The dead visit me in dreams, and sometimes speak with me. People have said it’s because of my heritage, that I’m African American and Native American, and that has something to do with it. I’m not so sure. In fact, I believe that most of us dream of the dearly and not-so dearly departed and are met with similar feelings: joy at seeing someone they thought they never would, and sadness at it being a dream, but most probably don’t retain their dreams and derive meaning from them as much as I do.
“Tell that story—you should tell it!” I’ve had people long dead visit me and tell me that.
“Tell that story.” I’ve been hearing it a lot from the living lately as well, from friends who have heard the funny part of the story, and from those who have heard the nasty part; this time I’ll tell it all. It’s a true story, though you’re probably reading it as “fiction.” Try not to think of it as fiction. Think of it as … “alternative facts.” It’s been difficult getting the words down, because it takes me back to a sad, hard time in my life. It’s about the first time I met the Donald, and I can almost guarantee this: after reading it, you’ll know something about the Donald that most people don’t. For years, whenever the subject of the Donald has come up, I’ve said that he’s a despicable human being, and a wretched excuse for a man, and not explaining why, but that’s not what you’ll know that you didn’t.
Of course, it’s not really a “Donald story.” The Donald (remember when we called him that?) plays a minor role in this. It’s really about my friend Eddie.
Eddie grew up in Yonkers, New York—just down the Hudson River from where I’d grown up. His family had emigrated from Poland during the 60s. No, not “emigrated.” Eddie always said that his family ESCAPED from Poland.
Eddie hated communism, the way I’ve only known people who lived under it to hate it. He’d joined the Army out of high school, went Airborne, and had served in the 10th Special Forces. He’d been trained as a sniper, among other things. When he spoke English, he sounded like he was from Yonkers, because he was, but he also spoke extremely fluent German, Polish, Czech, and Russian, and the funny thing to me was how completely his mannerisms and posture changed when he spoke those languages. He turned into a little (he was a shade over 5’8” tall) German, Czech, Pole, or Russian. I can’t say much about what he did when he was in the Army, or shortly afterward, though someone else once told me that he’d been one of the Special Forces guys sent into Tehran disguised as German businessmen ahead of the abortive hostage rescue in 1980. When I met him, Eddie had been out of the Army for a while and had another career.
Eddie was an arms dealer.
Not your “neighbor with an Federal Firearms License” arms dealer—though he had an FFL and got close friends firearms at cost—legally—and he wholesaled to gun stores: if you bought an SKS or other foreign semi-automatic rifle on the east coast in the 80s, especially a Finnish one, odds are good that it passed through Eddie’s warehouse.
Eddie was the guy you went to if you had a militia, or owned boats in Florida. Eddie was the guy who sold you tanks, flamethrowers, or a helicopter. Eddie made more than one trip to Pakistan, to transfer arms to the Afghan mujahedeen, and made at least one trip to Central America to do the same for the Contras. He supplied weapons to corporate security forces, militias, and mercenaries. He sold guns in Rhodesia, and land mines in Asia. If some people might call such a guy a villain, well, keep in mind that a great deal of his work was done with US government support, though not all of it, and I have always had villainous friends; he was not the most villainous at all. I won’t say here how we came to be friends, but I will say that we were fast friends—with similar enthusiasms and paranoias. He had a high-pitched, maniacal laugh—like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas—and I have a bass-toned guffaw, and when the two of us started laughing at something together people laughed along or got nervous and started heading for the door. We had any number of running jokes between us: “Eddie,” I’d say, “Eddie. Do you have enough non-perishable foods?” He’d reply, “Cuffs, Cuffs. Do you have enough ammo?” Then we’d almost shout, in unison, “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ENOUGH NON-PERISHABLE FOODS! THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ENOUGH AMMO!” and fill the air with his high-pitched laugh and my own guffaw.
And, boy, could Eddie shoot! I thought I was a pretty good shot, until I started shooting with him, and other people who’d done it for a living. He loved revolvers, too: “Automatics are fine if you don’t care where you spread your casings, but if you step into something nefarious, nothing beats a revolver for being able to police them.” He carried a .357 nearly all the time. The first time I saw him shoot at the range, I asked him, “Waddya, sleep with that thing?” To which he replied, “Well … YEAH!” which also became one of our running jokes; in fact, it was how we’d complement each other, and friends, on particularly good shooting, “Waddya, sleep with that thing?” with “well … YEAH!” being the standard reply. What he really excelled with, though, was a rifle—Eddie was great at long distance shooting and had even competed in the Wimbledon Cup—though he didn’t win. This was the Super Bowl for the then rarified, 1,000-yard crowd. I asked him once how good he was, and he said something about being in the “top twenty. You know, somedays I’m somewhere at the top of the bottom ten, and somedays somewhere at the bottom of the top ten, but we’re all about a hair apart, anyway, for all the difference it makes.”
I asked, “Top Twenty at the Wimbledon Cup?”
“More like the ’Simpleton Cup.’ I mean, you should see some of the optics those clowns were using, Cuffs. Those competitions are all about showing off, anyway … no, top twenty shooters in the world.”
