Note: The following is a true story, but the names of certain individuals, and other identifying details, have been changed.
A bullet through the head
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was the first of two six-week training programs at the Marines Corps officer training base at Quantico, Virginia. The second six-week training program, in the Marine Platoon Leader Class (PLC), is completed the following summer before graduation and acceptance of a commission in the USMC. The fourth week of my first summer was my first live fire training, which begins on the 100 yard rifle range. The Marine Corps takes rifle marksmanship far more seriously than any of the other three branches of the military. Every Marine officer must qualify each year as a rifleman. Failing to do so, the officer must write a letter to the Commandant of the Marine Corps and explain the unacceptable marksmanship. Coming to the attention of the top officer of the Corps would be auspicious, except for failure as a rifleman. The officer is expected to do whatever is necessary to re-qualify as soon as possible.
My training weapon was the M14, a redesign and upgrade of the WWII M1 Garand rifle. The most obvious difference was that the M14 was fitted with a bottom loading magazine that held up to 20 rounds. It was also modified to allow the rifleman to fire in fully automatic mode like a machine gun, BRRRRRRRRRRRT, with the flick of a selection lever. Otherwise, it was fired in semiautomatic mode like the M1. You squeezed the trigger once and fired one round at a time. One squeeze, one shot. With the firing of each round the spent cartridge shell was ejected, automatically, the next bullet was loaded into the firing chamber, and the weapon was ready for another squeeze of the trigger. The M14 rifle was designed to fire the 7.62 mm (30 caliber) ammunition that was standardized for all of the NATO countries. Another improvement was fitting a bi-pod under the rifle barrel for more stability when firing from a prone position.
A great deal of time, during the third week of training, was devoted to preparing for live fire training. We learned and practiced the four basic positions for firing a rifle in combat: prone, seated, kneeling, and standing. We spent hours of drilling in dry shooting – training without live ammunition. This was essential to master the art of controlling both the weapon and your breathing at the same time. Aiming a rifle at a target is impossible without the synchronization of weapon control, breathing, and squeezing the trigger. Most people don't realize that a properly held and aimed rifle is not completely motionless. There is a horizontal oscillation of the weapon as you try to hold the alignment of the front and rear sights on the target. With training, hours and hours of repetition, concentration, and focus, you learn how to minimize the horizontal oscillation of your sights, and center the range of the oscillation on the target. At the same time you are breathing (not holding your breath), and slowly squeezing the trigger (not pulling it). When the shot is fired, it's almost a surprise because you are focusing on the aiming and squeezing the trigger.
I stepped up to my designated position on the firing line, sat down on the ground, took a rifle that was handed me by my personal instructor, a Marine corporal, and settled myself into the seated firing position. My seated body is at a 45 degree angle to an imaginary straight line from my firing position to my target. My rifle had already been sighted-in to the target at 100 yards. The corporal waited till I got comfortable in my seated position with the unloaded M14. He spent a bit of time helping me fine tune my position and my handling of the rifle. Then he took the weapon from me and inserted a magazine with 5 rounds of ammunition. Eventually, I would fire a total of 10 rounds in my first day on the rifle range. He handed the M14 back to me and helped me get comfortable and ready, again. The corporal pulled back the receiver slide and released it. This loaded the first round into the firing chamber. My rifle was pointed down range, and ready to be fired with the squeezing of the trigger.
Do you know how small a bull's eye target is at 100 yards? It's pretty damn small. When I am ready to fire, the target is raised, mechanically, by a crew that operates from a deep earthen trench under the targets. After the weapon is fired the target is lowered and inspected. If they see a fresh bullet hole they send it back up, and one of the crew extends a large pole topped with a red circle that is centered over the bullet hole. This is how you know where you hit the target. If you miss altogether, the target goes back up, but this time with a flag at the top of the pole and it is waved across the target. From time immemorial, this flag waving was known as “Maggie's drawers.”
