I first saw this tourist thrill in Tallinn: come spend over 100 euro and shoot all these guns that you’ve seen in the movies like the AK-47, the cowboy’s Smith & Wesson, James Bond’s Golden Gun, the rapper’s Glock pistol, and some big fakin US military automatic assault rifle.
I’m not into guns or anything but this sounds like something I would try once just for the sake of my inner video-game addict twelve year-old self.
But I didn’t, no time maybe, or too expensive, or most likely not something that I’m really into. But it stayed with me in my mind, and ten days later when I got to Ukraine, I was given another opportunity.
A few things were different. First, it was only twenty euros and only the AK-47. This is Ukraine after all, even though I was in Lviv and a century ago this was Poland. This isn’t some fancy EU member state like Estonia. This is a country that is still tied to Russia more than Europe. (Though in Lviv speaking Russian or Polish could cause the same negative or positive reaction depending on who you’re speaking with.)
The next difference I only found out upon arrival.
I rode a city bus to the outskirts of Lviv. I found myself in a sort of countryside village. It was only me and two really old hunched-backed ladies with scarves over their heads that were still around for the last stop. I let them get off the bus first. It took forever. The fat bellied driver looked me over and then glanced out his side window huffing with disappointment as he shook his head disapprovingly.
Kurwa very mać to you too, I said to him, but he didn’t understand my linguistic joke.
This little village seemed deserted, save for a couple of scroungy looking dogs. I had the directions and they were pretty straight forward. It was down the main road and then a left on the street. I should see the sign. No problem.
Along the road there were few houses. Instead there stretched empty post-harvest fields and lazy barns with seeping roofs; the wood walls stained with metallic tears from the weather worn nails.
There was such a silence in the air that I didn’t expect. Nobody was around – those two old ladies had ducked into a cellar earlier – and there were no farm animals about either. My footsteps sounded heavy on the dirt road, and I began to wish I had called in advance.
Then finally I saw the sign. It was clever. A disassembled AK-47 in the shape of an inflated hand pointing the direction to follow with the barrel of the gun. The wooden parts engraved with the name of the shooting range. I was cursing myself for not charging my camera to take a photo of it.
Outside there were two little Russian Gorky cars; rust had eaten a hole clear through the body above the rear tire. Rust dating back to Soviet times, I’m sure.
I entered through the large barn doors into an enormously empty room. Now I had a dilemma: I don’t know how to say hello in Ukrainian. Do I scream privet or cześć ? I decide on neither. I shout out, “Hello,” but it came out sounding like a question. I heard scurrying feet approaching from behind. A lanky man stopped suddenly by the barn door I entered by kicking up a cloud of dust from the dirt floor.
He spoke Ukrainian at me. I responded shy like, “Uh, I’m here to shoot, uhm, a gun – AK-uh47.”
He looked at me quizzically and with distrust.
Then the word hit me, popped in my brain like a cartoon light bulb. I shouted, “Kalashnikov,” and mocked holding the infamous gun.
He stared at me, and once more I was being looked over. But this guy took his time. Then suddenly he roared with laughter, said, “Da, da,” and walked in front of me waving to follow.
I was led inside a passageway, a stark contrast to the room before. I was now in a narrow corridor with a short ceiling. The guy was leading practically bent in half. I grinned and was able to release some nerves.
At the end of the corridor was blinding sunlight. We had walked through the barn to an inner courtyard but with short enough walls which allowed the late afternoon sun to shine through.
There was another man there. There was a gun rack with big rifles. There was the AK-47. The first time these eyes ever saw one in real 3D. I was drawn to it like Bart Simpson at the comic store seeing the first issue of Radioactive Man.
“The gun, like?”
I turned around. The lanky man was gone. Another guy had spoke. He had a thick razor stubble beard connecting with his chest hair, and dark blue eyes. A cloud of smoke from his cigarette hung heavy over him despite being outside.
“Two-hundred fifty greev, thirty bullet.”