My dad died of cancer in May of 1987, on his birthday. It wasn’t my first experience with grieving, nor, naturally, would it be my last, but at that point in my life, it was the worst. It had been hard to watch him waste from an affable 250 pounds to a comatose ninety. Between helping my Mom with her own grieving, dealing with my own feelings and taking care of my young family, most of my close friends could see me going a little crazy, and did their best to distract me: my buddy Darren marked pages in a manual to help me rebuild my first Harley, and others went on hikes with me, and generally kept me a little drunk now and then, and Eddie?
Eddie took me shooting. It’s what we’d been doing together for years, anyway.
We’d go to a rifle range, where he gave me the benefit of some of his knowledge, and it was all business. Eddie invested heavily in real estate—owned an apartment building in Yonkers where he’d turned the top four apartments into one gigantic one, and the basement into an indoor pistol range. He also had a farm, up near Pawling, New York, where he’d bulldozed out a berm with about 1200 yards clear in front of it; we’d go there and do some shooting at targets, but we’d also shoot bowling pins, old TVs, toilets, and bathtubs. “Nothin’, Cuffs, like destroyin’ some porcelain and bowling pin!” He turned me into a fair long-distance rifleman, with the adage right out of that Mel Gibson movie, “aim small, miss small.” Part of the protocol for long distance shooting is to aim at much smaller targets at shorter ranges. One thing he did was put white-tipped matches standing up in a log, and light them with a .22 pistol from about ten yards. I never quite got the knack of that one, and maybe only lit the standing match once or twice, but I sure shot a lot of matchheads off! At one range, though, I got a certified zero at six hundred yards with my Husqvarna .30-06.
Long distance shooting is hard, and not for everyone. You’re really shooting at the target with a parabolic flight path, like an artillery round. The drop for the .30-06 is almost thirty feet at 1000 yards, so all other things being equal, you’re actually aiming at (or “through”) a point thirty feet above the target—by “all other things being equal,” I mean stuff like altitude, barometric pressure, and, to a lesser degree, relative humidity and the rotational direction of the bullet. It requires some math to drop the round into the target, under conditions where a slight crosswind might push the bullet two feet or more off target. Of course, these days, there’s an app for that—several in fact—but back then you kept a notebook and a calculator handy (still do keep a notebook if you’re any kind of serious) and worked out what your load should do. Eddie liked that I had a facility for taking the data and doing the calculations in my head, and I found the practice appealed to my engineer’s aesthetic—I don’t think it’s as hard as hitting a goose flying 100 yards over head at close to 45 mph, but it does require more precision. Eddie had talked about his rifle club further upstate—and how it had the only civilian 1000-yard range within easy distance; he sometimes taught shooting there to police snipers and … others, and often sold members guns as well. In October of 1987, he suggested we go up there—it was the only place I could get certified scores at 1000 yards, and he was sponsoring me for membership. “We’re going to take Isabella up there, Cuffs, and do a little showing off.”
About “Isabella”: It’s not that Eddie was one of those weirdos that names his weapons … I mean, yeah, he was, like me, weird and proud of it, and he did name weapons, but that was because, like me, he was paranoid. He gave various weapons nicknames so that he couldn’t be incriminated on tape. Thus, it was that all shotguns were some variation of “Shakespeare,” and different classes of pistols had different names as well—too many to list here, after all this time. I never did know what he called things like rockets and helicopters, or friggin’ landmines, though I remember that he called claymore mines “paint brushes.” Anyway, there weren’t too many .50 BMG (Browning Machine Gun) long distance rifles on the civilian market back in 1987; in fact, I don’t remember any before Eddie. Now, of course, everyone is familiar with the .50 caliber Barretts from movies, and there are more than a dozen different models on the market that can be had by anyone for around $3000 brand new. Eddie had gotten a couple of cases of Iver-Johnson AMAC 1500s as partial payment for some service he’d rendered and was looking to get quite a bit of money for them. Isabella was the only name I knew the reason for, with the exception of “Mr. Shakespeare.” (“You ever seen what a couple of shells of buckshot will do to a room full of bad guys, Cuffs? Sheer poetry!”) Eddie had named the rifle after a former girlfriend of his. At nearly four and a half feet long, with the military rather than the civilian muzzle suppressor, having a sturdy bipod, weighing around thirty pounds with the scope, and the recoil and loudness of the .50 caliber round firing, the name was appropriate, though it would wind up being applied to all .50 caliber rifles by Eddie, and some of them were and are quite a bit more user friendly. In fact, it was hardly practical—a bench rest weapon made for destroying material like vehicles, missiles, and fuel tanks. It was accurate, though. I don’t think there was any such thing as a match grade .50 BMG round back then, but Eddie did a fair job of hand loading; at least, I thought it was a fair job, but what did I know? Except, of course, that the out-of-the-box stuff seemed to be a little less accurate and consistent than his. We’d spent a few days that summer playing with Isabella up at his farm, and now he was ready to start selling some.
On the appointed day, Eddie picked me up in his jeep. It was around 4:30 a.m., and we had a drive ahead of us that was a little less than three hours—maybe closer to two, but we wanted to get there on time. We stopped at a deli and picked up a couple of coffee regulars, and a couple of ham and eggs on a roll.