I began the process that would end with the firing of my first round. I settled the alignment of the front and rear sites at the bottom of the bull's eye target. The military sights their rifles on the bottom of the target, not the center of the of the bull's eye. If you aim at the bottom of the target, all things being equal, you will hit the target dead center. I had the oscillation and my breathing well under control and squeezing the trigger. When the round went off it was a surprise. However, when it does go off you must remember exactly where your sights were positioned at that instant. Although the rifles are sighted beforehand by the Marine armorers, under controlled conditions, the wind speed, temperature, air pressure, humidity, and other factors at the rifle range will always cause the bullets to deflect from their ideal trajectory. So if you know where your rifle was aimed at the moment the bullet is fired, you can gauge the deflection and adjust your aiming for the next shot. You didn't adjust the sights on your rifle. Instead you aimed at the appropriate spot on the target that would compensate for the deflection. My first round hit the target low and to the right of where I was aiming. So I aimed my second shot slightly higher and to the left of my original aiming point. My second round landed a bit above the bull's eye. Making another slight modification to my aiming point I fired my third round. My shot was dead center in the bull's eye.
I still remember, and have recalled throughout my life, my thoughts at hitting the bull's eye on my third shot. I was amazed beyond belief that I hit a very small target at 100 yards. I couldn't believe how easy it was. I was a kid from the Bronx who did not know didly-squat about hitting a target at long range with a rifle. At that moment I felt a strange sensation in the back of my head, neck, and the upper part of the center of my back. It was like a mild electric shock that was instantaneous, lasted for a split second, had an after tingling that lasted a couple of seconds, and was ever so slightly disorienting. I had an immediate realization that I just put a bullet through the head of someone who was 100 yards away. I could kill a person with a head shot at a considerable distance. It was easy. Another fraction of a second brought an epiphanial moment of clarity to a disturbing memory from six years earlier – a memory that had been entirely repressed.
Six years earlier
I graduated eighth grade in June of 1960, from St. Frances de Chantal Catholic school. In the fall I would start high school at Mount St. Michael Academy, also a Catholic school. For a 13 year old, at the beginning of summer vacation, high school was still a long time off. It was time again for play, sports, friends, vacation, getting sunburned, swimming, and trips to the country. My constant friend and companion, since fourth grade, was Felix Crimmins. At 16 he was three years older than I. He graduated eighth grade only one year before me. He started school a year older than I did, and once was left back a grade. Felix was mildly retarded, according to the vernacular of the time. Today he would receive the services of special education. In those days, the public school Felix attended placed him in a class for Children with Retarded Mental Development (CRMD). Felix's measured IQ was 77, and he read at the third grade level. Upon graduation from public elementary school, Felix went to a two-year trade school where he was learning how to install, linoleum, carpeting, and hardwood flooring.
Although there was a difference in our mental abilities, Felix was a great friend to have. Felix was a very likable and social kid. He was a handsome young man, very physical in his demeanor and activity, and athletic. I didn't have a nearly same-aged sibling, and he was like an older brother who took me everywhere and watched out for me. Felix taught me how to make a scooter from an orange crate, a 2 by 4, and an old roller skate. His instruction included the making of a carpet pistol from a length of furring strip, a rubber band, and pieces of discarded linoleum. When playing sports you always wanted Felix on your team. What he lacked in Readin', Ritin', and Rithmetic, he made up with his athletic prowess. In my youth, he was one of the most coordinated sports players I knew. I always felt safe with Felix. If anyone tried to intimidate me or try to pick a fight, Felix stepped in and 'explained' things to would-be bullies. Nobody messed with Felix.
