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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

Fired by Maggie Panko

“Aye, see here, Private! You’re getting your weapon all wet!”

He was right. I was crying all over my rifle. A corporal with a brash Scottish accent took a cotton rag from his pocket and dragged it over the hold. Jerking up, the corporal put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me aside. “For god’s sake, don’t come any closer!”

He leaned toward the chamber full of rounds. Extracting a metal instrument that looked like massive pincers, he moved the tool into the rifle. “Lookit this!” Between the pincers was a round, a bullet, red. Ignited but not fired. “Stuck in the hold! Another shot and you would’ve blown all the others up! Blown your face off! This is your lucky day, Private! Your tears saved your life!”

While he hollered joyfully, rifles rattled on either side. Blades of smoke cut through the clean sky. The others went on firing, couched semi-prone in the grass. Like them I had not broken position.

Though I’d had no trouble holding the rifle back at the Hamilton Armoury where Reservists did most of our training, shooting belonged to another world. One bullet crack and I was gone. We fired at paper targets pinned to hay bales. But there was the unbearable strangeness of having mechanized control over another person’s lifespan. Put one’s finger gently on a trigger and pull, then a machine murdered your enemy. Tears fell until vision was impossible and kept falling. I heard the corporal but couldn’t receive his meaning. Again he roared that I might’ve died.

“You hate this, eh?” the corporal yelled. “Look here! Flick it onto Automatic and spend all your shots. They won’t let you finish until all the rounds are out.” Bullets were lost in a choppy metallic spray. “Good then! They’re going to do more firing drills this afternoon. I’ve got to patrol the base though. You can ride in my Jeep.”

As we were headed away from the unit, my good friend Emily ran up, flushed with happiness. “Incredible! What a rush!” She saw my face and hers dropped. Emily always helped us out when we struggled. She squeezed my hand while speaking tenderly and slowly. Then she stepped away and rejoined our section in the distance.

The corporal’s Jeep was roofless and green-grey. We were silent as the Jeep jounced over lumpy ground. The Niagara sky was bright, blue decked with white waves. The corporal pulled to a stop far from the shooting range and the trees. A warm wind wrapped around us.

“Private, if you don’t mind me asking, what the hell are you doing in the military?”

“I got fired from McDonald’s. Nobody would hire me for a full-time summer job. I’ve got to save for university.”

He laughed gently, resting a hand on my shoulder then moving it back to the wheel, turning the ignition key. “Aw, damn. Well then.”

Maggie Panko is from Verdun, QC

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