I’m writing from an aisle seat in the very last row of a very crowded airplane, sitting next to a very large man and his fiancée. We’re all on our way to Las Vegas, them to get married, and me to…not. I’m headed with a friend to Pahrump, Nevada and then on to The Front Sight Firearms Training Institute for a four-day extravaganza in the desert. Our mission is to learn defensive handgun safety, gun handling, and marksmanship techniques, but I suspect we’ll call ourselves successful if we merely avoid shooting the wrong things, including each other.
We’ve been planning this trip for several months (my friend humors me, but I think he’s as eager as I am). We’ve collaborated (conspired?) on handguns, accessories, ammunition, and range time. We’ve also spent innumerable hours discussing everything from the relative merits of John Moses Browning’s masterpiece (the Model 1911 .45 semi-automatic pistol) versus modern plastic abominations that don’t even have a proper hammer, to the meaning of life and our place in it. And now we’re leaving the civilized world behind to head to the badlands and shoot some stuff under proper adult supervision.
My seat-mate, who is now wearing a panicked look and beginning to sweat as we approach Vegas and his impending wedding, is growing larger by the minute. He was already getting premium value from his ticket price by taking half of my seat as well, and is now busy trying to acquire the other half. I’ve discovered something new, however; Parkinson’s dyskinesia is an excellent defensive tool. The more he encroaches, the more I thrash. I may need to begin to make noises before too much longer.
As you know if you’re a regular reader, I’ve chosen the counterintuitive path of adopting shooting sports as a hobby. I enjoy telling people – I like the tolerantly amused expression until they realize I’m serious, followed by the intense desire to know exactly where and when my next shooting excursion will be. You should all avoid a circle 50 miles in radius centered on Pahrump for the next five days.
It’s actually not quite that bad. Although I experience all the major motor and non-motor symptoms of PD during the course of a typical week, they don’t necessarily happen at the same time, and I’m able to squeeze off a shot or two during the lulls. And, I have the luxury of putting the gun down if I’m shaking, stiff, or clumsy, and it doesn’t generally come upon me with no warning. There’s always plenty of time to shout “hit the deck” and toss the gun away like a World War II hand grenade. See? Tolerantly amused, followed by genuine horror. Life is a roller coaster, and I like sitting in the control booth.
When I was first diagnosed, I was tempted to decide out of hand that there were some things I just shouldn’t do. There are, of course; teaching scuba classes, tightrope walking, diamond cutting, and being a tattoo artist come to mind. But there are innumerable other things, like shooting, that I CAN do, with a sober, realistic approach and the right preparation. PD is a thief, and I don’t want to let it take things that I can still hold onto for a while. I used to talk about “fighting back,” but I’m beginning to believe that’s the wrong metaphor. Perhaps the right approach is less direct confrontation and more civil disobedience. PD may have power, but I can still refuse to allow it free rein. PD wants me to sit at home – NO, I’m going to go shooting in Nevada with my friend. PD wants me to sleep all day – NO, I’m going to the high school to talk about cyber security with smart, eager young people. PD wants me to resign to my fate and give up hope – NO, I’m going to examine long-held beliefs and viewpoints, and find new reasons for hope. PD wants me to stop exercising and sit in front of the computer – well, ok, but I’ll do better next week. No philosophy is perfect.
So, this week my way to question PD’s authority over my life is to learn to clear a room and shoot from cover. It’s not likely I’ll ever need to use that skill, but if I do, I’ll be ready. And, I love thumbing my nose at Parkinson’s. I’ll let you know how the week goes – right now, I’ve got to elbow my seat-mate a few times and wiggle around, just to let him know who’s REALLY the boss here.
The Week at Front Sight
We arrived in Pahrump, Nevada after a leisurely dinner on the outskirts of Las Vegas and a pleasant moonlit drive through the desert. As we settled into our hotel room and ran a few errands around town to gather supplies for the week, we discovered that there is no path between two points in the entire town that doesn’t pass either through a casino or past a fireworks stand. I had been to Vegas on business a number of times over the years, so I expected the slot machines at the airport and in the grocery store. The roulette table in our hotel room was a surprise, though.
We rose early this morning, packed guns, holsters, accessories, sunscreen, bottled water, Gatorade, and food into our rental car, and headed 20 miles across the desert to our 6:30 AM check-in at Front Sight. As the sun rose over the mountains, we were greeted by our first glimpse of the landscape where we would spend the next four days.
