I’ve mentored a person or two in my life. It’s a wonderful feeling when merely uttering a few choice words enlightens or transforms someone. Usually it’s just a matter of aiming him in the direction he needs to go, putting him on a path that feels right to him as soon as he steps on it.
The transformation needn’t be a big one; it could just be the simple solution to a frustrating problem.
When I was in basic training I had trouble hitting pop-up targets with my M-16 on automatic. To the lay person this means on machine gun mode. Pop-up targets are images of attacking soldiers, or perhaps merely rectangular sheets of metal, located strategically in (typically) a grassy field. Initially they lie flat. Guided by a program, they take turns popping into an upright position, where they remain for a few seconds, during which you are supposed to shoot them back down. If you succeed you score a point; if the target drops flat on its own, you don’t. A well written program will have targets popping up at ever decreasing intervals, culminating with multiple targets in view at once. The really good programs have targets mounted on little rails, so they rush your position.
We had to qualify on both semi-automatic (one shot at a time) and automatic. You’d think targets would be easier to hit with a machine gun. But ammunition was limited; you couldn’t just spray the field with bullets. Normally you aimed at a target and pulled the trigger briefly enough to send a cluster of bullets downrange.
And that was my problem. I could hit the targets easily if I fired one shot at a time. But if multiple bullets left my rifle as I pulled the trigger, I couldn’t hit a thing. I knew the barrel of the rifle was dancing on me; I knew what the problem was. I just didn’t know how to fix it.
No one else seemed to know either. The other soldiers were hitting their pop-ups on automatic. “You just aim and fire,” they said.
Yeah, I thought. That’s what I’m doing. But it’s not working.
Qualification day came. I climbed into the foxhole and surveyed the field in front of me, sure I wouldn’t knock down a single target that day. I’d zeroed my weapon and was confident of my aim, but that pesky “auto” switch on the side of the rifle was going to disqualify me. And if you failed to qualify you got recycled or, worse, discharged. At that point about half my original training company remained in the program; more would leave in the coming weeks. My fears were by no means irrational.
As I readied myself to fire, another trainee sat down behind me, on the lip of my foxhole, dangling his legs inside. I turned to face him. It was Jimmy, the oldest soldier in the company.
Everyone liked Jimmy. He had strong good looks that reminded me of Harry Belafonte. He’d served in Vietnam in his teens, and was returning to active duty at age 34, the oldest allowed, taking advantage of his last opportunity to reenlist. If you leave active duty for more than three years you have to go through basic training again, hence there he was, crawling through the suck with the rest of us. Only he already knew everything, including things the drill sergeants didn’t know.
His platoon had been ambushed in Vietnam. He carried around a Chicago Tribune article that told his story. He’d woken up in a rice paddy, full of bullet holes, surrounded by dead comrades. He was the only survivor of the ambush.
Jimmy seldom spoke, and when he did, the other trainees listened.
“You’re not getting it, are you?” he asked me. He swung his legs in my foxhole, casual and easy, as though he were sitting on a riverbank, lost in thought.
“No,” I said. “Not even close.”
“Aim at the lower left corner of the pop-up, and pull the trigger just enough to fire exactly three rounds at it. Not two, not four. Three. The second of the three will hit the target.”
He stood up and walked down the line of foxholes, studying the other soldiers getting ready, just like me. Presently he stopped at one and sat down, swinging his legs.
The whistle came. I loaded a clip, set the switch to “auto,” and planted the butt of the M-16 against my shoulder. As the targets popped up I pointed the barrel at the lower left corner and fired exactly three shots. Rat-a-tat. Lower left corner. Rat-a-tat. Lower left corner. Rat-a-tat . . .
The targets fell. They all fell. I couldn’t miss. Sometimes you just need to be told where to aim.