With apologies for the titillating title this, for better or worse, is not a photo diary.
Danielle was a lifelong friend in the most literal sense. Her parents and my own are friends. We were born a few weeks apart and we played together as infants. We explored together, discovered together, experienced many coming-of-age landmarks together, and did all the things friends do, for many years. We shared our first loves but not for each other -- she was too good a friend for that. There were no secrets between us and I don't believe any were possible. We were closer than siblings. There was no space between our souls. Our parents and just about everyone else assumed we would eventually marry.
Maybe that's why we didn't, I don't know.
Since childhood I've been fascinated with the science of ballistics. I didn't know it at the time. All I knew then was that when I threw a ball or a rock I liked the rapid planning that went into launching an object to hit a distant and sometimes moving target.
A 46-year old man and his 13-year old son walked down to the lake. It was a short walk, his property almost bordered the lake. They were in high spirits. The man was going to teach the son firearm safety and let him shoot, for the first time, the .223 caliber rifle he had recently purchased.I'm going to assume you know what ballistic flight means and won't go into any details in this diary. For those wanting a refresher, this is a good starting place.
I soon discovered that slingshots were far more efficient than my nerdy muscles at flinging objects against gravity. I could plop a ball bearing into a bucket at fifty yards. I experimented with larger payloads and found the limitations of rubber rather quickly.
I briefly tried archery but I'm a southpaw and at that time there were no affordable bows that would let me shoot left-handed so I never developed any skill or interest in that sport.
Danielle excelled at archery. It was a great joy to watch her draw the bow and release the arrow and hear that squeal of delight -- or frustration -- when it hit or missed the mark.
The man talked to his son for about half an hour about how to load the weapon and how to hold it, how to operate the safety, and to police his brass.I got my first BB gun at ten years of age. It never occurred to me that it was a weapon. I'd been well schooled on the dangers and proper use of the gun but the thought of using it against a living creature was abhorrent. I had pet birds and both Danielle and my sister had pet rodents. I considered the wild versions of those animals to be potential friends, not targets.
Ahh... targets. I needed feedback from my targets beyond what I could see -- which wasn't much. Tiny holes in cardboard are impossible to see from any reasonably challenging distance. Tin cans worked well. They would make a satisfying plunk sound when they were hit. I tried glass but the tiny tink sound didn't compare to the plunk and it would sometimes break. Cleaning up broken glass was no fun.
There ended an important lesson but I still had nary a clue.
The son was confused by the phrase "police the brass". The father explained it meant picking up the spent brass cartridges that are ejected from the rifle.I was sated for a time. I eventually found the limits of compressed air as I had with rubber and the challenge waned. Those tiny copper projectiles had a maddening tendency to veer like a Sandy Koufax pitch.
That's about when I started looking into the science. I discovered that rifling in a barrel improves flight characteristics. I pestered my parents for a pellet gun using the argument that the rifled barrel would be so much safer because it was more accurate. They saw through that, of course, but I got the pellet gun anyway.
Danielle had no interest in guns but appreciated the science. She always praised my good shots and mercilessly critiqued my poorer ones.
The father showed the boy how to aim the rifle and drew line drawings in the sand to show what the sights should look like to him when they are properly lined up.The pellet gun was a pistol. This was something I hadn't considered. I was not comfortable with handling a pistol. I'd never fired one and had considerable fear to overcome. I still didn't consider it a weapon but the shortness of the barrel made me uneasy about my own safety. My grandfather understood better than anyone and took the time to instruct me and help me get into the challenge of pistol shooting. Again, I'm a southpaw and that pistol wasn't designed to be ambidextrous so I shot it right-handed at first. When I found that I could work the safety and pump safely with my right hand I started shooting with the left. That turned out to be a boon. I became almost as good a pistol shot with my right hand as with my left. Not too much later in life I suffered a traumatic injury to my right hand and am missing the index finger and the distal joint of the middle finger is fused at about a thirty degree angle. Subsequently, when I shot a pistol right-handed I had to be choosy about the gun to be able to work with the mechanisms. I also preferred to shoot rifles right-handed because my right eye is dominant.
Danielle didn't like the pistol either. It frightened her for the same reasons it initially frightened me. There was a significant difference though. She considered any pistol a weapon. She wouldn't let me play Cowboys and Indians with her and the bow (my sincere apologies for that, folks. It was a different time, we didn't know until much later how we were perpetuating stereotypes and myths).
