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Age takes toll on once-keen shooting skills

The only saving grace for me was that no one had a red pair of Maggie's drawers to wave in glee at Camp Roberts last week.

That's where I fired 40 rounds from an M-4 rifle at targets on the rifle range at the old military base halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The operative word here is fired "at" the targets.

MT Photo Editor Bob Pennell and I were at the base last week to do a story on local Oregon Army National Guard citizen-soldiers training for an Iraq mission. We had tagged along with the Guard to the Sinai in 2002.

Back in the day, Maggie's drawers were what we Marines called the red flag waved from the pit at the end of the rifle range when some non-hacking slimeball — I'm being euphemistic here — completely missed the target.

If you failed to hit your target during qualification firing, the flag waved for all the world to see. Fellow Marines razed you unmercifully. Your humiliation was complete.

Maggie's flying red flannels meant you let legendary Marine Chesty Puller down.

Granted, I did nothing of note in the Corps when I served in 1969-71. My only war stories involved fighting a hangover or two. And I invariably lost those battles.

But I was a squared-away Marine who took pride in having fired expert on the range at Camp Pendleton. Like most young men hailing from Kerby, I arrived rifle-ready.

Back then, I didn't need glasses. I worked out every day, largely out of sheer boredom. Many of us ran several miles a day.

Now I need glasses to find my glasses, progressive ones at that. My idea of a workout is puffing up a flight of stairs in the office. I haven't run a step since I broke my neck in a car wreck shortly after being discharged, rendering my right side about as useful as a flat tire.

But the years haven't weakened my penchant for being bullheaded. Never mind I haven't shot a military rifle in 38 years. I fully intended to test my ability with a rifle if given half a chance. Flat tire be damned.

Stepping back onto a military base brought back a flood of memories, including the Marine cuisine.

Back in the Corps, we often ate C rations when out in the field. They came with a packet of three cigarettes. The cigarettes helped kill the taste of the chow, especially what appeared to be green eggs and ham in a can.

Our instant meal at Camp Roberts was much better than C rations and packed enough calories to fuel a football team. Mine came with a can of grape juice, various goodies and barbecued beef and potato in a packet. You heated the meat and potatoes by pouring water into a bag containing a chemical packet which turned the water steaming hot.

"It smells like burning plastic," Bob observed of my lunch. With his deadpan expression, it's sometimes hard to tell when he's joking.

A bite told me he wasn't far off the mark. But I figured the meal would serve, given a little practice on the chef's part.

My hunger could only be satisfied by getting out on the rifle range where the soldiers were given 40 rounds to shoot at targets 50 to 300 meters distant. Normally, they shoot 20 rounds in the prone position, 10 rounds kneeling and 10 rounds off hand.

Before offering to let me try my hand, a grinning sergeant explained that anyone hitting fewer than 23 targets is considered a "non-qual," military parlance for not qualifying.

He also explained that the M-4, basically an enhanced version of the M-16 primarily used when I wore a uniform, now was considered a weapons system. It comes with both a mini-scope and peep sight.

Iraq bound Spc. Justin Phillips, 28, of Roseburg, loaned me his rifle ... sorry ... weapons system.

Nothing seemed familiar. I suggested maybe it wasn't such a good idea after all.

"Don't worry, sir," he said. "It's like riding a bike. You never forget."

Sir?

He was being respectful, of course. But the word geezerly came to mind, particularly when it dawned on me that I got out as a corporal a decade before he was born.

Still, the old hands lifted the rifle and began squeezing off rounds.

I could come up with excuses that it was all off hand, that the wind was blowing, that I had something in my eye.

If the targets had been insurgents, the only danger they faced from me was dying from laughter. I did hit a few, albeit likely the result of rocks kicked up by the wild shots.

Somewhere Chesty Puller was shaking his head — and a pair of red flannels.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.