David Rubin grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and moved to Milwaukee as a teenager. He did his undergraduate studies at Colgate and Northwestern, and graduate work in English and American Literature at Northwestern and Brandeis. He has taught literature, humanities, and practical writing courses at Brandeis, Boston University, and at UMass-Boston’s College of Public and Community Service, where he spent most of his academic career. Rubin especially enjoyed designing and teaching interdisciplinary courses, and worked closely with the Legal Education and Labor Studies programs at UMass-Boston.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, Rubin was a prison reform advocate and taught in Massachusetts prison programs. He was also an activist in opposition to the Vietnam War, organizing campus protests, engaging in civil disobedience and other acts of resistance to the war, and offering poetry workshops for active duty GI’s through the Common Sense Bookstore, a support and counseling center for members of the military opposed to the war, located just outside Ft. Devens, in Ayer, MA.
In addition to his teaching career, Rubin has been a common laborer and mason’s helper on construction projects, a factory hand, a kibbutz farmer, a night watchman at a downtown Boston hotel bordering the Combat Zone, a bookstore clerk, a social worker in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program then administered by the City of Boston. In the 1960’s, he also served in the U.S. Army as an infantry private.
His military experience provides the basis for this short story, “On Not Shooting a Deer with a Machine Gun,” an oblique protest piece against the proliferation of military assault-style weapons throughout American society, a problem that grows more acute by the day.
ON NOT SHOOTING A DEER WITH A MACHINE GUN
David I. Rubin, August, 2018
Ready on the Left! Ready on the Right! Ready on the Firing Line!
The concussive blast set off by a long line of 50 caliber machine guns firing all at once is deafening. The bodies of infantry trainees stretched prone behind each machine gun emplacement squirm about at first, as though we can escape the ear-piercing din, but then we settle down and squeeze off burst after burst of machine gun fire.
It’s a bright morning in September, 1961. I’m a private in the storied 94th Infantry Division, close to the end of my 6 month active duty hitch, stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and now completing Advanced Infantry Training, which is where 50 caliber machine guns come in. Heavy weapons training.
There’s a drill sergeant straddling over the body of each machine gunner in training, shouting instructions down at the soldier beneath him. Many of these sergeants are veterans of the Korean War, still the bench mark of combat experience for training up new troops. In breaks between live fire instruction, the sergeants tell us stories from the Korean War: the endless waves of Chinese Communist troops charging American lines, some of them shoeless, many carrying only dummy wooden rifles, or none at all, and how our guys cut them down with machine gun fire, sometimes only feet away, their bodies stacking up, the 50 cals smoking.
I can barely hear my drill instructor as he shouts above me, but I manage to grasp that a machine gunner doesn’t shoot at any individual target. Instead, you lay down a field of fire in the general direction of troops advancing against your lines, trying to kill or wound as many as possible, hoping to blunt or stop their advance.
Now, what they mean by a field of fire is something that stretches out in a widening arc before every machine gun emplacement. You scatter your bursts from left to right, or from right to left, and you can adjust your fire from one or two hundred yards down range to three or four hundred yards, with the deadliest zone right about midway.
The machine gun makes me a little nervous. My finger is tentative on the trigger, and I fire a couple of single rounds, as though the machine gun were just a rifle. “You’re not a sniper, Rubin!” my sergeant yells. “You’re a goddamn killing machine!”
“Go ahead,” my sergeant says, “fire off a burst.” I obey, pulling back harder on the trigger and feeling the machine gun come to life in my hands as several rounds explode in the chamber and fly down range. I squeeze the trigger again, and then again, releasing a short burst of fire each time. I’m beginning to get the feel of the machine gun, and along with it the inevitable sensation of power, the rush that runs through a soldier’s body when firing such a weapon.
The country around Ft. Dix is sandy, much of it covered with scrub pine. Using this stretch of land over the years as a machine gun firing range has taken its toll. It looks like a World War I trench warfare battlefield, the trees now merely burnt and splintered stumps, the sandy soil pockmarked from thousands of strikes by 50 caliber rounds. All up and down the firing line sergeants are bawling out instructions and trainees are firing.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a deer appears among the blackened, petrified scrub pines, and picks its way slowly, delicately out into the open. There’s no cease fire command from the tower, and yet up and down the line all firing ceases. The sight of the deer astonishes us all, causing even battle-hardened Korean veterans’ eyes to blink.
We can see at once that it’s a doe, and as we watch spellbound, she wanders about slowly, aimlessly, maybe two hundred yards down range, in the heart of the killing zone. Has she become disoriented or lost? Has she no sense of fear, stepping out of the scrub pine and toward the roar of machine gun fire? Why is she not bolting for cover?
Then the doe stops. Right in front of me. Directly in my field of fire.
Crouching over me, my sergeant screams, “Shoot that mother fucker!”
It’s an order. By now I’m well-conditioned to obey orders, and reflexively my finger tightens on the trigger. But some remnant of an inner voice cries out to me, “No, David, you don’t have to do that.”
I cock my head to the left and look up into the fierceness of my sergeant’s face. “No,” I say, “I’m not going to do that.”
The sergeant grabs me by the shoulders and drags me away from the machine gun, then drops down quickly in my place. He fires off a burst. Bullets kick up sand all around the doe, but not one strikes her. He fires a second, longer burst, but again the rounds strike all around the deer, while she stands as still as a statue, untouched.
He doesn’t fire a third time, maybe too shamed by his failures in front of the whole company and his fellow non-coms. The deer turns slowly, delicately, taking dainty steps back toward the cover of pines and disappears within them.
No more words are exchanged. There’s no need: we all know what we saw.
Scowling, muttering, my sergeant motions me to take my place again behind my weapon, and the rattle of machine gun fire resumes in fits and starts up and down the line.
I say nothing, but to myself I think, You’re not a sniper when you’re firing a machine gun, and sometimes you’re not even a goddamn killing machine.