July 22, 2007

"I crouched behind a bunker listening to bullets whistle overhead..."

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My first job ever was as a target-painter at the Rio Salado Practical Pistol shooting range. I was thirteen. My dad was a match organizer and prize-winning competitive shooter; every Tuesday he'd pick me up from school and take me straight out to the range in the middle of the desert, where we would set up the day's obstacle course. After lugging steel targets, prickly blown-out tires, and sun-cracked traffic-cones into formation, I would paint the targets white to cover last week's bullet-marks. The lead slugs flattened and fell away on impact, leaving black scars on the white targets. If we finished early, then after my Mountain Dew break I would be sent to shuffle around in the blistering gravel, hunting for the brass shell-cases that were expelled with each shot; Dad recycled them for home bullet-making.

Once the match started, I remained on the sidelines wearing protective eye- and ear-wear, armed with a bucket of white paint and a disposable foam brush. After every few shooters I would scamper out onto the range and paint over the gunshots as quickly as possible while the heavily armed crowd waited for their turn to fire. After all the contestants had completed the stage, I was allowed to go hang out in the sand-pit that had been set up for children, in the concrete-floored common area, or by the trash-burning barrel during the winter, where I would join the other shooters' kids in seeing how many objects we could feed the fire before an adult noticed and made us cut it out. I was paid $10 for the afternoon's labor-- plus all
the soda, microwave popcorn, instant cocoa, butterscotch disks, and Hormel chili-cups I could eat, as long as I wasn't too conspicuous about it.

Occasionally I would get hired to help with big weekend tournaments. At one rifle event I crouched behind a bunker listening to bullets whistle overhead as they passed through a cardboard target shaped like a torso; when the shots stopped, I lowered the target and quickly patched it with brown tape so that the next shooter would be guaranteed a fresh, smooth surface. By the end of the day, shell-shocked and fatigued, I would bring home as much as $50, a fortune by kid standards.

I wasn't so much promoted from my target-painting job as retired from it. One day as I stood on the sidelines searching the shimmering sky and gravel embankment for something interesting to look at until it was time to scamper, I heard a strange sound like a buzzing bee and then felt something smack against my kneecap with a THWACK, like a rubber band. Apparently brass casings will occasionally blow apart when a bullet is fired, and I had been nicked by a piece of shrapnel. There was a trickle of blood, but no pain and nothing in the wound, so I felt lucky to have just been grazed and to have an excuse to take an extra-long Dew break.

A week later I bent to tie my shoe in PE class and saw metal glinting from the almost-entirely healed wound. Aha, I had taken on actual ordnance. Fascinated, I began to try to dislodge it with my thumb and forefinger, but it was firmly planted. A trip to the school nurse
(anything to get out of PE class) strangely resulted in no phone calls home, even after I explained what was in my leg and how it got there. She told me to keep it clean and keep yanking at it. I was clearly beyond medical help.

After an evening of intense concentration, I was able to free my little passenger, a shred of brass a half-inch long, warped into cruel hooks and snags by the heat that had exploded it. Perhaps out of parental concern for my safety (however unlikely this may seem within
the context of this story) I was put out to pasture in the relatively comfy, air-conditioned office-shanty where all the shooters lined up to register for the day's match, and where I tabulated all of their scores. My job title was "Statistician" and my pay jumped to $25 per
match, though I still had to help Dad set up and paint before the shooters arrived. As far as introductions to the world of working for a living go, I was lucky to be given such an honest glimpse at a formative age. Now if you'll excuse me, this Hormel chili isn't going
to eat itself.

contributed by Tom Blunt

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