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the Letter Home

June 12, 2011

I took a self defense course, but it was not the sort of training you might find at the local karate studio.  Not even close, since the classroom took 500 acres of Nevada desert.  I tried to prepare for it, yet the four-day class was like drinking from a fire hose.  Let’s jump to the end of the course and the “Post Card” scene.  This part was a test, but it was also a take-home final.  This was a defensive handgun course, so grab your ear and eye protection, and join me on the range.


We worked hard, and this is our last hour at the firing range.  We are blistered and tired and tested.  Now we shuffle from water jug to chair, and slowly reload our magazines while we have a free minute.  We keep to the shade when we can.  We, the students, are happy to sit quietly while our instructors are out in the sun putting up a new set of targets.   We look up from time to time.  These targets are slightly different from the silhouettes we worked with for the past four days.  Our curiosity is blunted by heat and fatigue.

Being a firearms instructor is no job for the soft-spoken.  Commands are issued at a volume guaranteed to be heard through ear protection.

“FIRST RELAY- eyes, ears, and ammo.  No cover.  Line up at the 3 meter line.

“UNLOAD.  Present at the ready, and UNLOAD!  Chamber check.  Magazine check and re-holster.

“Once you’re holstered, hands at your side, and turn away from the target.”

By now, the yelled instructions are clear to all of us.  We pry ourselves out of our chairs and into the 105 degree heat.  We fall in line near the targets and make our weapons safe.  We hear the instructors crunching across the gravel behind us as we melt in the sunshine.

“Cindy, here is a pen.  Write the…

“Morse, come here and write the name of your loved one on the center silhouette.

“Jimmy, here you go.  Write the name of…”

I comply.  We comply.  This is a hostage target.  Instead of shooting at the large center silhouette, we have two partial outlines surrounding the central figure.  We add a name to our target, but I see faces.  I see my wife and my children.  There is my brother and my neighbor.  Suddenly, this  target feels very different.  Simply writing a name on a sheet of paper changes things in powerful ways.  I guess we’d trained for this.  We had never called them firearms.  They are “handguns”.  They are weapons, and they are meant to kill.  The guns are discussed that way from the first moments.

“You never expose your gun unless there is something worth dying for.”

Here and now, it is only black ink scrawled across a target, but even on paper it is something to lose.  My heart beats faster in the desert heat.  The chatter falls away and we’re unusually quiet.  This is a new test for all of us.

We’ve learned to present a concealed handgun and deliver two shots in two seconds.  It’s an easy task at short range, and harder at 15 meters.  Some of us can do it every time at that distance.  Some can’t.  The hostage-takers are smaller than the target we’re used to.  We see that.  More important is that we don’t want to shoot our loved one.  I feel that from head to toe.  My feet shift across the gravel and spent casings that litter the ground.  There is nothing to say, and we’re silent.

“FALL BACK to the five meter line.  Load and make ready for UNTIMED fire from the ready position.”

The instructors and line coaches wait for us to comply with loaded guns.  In this heat, the pistol is hot in my hands.  We’re silent except for an inner sigh of relief.  Some of the pressure is off because we’re at close range.  I’m less likely to shoot my loved one by mistake when I’m only five meters from the target.

“Your loved one has been taken hostage.  You need headshots to free them. You have UNLIMITED TIME, but a miss means your loved one dies.  From the ready position, deliver five headshots to the hostage-taker on your left.  ON YOUR LEFT!”

In a softer tone that offers a suggestion, rather than a command, “Take – your – time.”

A moment later the command voice is back.


The message is clear; you must hit your target. There is no safe way to miss.

We’ve trained on smaller targets in practice; practice where each shot is slowly brought exactly on target before it is released.  The pressure to perform feels familiar.  I’ve shot in pistol tournaments before, and I cling to that small hint of familiarity.  My emotions inch away from fear of loosing my wife and my life, and cling to the focus of competition.  I am not the first to fire.  I have time.  I find myself wanting to shade my shots away from my loved one.  I re-aim for the center of the exposed target and unleashed another 20 grams of metal.  I’m one of the last to finish.  It is a very bad day for the hostage-takers all along the firing line.

We are given more commands,

“UNLOAD!  Chamber check and mag check.  From the ready position, dry practice drills.  Unload, and dry practice FIVE shots to the hostage-taker on the right side.”

I slide the partially full magazine out of my gun.  A few seconds later, the cartridge from my pistol follows the magazine into my pants pocket.  Now I remember to breathe.  “Dry practice” is an aiming exercise with an unloaded gun.  It is an exercise of mind, eye, and body to aim a metal projectile at a precise target, except, in this exercise, there is only a click and not a boom.  We slowly aim and press the trigger.  The hammer falls.  The firing pin makes its short journey to strike air in an empty chamber.  We relearn the skills to hit a target smoothly under pressure.  We know what is to come next.  We wait in the sun and sweat.

“Load and make ready for live fire.  From the ready position…deliver five shots to the hostage-taker on your right.”

I can.  I do.  I see my wife’s face and must focus exactly on the point of impact next to her.  My world shrinks to the top edge of the front sight.  The target and rear sight sit in soft outline.  Even in the middle of a test, we are being trained.  The shots are more fluid after dry practice.  From five meters, the shots fall into one ragged hole at the speed of sound.  One by one, my fellow students do the same.

My fellow students include retired old men and young high school students, US Marines and ministers.  Some of my classmates have used weapons for years.  Many touched a pistol for the first time this week.  Now the firing line is silent and we look up and down the row of targets.  No one shot their hostage or missed the hostage-takers.  No one!  Even grandma can protect her family after four days of training.

Now we’re done.  As instructed, I unload and holster my pistol for the last time.  These are the same motions we’ve rehearse for days.   This time I stand easy and take a load from my heart because my loved one is safe.  I am finished with the course, and spent in mind and body.  The target is mine to keep, and it feels precious.  This simple sheet of paper is a post card to bring home.  It’s a painfully burdened message written with ten black periods.  It tells a story of love and fear and four days of labor.  The story is written into the empty spaces as well as the new black holes torn in the target.

The story is also a vow.  It is a vow to practice and stand ready.  Be ready, because tests are timed in the real world.  That burden is always there.  It always has been there, only now the weight is acknowledged rather than ignored.

The paper target doesn’t read easily as a love story.  No, it takes some translation.

Read between the lines and see the faces dear to you.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2011 1:17 pm

    Well written account and awesome grouping on the right.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Al L permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:12 pm

    I went a few months ago. Well written, a great course, and I will go again! Probably not the most popular article at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

    Liked by 1 person

    • July 9, 2011 1:31 pm

      Al, which course did you take?

      Hundreds of people work at the White House. Many would approve of “the Letter Home”. You are right that several would not approve.


  3. Virginia Ross permalink
    August 8, 2011 11:13 am

    More than a little interesting post, Rob. I’ve passed it on to other folks I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Betsy permalink
    September 4, 2011 2:44 pm

    Wow, Rob, to the writing and the shooting. Hate to be the dude on the right. Okay, or the left, for that matter. Jen knows how to pick ’em.

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 6, 2011 7:09 pm

      Betsy, I hope your “Wow” means you are eager to take the course. 😉 It will have cooled off by the time you get there if you make reservations now.


  5. September 9, 2011 3:07 pm

    I think I’ll just take the abbreviated lessons you offer for free, only roughly a half hour away, not in a desert! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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