Photo credit: Olivia J. Houlahan
“You ever been shot at?” the man with the gun asks me.
“Not so far,” I tell him with a small laugh.
He nods. “Do you want to be?”
It takes me a few moments before I realize the man holding the assault rifle is not joking.
He pushes a fresh 20-round magazine into the bottom of the Colt AR-15 and chambers a round. “Go up there,” he says, nodding in the direction of a tall hillside at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains.
I squint up at the dry grass and dirt and then grin. “Absolutely.”
Jerry Baker is that peculiar Southern California mix of hyperkinetic energy and laid-back attitude all at the same time. His enthusiasm and passion for firearms is as impressive as his knowledge. Baker is like an owner’s manual come to life. Which is great, but I’ve already read the operator’s manual for the assault rifle Baker his holding. For a writer, what Jerry Baker is offering me now is better than anything I can get from a Google search.
The reason I have come to Jerry Baker’s weapons range at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s training academy has to do with the research I am conducting for a book about the 1980 Norco Bank Robbery, one of the most violent events in law enforcement history. A central theme of the incident — a one-hour firefight, running gun battle, and ambush in which three were killed, almost twenty wounded and thirty-three police vehicles damaged or destroyed — is how woefully outgunned the cops were that day. If I am going to spend half of a 400-page book trying to get the reader to not just understand, but really feel, what it is like to take fire from a weapon like the AR-15, I figure I better do everything I can to know how it feels myself.
Almost all stories require a writer to delve into alien worlds of some sort, whether subjects, historical figures, subcultures, occupations, locations, or even objects. When an author sets off to research something like that, she should be prepared to dive deep. Susan Orlean
was no orchid thief when she began her bestseller of the same name, but she sure got close to it by shadowing one for almost two years: “I certainly never imagined that I would willingly hike through the swamps of South Florida — but that's what writing a book does to you.” Sebastian Junger wasn’t out there longlining swordfish before he wrote The Perfect Storm
, but he headed out to sea and spent even more time hanging out in tough dockside Gloucester bars, listening to the longliners talk about their trade, bullshit amongst themselves, picking up the terminology and lingo that brings his story to life. One way or another, you are going to have to get your hands a little dirty or the reader will sense that you don’t know what you are talking about and quickly want to exit the flat, two-dimensional world you will inevitably end up creating.
Almost all stories require a writer to delve into alien worlds of some sort.
The first bullet from the Colt AR-15 Baker fired from 100 feet away cracks like a bullwhip as it passes overhead, a tiny supersonic rocket of lead and copper jacketing the size of a fat raisin smashing the sound barrier many times over. It is a wicked, sinister noise, pure lethality. The next goes a few dozen feet to my left, sounding like the buzz of a giant bee. See, it all depends where you are in relation to the projectile. I didn’t know that.
Baker reels off a few more: snap, hiss, buzz. Standing beside me is D. J. McCarty, a former San Bernardino deputy who had dozens of these rounds shot at him during the Norco pursuit, one of them removing a chunk of flesh out of his right elbow. “Yeah, that’s the sound,” he says, the experience 35 years before still a visceral memory.
I am not suggesting that writers should put themselves in danger of getting gang-stomped by the Hells Angels like Hunter S. Thompson
or undercover as a prison guard like Ted Conover did for Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
. I am certainly not in any danger here. For one, Baker is an almost surreally excellent marksman, consistently striking a gong resting a full 300 yards high up the hillside behind me. Unless he goes postal, he’s not going to hit me. I am also tucked safely behind a wall of railroad ties that even a badass slug like the .223 could not penetrate. Still, a flash of fear rises up from somewhere in the reptilian section of my brain with the crack of each round. It is the atavistic sense that I should be nowhere near a weapon like this. It may not be the fear of imminent death that McCarty felt on May 9, 1980, but for a writer, it’s a big step in that direction.
Before cowering behind a stack of railroad ties, I had done the requisite research on all the weapons used by the cops and robbers that day, including a Google search of “how to make a homemade hand grenade,” which has no doubt landed me on at least one government watch list. Even before I heard one fly over my head, I could tell you that a .223 caliber bullet weighs 55 grains, travels at 3,000 feet per second, has a striking energy of 1,110 pounds. It is back-weighted to fragment upon impact, sending shards of lead and copper jacketing on meandering, homicidal journeys throughout the human body. And of course, I did not come to the weapons range to be shot at. Before hiking up the hillside, I had just finished shooting all the guns used by both sides, firing once without ear protection because my shooters had been wearing none themselves. “That was a mistake, huh?” Baker says, shaking his head while taking the AR-15 out of my hands.
Obviously, there is also much to be learned from those who inhabit the worlds which we attempt to recreate for the reader. By speaking with the 20 or so cops who took fire from these weapons during the Norco pursuit — seven of whom experienced bullet fragments road-tripping through their flesh — I learned that a bullet fragmenting in front of you will sing or scream on its way past your head. One striking your vehicle makes a decidedly three-dimensional noise as it tears through metal, glass, engine parts, dashboard plastic, and anything else in its way. That time slows down under fire. That many drove blind for long stretches with their heads below the line of the dashboard out of sheer terror that one of these sinister bastards might whistle through the windshield, ending their life in an instant. Their descriptions are vivid and articulate and take me a long way toward understanding the experience. But there is always more to learn, to feel, and that is especially true of the next gun Baker fires over my head.
There is not an animal on the face of the earth that cannot be brought down by a single .308 caliber bullet. Unlike the .223, the .308 round chambered in the Heckler & Koch HK91 used by Norco bank robber George Wayne Smith will literally blow your head off. It is roughly three times the size of the .223 projectile, travels at 2,600 feet per second and strikes the target with a staggering 2,200 pounds of energy, roughly eight times that of the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber revolver used by the cops trying to defend themselves against it. The .308 punches through car doors like aluminum foil, is capable of cracking an engine block or killing a man from over a half mile away. Smith fired hundreds of them.
When Baker shoots the .308 over my head, it is a profound experience. It also cracks on its way by, but this time I can feel the concussion of the sound waves in my chest cavity. What follows is a fleeting sensation that I want to cry, not from fear, but from the pure beauty of the thing, like when a song unexpectedly grabs you somewhere deep down inside. You know, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman
crying at her first opera. Mercifully, the feeling passes just about as fast as the bullet, sparing my hosts the sight of a writer sobbing behind a stack of railroad ties.
After a few more rounds, I dust myself off and head back down the hillside. Mission accomplished. Time to get to that laptop.
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is the author of Norco ’80: The True Story of the Most Spectacular Bank Robbery in History