One of my first para-military courses after joining the CIA was a small-arms familiarization course. I was given driving directions to a clandestine training facility out from Washington and arrived late one Sunday afternoon for a week’s indoctrination to pistols from around the world.
Guards at the front gate of the training facility checked the name on my driver’s license against a list of people expected, gave me a map of the installation and pointed out where the barracks were located. I arrived at the housing area, received military fatigues which had my training alias, PENDY, already sewn military-like above my shirt pocket. I changed into my military togs and joined other special operations new-hires at the installation bar. Very soon thereafter Jerry Falls emerged as the quickest and most clever among us. He was ex-Special Forces/Vietnam and naturally cunning, a lawyer by education.
He told me later that night after supper as we had lounged outside smoking a cigarette that he had grown up in a tough Catholic section of Philadelphia. When he was about ten his mother insisted he take special lessons at the local parish on how to “give confession.” At the conclusion, the class lined up in a side isle of the church to go into one of several booths for their first official, church sponsored, confession of sins.
Jerry was well back in the line, waiting for others to find the pitfalls in this exercise. He knew out on the streets kids didn’t squeal if they knew what was good for ‘um. Jerry wasn’t so sure this wasn’t a set-up, plus it was very dark in those booths and talking with extreme authority figures was not inviting. He saw that the boys ahead of him would go into one of the booths and he could faintly hear in a high pitched whisper from the boy’s side, “Forgive me, mumble, mumble, mumble.” And then on the father’s side of the booth, there would be a lower pitched, inaudible response. Except in the booth of Father O’Riley, who was hard of hearing. A young boy from the class would go in and there would be his whispered opening and then from the father’s side, loudly, “YOU DID WHAT? TO YOUR BROTHER, YOU SAID WHAT? WHAT? WHAT’S A BUGGER?” Jerry hoped that when he came to the head of the line that he would not have to go into the good Father O’Riley’s booth. The father responded loudly to every boy that went in, “YOU DID WHAT? YOU SAID WHAT?”
Jerry’s time came and he was sent to Father O’Riley’s booth.
Inside it was warm from the other youngster who had been in before. And it was dark. He could hear the Father breathing through the opening of the partition that separated them. He began, “Forgive me father for I have sinned,” he said and paused. The father said in an even tone. “Yes. And?” Jerry continued to sit quietly but then said, “Actually I haven’t sinned.” The Father yelled, “YOU WHAT? WHAT?” Everyone in the church could have heard. “YOU WHAT? DON’T WASTE GOD’S TIME.” Outside people walking by the church stopped when they heard the shouting.
This made an impression on him, he said, and he didn’t go into dark rooms with strange men ever again.
This guy was funny and I sought him out the next morning when we went to the pistol range.
The instructor, a former Special Forces NCO, had dozens of foreign handguns laid out on a long table and he spent an hour going over each weapon, discussing its country of origin, its caliber, what it could and couldn’t do, where they were being used around the world. We were then offered the opportunity to take any one of the weapons to the firing line and, on command, fire them at targets mounted in front of an earthen berm 50 feet away.
We had worked our way through several of the weapons – Jerry was at the firing port to my right – when one of the trainees in our group said something dumb about keeping up our proficiency with foreign weapons. Sort of a suck-up question, asked in a stupid way. Well that’s what Jerry noticed and he brought it to my attention. He suggested that the person needed a reality jolt. The morning sun was up and many of us had taken off our fatigue tops and were in T-shirts. Jerry suggested that we get the dumb questioner’s shirt, take it down range and put it behind our targets and shoot it full of holes. We’d put it back and no one would be the wiser, until the fellow went to get dressed for lunch.
So I walked over to the fellow’s area – he was distracted firing a weapon – picked up his shirt and walked back to my place on the firing line, next to Jerry. The next time we went down range to check our targets I took the shirt and placed it on the berm behind my target. When we got back on line I began to fire the foreign weapon I had at the time, through my target, into the shirt. Time and time again I fired. One magazine, two. Jerry had put his gun back and was beside me, watching, laughing and laughing and laughing. He fell to the ground and curled his knees up to his chest in the fetal position as he laughed. Tears were running down his cheeks, he was laughing so hard.
I started to have second thoughts about my new friend Jerry because this was funny, shooting the shirt and seeing it bounce around behind my target, but it wasn’t that funny. You don’t fall down laughing over this, do you?
The next time we were allowed to go down range and check our targets, I went down and found I had been shooting my own shirt. Even the PENDY nametag had bullet holes in it. Jerry had switched them on me. I had shot maybe 15 holes in my own shirt.
I had to wear it to the mess hall for lunch. An instructor came up and told me I looked stupid. Jerry laughed and laughed.