One of the many great lessons I have read over and over in this blog is that practice makes perfect. This can apply to any skill set one wishes to consider. I would like to stress the word “read” in the last sentence; reading does not equate to learning, and often in our human hubris we decide that if we think about it, we know it. I think one of the most potent sins the father of lies enjoys tempting us with is the sin of pride. Without going on a diatribe of theological concepts on pride (and I’ve heard many great sermons on it), I would like to use some personal examples to maybe give a glimpse of how pride can creep into any portion of life, including the pursuit of preparation for calamity.
I typically think of myself as being pretty capable of surviving a situation if I am presented with one. I grew up on a 400-acre dairy farm and realize how to work hard. I have a concept of what it takes to grow things and how much work really goes into making the food we eat. I have been in the Marines for the past 16 years, and I have two combat deployments where I was the Watch Chief and Watch Officer in the combat operations center (although I have not personally been in combat). I am a CBRN defense specialist, so I realize what it would take to deal with a catastrophe of that nature; I had better have a grasp, since I instruct the stuff for a living in the Marines! I have also been a Combat Marksmanship Instructor for a decade, teaching and coaching hundreds of Marines on basic Marksmanship, with a few opportunities to instruct more advanced marksmanship classes. With this background, I should have the ability to take care of any situation, whether it’s growing food, protecting my family from any threat, or generally speaking surviving and thriving in any environment my family and I are faced with.
In reality, however, I often times find my book knowledge combined with the experience I have giving me a false sense of ability. This is where all of that talk about the sin of pride comes into play. In our culture as a whole (and yes, in some aspects in the military in specific), we tend to look at past accomplishments as a check in the box. Perhaps thoughts may cross your mind, like it does mine from time to time, that are similar to “I have done this before; I know what I’m doing; it will be no problem.” I would like to suggest to you this is dangerous; it is something we all need to fight against, especially those of us who think in our mind we have a reason to believe we are more prepared than we truly are. I would like to provide some examples I have run up against in my life and that I am actively working on improving. While looking at these examples, I would like to focus your attention on the difficult task I have had to fight against my sinful pride and to accept some humility with each of these examples.
So let me go through the short biography I gave you and pick out a few examples where my prideful self decided I was ready and reality (or maybe God Himself) decided to show me I still had a lot to learn. First, I will talk about raising livestock and growing food. Like I said, I grew up on a farm. I have worked with crops, cattle, and gardening throughout most of my childhood years. When I got stationed in Missouri, my wife and I decided to buy some property, raise some animals, and grow a garden; simple stuff, right? So far I have lost two guineas– one because it got hit by a car (they’re not the brightest birds) and one from an unknown predator just last week. The plan was to use the guineas to roam the yard, eat the ticks that are very prevalent out in the Ozarks, and maybe lay some eggs. The only part of that plan that worked out was the egg part, and that only occurs when I keep the birds in the chicken coop. The plan is not working out terrible, if one considers 33% to be a good average. We have only been at it one year, but the point is I thought it would be simple, and it isn’t. You have to learn (and I still am) what is reasonable and effective and what is not.
Another of our ongoing experiments is to have cattle. At this point, we do not have the extra cash around to invest in a couple of cattle of our own, so I made a great deal with my neighbor to let him graze cattle in return for an amazing price on beef. How hard can that be? I grew up with 200 head of cattle; having ten or fifteen graze my pasture should be no sweat. My neighbor and I walked the fence, identified some trouble areas, and mended them; then he put the cattle on my land. Within a few days, I found myself facing a 3-year-old longhorn bull in my yard. Thank God these are gentle beasts, but I did not realize that the first time or two I had to get the animal back into the pasture. I was honestly a bit afraid to have to drive the bull back in myself, but I did it, because I had to. Only later did I learn that these bulls are a bit different than those I grew up with. A person can drive them safely without too much fear of them trying to chase after you, so long as you maintain dominance over them. That was the first lesson with these particular cattle (and I also understand that any other breed may be different), but it was a difficult one to learn when your good friend and neighbor chuckles at you for admitting some fear of driving the animal into the pasture. Oh, the second lesson relates to that supposed check of the fence; there were two gates that were visually secure but could flex enough for the animal to get out of.
If the animals were not lesson enough for me, the garden sure was. I went and bought a great rear-tine tiller, tilled up a good-sized garden, and planted the seeds from an heirloom seed vault I got from my wife a Christmas or two ago. Take a quick guess at how much of that seed grew. If your answer is little to none, you’re right! I planted WAY too early and probably had not stored the seeds at a good temperature. My parents came out to visit. Mom decided to get some regular store-bought seeds, and they grew right up! Talk about some humble pie. My great idea was that I would have a seed vault of heirloom seeds I could not only use to grow my own garden but I could replace by capturing the seeds in order to have a perpetual stock. Not to mention, with long work days of sometimes as much as 18 hours when I have a course to teach, the little weeding I did showed clearly in the resulting harvest. On top of that, we were not prepared to can or store the harvest we did get. I guess I did not know as much about keeping animals or growing plants as I thought in the beginning.