Like virtually every other kid who owned guns, my first firearm was a .22 rifle. The introduction of gunpowder was difficult to reconcile. This, finally, was a weapon. A weapon with a range of up to a mile. What the Hell was I going to shoot at a mile away? Or even half a mile? My ever-so-patient grandfather explained the science of trajectory and I learned to appreciate the fast and relatively flat path that the tiny bullet traveled. I got good at shooting that rifle. Really good, according to everyone around me. I started shooting competitively and gained some minor notoriety, mainly because of my age.
The man showed the boy the ammunition. He explained the various cartridge and bullet parts and, with more line drawings on the ground, what happens when the weapon is fired.Inevitably, the thrill of target shooting was replaced by the thrill of romance and guns took a back seat to bikinis. Danielle looked awesome in those those things and I thought I had to fight for her honor more than once. I won most of those tussles until she quite pointedly told me to mind my own business on that score, and told me exactly why. It was quite a revelation to me that playing hard to get was part of the eternal dance. She promised that if she ever really did need help, I'd be the go-to guy.
Fast forwarding, a series of misguided life choices led me to abandon my pursuit of a law career. After a very brief time spent foundered on the shoals of uncertainty I rediscovered my fascination with ballistics in the ultimate expression of the science.
The man left the boy after cautioning him not to touch the rifle and walked about fifty yards to an embankment where he placed paper plates against an earthen mound and on a fallen log.Rockets intended to reach beyond the edges of our atmosphere are the most complex ballistics challenges we, as human beings, have ever attempted. I had no interest in traveling to space and didn't want to spend another chunk of my life in school. The Air Force ballistic missile program was attractive but the Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missile system was right up my alley. I was totally naive about military life (and the Pentagon was totally naive about mine) but that is for another diary. I was blinded by searing curiosity about a vessel capable of traveling under water for months at a time without surfacing and, best of all, being able to fire a rocket (under water) from that moving platform into space on a ballistic trajectory and hit a target thousands of miles away.
The man returned and helped his son shoulder the weapon, reminding him of the aiming instructions he'd given earlier. He told the boy to take in a breath and let half of it out then stop without holding it. He reminded the boy to squeeze the trigger slowly -- so slowly that it should be a surprise when the weapon fired.Did I mention I was naive? The consequences of what happens when the nuclear payload reaches the target didn't concern me at all because it was never, ever going to happen (even if we were commanded to launch but, again, that is for another diary).
We studied the Bikini Atoll test blasts. We learned that the introduction of hydrogen as a fusion material caused an unintended consequence - an explosion three orders of magnitude larger than was expected.
The boy did as he was instructed. He held the rifle tight against his shoulder and lined up the sights like the drawings in the sand. He slowly tightened his grip on the trigger and the weapon fired. As his father had told him would happen, the report was a surprise. What the boy didn't expect was the loudness of the noise, the force of the recoil, and the smell of burnt gunpowder.After submarine school in Connecticut I was deployed to Hawaii. Ballistic missile submarines, called "boomers" by those who man them, have an approximately four month patrol schedule. There are two identical crews, a Red crew and a Blue crew. While one crew is on patrol, the other is, ostensibly, in training most of the time. The Pentagon realizes that months in isolation takes its toll so the first thirty days of off-patrol time is called "basket leave" where the sailors are free to reconnect with the real world and real people. The next thirty days are supposed to be spent in career advancement training, and the last period was set aside for onshore drills in the amazingly realistic simulators on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. In reality, that first sixty days or so are usually spent lounging on the beach. As long as we were available by phone, no one really held us to a rigid training schedule. I used those opportunities to tour much of Asia, taking advantage of free air travel via the Military Airlift Command's frequent flights to various Pacific destinations.
My boat (submarines are not "ships" -- it is an elitist thing) was not due to return from patrol for a couple of months. The boats in the Pacific only return to Pearl Harbor rarely. They travel to Guam to turn over the crew and refit the boat for another patrol. The boat needs to be restocked with supplies, maintenance needs to be performed, and each member of the crew meets with their counterparts on the opposite crew for debriefing.
I was an eager young Ensign and not yet flayed by the 30-grit grind to which non-Academy officers are subjected. I applied for and was accepted to an inter-branch marksmanship competition held at the Schofield Barracks Army depot. I earned Marksmanship medals for rifle and pistol and an Expert device for each. I also earned the highest individual scores on my team but the Navy lost the overall competition to the Army.
The boy was shaking with adrenaline excitement. His Dad told him to make sure the safety was on and that he didn't point the rifle down range while he went to inspect and retrieve the target.My first patrol was uneventful but extremely busy. Every member of the crew must complete a qualification regimen that involves learning every system on the boat in minute detail. That was beneficial far beyond the immediate value of saving our lives in an emergency. I learned much about hydraulics, pneumatics, physics, chemistry, oceanography, and navigation that I probably wouldn't have otherwise studied.