As we wound our way up US-9, our conversation wandered over a variety of topics: the odd weather we’d had that past week, with late summer conditions followed by an October surprise blizzard, followed by more warm weather. We talked about the Mets’ prospects for next season, after they’d delivered a real letdown that season. For the umpteenth time, Eddie berated me for being a Yankees fan, because everybody’s a little racist (as a black man in New York, I was “supposed” to be a Mets fan, because the Yankees were among the last teams to integrate). He talked about the Pope. Eddie was a staunch Catholic (I think that’s part of the reason his family fled Poland) and was very proud of the Pope being Polish. As was usual, he kept trying to converse with me in Russian and German, to get me to use my fractured, State Department-sponsored college Russian, and my less-than-adequate German. “Practice your Russian and German, Cuffs! One day, the Iron Curtain will fall, the Berlin Wall will come down, and there’ll be lots of money to be made!” (Eddie was constantly trying to get me to go into business with him. I sometimes wondered if he wanted to hide behind my brown skin in places like Pakistan). For my part, I kept Eddie amused with a near-constant patter about how US-9 and its various arteries along the Hudson followed old native trading and hunting paths, even to where US-9 became Broadway in Manhattan—which meant, in Algonquian, “the place where we got drunk last night.” (This last being an old family joke.) I told him how the Taconic Parkway came from an Algonquian word meaning “lives in the pines,” and told him that no one knew if it referred to a tribe, or porcupines, who also lived in the pines. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was engaging in a long-standing family practice of tying places to words and stories, like leaving breadcrumbs along the way, just like my father had, and the generations of Cuffee navigators before him. Eddie knew about my native and maritime heritage; he had even been to my cousins’ powwow, on the Shinnecock reservation, and knew about my colonial ancestor, the mariner Paul Cuffee. “People talk about roots, Cuffs, but you got, like, ROOTS!” Having immigrated (ESCAPED!) from a place where everyone was the same, Eddie liked the diversity of New York and Yonkers. I think, too, that having left his own roots an ocean away, he liked having a friend who had deep roots on the shores where he’d landed. Of course, what we really talked about most was WTSHTF, and TEOTWAWKI ….” (“When the Shit Hits the Fan” and “The End of the World as We Know It.”) Like I said, Eddie and I had similar paranoias, and we were both certain that we’d live to see the downfall of society; we just didn’t always agree on what would precipitate it, or what form it might take, or even how best to prepare for it, though we both agreed that “THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ENOUGH NON-PERISHABLE FOODS! THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ENOUGH AMMO!” I stressed a “tribal” approach—that having community connections beforehand would be important, since people would group themselves that way afterwards anyway, and it would be better to make those choices ahead of time. Eddie was more of a lone-wolf. “Cuffs, I’ll stick it out at the farm—or maybe, maybe after I get that last big deal, I’ll settle in a mountain lodge or on a beach in Florida with Collette from Valmet …”
As we neared our destination and the sun came up, I was dazzled by the beauty of the Hudson Valley, and upstate New York, in autumn. I’ve been all over the world and seen all sorts of natural beauty. I’ve lived in New Mexico, the Land of Entrapment … er, Enchantment, for nearly twenty years now. It’s been as long since I’ve seen the hills of New York in autumn, spattered with color and looking like God had taken his palette and gone all Jackson Pollock on them, and in all that time I’ve seen nothing to compare. It was shaping up to be a pip of a morning for an upstate autumn day—clear and sunny. When we got to the rifle club, we got out and stood a while, stretching. “Cuffs,” Eddie said, “this is dead air. I’ll bet there’s not a bit of wind. Waddya figure the temperature is, fifty degrees?” I offered that it was a little less right then, and that the wind would likely come up in the afternoon, with higher temperatures.
“The wind is the tail of the sun,” I said.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Just old family sailor talk.”
“I love that stuff! ROOTS! This is a perfect dead shot day,” he continued, “Remember we’re just here to show off. I’ll maybe sell some rifles to some shooters, then freaks—the freaks are gonna love Isabella! Then I’ll wholesale the rest to the gun shops. The real buyers that will pay my top-dollar price will be here though, Cuffs.” I promised I wouldn’t let him down. I was a little uneasy about the whole endeavor—Eddie was mostly color blind when it came to racial issues, and the denizens of Albany county weren’t known at the time for being particularly friendly to black people, or that’s what I thought, at least, being from downstate, and black.
We made our way to the fieldhouse for a briefing before our day of shooting. Eddie introduced me to the range master for that day—he was filling out targets and signing them for certification and had to see my 600-yard certified in order for me to shoot 1000 yards that day. Among the shooters, there were a few cops, and some ex-military guys, and Collette from Valmet, Eddie’s girlfriend who worked for the Finnish arms manufacturer at their US headquarters in Purchase, New York.
Oh, and the Donald.
