A famous war photographer once told me, when I asked him what it was like in Baghdad, "Well, driving's fun."
That's because, once the shooting starts, there are no stop signs, speed limits, or one-way streets. I'm remembering that now, barreling down the road, heading for a hairpin turn, unconcerned with the center line. "You pay taxes on the whole highway," the instructor sitting next to me says, encouragingly. "Might as well use all of it."
I'm not really in Baghdad, or anyplace like it. I'm at a survival training center in the woods outside Shacklefords, Virginia, about 40 miles east of Richmond. Military contractor and two-time Inc. 500 honoree Patriot Group International sends clients and employees here to drive cars really fast, shoot guns, and practice tying tourniquets before they deploy to war zones.
Actual trainees come for days, even weeks, and return regularly for refresher courses. I'm here for just a few hours, at the invitation of Patriot Group CEO (and former Army Ranger) Greg Craddock. See, I'm writing about Patriot Group for the magazine, and as a conscientious reporter, I'll do whatever it takes to report the story. No matter how much fun I am forced to have.
The driving part is a blast. My instructor issues me a helmet; puts me behind the wheel of a modified Chevy Impala (roll bar, passenger-side emergency brake, seat belts suitable for a rocket launch); and tells me to watch the road, not the speedometer ("go as fast as you're comfortable"). He teaches me how to skate between the cones (eyes high, hands low), skid through corners (some squeal is good, just not too much), and bite into the straightaways.
It's a closed track. Nothing to collide with. Worst case, we roll over. But that almost never happens, right? "Just once or twice a year" my instructor says. Right.
Now for the shooting part. Craddock, prepping me for this day, had understood right away what he was dealing with, someone who: lives near Boston, listens to NPR, has issues with the 2nd Amendment. (I didn't even have to tell him I was raised a Quaker.) Your goal, he suggested gently, should be that if you "were the last person standing, to pick up a weapon and have a reasonable chance of operating it effectively."
Josh, my skilled and patient firearms instructor, is even more blunt. He's got me pegged right away as a sheep. No shame in that, he says, the world is full of sheep. It's a lot better than being a wolf, morally speaking. But sheep are helpless, also oblivious. They "prefer to believe that evil doesn't exist in the world," is how this worldview was unpacked in the film American Sniper. "If it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn't know how to protect themselves." Hence the need for sheep dogs.
Josh really wants to help me uncover my inner sheep dog. We start off on a 9 mm Glock pistol, then graduate to an M4 rifle. We practice loading, disengaging the safety, squeezing the trigger, and trying not to anticipate the kick ("you should always be a little bit surprised"), which is nearly impossible, even for experts--that's why neophytes almost always miss high.
Josh reminds me to treat all weapons as if they are loaded; to never point at anything I'm not trying to kill; to know my target, and what lies beyond; and what's most important--indeed we go over this point many times--unless I'm sighting an actual target, to always position my finger straight along the barrel, not curled around the trigger.
We finish up with a sequence involving both weapons, two quick shots. I squeeze off the first round, gracefully sweep the M4 aside, unholster the Glock, aim, fire, and relax. I'm feeling pretty damn good about myself, you can see it in my swagger in this video shot by my editor, Inc.'s Maria Aspan.
But then: "Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah! Finger straight. Finger straight."
Josh is not relaxed, far from it. He's speaking in a tone of voice I haven't heard since Miss Walker caught me picking my nose in second grade.
"If that gun is not on the target, your finger is straight. Or else we don't get to play with guns anymore."
Right, yes, absolutely. Can I go home now?