I was spending more time with his Felix and his father. I had reached that time when teenage boys find other adult males more interesting than their own fathers. Fred Crimmins was teaching his son how to service and repair the family automobile. I would be there leaning over the hood of the car and taking in every word from a master who could fix his own car. After a while, Felix's father would make no distinction between the two of us as he instructed, and demonstrated, and let us have a go at setting the ignition timing, or topping up the crankcase, or blowing out the air cleaner above the carburetor. They had a red and white 1956 Ford station wagon with a third seat. With a large family of six children, a nine passenger wagon was a necessity. Felix had a natural facility for things mechanical. Felix always fixed my bike. He showed me how to repair and remount a flat tire, re-sprocket and repair a bicycle chain, and adjust my hand brakes. Mr. Crimmins was lining up a union job for his son as soon as he was old enough and graduated from vocational school. My parents told me that Fred and Walena (Lena) Crimmins were shocked when they found out that Felix was placed in a CRMD class. However, they adjusted to it, in time, and Mr. Crimmins was determined to make sure his son was situated with a skill and employment when he finished school.
Fred Crimmins, an Irishman, was a toll booth collector for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority of New York City. In those days, toll booth collectors were armed with 38 caliber police revolvers, and had limited authority as peace officers. They had a uniform that was similar, intentionally, to those worn by New York City police officers. From a few yards away, most people couldn't tell the difference and would assume they were members of the NYPD. The arming of the toll booth collectors was a vestige of the pre-war and war years of the late 1930s and 1940s, and the cold war of the 1950s. The rationale was protection and deterrence against sabotage, and civil strife. Later, in the 1970s they were disarmed and the job duties reclassified. I remember Mr. Crimmins coming home from work in his uniform, but his pistol holster was always empty. I found out that his wife, Lena, forbade him to bring his pistol home or teach any of their children to fire a gun. I guess she thought it was too dangerous or maybe she just didn't like guns. So he kept it secured in his locker at work and never brought it into the house.
Lena Crimmins was a first generation Czech-American. Her parents came from Prague along with a definite Viking heritage. She could have passed for Irish herself with a fair complexion and slightly reddish blond hair. She was raised on a family farm not far from Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Her parents still lived there, though it was no longer a working farm. Her sisters and one brother lived within twenty miles of their parents. I went with Felix and his family on a couple of visits to his grandparents. That summer would be the last trip I made with Felix and his family
Fred and Lena Crimmins had six children. After Felix there was Penny who was my age, 13, though she was a year behind me at school. She was very pretty and developed. Maureen was 10, a tomboy, and big for her age. She insisted on playing with the boys, her age, in sports and most other play. The boys put up with including her in all their games, not because they valued her athletic talents, but because she'd beat the crap out of them if they told her she couldn't play because she was a girl. Both sisters looked just like their mother, were just as beautiful, and freckled like their father. After the two girls, there were three boys. Seven year old Tommy was just like his older brother Felix, a blend of his father's and mother's features. Harry was 3, very cute and very funny, and assigned to the care of, and rearing by, his older sister, Penny. The baby, Michael, was only six months old. He was beautiful, bright, alert, responsive, quick to smile and laugh, and doted over by everyone, except Fred Crimmins who seemed nervous and standoffish around the baby. Maureen was already being groomed as his surrogate parent. Harry and Michael had the family's fair skin, but with darker hair and eyes, and round faces.
Mrs. Crimmins ran a tight ship at home, focused on organizing the work and meting out the chores. She was not so much affectionate with her children, as she was attentive to what they had to do, and making sure things got done and done correctly. I attributed this to being raised a farmer's daughter. She always seemed to be impatient with her husband, Fred. She was quick to scold him, holler at him, and even humiliate him. Mr. Crimmins was always accommodating and, it seemed to me, was perpetually on edge and trying to keep things calm and peaceful. It was as if he gave up complaining and arguing a long time ago. If he ignored it long enough it might even go away.
Oh God! What misery.
Mrs. Crimmins was also a strange bird. I always thought she was a little wacky, and definitely a religious nut. Felix and I would go to Sunday Mass together. Sometimes Felix came with me and my family to 9:00 am Mass. Other times, I would go with Felix and his family to the High Mass at 10:00 am. Going to church with Mrs. Crimmins was an embarrassing ordeal. Mrs. Crimmins insisted that her family always go the High Mass because it was the most solemn Mass of the week, and was celebrated by three priests instead of the usual one priest. The vestments were more elaborate and ornate. There was a procession of the chief celebrant, usually the pastor, Monsignor Halpin, up and down the aisles waving the Censer, a container for burning sacred incense, and blessing the congregation with the scent and smoke. At High Mass there were more prayers, more music, more altar boys, more priests, and the whole thing took forever. By contrast, the 9:00 am Mass was a quickie.
