I had a teacher in the 7th grade with a placard on his desk; it said "LIFE IS LEARNING". It wasn't the kind that has some cutesy animal on it, or a stylized picture of a teacher, or a place to frame a picture of a college graduation. It was plain, almost austere, and it faced him, not us. It was something he had for his own reasons.
He was one of the best teachers I ever had, and one of the better human beings I ever met. He taught the nebulous subject of "Social Studies" and was one of the few people I've ever met that was interested in actual human diversity. He also defied the district and risked his job and his teaching license to teach us what a condom actually was and how birth control pills work, after being handed the task of teaching sex ed in the 8th grade. It was an abstinence-only curriculum, and he had enough personal integrity and care for us that it was worth it to him to do things the right way.
He ran marathons and volunteered outside of school and during summers to work with at-risk kids, and I never heard him so much as raise his voice, but he always managed to get his point across in a way that penetrated even the thickest skulls and poorest tempers.
I kept in touch with him off and on after I moved, and he always wrote back. He died one of those random deaths, a massive cerebral aneurism in his sleep at 34 years old. A marathon runner in peak human physical form, dead by a quirk.
LIFE IS LEARNING.
I learned how to shine leather shoes, how to cheat a pushup, that Windex and a paper towel will clean any nonporous surface, how to make anything into a pillow, and how to sleep without one - anywhere.
I learned to recognize what competence looks like, even when the activity in question is not something I, myself, know how to do.
I learned how to get yelled at, and in turn how to separate message from medium in a way that is productive if not instructive. And I learned how to read my audience and decide what level to start at in order to communicate and sometimes teach complicated topics.
I learned about MGRS and calling a ROZ and flight paths for artillery and field mortars and HIMARS, about guidance packages and approach angles and fuzing options, about coordinated time on target and exactly how close a danger close really is.
I learned how to control my breath when it wants to hammer in and out of me, so that I can keep the sights of a rifle swerving in only the tiniest of figure eights.
In the bright of the morning and the quiet of a workday, I can drive out to the mountain and practice things I have learned:
To calculate dope using ballistics data and wind estimates - with a 25 yard close zero, and a mean muzzle velocity of 2330 feet per second, I must dial a 1.0 mil elevation correction in the UP direction of my turret, calculated by using the known (approximate) size of the balloon and the subtension of my reticle.
The targets I am shooting represent a hit zone of 8" at 425 yards; the ammo I am using is good for approximately 6.5" groups at 425 yards. The margin for error in my technique is very small.
If I tune out the ATVs, and the noise of the shotgun range, and the moron in the pistol bay blasting away with his Desert Eagle; if I can leave behind the letter I got last week from the VA, and the new noise the car is making, and my worries about the summer; if I can set aside my failing marriage and disintegrating extended family; I can find precious moments of clarity. Call it zanshin, if you want.
An inconsistent breeze flows through the quarry. There is a line of under-inflated party balloons bobbing slowly-madly-slowly, twisting and bouncing and then still. Sometimes, blurry and misprinted faces of mascots I do not recognize turn to stare back at me; sometimes, messages in Arabic or faux-brushstroke Chinese ideograms. I buy the balloons in bulk. They are all factory seconds, but good enough for my purposes.
Rather than dial it, I will hold windage for the correct windspeed and direction. Given that the range is 425 yards approximate, and the average estimated windspeed between two references along the firing lane, I must hold 0.1 mil to the right of center.
To stabilize my shooting position, rolling bone to earth, right elbow pulled in and vertical, left elbow rolled out slightly; adjust the natural point of aim to the target; make only minimal corrections with the muscles.
To control my breathing - a half exhale, held, through each shot.
To slowly increase the force of my finger on the single stage trigger; and allow the trigger to reset slowly, disconnector and sear moving in concert to arrest the hammer on the take-up, ready to begin again after a tiny shift in aim.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Just as I bring the sight picture back from recoil, I watch each balloon in turn puff into shreds of cheap latex, dust kicking up as it deflates. The scope is clear enough in the hazy light that I can watch the balloonskin flutter, and then shortly after, a gentle patter of broken shale from the backstop rains down, grey and brown shards long stripped of the coal they used to dig there.
Ten bullets in the magazine, ten balloons popped. My watch tells me it took something less than a minute.
