You would think that the tremendous noise and pressure of tank main guns firing would make the shooting ranges in Germany unlikely places to find animals, but you’d be wrong. Not only do the ranges have a large population of deer, but after years of constant exposure to it, those deer have become totally indifferent to live fire training, somewhat in defiance of the rules of natural selection. In an enclosed space – such as between buildings in a city – the shock wave alone from the tank main gun can kill a man, yet these deer wander all over live ranges without a care in the world.
The tank gun sight has a day and night mode, and the gunner may switch between the two as he chooses during the day time (at night, looking through the day sight is useless). In day mode, it is a simple telescopic sight, magnifying objects at distance for greater resolution: it’s exactly like looking through powerful binoculars. In night mode, the sight uses infrared thermal imagery, and also magnifies objects at long range. Unlike night-vision goggles, which merely amplify the existing ambient light to create a monochromatic version of what you would see during the daytime, thermal sights actually see in the infrared spectrum, so things can look a bit odd, like a photo negative with really high contrast. Things that give off heat (people, vehicle engines) stick out like sore thumbs, and appear whiter and brighter than cooler background objects like buildings or trees, so we call them “hot spots.”
However, as good as our thermal sights are, at 1,000 yards at night, a small herd of deer chewing grass can look exactly like the row of heated torso-shaped targets that we use as enemy infantry targets for our machine guns. Accordingly, my gunner and I destroyed six moving tanks, ten stationary tanks, three sets of troops, and four or five deer one evening, much to the delight of the German civilians responsible for operating the range. While my crew and I got an ass-chewing and a 20-minute safety violation stand-down, they grabbed their Tupperware and headed downrange to stock up on some fresh venison. Later that week a particularly tightly-clumped herd looked enough like a vehicle target to fool one tank crew, who sent a main gun round into their midst, with predictably messy results.
* * *
The whole purpose of our live-fire training was to qualify each tank crew on gunnery, in the same way that each individual soldier must qualify with his rifle each year by hitting a minimum number of targets at various ranges. The final exam of tank gunnery is called “Tank Table VIII,” and it includes ten engagements, with four taking place at night.
On our Table VIII run, our crew started strong: my gunner, Sergeant Cleary, and I really clicked for the day runs, shooting a near-perfect first six runs. For some reason, we were just a little off on the night runs – we missed a couple crucial targets, and all I could think of as the targets dropped unscathed back out of sight was that goddamn dog from Duck Hunt on the old Nintendo, laughing at me. We thought it was close enough that we might not have qualified on our first run (a big deal among tankers), but we actually scored “Superior.” It was a tremendous relief – Sergeant Cleary and I had spent countless hours together over the last two months, shooting engagement after engagement on the ranges and simulators, and it felt great to be a fully qualified tank commander after all that work. Cleary had the cigars ready, as was tradition, and he and I lit up outside the range tower after our performance review, ignoring the chill of the Bavarian night.
“Mmm?” I was still messing with the lighter, trying to get my cigar fully lit and hoping Cleary didn’t notice my ineptitude.
“Why are you wearing your helmet?”
“Well, I couldn’t find my soft cap in the dark. I dunno, I thought I had it in my ruck-sack, but it wasn’t there.”
I always preferred the baseball-style soft cap over my heavy, uncomfortable Kevlar helmet. Cleary savored his cigar for another long moment, then addressed me again in his Carolina drawl.
“I know where your soft cap is, sir.”
I could see his eyes twinkling in the dark now. My face fell, figuring I had lost it somewhere, like an idiot.
He grinned. “About 2,000 meters downrange, sir. You shot it out the gun tube at your long-range moving target.”
Though new officers don’t know it, shooting the new platoon leader’s cap out the main gun during Table VIII is one of the oldest traditions in the armored world. Along with every other platoon leader’s gunner, Cleary had taken pains to locate my cap during the smoke break he took before we started our run, had stuffed it into his pocket, and then handed it off to our loader to cram into the gun tube while I was peering into the gunsight. Being new to the tradition, I was still a bit confused.
“You’re shitting me, right?”
Cleary laughed. “I wouldn’t shit you sir: you’re my favorite turd.”