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If Only I Had Known!: Top Gun

06/02/10 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) VPR commentators took on the theme, "If Only I Had Known," for an annual brunch this spring, and we're sharing some of their thoughts this week. This afternoon, Mary McCallum tells about an unexpected self-discovery.

(McCALLUM) One spring afternoon in 1995, I hiked with a friend who taught high school. She told me that her school had a career fair that day and representatives from the military came to answer students’ questions. "I signed up for a special program for educators," she said. "I’m going to National Guard camp for a week when school lets out in June."

My jaw dropped. "Why would you do that?" I asked. "You have no interest in the military."

"I might learn something ," she replied. "We’ll shoot guns, go up in helicopters and drive tanks. It’s all in the brochure. I’ll show it to you." Something unexpected stirred inside me.  Spending a week with guns, ammo, tanks and choppers suddenly seemed like a great idea. I didn’t need to see the brochure. "How do I sign up?"

I called Captain Pipes, the officer in charge of the program, and registered. "But I have to tell you," I warned him, "I’m not into the military, and I’m pro gun control." I sensed a silent chuckle at the other end. "Perfect," said Pipes. "You’re just the kind of person we like to have at these trainings."


At the end of June we joined twenty other teachers at Ethan Allen Firing Range in Jericho for our simulated National Guard experience. We slept on bunks in concrete barracks, ate in the mess hall, and had virtually no free time between activities. Seven guardsmen were assigned as our guides for the week, including Captain Pipes. Most were family men and all were uniformly polite. I’d never heard so many /Yes, Ma’ams/ in my life.

On our first day, after introductions, instructions and the handing out of dog tags, we walked to a small river and were taught how to attach ourselves to snaplines with carabiners and pull ourselves across the river upside down. Then it was out to a firing range for target practice with .22s. I got my first rush while lying in the grass, focusing on the target across the field and hitting it. After that it was pretty much all adrenaline.

My fascination with things military grew as we cycled through the week. I climbed a simulated rock wall, drove an armored personnel carrier, shot targets with a 45, ate MREs in the woods, and learned how to use the jake brake while driving a 20-ton dump truck with eighteen speeds. We shot 155mm Howitzer shells across a valley from an M-1 Abrams tank, and the kick of the tank nearly blew my shoes off.

And then we went up in choppers. It was exhilarating to fly above the Green mountains being blasted by the wind as blades whumped overhead. Afterward we shot M-16s. Automated targets rose and fell in a field as I lay on my belly anticipating and shooting. I was in The Zone.

At week’s end I was given the "Top Gun Award" for outstanding marksmanship. Captain Pipes relished handing it to me, grinning from ear to ear. My earlier disdain for guns had evaporated, leaving me flabbergasted at my shooting skills and eager for more targets or as they said camp;  to get out there and "spread some brass."

Check out the "If Only I Had Known!" series page


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