I am going to shift gear to one of my real pleasures– marksmanship. I love shooting. When I had the opportunity to become a range coach in the Marines, I jumped at it. I’m an expert rifleman, so why not help out other Marines? Shortly after that I had the opportunity to become a Primary Marksmanship Instructor (later renamed to Combat Marksmanship Instructor). Needless to say, I like to think I know how to shoot, and to be fair, I’m not too bad with an issued pistol or rifle; plus, I can typically pick up any civilian firearm and hit the target. So over the past years I have decided to partake in the Appleseed Shoot. I have gone to shoots in both North Carolina and here in Missouri. Every time I went to shoot, I started off with two things going against me– my pride at “knowing” how good of a shot I was and taking equipment I had not properly prepared. The first time I shot, I took my 10-22 brand new out of the box, and I also brought one of my M-1 Garands that I had only fired a few times. I had magazine issues with the 10-22. I only had one factory 10-round magazine and one after-market, 25-round mag. The 25 rounder was, surprise, not exactly perfect, and I ended up not being able to chamber a round. The frustration mounted as I sat with a multi-tool filing the lip of the magazine until it fit correctly into the magazine well and allowed the bolt to go home. On day two, with all of that frustration with my 10-22 and no ‘rifleman’ patch, I brought out the Garand. The weapon would not group well, and I had a terrible time loading two rounds in for one of the courses of fire. I later found out that I need to replace the barrel (after going to a gunsmith who pointed me to a corrosion problem in the barrel). As for the loading of two rounds, I was provided a GREAT tip on how to do so, but again, as the marksmanship instructor that pride had to go away before I could learn my rifle. On attempt number two, again in North Carolina, I had purchased new magazines for my 10-22 and bought a new FAL from DS Arms. Now I can’t fail, right? I did nearly get my rifleman with the 10-22, but this is where I learned that I could purchase new sights for the rifle that would let me acquire better sight picture. The bottom line was that I wasn’t able to keep tight enough groups with the factory sights; maybe it was my failure or the rifle’s. Who knows, maybe it was both, but I did not know my equipment yet. The FAL worked GREAT at short ranges of up to 200 yards. (We had a full 500-yard range the second afternoon.) However, at 300 yards and 400 yards, the thing would not hit where it should have. I later learned that there are a couple of different size front sites for the FAL, and with the 16-in barrel, I needed the tallest front site available to sight in. Again, this was a failure to not know my equipment. This past month I went to another Appleseed here in Missouri. I put new sites on the 10-22 and went in knowing that I may have made a mistake with them. The rear site aperture was extraordinarily large, similar to the large aperture on the M-16. I did a little redneck engineering and inserted a segment of tubing, colored it black with a sharpie, and I had a bit better sight to work with. However, now the frustration came with good groups that were three inches low and three inches to the left at 25 yards, with the sights completely pegged. Oh the frustration mounted, while my pride took a hit! I have just ordered a new sight, and I am going to make a backstop on my land to practice with safely. The lesson here is that just because you are capable of shooting well with established equipment, if you do not take the time to know your equipment, those skills will not be able to be applied effectively, and when your pride tells you in the back of your mind that there is “no problem, I’ll qualify easily today”, you set yourself up for a thick skull that is not looking for advice.
I did not write this column to be self depreciating or to suggest I am about to give up. Quite the contrary! I thank God for these learning points. I need to have my pride damaged from time to time, I need to learn to be humble and go into any situation prayerfully and open to learning! I will not give up on learning these skills and others. I know that one year of owning property on my own, without my parents’ experience in farming, is not going to give me all the knowledge I need to raise animals or grow crops. I now can say I understand that, because I was not able to do as well as I expected and I have learned valuable lessons for next year’s garden and for the next time we put cattle on the pasture. I also know that just because I conceptually understand marksmanship and I can instruct it and fire expert in the Marine Corps, I will ALWAYS have more to learn. I have not had to qualify for the past few years because of my rank and time in service, so my skills have eroded. I am building a firing point at home, so I can go out every weekend, practice in a deliberate fashion—not just shooting at cans or plinking with the guys. I needed this wakeup, and I would suggest that a lot of people do as well. There is a reason things were hard before the conveniences of technology came about. You really had to do things a lot to get things done right! That took a faith in God, and a dependence on God. We tend to have faith in technology and in our own merit, and that is never a good place to be; that is the evil one tempting us to believe that we are good enough. It is these Christian lessons—human sin, the need for a Savior, and absolute trust in God— that are real. We can see these lessons in our daily lives. Why wouldn’t they be real? A dependence on ourselves without practice, patience, and prayer will set us up for an unrealistic pride that we can do anything. We cannot do things well, unless we practice and put our faith in God.