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 22 Nov 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

[Editor's note: Contributing editor Crawford Kilian's first ever article on The Tyee appeared on Nov. 21, 2003. We reprint it here, slightly updated.]

On a chilly, overcast day 50 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, Nov. 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 10 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."

No brass, no ammo, sergeant!

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 300 metres west to the targets, and the dunes behind them.

In the middle of the range stood a wooden tower perhaps 30 feet high, where the rangemaster surveyed us. We waited patiently for his command over the loudspeaker. 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 the 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!"

In for the duration

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 Jan. 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.  [Tyee]

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