Upon arrival at church, Lena Crimmins would lead her brood, like a mother hen, in a procession down the center aisle to the empty seats in the very first row, on the left. The front rows were always empty, because no one else wanted to come to everyone's attention, in case they wanted to scoot out a side or rear door 10 or 15 minutes early, as many did. Also, the worshipers in the left front row were directly in front of the lectern from which Monsignor Halpin delivered the homily. If not for the fact that Felix and I were such good friends, and we both got to sit in the rear-facing third seat of the Ford station wagon, I wouldn't go to the 10:00 am High Mass with his family. He felt the same way. Felix and I would jump out the rear of the station wagon and run for a side entrance. If we accomplished this before his mother got the parade organized, and before she realized we couldn't be recalled, we would find seats in the middle of the church and observe the 'March of the Children' from the sidelines.
Mrs. Crimmins leading the procession of children with Mr. Crimmins taking up the rear was actually a fascinating spectacle – as long as you weren't in it. She was like a showoff with spoils-of-war captives marching behind in her victory parade. Instead of a quick genuflection and sign of the cross before entering the church pew, she gave a studied and self conscious demonstration, as if preparing second graders for their first Holy Communion. I always thought she looked as if she was making a public dare to everyone in the church, a challenge to 'knock this chip off my holy shoulder.' When she arrived at the first row, she turned to face her retinue, and wait for all to genuflect and file into the pew ahead of her. Fred Crimmins was always at the end of the line, so he sat next to Lena who sat on the aisle. When it came time for communion, she was the first one in the entire church to rise to her feet and lead another procession to the altar rail. At the end of High Mass – there was no early escape for this clan – the entrance march was executed in reverse sequence. Mr. Crimmins led the family march, while his wife took up the rear guard, projected the same I-dare-anyone-to-say-something that I could never figure out. When the High Mass was over, Felix and I would exit by the center aisle, a little ahead of the approaching Mr. Crimmins, so that he could verify that we were present for the entire sacred ordeal.
Felix's mother was a member of the Holy Rosary Society. The twenty or so members held their meeting every Thursday evening at 7:00 o'clock, led by their president, Patrick O'Connor, an alcoholic 'Black' Irish with a round face and barrel chest. After opening with prayers and blessings, the members were assigned, in pairs, to home calls where they would pray the Rosary with an individual or family. The recipients of this faith community outreach were people interested in converting to Catholicism, shut-ins, those who expressed a spiritual need, and others who simply wanted to have someone pray the Rosary with them. Mrs. Crimmins was most active in the Holy Rosary Society when Fred Crimmins was working second shift, and she didn't have to have supper ready for him when he got home. Occasionally, I was at the Crimmins' house when his mother was getting ready to leave for her meeting and assignment for spiritual outreach. I always noticed that she behaved in a way that was, otherwise, uncharacteristic. Instead of her usual hyper-attentiveness to everything going on in the house and with her children, she was completely dissociated from our reality and, probably, body-snatched by aliens from outer space. She got herself dressed, primped, powdered, and perfumed in silence, but with a sense of hurry and intent. She would make a final adjustment to her makeup or clothing in front of the mirror next to the front hall closet, then open the door and disappear. During this period of mind-capture by an invisible ray from a flying saucer hovering above the house, she never made eye contact with her children, nor uttered the usual cautionary admonitions to behave while she was out.
One night, a few minutes after Mrs. Crimmins slipped out the door, Penny called out from the kitchen, “Where's Mom?” Felix responded, “She's gone already.” This time, with a great deal of annoyance in her voice, she said, “She forgot to leave dinner on the table for us, again!”
Part 2 of this story will be published on Monday, November 9, 2009. See you then and thanks for reading.