I’ll never forget how he pronounced the word, “bullet.” Bhulit,
I fished out two one-hundred bills and put the rest of the sweaty wad of cash in my pocket. I handed him the money. He blew smoke above my face but into my hair, and flicked the cigarette butt away.
“Kalashnikov very good. Not break. Not ever,” he said as he took the gun and loaded a magazine into it. It made more of a smacking sound then the sound effects you’re use to from watching action movies.
My adrenaline was peaking. My first loaded gun and it’s a freakin AK-47 in some barn in Ukraine! He led me to some imaginary shooting line and handed me the gun.
“Safety this,” he pointed. “Shoot this,” he pointed.
There was no bull’s-eye or dummy target. There was only only a wall. There were no bullet holes either, but I didn’t realize that this moment. I was focused on the weight of the Kalashnikov. I was pointing a loaded automatic weapon. I tried to relax, but how could I? I was about to shoot off a big gun. I could definitely kill something by accident. Like what’s on the other side if this wall, I wondered.
The man was growing impatient. “Shoot this, shoot this,” he urged me on.
Then without meaning to Goran Bregovic’s song Kalashnikov played in my head. The rhythm relaxed my nerves but made me excited.
Click went the safety. Tat tat tat, went the Kalashnikov. The pullback pushed my shoulder back which launched the last two bullets up and to the right.
I was laughing with delight. The Ukrainian was also laughing at my amateur shooting.
I lined up again. This time I squeezed longer: Tat tat tat tat. Tat tat tat. Tat tat tat tat. More or less straight. I was proud but still frightened with the kind of respect an alter boy feels around an authoritarian power. I didn’t know how many shots I had left, but was keen to shoot the last one’s off. I squeezed out the last bullets until the gun clicked at the empty chamber. I handed the warm wooden grip of the gun to the man.
“Nice shoot,” he said nodding in approval. “One more?”
I contemplated. It was amazing, such a rush. Again, maybe yes. I was taking too long to decide. He gestured with one finger pointed upwards asking me to wait a minute.
I began to pace with indecisiveness. I examined my bullet holes, and tried to think clearly about what I just did. It was difficult. My heart was thumping, tat tat – tat tat – tat tat.
Finally, the guy came back. He had a rope in his hand and attached to it was a sheep. It was mehhhhing in annoyance. The man was licking his lips in excitement.
“Live target, not much more. Shoot this. Three hundred greev,” he said.
I froze. I never killed anything on land bigger than a Daddy long-legs spider.
“After eat,” he said noticing my surprise, and gesturing a cupped hand to his mouth.
I had enough sweaty money in my pocket. It was stinking there. Burning. I reached in and gave him my last three large notes.
He smiled and nodded in approval. He tuck the gun under his arm, took the money, and went across the courtyard to tie up the sheep. He then slapped another magazine into the Kalashnikov.
I was sweating hard. I tried tapping my foot to Goran’s song but my knees were shaking too much to tap in beat.
He handed me the gun. “Shoot,” he pointed at the lame sheep.
I took aim. My hands shook, my teeth rattled out jitters. I was breathing hard but was stretching out my exhales. I counted down from twenty in my head. I squeezed the trigger on thirteen. Tat tat tat!
The sheep collapsed. The baaing sounded like crying. It was dying. I couldn’t take the screaming. I advanced on the sheep. I had to end the poor thing’s pain.
The force off the bullets spun the sheep around so that its ass was closest to me. Light peered in through the bullet holes of the wall and shone on it’s horrified, agonized facial expression.
I was in a panic, not thinking right. Not thinking at all. Just feeling guilty. I wanted to end this madness. I wish I had never came.
I went up to the sheep. It was twitching, I tried not to look at it’s eyes or face. The crying was making me upset. “Enough!” I was screaming in my head. I put the gun right up to its behind. I closed my eyes and squeezed the trigger. Tat tat tat tat tat tat. I blew smoke up that sheep’s ass, just like I’m blowing smoke up yours.