Life

As Good a Shot as Oswald

Rifle in hand, I heard Kennedy was murdered. Suddenly the map no longer fit the terrain. Somehow it led to Canada.

By Crawford Kilian 21 Nov 2003 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

The Tyee.ca

On a chilly, overcast day forty years ago, I heard a prophet speak. He wore starched fatigues with the three chevrons of a buck sergeant.

We knew him only as Sgt. Williams. We had been in basic training at Fort Ord near Monterey, California, for less than a month, and he was one of our drill instructors. He was a lean, narrow-faced black man, and he terrified us. His fatigues were starched even in the damp fog rolling in from Monterey Bay. He looked at us with less than contempt. But he would make something of us, or we would wish he had.

On this Friday morning, November 22, 1963, he and the other drill sergeants had run us out from our barracks to the firing ranges. The ranges lay between the highway and the dunes fronting the bay. There, each day, we learned about loading, aiming, and firing an M-14 rifle at a target a couple of hundred meters away.

The U.S. army was still brooding then over Korea, where only a quarter of its men had even fired their rifles, let alone aimed them at someone. Their incompetence, just ten years earlier, had moved the generals to ensure that in the next war, by God, we would all fire, and at living targets. No one knew who the next enemy would be; for now, he was a generic "Charlie," probably Asian, but possibly Russian.

So even if we were fated for non-combat roles, the army would still program us to lock, load, unlock, fall into a prone firing position, and squeeze off a round when so ordered. So we did, and I still recall my joy when another drill sergeant praised me: "Good shooting, Number 14."

We had been learning how to adjust our sights; it wasn't a noisy exercise, but we'd done it well. Lunch time was approaching. We stood around in a chilly breeze, gossiping cheerfully until Sgt. Williams summoned us to stand around him.

His face was expressionless. "Gentlemen," he said, "the President of the United States and the Governor of Texas have just been assassinated."

We gaped at him. This had to be some test, I thought. We were supposed to fall into a prone firing position.

"I don't know any more than that," Sgt. Williams went on. "But I'll tell you this much. Any of you draftees think you're in for your two years and out again, if anything comes out of this, you are in for the duration."

He formed us into two files and double-timed us back to the mess area, a mile or so away. We recruits took our lunch from the cooks and ate it at picnic tables overlooking a firing range. The drill sergeants were in a nearby area, and one had a transistor radio. Various recruits, on various pretexts, managed to walk by the radio. Then they reported on what they'd heard: someone shooting from an overpass, motorcycle cops, the babble of a media with a big story and no facts.

After lunch the sergeants moved us into a set of bleachers for a lecture before the afternoon's firing practice. After the lecture, I stood at a firing position, my M-14 lying on the ground before me and my recruit coach standing just behind me. The sun had finally burned away the fog. I squinted three hundred meters west to the targets, and the dunes behind them.

In the middle of the range stood a wooden tower perhaps thirty feet high, where the rangemaster surveyed us. We waited patiently for his command over the loudspeakers. Instead we heard the phone ring, and his answer. The loudspeaker cut off. When it came alive again, the rangemaster ordered the drill sergeants to move us off the range and march us back to the parade ground.

I picked up my rifle and ejected the clip. We formed up, unloaded weapons on our shoulders, and each in turn swore to a sergeant: "No brass, no ammo, sergeant!" No shell casings, no live bullets, nothing that might make us a danger to ourselves or our comrades.

Then the drill sergeants -- Sgt. Williams, Sgt. Manalo, Master Sergeant Flanders -- ran us back off the ranges, through the underpass below the highway to Monterey, and back over the dunes to the parade ground. We were still raw and out of shape, unable to run far. But as the guys ahead of us scrambled up a sandy slope, we yelled at them: "Hurry up! Hurry up!"

I wonder why we were in such a hurry to meet our new future. Some of us were already doomed to an early death, and all of us would now lead lives utterly different from what we had imagined. I would spend the rest of my hitch typing the orders sending other young men to Vietnam, and no doubt some of the names I typed on my IBM electric are now engraved on the Wall's panels for 1964 and 1965. I myself, the world's slowest draft dodger, would eventually come to Canada, clutching a discharge that vouched for my honourable conduct in my country's service.

I left basic training in January 1964 with the rank of sharpshooter, despite my myopia and my lack of interest in firearms. So I was in theory as good a shot as Lee Harvey Oswald. But like all those millions of other boys, trained by the best educational institution in history, I would aim not at my commander in chief, but at the mysterious Charlie across the sea -- if he ever appeared in my sights.

In the fall of 1965 I left the army, and less than two years later I was a landed immigrant in Vancouver. A life I had never imagined unrolled before me, and not a bad one: a good job in a good place, a wife happier here than she'd ever been back home, daughters growing up and achieving their own successes.

But I still see Sgt. Williams on that chilly Friday morning, scanning us with his expressionless eyes. We would be in for the duration, he prophesied, and the duration has been the rest of our lives.

Crawford Kilian has taught at Capilano College in North Vancouver since 1968. He is the author of 20 books and many articles.  [Tyee]

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