This was “The Donald,” all of forty years old, fit, no evidence of any “combover,” and his skin was properly flesh-toned. He and his shooting partner/instructor/bodyguard(?) were wearing matching L.L. Bean shooting jackets, which I thought was kinda cute, but whatever. This was before his getting completely ripped-off by a talk-show host, the affairs in the papers, the divorce, the second marriage, the second divorce, the third marriage, professional wrestling, the bankruptcies, or reality television even existing beyond a few talk shows. He was the darling of the gossip columns and Studio 54. After going head-to-head with the NYC mayor, he was, in many ways, the king of New York. I found him to be polite, soft-spoken, and kind of charming. He had this air about him, though, that I’d seen before; I’d been noticing it ever since boarding school: he looked like he’d spent his life safe and secure, wrapped in the arms of daddy’s money. This wasn’t a bad thing or a good thing, in and of itself, just an observation, like the way I’d notice a person who could run fast, or throw a hard punch, or do figures in their head—or more like the way I’d recognize a cop or military man in plainclothes. Neither good nor bad, such a sense of security could lead to a life of public service, like a Rockefeller, Kennedy, or like that of my family’s friend, Bishop Paul Moore. Or it could lead to a life in pursuit of more wealth, or a life in pursuit of pleasure. It could lead to a happy career of fame and respect, like Anderson Cooper’s or Julia Louise-Dreyfus’. It could also lead to a life spent as though there were no consequences for one’s actions-as long as daddy’s money was there to get you out of trouble—and you could wind up drunkenly urinating on a sleeping fourteen-year-old boy, or nearly putting out your music teacher’s eye, or you could commit murder, like Robert Durst is alleged to have, and think you could get away with it—and maybe you would. It all depended upon how you were raised, and the content of your character. I knew nothing then about the Donald’s upbringing, and hadn’t seen anything that would impeach the content of his character. As for Eddie, he was beside himself. Eddie invested in real estate a lot—his farm near Pawling and the apartment building where he lived in Yonkers were just two such investments. As a fledgling real estate tycoon, he looked to the Donald as a sort of role model—the quintessential American capitalist, and his face just lit up and waved the flag to see the man and talk to him.
The briefing covered safety rules, range conduct (they close a road to fire at 1000 yards but have to watch for people who don’t heed it) and weather. Interestingly, he reported the wind conditions at 1-5 miles per hour from the northeast. I looked over at Eddie, and he just shook his head and winked. We were given firing point assignments, “You fellas with the damn cannon get to firing point one.” Guess who else got assigned to firing point 1? The Donald and his partner. The Donald didn’t seem too happy about that, for some reason, though he was curious about what was in the hard case (more like a box with a handle than a rifle case) that we had with us.
We got to our firing point while staff volunteers drove our targets out and set them up. Eddie and I were going to shoot first, which apparently didn’t make the Donald happy either. We tried to make small talk while we were waiting, and he offered a friendly wager on our scores. “Nah, it’s Cuffs’ first time scoring at this range, and I don’t wanna take your money, Mr._______” Rather than just laughing it off, the Donald seemed a little put out by this, but Eddie pretty much didn’t care for competition except against himself … or watching sports.
So, Eddie and I canned the small talk, and proceeded to set up. The way this was done then (and still is, I think) is that you’d shoot, and your partner would watch the target with a spotting scope and keep a scorecard for you. In between rounds, the volunteers would drive out and swap targets, and paperclip the scorecards to them. Then it would be the other pair’s turn, and so on through the morning. Later, the cards would be compared with the targets, and your final scores certified by the range master.
I was shooting first, and Eddie was coaching me along, with what I’d come to think of as his “sniper’s whisper.” It was really just an intense, quiet monotone, out of the side of his mouth, and it was a pain to listen to with hearing protection on and shots going off, but it was quiet right then … “Cuffs,” he said, handing me a pair of binoculars, “glass the grass a couple hundred yards out. Now glass those trees. Turn around slow and look at the green flag? See anything moving at all? Dead air. 1-5 mph wind my ass: don’t click any windage. A couple of things—that embankment’s sluffed off a little; they’ll groom it back after the winter, but right now those targets are closer to 990 yards out than 1000—check with your rangefinder. See? A lot of these guys are gonna be so eager to shoot that they’ll miss that and bring their first shots in just a little too high—and I’ll bet way too far to the left, anticipating a crosswind that’s just not there yet.” Then the green flag came down, a red flag went up, they blew an air horn, and it was time to shoot. I was shooting prone, and Eddie said, “You zeroed, Cuffs? No windage, correct elevation? Send it.” And not quite like that, I had put the first of many bullets through a ten-inch ring on an eighteen-inch target, a little more than half a mile away. “That’s money, Cuffs! Send four more just like it, and I’ll take my turn.” I was always a better shot when Eddie was coaching, and I never shot better at that distance than I did on that day—as for Eddie, he didn’t need any coaching from me, especially after his first shot, and he pretty much shot perfect scores all day, with a Springfield M14, almost like the one he’d used in the Army. At one point, I heard the Donald’s partner say, “Hey, these guys are good …” When we finished that first round the air horn blew, the green flag went back up, and it was time for the other shooters to get ready to approach their firing lines.
Being a good sport, Eddie tried telling the Donald, “Zero windage right now, Mr. _____” but the Donald only replied, “What, do I look stupid to you?!” while, for some reason, staring daggers at me. The Donald took his first shot, and it came in about four inches high, and about as much to the left, from that wind that wasn’t blowing 1 mph (if he’d dialed windage for 5, he’d have missed completely) and the last five feet that weren’t there … he muttered a little, Eddie rolled his eyes at me, and proceeded to watch Collette and some guy over at the number four firing point, who Eddie said was “really, really, good.” That’s how the morning went, pretty much; we shot a round sitting and a round standing, but I noticed most others didn’t. This was “practice,” after all, not a competition. While the Donald’s marksmanship did improve accordingly, he still stared daggers at me whenever we swapped. I figured it was because I was shooting nearly as well as Eddie, but pretty much dismissed it.
