspicious-looking guys walked in and were greeted by Barry stroking a .44 magnum long barrel. This is a gun more commonly used to take down a helicopter or a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I imagine. They immediately turned and walked out. In short, the story had never been robbed since Barry started working there two years prior. And in a neighborhood where crime seemed to be the gross domestic product, Barry’s value went a long way.
As a result, the place became kind of a safe hangout for Barry’s friends who all lost their money at the track and would come in and shoot the shit with him for a while. This eventually led to the question of could have a bottle of Thunderbird or Mad Dog 20/20 and pay him back tomorrow. Barry always said yes, and, of course, would always forget that he did. In fact, unsurprisingly, Barry forgot a lot of things. He forgot to shower and shave. He forgot that you couldn’t scratch off twenty-five instant-win lotto tickets and not pay for them. And once he even forgot his gun was loaded and shot out his own windshield, or so Clarence, who had witnessed the incident, told me.
The store closed each night at midnight and by the end of the first month, Barry, Clarence, and I found ourselves on the same schedule. We got to know each other pretty well and enjoyed each other’s company and displayed our newfound friendship by developing a routine after locking up every night that involved petty theft, drinking, and soon enough, firearms practice.
Anyone else, I think, would have been alarmed by the double holster he wore to work every day, accompanied by a different set of pistols. Or, perhaps, the cocktail of pharmaceuticals, vodka, belligerence, and the dash of hallucinations that housed this human being. But one night, as we were leaving, he quick-drawed his pistols and unleashed a few rounds on the speed sign on the side of the road, hitting it perfectly without aiming and I knew I found my instructor.
The first problem with asking Barry about being my sharpshooting mentor was just trying to catch him in a moment when he was actually visiting Earth. I timed my approach carefully, since Barry was known to spend the first part of each night shift with his head down on the manager’s desk, occasionally snapping awake with a look of fear behind his milky eyes. Some nights, because the desk was located behind a small wall, his abrupt and frightening rise from the ninth circle of hell would cause a customer to drop a bottle of alcohol.
“Barry, I was wondering if you could teach me to shoot a gun and possibly–”
“Absolutely. Grab a case of beer and meet me at the trunk of my car.”
I can only assume that in the event that the local police force, the National Guard, and the entire US Army found themselves overmatched, Barry was their red phone emergency call. to find that Barry possessed a lot of weapons was not a surprise. To find that each of his weapons came with its own quick-release latch, strapped into the truck of his car, was. Barry, who stood at about five feet, two inches, drove a 1973 four-door Lincoln Continental. I t had a trunk big enough to carry a pond stocked with trout.
What should have worried me most was that somewhere over the course of his life, he came to the conclusion that it was a good idea to haul around enough ammunition to take out Shreveport, just in case he had to. Also worrisome was the stun gun he had as a “back up” in case all else failed. But honestly, what concerned me most was not passing the firing range test.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing at a weapon only Arnold Schwarzenegger could handle.
“Needed something for a crowd. Made it myself. Fully automatic.”
We stared by setting up in front of what appeared to be a fenced-off electrical power station. It was located a short distance behind the liquor store and far away from the road. I inquired it if seemed troubling that, essentially, we were shooting at a potential eleven o’clock news story, but Barry explained that it was metal and would not explode, so no need to worry.
“No one’s gonna lose power,” he added.
“I meant the ricocheting bullets.”
“What about them?”
“Won’t they ricochet into us?”
“Unlikely. Now, do you want my help or not?”
Before we began, I tried to explain that there were no moving targets on the firing range, to which Barry explained that I was a woman. I said it wasn’t necessary, but that maybe we should start with something easy like a Coke can. But Barry insisted these were the basics and handed me a contraption that resembled a howitzer. Then he switched it to automatic and yelled, “Pull!”
Clarence lobbed a bottle of Bartles & Jaymes strawberry wine cooler into the sky. The weapon was so heavy that aiming it wasn’t really an option. I just sort of heaved it up, like throwing a heavy rock, and squeezed the trigger as best I could. The recoil forced me to the ground like a cannon blast. All the while, as I kept my finger on the trigger, I could have sworn I heard the faint but distinct sound of my mother crying.
It’s safe to assume that the Air Force was the right branch for me. Placing a wrench or a screwdriver in my hands at least ensures that any pain inflicted will be minimal and blunt and kept within the radius of me. Putting a loaded weapon in my hand is like strapping sharp knives to a small boy and sending him off to play tackle football with the other kids.
As expected, I missed everything, except for the power grid, a line of cypress trees, a storage shed, and the planet below our feet, which really took a kick in the balls that night. Also in the line of fire was human safety.
“F*ck this,” Clarence said, “I’m out of here.”
“Calm down,” Barry yelled. “Just stand behind him.”
“But that’s where the shed was!”
This is how it happens, I thought. This is how morons die. You always read in the paper, or hear on the news, about a couple of friends from a basement in Colorado Springs, just hanging out with a bottle of Jameson when one best friend shoots the other. There’s never any great detail about the incident. One buddy “accidentally” shoots the other. But the news anchor always includes that one fatal clue: “He thought the safety was on,” “He didn’t know it was loaded,” “He didn’t think that doing shots from the barrel was that big of a deal.” As a viewer, you sit eating your bowl of cornflakes at one o’clock in the morning, thinking to yourself, f*cking morons, and then turn the channel back to TMZ to find out what the latest Disney starlet thinks of terrorists.
But there we were, throwing a few back, shooting wildly at fast-moving wine coolers with automatic weapons and talking about how awesome it would be if Lynyrd Skynyrd could come back from the dead and play one more time. We deserved nothing more than a really stupendous obituary in which the editor would mercifully, thinking about our families, substitute the word “manslaughter” for “accidental.” The caption under the picture in the newspaper would read: “One man arrested after shooting his two best friends.” Then I realized the scariest part was that Barry and Clarence would be forever connected to me as “best friends.”
“You know what. I’ve got to get going,” I announced suddenly.
“What? But you haven’t even tried the sniper rifle yet.”
As I drove away from the scene of tomorrow’s headline, I watched Clarence crack open a bottle of something, then rummage through Barry’s trunk, reappear with the stun gun and chase him around the car, laughing.
The following week, I took the firing range test. I was really sweating hard, as this retest was a make-or-break moment – a few misplaced shot was all the difference between being able to stay in the Air Force and pay my bills and a less-than-honorable discharge, leading to financial ruin and divorce. I hit a few dirt mounds but managed to place a few on the paper target. Upon finishing, I approached the sergeant in charge of the scoring. I handed him the paper enemy that had clearly gotten away with only a few scratches.
“Huh,” he said, looking at the target. “Not great,” he observed.
I began to panic a little there. I saw my life as it truly was: a meager existence in a sham marriage, depressed and held down at twenty-one years of age by my own rash stupidity. I would have to call my parents and see if they were cool with the Stranger and I living in my old bedroom. I would have to get a minimum-wage job to pay off a mountain of debt. I began hyperventilating, seeing this whole terrible near-future play out when I suddenly heard the sergeant ask me:
“What’s your job again?”
He rolled his eyes, and in a gesture of exasperation, made a check mark next to my name.
“F*ck it. You passed. See you next year.”
“Told in a collection of vignettes, Operation Cure Boredom is a coming of age story in camouflage. From dodging alligators, to surfing the inside of a plane at 30,000 feet, to being taken hostage by a Frenchwoman, and sex education in church, this absurdist portrait of life in the military is both an iconic look at listlessness in wartime, and the whirlwind journey of a young man getting the adventure he didn’t know he needed.” – Amazon