I slowly lowered the gun until his head was centered in the sight. I had no real idea who this person was, nor did I care. See, I was a different person then – I’m not like that anymore. I realize that doesn’t erase the fact of what I did – but make no mistake, I took no pleasure in it. I just needed the money to survive – or at least that’s what I told myself. How did I get here? Well, let’s back up a bit…
When I was fifteen, my older sister was dating a vet that everyone called Spider, who, years before, had been deployed as a sniper. He enlisted voluntarily at the age of eighteen, and as a result of his personality type and physical traits, eventually ended up in the United States Marine Corps Scout Sniper School. Spider was about fifteen years older than I was, and took a liking to me immediately. At first, the feeling wasn’t mutual – mainly because I had learned not to trust anyone. I wouldn’t aggressively push people away, instead it would quickly become clear that there was very definitely a wall beyond which you weren’t going to pass. At the same time I was sending out this message, I could be smiling and deceptively friendly – but that was as far as I’d go.
I guess he admired my fierce independence, so he gave me plenty of space whenever I would see him – because of this, I eventually let my guard down and we became friends. He wasn’t exactly a father figure, or a big brother, but because of his age and experience he seemed to fall somewhere in between. Eventually we became close, or at least as close as I’d ever been with an adult. He didn’t seem to be working at the time, and had a drinking problem coupled with an impressive taste for weed. It seemed as though there was always either a cigarette or a joint in his mouth, but no matter how much he drank or smoked, his demeanor was always pretty much the same – unflappable. Nothing, I mean nothing, ever seemed to get him excited, he just always had this Zen-like sense of cool, looking at the world through what appeared to be coal black, emotionless eyes. It got to the point where I would feel proud if I could make him laugh, if only because it seemed so hard for him.
Spider only had one skill, and at first glance it appeared to be pretty useless in the civilian world. He was a sniper, and although he didn’t talk about his military experience, it was obvious he had been good at it. So it seemed natural for this older man to want to pass on the skillset he knew to a boy on the cusp of manhood. Especially since there was this dynamic of father/son, or big brother/little brother underlying our relationship.
The summer I met him, we would go out into the mountainous woods of western Virginia and shoot a few times a week. In the south, everyone had a gun, so the idea of an older man teaching a boy how to hunt was the most natural thing in the world. Occasionally we’d run into other hunters, and they would always look approvingly at both of us, smiling through their beards stained with tobacco juice. They’d usually have a bottle of bourbon, and would share a swig with Spider before grinning and saying A’ight, we’ll let you boys have yer fun, see y’all later and ambling off.
The thing was, we weren’t really hunting – at least not yet. Spider had his Steyr SSG 69 rifle outfitted with a high-powered scope, it was one of the rifle’s he had been trained to use in the military. He said under the right conditions it was accurate up to a half-mile. No, he wasn’t teaching me to hunt per se, it was more like he was teaching me how to shoot. More precisely, he was teaching me how to shoot like a sniper, and it turned out that I was a natural, or at least that’s what he said. It was the first time I had ever been good at anything. I grew to love our time together, and because he encouraged me, I wanted to be the best for him, to make him proud of me. Spider was the first close relationship I ever had with an adult, and he was the first one to ever tell me I had something special. If you’ve made it to fifteen and no one has ever told you that, you’re starving for it, even if you don’t know it. His lessons and attention were like water to a man dying of thirst, only I wasn’t even aware how parched I was before I met him.
For better or worse, the skills he taught me changed my life. Change, however, is neither good nor bad. It just is.