Towards 11 a.m., at what was going to be our last round, Eddie said, “Let’s get Isabella out, Cuffs.” We opened up the case, which clam-shelled about halfway up each side, revealing the rifle standing on its bipod, and took it out with a box of ammo that sure felt like it weighed more than the rifle did, because it did by about fifteen pounds!
The rifle got a lot of attention, and rightly so, but it’s a clunky thing. The bolt completely withdraws, and you load a round into the bolt’s holder, then load the whole bolt in, fire, and remove the bolt to eject/remove the empty casing. Eddie and I switched order here, and he fired at his target first, prone. We waited until everyone else was almost done on the other firing lines, which, of course, kind of upset the Donald, but then Eddie fired. Between the noise of it firing and its appearance, the rifle did get a lot of attention. When Eddie and I swapped, I noticed that there was a small crowd behind our firing point, and the Donald, not quite staring daggers, but clearly annoyed—I chalked it up to his not having taken his last turn yet.
So, I’ve talked about the Donald that was, and a little about the Eddie that was. I should say something about the me that was. I’d been a sickly child, but years of judo and karate training from the age of eleven, and weightlifting, and a short period of training with a genuine vaudeville strongman had turned me into something of a beast. On the job as a nuclear power plant operator, I was known for lifting 55-gallon drums of oil, operating large valves by myself that usually required teams, and occasionally showing off by bending pieces of rebar or twisting horseshoes. In college, I’d been a bouncer, and was known for foolishness like wading into a melee against as many as five guys or lifting cars up and rolling them like wheelbarrows. Back then, people frequently said “He ain’t human!” when talking about me … if there’s one lesson from the Donald we can all take away, it’s that the passing of years makes almost all of us into bloated, discolored parodies of our younger selves. While I still have ridiculously long arms that reach my knees, and have the same lovely peanut-butter skin tone, and I haven’t gotten especially fat, four life-threatening blood clots, an amputation, and a close brush with the same cancer that took my dad that year, have all pretty much made it so that some days I might have difficulty twisting open a jar of pickles, never mind twisting a horseshoe! On that day, though, while I was a family man, and years away from the barroom melee foolishness of my past, I was just as strong as I’d ever been. Even stronger. So, I said to Eddie, “Let’s sell this thing,” and he asked me if I was sure. In way of reply I adjusted the elevation on Isabella’s sights, stood up, brought the rifle up to my shoulder and fired a round downrange. Eddie and I had developed several routines around this: Eddie had taken a knee when I stood up, and after firing, I lowered the weapon to the height of my knees, extracted the bolt and handed it to Eddie, who removed the spent casing, inserted a fresh round, and handed back to me. I inserted the bolt, raised the rifle to my shoulder and fired again. Both shots had been acceptably on target, and the small crowd behind us gave a smattering of polite applause. I glanced down at Eddie, who gave me a wink and a wry grin—it bugged him to no end that he couldn’t fire the weapon standing, but we’d done our “showing off.”
So, the reason we had a ready assignment for “that damn cannon” was because our target backstop had been beefed up, as per Eddie’s instructions weeks before. As it turns out, this was probably the last time any .50 BMG was fired at that rifle club, because we did a little more damage than Eddie had expected, or they had prepared for, and there were concerns about the rounds traveling beyond the range … they’re banned at that club today.
Back at the field house, the Donald was given time to say a few words as the scores were being tallied and posted. He said, basically, that he’d enjoyed the day as he enjoyed “all my shooting activities,” but that it was important to him that those activities not be made public, and for us not to say anything about his presence there. (Well, I didn’t sign any non-disclosure statement, so fuckyouverymuch to the Donald!). Then he told us he’d be giving us autographed advance copies of his book, which was coming out next month. So we all lined up at a table, where there were stacks of the book … When I got up there, he gave me a look and asked, “Are you gonna read this?”
“Yes sir. I’ve already reserved it at the library.”
“The lie-berry?” He actually said it that way—I didn’t, I don’t, and I think most of the time, neither does he.
”Do you go to the ‘lie-berry’ a lot, then?”
“Every week or two. I’m really looking forward to reading your chapter on the _____________,” naming a project he’d done for New York City.
Here, he went from disdainful and suspicious to shocked, and asked, “You know about that? How do you know about that?”
“News and the Times, every day, just like my dad and his dad before him.”
“I’m more of a Post man, myself,” he replied.
“Yeah. ‘Page Six,’ huh?” I said, referring to the Post’s gossip column, and I finally got a smile out of the guy, and maybe even a chuckle, and he signed his book for me: “Shoot straight!”
When he was done signing books, he looked up at the scores, then he went over to where Eddie was, at a table where we had set up Isabella on its bipod, with a few of Eddie’s business cards held down by one of those enormous .50 BMG rounds.
“Can I see that?” the Donald asked. “Sure,” Eddie replied, handing him one of his cards, then hefting the rifle up and pulling out the bolt, “that’s why we brought her. Meet Isabella.”
The Donald took the rifle, and raised it to his shoulder, and tried to peer through the sight. “Heavy,” he muttered.
“Not like that, Mr.______,” Eddie said. “That’s pretty strictly a bench weapon.”
“He fired it standing,” the Donald replied, gesturing towards me with his chin.
“Yeah but look at him. He lifts cars for kicks—he ain’t human!” Eddie replied.
The Donald just nodded, and said “I’ve been looking all over for one of these … how did you get this?”
