Grandma Donna in a painting by Natalie Phillips

At the age of seven, my grandmother was the first person to let me touch a gun. It happened after dinner one evening when she quite irresponsibly handed over an unloaded revolver to play with. As one might imagine, pretty much every breach of firearm handling protocol occurred. Years later, the first time I shot a gun involved her too.

During the early 90s, Grandma Donna had a lawyer named Mark. I recall a fairly unremarkable fellow, probably early 40s, with sandy hair, wire frame glasses and a soft chin. She invited him over for family meals several times and after one such event, he asked if I would like to go out shooting with him. I must have been around thirteen, still in junior high school. As a youth who had fought bitterly over even being allowed water pistols and cap guns, this was a major coup!

It’s unclear how my parents finally agreed, likely after blood oaths promising model behavior and good grades signed with future children as collateral. At the end of it, I found myself riding along in Mark’s car one early Saturday morning. My lips bubbled with questions. It seemed quite peculiar that an attorney would be armed and know how to shoot.

“Were you in the military or a cop before?” I asked.

“No, no…” Mark answered vaguely. “Not quite.”

He began selling me stories… about car bombs exploding in distant countries, tense hostage standoffs and training police forces in counter-terrorism tactics. He sounded like some kind of James Bond, only one more likely to blend in at an accounting conference. When we stopped for a red light, I asked the number two big question.

“Did you ever get shot back in those days?”

Mark grinned and reached down, pulling up his right pant leg. Sure enough, several white scars trailed in a row down the calf muscle. “This is from a gunfight in the Philippines almost ten years ago,” he proclaimed. “Fella tagged me before I could get behind cover. Three bullets from his AK went right through.” He paused dramatically.

“What did he do after he shot you?” I asked.

The light turned green. “He died.” Mark held up his hand, pistol style, and pulled the trigger finger. I felt a sudden chill, big question number one grimly answered.

We drove on, finally reaching a fenced building with a guard shack out front. Signage in bold red letters declared: POLICE ONLY.

“I thought you said you weren’t a cop?”

Mark shrugged as the guard recognized him and waved us through. “They let guys like me in here no problem.”

Once at the indoor range, he laid out a .38 Special revolver, 9mm pistol and .45 handgun. They felt awkward and heavy in my hands, almost impossible to hold steady, then jolting upward as each shot rang out. The concussions from Mark firing beside me made every nerve shake, so much that I accidentally muzzle swept him after finishing off my first magazine. He yelled so loudly I never made that mistake again, keeping each gun pointed strictly downrange no matter what. After we reeled the paper targets back, I stared enviously at Mark’s. Tightly clustered holes penetrated the black center. Mine scattered all over the place, except for two directly through the bull’s eye. Excitedly, I pointed those out but Mark shook his head.

“Sorry kid, I couldn’t resist.”

He stopped working for my grandmother soon afterward, but I always wondered about this strange man with incredible stories and scars from foreign violence. Of course, it might have all been fabricated. People enjoy toying with the credulity of youth, yet his tales at least possessed kernels of truth that engendered greater understanding later.

Why might Mark have carried a pistol in the Philippines during the 1980s? That time spanned almost a full century of US involvement in the region, following the 1898 Spanish-American War. Decades of bloody deployments by military forces kept the local population under control, as did eventually more covert operations using the CIA. It’s entirely possible Mark was part of those latter efforts, just as the man he allegedly killed was likely an ideological descendant of the Hukbalahop insurgency. This was a Filipino independence movement originally formed to combat Japanese occupation troops during WWII and who afterward continued fighting American soldiers who took their place.


US soldiers posing in 1906 with massacred Filipinos

Mark was the first person who taught me to shoot, but he laid the groundwork for knowledge that taught me much more. About how lies and manipulation could spur my own country into wars of conquest benefiting the wealthy, as happened when the US appropriated Cuba and the Philippines from Spain. How even decades later dictators in both countries would be propped up in furtherance of corporate interests. And how important it remains to fight back, as the Hukbalahop resistance did against injustice, no matter where it occurs.


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