“I thought we were in Nevada. How did we get to the far side of the moon?” said my friend.
“Oh, it’s not that bad,” I replied. “Look, there’s a dead cow – you’d never see that on the moon. At least it’s nice and cool – only 65 degrees. It probably won’t get much hotter than that.” Stupidity often sounds like optimism, I’ve found.
We arrived at the Front Sight facility slightly before the appointed time and waited briefly in a line of other students for the staff to open the gates. At the exact moment the clock hit 6:30 AM, we entered the facility after being greeted warmly and professionally at the gate. This was our first exposure to both the precision and professionalism we would experience throughout the week.
As directed, we headed to the sign-in area to check in for our class and have our guns and holsters checked for safety. Since they didn’t yet know about my steel-trap mind, the sign-in staff thought it best to write the number of my assigned range on my hand with a Sharpie – 1A. They then verified that our guns were neither too small nor too large, our ammunition would probably not detonate prematurely or with unexpected fanfare, our holsters covered our triggers, there was neither concrete nor peanut butter in our chambers or barrels, and we were otherwise prepared to be instructed. We then headed over to the classroom to receive our official welcome and sign paperwork saying that, regardless of what happened in the next four days, no matter who was at fault, irrespective of which body parts were affected, and with no consideration of intent, true culpability, or gross negligence, we were solely at fault now and for all time. I signed without reading. If there’s a war in the Mideast now, it may turn out to be my fault.
We then headed to Range 1A, where we met our range master and his team for the first time. They were all dressed alike: crisp short-sleeved gray uniform shirts, bloused black fatigue pants, boots, and baseball caps. Sharp, professional, and squared away, they were also each friendly, approachable and genuinely welcoming. This was no boot-camp environment, although most of the instructors had extensive law enforcement or military experience.
At this point, I spoke privately with the range master and explained to him that I had Parkinson disease, but that I could usually tell when I was having problems that would impact my ability to participate. He nodded his understanding and said, “Safety is a very important part of this course, but we’ll keep an eye on you as we do for everyone, and you just take things at your own pace.” I couldn’t have asked for a better response, and my remaining concerns faded into the background.
We spent the day going over the basics: the Four Rules of Firearms Safety, the rules of the range and the facility, range commands, chamber checking and magazine checking, and other safety-related subjects. We actually didn’t fire the first live round until the afternoon, which was fortunate – I learned that I had been doing almost everything wrong, and I had a significant amount of unlearning and bad-habit breaking to do.
The day ended with a lecture on the moral and ethical issues associated with the application of deadly force, and I was once again struck by the thoughtfulness and serious deliberation that had gone into this course. These were not gun nuts gleefully popping off rounds in the desert – they were instead dedicated professionals with a deep understanding of the awesome responsibility inherent in choosing to use firearms for self-protection, and a recognition that this is a controversial subject even among well-intentioned, intelligent people.
Thoroughly exhausted, we headed back to Pahrump for an evening of pistol-cleaning and rest.
We spent the second day practicing and learning to present correctly from a holster and reholster without shooting ourselves. Among many other things, we also learned the value of dry practice and the Three Secrets of Handgun Marksmanship. I had thought there was only one secret – shoot enough rounds and eventually you’ll hit the target. Again, I was wrong. I discovered that the following set of phrases actually has meaning: “The line is clear. Dry practice drill. Present to the ready, point in, hard focus on the front sight and PRESSSSSSSSSSSSS!” My new vocabulary also includes other timeless nuggets such as “tap, rack, flip,” “chamber check and mag check,” tactical reload,” and the popular “finger straight, look and move, check, lock, strip, rack rack rack, insert, rack, point in.” It’s not what it might sound like.
PD decided to reassert itself on the third day of class. I had hoped but didn’t really expect to avoid a “bad day” during the week, and I awoke with the familiar, stiff, slow, shaky feeling and clumsy, shuffling gait that greets every morning. As occasionally happens, though, my morning handful of pills only brought nausea and disorientation, and no relief. I knew I wasn’t safe to handle a gun, so I went to class and just watched that morning. I began to feel better by the afternoon, but my “bad day” brought me up short. Who am I fooling? What am I doing here? I have PD – I’m not going to get better, and I’ll never be any better at shooting or anything else than I am right now. Why bother? Why waste my time? I really just need to get on the plane, go home, sell these guns and get realistic. Feeling low and discouraged, I talked with my friend, who was also exhausted and dealing with his own challenges. Together we decided to stick it out for one more day, the last day.