Eddie gave his usual song and dance about connections, but it sounded like the Donald already had some info on him already. He asked a really, really rude question: “Did you ever kill anyone?” Eddie hated crap like this, and I could see him pause for a second before he replied, “Not with one of these,” taking his rifle back. The Donald said, “That cannon is the only reason you guys scored higher than I did.”
Another thing about Isabella: that bipod disqualified our scores under match rules, which required supporting the rifle without aid. Though there is a class that allows bags and bipods for 1000 yards now, I don’t think it existed then. We really were there just to show it off. I’d had about enough of “the Donald,” though, and had to bite back a reply along the lines of, “Hey, DOUCHEBAG! We got better scores with my dad’s twenty-year-old deer rifle and the rifle Eddie’s been married to since he was nineteen,” but I didn’t want to ruin what looked to be a potentially big sale for Eddie, who turned out to be a master of the verbal “pivot,” long before I knew the term, and had an opportunity to do so when his girlfriend came up to him, and gave him a big old hug. “Hey, it’s Collette from Valmet! Mr._____ this is my girlfriend. She scored a little better than you, and with the same rifle—you’ve both got Sakos in .300 Winmag.”
About Collette from Valmet: In addition to being an engineer for Valmet, and an Olympic shooter, she was also a spokesmodel for the company at trade shows, which is how she and Eddie met. She was blonde, tall, and gorgeous. So was her friend. It all would have been fine for everyone, but then he screwed up and, in his best Studio 54 leering lounge lizard manner, said, “Yeah, she sure did. Waddya do, sleep with that thing?”
To which all four of us replied, in unison, “Well … YEAH!!”
… and proceeded to fill the air with my guffaw, Eddie’s high-pitched maniacal laugh, and two sets of female titters. Laughter is contagious: the people standing nearby who heard what made us laugh started laughing with us, and those that were further away were at least smiling, if not laughing; everyone was laughing, except for the Donald. He was getting red under the collar and in the face, and his eyes were bulging a little, and he was clenching and unclenching his hands … it was then, and only then, that I noticed his hands—I wouldn’t have said they were “small,” more like they were delicate. He has short fingers, though—but I could see the signs, and he wanted to take a poke at someone. I angled my body, anticipating that he might, but his instructor/partner/bodyguard saw the same thing, put his hand on his shoulder and simply said, “Mr._____? It’s time to go.” Like that, the Donald said, “I’m OUTTA HERE.” Eddie reminded him to give him a call if he wanted to buy a rifle. “Hey Mr.____, call me if you wanna buy Isabella here.” And the Donald replied, “Oh, I’m gonna call you, all right.” And then he left, like lots of people did in those days, when the two of us got to laughing.
So the rest of us shook hands all around, then loaded our gear in Eddie’s Wagoneer, told Collette and her partner we’d take a slight detour, and meet them at the Roscoe Diner for a late lunch. Eddie and I got in the jeep and left. Eddie didn’t say anything for a while, and, for a change, neither did I. Finally, he says, “The Donald. I think that guy’s a little crazy, Cuffs.” We both laughed, and resumed our normal conversation about WTSHTF and TEOTWAWKI, and his upcoming first deer hunt that weekend.
So that was the first time I met the Donald, who was kind of a jerk, sore-loser rich guy, and maybe crazy or borderline crazy, and probably a little racist. I’ve told that story for nearly thirty years, and almost always left out the book-signing, and ended it with the punchline, and his storming out, but that’s not all there is to the story.
I was surprised when Eddie called me not two days later, and he did it because the Donald did indeed call him, but not until after the rifle club management had, and, after the Donald called, Eddie called me. It seems that the Donald had had a rather irate conversation with the club management, insisting that Eddie be thrown out. When they made it clear that they simply weren’t going to do that (world class shooter, taught cops and … others, got members firearms at cost) well, the Donald had apparently switched to pushing even harder for having me excluded from membership. Maybe some members would have been a little put out at having a dark-skinned guy from downstate become a member, but they were apparently even more put out at having some rich fella from downstate telling them what to do, and they let Eddie know directly that I’d be welcomed to join.
Then Eddie, who was a paranoid in a paranoiac business, and taped almost all his calls, played his conversation with the Donald for me, after cautioning me about the language. I’ll leave out most of the details: suffice to say that I heard the Donald lean heavily on Eddie to retract his support for my membership, and Eddie being resistant. Eddie talking about what an intelligent guy he thought I was, and what I did for a living, and the Donald talking about how “I can’t believe you’re showing someone like that how to be a sniper!” and Eddie replying (truthfully) “There’s more to sniper craft than shooting from a long distance, Mr. ____” to which the Donald replied, “Whatever.” Finally, though, the Donald cracked and said:
“You know, I travel for hours looking forward to a nice day of shooting in the country, and I don’t expect to see someone like that—I see enough of his kind in the city. Your friend looks like some kind of nigger to me, and the only way I want to see a nigger in the woods with guns is if I’m the one with guns and I’m chasing him with dogs, okay?”
Eddie stopped the tape there, and in a small, quiet hurt voice, asked, “Why did he say that, Cuffs?”
Now, I was twenty-seven years old. I hadn’t heard of that word until I was eight years old, and by then my parents had prepared me for it: we’d moved from an apartment in NYC, and an exclusive private school, out to “the country”—well, Westchester county, and pretty decent public schools—where I’d be one of three black kids, with one of the others being my younger brother. They were pretty sure I was going to hear that word, and I did.