For a while, I sip my coffee, watch the sun finish clearing the quarry wall, and know that I have shot as well as I ever have.
Last night, one of the waiters (call him Jeff) at work came in on his off night. It was about 1AM, and we were perilously close to closing for the night - and it had been a shitty night. The asshole convention is apparently in town, and the prime tenet of the asshole is to come up with the most ridiculous and out of place special orders possible.
When Jeff walked in the server door, glazed over and wavering, he slurred a "Hey guys, what's up?"
Why so many people will hang out where they work, let alone drink regularly where they work, is as baffling to me as ever. Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, I told him what every line cook in the house tells off-duty staff when they're too busy to chat, or sneak food, or whatever. As I was on the tail end of a huge ticket, and trying to start pre-cleaning the kitchen for close, I told him to
"Get the FUCK out of my kitchen."
It took a moment for him to absorb it, but he finally said "Really?" as his face fell, and he walked back into the bar.
Fifteen minutes later, he walked in the back door. This is not unusual, especially if it's a payday and they're looking to buy some weed from whoever's selling this week. In case you don't know it already, the kitchen staff of every restaurant in the world smokes and deals. Being a dishwasher is often simply a sinecure-like position, with the real money being made as a middleman for the local dealer.
One of my coworkers went to ask him what he wanted, and a few minutes later, he told me "Jeff just got his ass kicked at a club, he's all fucked up."
I banked the grill and walked back. Sure enough, he had a growing shiner and a decent scuff on his elbow. He tells me he tried to buy some weed from some stranger at the club he was at, and got suckerpunched instead. He took the shot to the side of his head, passed out, and picked up the shiner and the scrapes when he hit the bar and the deck on the way down.
"The cops came and everything," he said, "And I didn't want to hang out there anymore so we came here."
I asked if he'd seen an EMT. No.
LIFE IS LEARNING.
I learned how to put guts back into a person if there was nobody else on hand who was more qualified to do it.
I learned how to put in an NP airway, stop up most kinds of gunshots, and how to insert a needle chest decompression for tension pneumothorax.
I learned how to immobilize breaks and sprains, how to relocate most stuff that can be dislocated, and how to pack up a compound fracture in a way that keeps powdered goat shit and moon dust out.
I learned how to do a field check for signs of concussion and gross neurological trauma.
"Sit down, Jeff. Here. You're too tall and too drunk to do this standing."
So I sat him on a milk crate, took his cigarette away, and checked him with the penlight I keep in my bag (which is chiefly used to find the other stuff in my bag). I poked the side of his head where he got punched, I poked his zygomatic bone and foramen and upper maxilla. Nothing squishy, nothing too painful upon manipulation. I cleaned out the scrapes on his elbow.
I took away his beer, told him I would beat his ass if he drank anymore tonight, and cooked him some toast and eggs.
When he'd finished, and sat sipping water, I asked him if he'd ever been jumped before, and he thought about it for a minute before telling me he hadn't.
So I told him he was probably going to have some weird feelings in the next couple days and weeks, and that it was natural. I told him if he wanted to talk, to find me, or failing that, to let me put him in touch with some people who could help.
Drink water. More water. Drink until you pee. No pills before bed. No drinking for a day or two at least. Go straight home. Drink water at home. Go directly to bed.
When Jeff had left, and we were finishing with the last of the kitchen shut-down, my co-worker said, quizzically, "I thought you were in the military?"
Years ago, sitting with a dead man, he told me, "Shit, we have to stick together. The two of us make one functioning human being."
I laugh and pass the bottle back. I would later pass the phrase on to other brothers.
I told him then, too, that "If we don't take care of each other, nobody will. You know this, I know this, but sometimes it's good to remind ourselves out loud."
I used to wonder (and still do, to some degree) how I'm supposed to take care of myself, take care of others, when I can barely figure out what I was good for.
But to some extent, it seems clear now that I've lost the forest for the trees. Granted, the trees that scare me are big ones, full of widowmakers. The destructive lessons, the hurtful memories, the things I did and that were done to me that are worth going to a shrink for.
I'm glad, lately, that I can find uses for the rest of it, and hope that when the deadwood is logged out, I'll have something healthy, something I can steward carefully and cultivate properly.
If I'm purposeful, I can maybe be the person I should be.