Is There Anyone Down Range?

On the rifle range the heat hit hard, got up under your helmet and into your head. The sun at Fort Sill stood overhead like a sword, and the horizon lay hazed with the awful heat. Later that night lightning would run from cloud to cloud in the Western sky as if a war had arrived, and later that summer a war would arrive when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. But that day we were only worried about the heat, how it got inside you, leached all your will. We were worried whether we could hit enough targets with our M-16s to qualify as marksmen in this man’s Army, but not yet worried about what it might mean when we succeeded.

“Is there anyone down range, is there anyone down range, is there anyone down range?” the Range NCO said through his bullhorn, his voice echoing to the far hills and back. “If so, let yourself be known by sight or sound.”

He paused, perhaps waiting for a shout or a sign that someone was indeed down range and in danger of being shot, and when no one declared himself he allowed us to open fire. For days we’d been learning to shoot: to breathe properly while aiming, to squeeze the trigger slowly. We put dimes on the barrels of our rifles to teach steadiness. We trained our lungs to stillness. We lay in the dirt with one eye closed and peered through the sights and pulled the trigger. We watched the dust kick up down range.

In two days we would go to another range where cut-outs of Soviet soldiers, complete with hammer and sickle, would pop up out of the Oklahoma dirt. A day after that it would be bayonets we learned to wield, and after that grenades and claymores and M-60s. Somewhere in there we’d learn how to treat a sucking chest wound, how to splinter a crushed leg, how to administer for nerve gas. We’d learn how to call in air strikes, how to use gas masks and MOPP gear, how to find our way through forest or field.

Now we were prone in the dirt, squinting in the summer sun, sweating and hoping we hit our targets so we could get out of the heat. When it came my turn I closed one eye and squeezed the trigger, my M-16 making my ears ring. Sweat ran in my eyes, but I had grown up shooting guns. My grouping was tight as virgin pussy, Drill Sergeant White told me, so I was sent down range with Talley and Ellenberg and others who had qualified. We walked amidst the burnt grass and brass casings under the big white sun, all of us looking back ready to yell if the Range NCO raised his bullhorn.

At the far end of the range a bunker had been built into the hill, and when we reached the bunker we were put on target detail. After each round of firing we had to lower and replace the targets through holes cut into the hillside. The bunker was three feet of concrete under five feet of earth, but often the bullets would enter the bunker through the target holes and ricochet around. Because of this we wore bulletproof vests. All around us the air filled with metal, the sound like someone shooting street signs. We stood as far back inside the bunker as we could, hiding inside our helmets, hoping the bullets wouldn’t find us. Talley said “Fuck” three or four times. Ellenberg said “Assholes” over and over. 

Every few minutes the shooting stopped and the all-clear sounded and we climbed out of our holes to change the targets. Someone swept up the stray bullets, shaking, then we covered ourselves again as the Range NCO asked if anyone was down range, if anyone was down range, if anyone was down range, bull-horned voice barely audible through the thick earth.

We spent the rest of that day and most of a week in the concrete bunker with the bullets ricocheting around us while the rest of our men learned to kill. Some days we stayed so late the sun began to set and the bunker grew dark. In the last light the horizon lay limned with fire, as if the missiles had finally flown and this were the twilight hour of humanity, so we named the bunker End of the World.

“It’s lonely here at End of the World,” Talley said, eating an MRE, “and the food sucks.”

“There are no women at End of the World,” Ellenberg told us, “Only men and the sound of metal.”  

When the war started in the winter I would imagine myself in that bunker again, as Iraqi soldiers crawled out of the earth and surrendered to Army troops advancing in a long line across the desert. The oil fires burning on the horizon seemed to mark some shift in what made sense, and I’d see the bullets bouncing around the bunker, the closest I’ve ever been to being shot. Half the men I went to Basic with were shipped to the Middle East. Most of them had never fired a rifle before joining the Army. We were all of us boys in men’s boots, worried for what the days in front of us would look like, what shape they would take. We didn’t know when we’d be asked to raise our rifles. We didn’t know when the bullets would bounce around us.

“Is there anyone down range?” the man with mirrored glasses said, and there in the bunker amidst the ricocheting bullets, we yelled “Yes,” laughing because we hadn’t yet realized we could cry. “We’re down range,” we said. “For the love of God don’t shoot.” But they always did, and there was nothing we could say to stop them. 

Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.