Of course I did.
In the years since then, I’d heard it plenty. I’d heard black people use it, I’d heard white people use it, I’d heard it used like it was okay, or affectionate, or just a normal word. I’d heard it used (misused?) by innocents and people for whom English was a second language. I’d laughed at Richard Pryor using it. I’d even heard my own father use it disdainfully, when speaking of a “certain ‘class’ of negro.” I’d heard friends use it about others, about each other, and about me. By the time I was twenty-seven, I’d gotten to the place where, to me, that word—like most other words—was all about intent. If a person didn’t mean anything by it, or it was another black person carelessly using it, I’d quietly and as gently as I could tell them that I didn’t like that word, and didn’t want to hear it, especially in reference to me. That’s what I still do … along with my occasional joke about “African-American Engineering,” instead of the more familiar expression some use for jury-rigging something, or the other joke I make about “convening a meeting of the Society of African American nuclear ENGINEER,” when I go to the bathroom.
There’s another way I’d heard that word, though, one that I’m always on the lookout for, and that’s when it was used to express hatred—and that’s what I heard on that tape. This was, well, not a “little racist,” the way “everyone is.” This was … something else.
Still, this is about Eddie—a guy who’d come to this country as a political refugee. An immigrant—and not a “legal” one, but that’s another story. A guy who waved the American flag with his face every time he said “America,” or “United States,” who’d come of age in a diverse environment, with Chinese, Korean, Slavic, Slovak, Polish, Czech, Russian, Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Dominicans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and plain old “blacks,” ‘cause we weren’t “African Americans” yet, but we were all Americans, and all of us were Americans to him.
Eddie. Eddie was not even a “little” racist.
When he watched the Mets, he rooted just as hard (and maybe harder!) for Daryl Strawberry as Lenny Dykstra. His dad had been an engineer in Poland but got a job on the GM assembly line in Tarrytown, New York, and bought a house, fed his family, had nice cars, nice things, medical care, put his daughter through college, went back to school himself and wound up an engineer for GM before he retired. “We have it way better here than we did in Poland, Cuffs!” and that was the America Eddie believed in with all his heart. Eddie had joined the Army for that “America,” and, when I’d asked him about it, said, “Nah. The Army pretty much squeezed whatever racism there was out of me. You hear a lot of crap about dying for your country or dying for your flag. Lemme tellya something, Cuffs. Soldiers kill and die for the same thing they always have: each other, and we were all the same color: green, and we all bled the same color blood.”
Once, on a boat, I’d seen him in a bathing suit, and I saw the bullet wounds and scars he carried under the Mets jacket he wore most of the time. I don’t know how he got them, but I know this: every one of them bled red, white, and blue. To Eddie, “America” was truly the land of opportunity, where anyone—anyone!—could pursue happiness and prosperity. For some dumb reason, the Donald embodied that freedom to him; he was some sort of hero to him, and, with his hateful use of that word, he’d hurt my friend deeply, and shown him what a lie the idea of “anyone” was to some people. For thirty years now, I’ve been saying that the Donald is “a despicable human being,” and “a wretched excuse of a man,” and it was for this—not his mere use of that word, which I’d heard so many times before and so many times since—but for what he’d carelessly done to my friend. I may not doubt the legitimacy of anyone’s status to hold office, but I’ve got a pretty clear picture of when they forfeit their status to me as a human being.
So I crossed my fingers, and I told my friend a fib. “He probably was trying to off-balance you to make a deal for Isabella,” I said, “you did sell him one, didn’t you Ed?”
“You think so?”
“Sure! It’s probably right out of that book we got!”
“Well, doom on him then, Cuffs! Check this out!”
Eddie played the rest of tape for me. He really was a master of the verbal pivot before they invented the term, or, at least he had mastered changing the subject in a way that made it known plainly that the previous subject was closed. Eddie asked the Donald about “meeting Isabella, his friend from the range,” and the Donald asked how much, and Eddie offered an absurd price—thousands more than he was thinking the retailers would eventually get, and the Donald said he’d send his man up with a check. So Eddie ripped off the Donald royally for not one, but three rifles!! When I eventually did see one of the rifles in a store months later, it was priced at just a hair over $10,000—maybe only $3000 less than the Donald paid for each of his. “‘Ask for more than you want’—I took it right out of his book, Cuffs!” This led to another of our call and response jokes, where one of us would ask, “Donald _________?” and the other would shout, “WHATTA CHUMP!”