I awoke on the last day dreading a repeat of the prior day’s challenges, but thankfully I felt much better. PD is capricious and unpredictable, but that unpredictability cuts both ways. We arrived at Front Sight and spent the morning practicing and preparing for the final test scheduled for that afternoon. After we had practiced for several hours, though, the range master gathered us together and told us he had a surprise for us.
“We’re going to have a competition this morning. You’ll all be competing against each other in a single elimination, man-on-man tournament that simulates one of the threat scenarios we’ve discussed – a multiple adversary hostage situation.” Oh boy, I thought – as they used to say in Strategic Air Command back in the day, an “opportunity to excel.” I resolved to just try to apply what I had learned and make the best of the situation.
The scenario involved three targets made of steel armor plating, painted in different colors. Competitors competed in pairs; each competitor had their own set of three targets, which they were required to shoot in the proper order, at the same time on the same range, standing next to each other. The first target was a gray man-shaped steel silhouette placed 15 yards from the firing line, with a small white-painted steel square mounted on an axle next to the head of the silhouette, which would flip away when struck. The gray silhouette represented the hostage, and the small white square represented a hostage-taker standing behind the hostage with only a portion of his head showing. The two other targets, placed at 25 yards and painted blue and red, represented two other adversaries. The goal of the competition was to first shoot the white square and flip it away without striking the hostage, and then to shoot the blue target and the red target in that order, all before your opponent did the same thing. Whoever finished first without hitting the hostage won the round. If both competitors hit the hostage, both were eliminated. If it sounds complex, try it in 100 degree heat wearing a concealment garment and presenting from a concealed holster.
The competition proceeded, with some shooters doing well and some less well. My friend raised the bar when he stepped up to the line and hit all three targets in order with three well-placed shots, well before his opponent, to the cheers of the class. He’s always been a smart-aleck.
My turn finally came – I was part of the last pair in the first round. We stepped up to the line, and I tried desperately to remember what to do as I heard, “Shooters! Firing drill. Load, chamber check, mag check, and return to the holster.” My training kicked in and I didn’t even think as my hands automatically moved through the drill we’d been taught over the last three and a half days. I heard, “Ready, fire!” and I smoothly (for me) swept my vest to the side, presented my 1911 from the holster, pointed in at the first target while snapping off the thumb safety, established the right sight picture as I removed the slack from the trigger, focused on the front sight, pressed the trigger to a surprise break, and trapped the trigger as I heard a “ping” and saw a blurry image of the white target slap back. Without consciously thinking about it, I moved the sights to the blue target, reset the trigger, and repeated the process, and again with the red target. I heard the instructor say, “when you’re satisfied with the condition of your weapon, return to the holster,” so I executed a tactical reload and reholstered. It was only then that I discovered that I had won the round. I was so shocked I nearly soiled myself.
As luck would have it, I was paired with my friend for the second round. In a repeat of the first round, we both fired three shots, and both connected three times for a perfect round. His red target fell about a tenth of a second before mine did, though – he eliminated me from the competition, and although I would have loved to have beaten him (he’s a Texas Aggie, you see…). I was as thrilled for him as I would have been for myself. After a bye and another perfect round, he won the competition and received the Front Sight Man-On-Man Competition Challenge Coin. If you’ve gotta get beat, that’s the way to do it.
We both went on to take the final test and finish the course – neither of us was the highest scorer, but we weren’t the lowest, either. We both have areas for improvement, but we are both safer and better shooters than we were last week. And I think I’ve answered or reaffirmed some of the questions I asked myself on the third day. Why bother? Because, although I can and do fail, I can’t give up. Why waste my time? It’s not a waste – it’s a refusal to curl up and die. Who am I fooling? No one, including myself. I have PD, and I don’t expect it to just go away. I hope for a cure, but I don’t anticipate one in my lifetime. However, my willingness to be disobedient to PD can’t depend on the hope for a cure. I’ll continue to work as I can to help find one, but I’ll get up every day with the hope of learning something new, of meeting and overcoming challenges large and small, and of trying to go just a little farther every day than I think I can. I also have hope that emerges from a growing recognition that I’m just not as clever as I always thought I was. As I have occasionally heard before, “the smarter they are, the dumber they are.” I think I’m finding out just how true that is.