A couple of days after returning from my first patrol I called my parents on the mainland and learned that Danielle had signed up for the Air Force. I knew I could not miss her sendoff celebration with family and other friends. I booked a flight that very evening.
The boy laid the weapon down and looked out across the lake. A group of ducks were swimming not far from shore. He'd seen his father bring home ducks after hunting.I arrived in early afternoon and borrowed Dad's car to drive the few miles to Danielle's parents' house. My folks were supposed to meet there as well after their fellowship meeting. There was quite a crowd of old friends, relatives, and people I hadn't met, all milling about munching on barbecue and drinking beer and wine and generally making merry.
Danielle had taken her dog, a Great Dane, for a walk by the nearby lake. It is a reservoir, actually, a few hundred yards across. Her Dad said that the prospect of leaving the dog was causing her considerable sadness and that she wanted to spend some more time with her while she could.
He picked up the rifle and took the safety off. He sighted in on one of the ducks and squeezed the trigger.We didn't get concerned until after sunset when the dog returned alone. We formed a posse and joked about giving her a hard time about her upcoming survival training. We all assumed she was looking for her dog who had a habit of occasionally running off after some critter or noise. We found as many flashlights as we could and set off toward the lake.
He was never sure if he shot the duck. His father came running back very concerned. He was relieved to find that the shot was not accidental and angry that the boy had disobeyed. Neither of them knew that the bullet had skipped on the water and continued on across the lake.Danielle's Dad found her by following the dog. I don't know if the dog actually led him to Danielle or was simply following her normal path but it doesn't matter. The rest of us heard a roar of pain that I cannot describe even if I were willing to do so. The sound went right to our bones and to a man (and woman) we froze for an instant, then ran toward it.
In an earlier draft of this diary I described the scene. That was excruciating beyond my capability to describe and also somewhat cathartic for me because I've never done it. Not to my sweet wife, not even to myself. I've deleted that paragraph from this account. She was so beautiful in life. Long brown hair and green eyes with a row of freckles on her cheeks beneath them. That is the way I will remember my Danielle and it is the way I want you to remember her, too.
I will say that when Danielle's Dad confronted the man and boy the police needed to restrain him. His parting words to the two were that the man should make the boy go clean up the mess. The boy replied with astounding callous ignorance that he had already policed his brass. My own Dad and I did what we could to clean the site.
It was only after a very contentious conversation with an investigator that the man reported to the police that he believed his son may have "accidentally" fired the shot that killed the girl.The kid and his Dad were never charged. That boy eventually took his own life and, from what I understand, not with a gun. Whether Danielle haunted him I'll never know. Danielle's father convinced the rest of the family not to sue. He rightly assumed Danielle would rather we do what we did do, and that was to keep her memory alive and fervently campaign to keep guns out of the hands of children and other idiots. We tell Danielle's story to every parent we know.
We have to believe that it has saved at least one life. We have to.
I applied for and was denied bereavement leave because she was not immediate family. I ignored the denial and stayed the extra week anyway. There were no serious repercussions from that when I returned to the islands. I only got yet another in what was to become a long list of stern lectures from superiors.
I was asked numerous times to participate in marksmanship competitions and declined each one. I was required to re-qualify with both rifle and pistol but when I did I purposely scored the minimum. I told anyone who would listen that I had come to detest firearms and also called into question the validity of every aspect of nuclear weapons. Mutual Assured Destruction and the Ultimate Deterrent, all of that was quite suddenly ludicrously absurd.
For that I was called a coward more than once. My response was, and remains, that those who would use a weapon that leaves the hand are the cowards. It takes no courage to pull a trigger or push a button. That is the ultimate manifestation of cowardice.
Tragedies like what happened to Danielle are preventable. I'll never cause a firearm "accident" because I'll never again pick up a firearm. I will tell this tale to anyone who will listen and I will tirelessly harangue parents to give their children toys, pets, hobbies, almost anything but not guns.
That personal thing -- speaking to those you know -- is how I think we can best affect the number of heartbreaking gun violence incidents. I heartily support restrictive legislation and will write and call every week to help get some sort of sanity restored to our culture when it comes to firearms and I think that has great value. I also encourage everyone to speak to those you know.
We have to believe that it has saved at least one life. We have to.
Update: to the kind souls who have republished this I am sincerely grateful. Thank you.