I can’t prove any of this, of course; it was thirty years ago. In this I’m not unlike those hapless women who came forward to say that the Donald groped them: I have no proof, other than the story. The range master and rifle club officers were mostly in their late sixties and early seventies and are surely dead. I can’t contact anyone else who was there—I didn’t know them. I don’t even have my signed copy of that book anymore, which is a shame, considering what autographed first editions are getting—I can’t even guess what a signed galley-copy would get. The tape was a tape—not digital media—and Eddie most likely rerecorded several other conversations over it, and eventually discarded it. And Eddie himself? Well, Eddie was right; the Iron Curtain did fall, the Berlin wall came down, and it was off to the races to make a lot of money for him. I saw less and less of him, and when I did, he was usually wearing a suit, instead of the field jackets or Mets jackets and T-shirts that were his customary attire—and talking about being closer to that “last big deal.” Finally, I didn’t see him at all: I tried calling and got the answering machine. I went by his apartment and found a bunch of mail on the hall table; I figured that was bad. Went by his farm, and found the gate locked and the house boarded up; I didn’t know if this was a good sign or a bad one. I contacted the few friends and acquaintances we had in common, or that he’d introduced me to, and no one had heard from him, until the last one I spoke with suggested that maybe I wasn’t going to hear from him again, and should probably stop looking for him, so I did. I don’t like to imagine my friend wasting away in some eastern European or Russian prison, or dead somewhere—or worse—so, up until recently, when I did think of him, I pictured him having finished that last big deal, and retired on a beach somewhere-maybe with Colette from Valmet.
Anyway, I said that you’d know something about the Donald that you didn’t know before, and now you do. Not that he’s a racist, misogynist, sexist, hyperbolist. Not that he’s a sore loser, or a loudmouthed braggart, and serial groper, and the son of a Klansman and German-American Bund member.
You knew all that, and, yet, here we are.
In the months and years to come we’re probably gonna learn lots about the Donald that he never wanted us to know, and we never wanted to know, like about money Russian oligarchs (read, Russian mob) have invested in his businesses, or his friendships with even less savory characters. Maybe we’ll get to hear tapes or see video of him saying vile, sexist, and racist things, and maybe we’ll even get to see his tax returns.
Eventually, though, someone will uncover what you know now, that you probably didn’t before: that the Donald has—or once had—what some people would think of as an edgy hobby, and he was pretty good at it: good enough to score within a hair of an Olympian and one of the “twenty best shots in the world.” Some enterprising reporter will dig it up, or someone he’s told about it will mention it, if they haven’t already. The Donald likes to brag; maybe he’ll reveal it himself. I can just hear him: “I’m the best shot—the best. My bullseyes are the bullsyest ever!” or “I know more about sniper craft than the snipers, okay?” You’ll hear he is or was a helluva shooter, and you’ll remember you heard it here first, and if that’s true, then what else is?
So what does it mean? In this new era of “alternative facts,” it means whatever you want it to, I suppose. I know what it means to me. The dead come to me in dreams, after all—they do, and I wake up in tears from the most powerful of those dreams. What does that mean? Well, whatever you want it to, I suppose. If you choose, like some of my friends will, to give it mystical meaning, well, it’s mystical. If you choose, as other friends will, to give it psychological significance, then it’s scientific. As an engineer who embraces the mystical, I can firmly say that to me it’s both, which brings up another possibility, that it’s purely psychological, and I’m nucking futz.
Be that as it may, when I dreamt of my father coming home while I was mowing the lawn, and pointing to the spots I’d missed, I woke up in tears, knowing I had missed a few details on a project I was working on, and went back and found them. Maybe a visit from dad, maybe subconscious processing … and when I dreamt of my sister, and told her I didn’t want her to leave, and she hugged me and said that she didn’t want to leave, I woke up in tears. Maybe a visit and last good bye from my sister, maybe subconscious processing after her sudden death from a short illness. And I even recently dreamt of my childhood friend Pat O’Neill, dead from cancer for five years now, sitting at my table drinking the beer I’ve owed him since college, smiling and ruddy with mirth. He was wearing a red T-shirt and a white suit, with the jacket sleeves rolled up like Don Johnson in Miami Vice. I never saw him dressed that way when he was alive. If you knew nothing about my health history the last few years, you wouldn’t need to be a Freudian to know what I was “processing” there. Not to fear, though: my most recent doctor visit tells me that I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, except maybe shopping.
See, not too long ago, I got up from bed to go to the bathroom, around 3 a.m., the way I always do, then I went to the kitchen to get a drink, the way I always do, and found Eddie sitting at the table, wearing his Mets jacket and sunglasses. I was glad to see him, and sad at the same time, the way I always am in those dreams, but even more sad this time, because I knew that it meant that I’d accepted what I’d known in my heart of hearts for twenty-five years: that he’d probably never made it to that mountain lodge or sunny beach with Colette from Valmet, and I knew exactly why he’d come to visit.
“Donald ________,” I said. “WHATTA CHUMP!” he answered, and we both laughed like we had all those years ago.
“I know ya fibbed about him, Cuffs” he said. “Dickhead tried to get me kicked out of the club I‘d belonged to since I was at the Arsenal! Thanks for trying, though.”
“You were always kind to me,” I said.
He took off his sunglasses, looked me in the face, and said, “Tell that story. You should tell it,” and then, in his sniper’s whisper he said, “There’s no such thing as enough non-perishable foods, Cuffs. There’s no such thing as enough ammo,” and I woke up, with tears in my eyes.
Now I’ve told that story, and I’ll be going shopping for a few more bags of pinto beans, and a few more bags of rice, maybe some canned tuna and some bullets, because—well, you know.
Jeff Cuffee is a nuclear engineer who grew up in New York, and worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory and various power projects around the US. He is a martial artist, knifemaker, writer, and poet, whose poems have appeared in The Sun and Grue. He is the direct descendant of freed pre-colonial slaves who intermarried with local Native Americans in New England and New York, and his ancestor was the early American mariner, Paul Cuffee. He has called the desert southwest home for twenty-five years.