Harvard’s Shooting Team went to nationals.

The Harvard shooting team arrived at the National Shooting Complex several days late. In the days before we arrived, shotgunners from across the country had descended upon the city of San Antonio and every La Quinta within fifteen miles of the complex. They came from all over – from Cambridge and New Haven, from West Point and Annapolis, to Jonesboro, Arkansas and Hastings, Nebraska. They came in black sedans and dull golden pickup trucks, in minivans and RV’s, and in great white buses with “College of the Ozarks” plastered on the side in letters two feet tall.

On the morning of the American Skeet Championships, the three other Harvard shooters and I walked to the ammunition shed to pick up the five hundred shells we would fire that day. The guy handing out the shells was thickset, bespectacled, and mustachioed; he exerted a general sense of wanting a return to the deregulation of cigarette advertisements. Our hats and vests denoted our attending a school in Boston, and this amused him. He informed us of our tardiness, and of the myriad goings—on we had missed earlier in the week.

“Yeah,” I told him, “Harvard wouldn’t give us the week off for a shooting competition.”

“Well,” he said, before pausing slightly, as if to choose his next words carefully. “That’s ‘cause they’re a bunch of goddamn liberals.”

I did not dispute his thesis. “I know,” I said, “if it’d have been a kale convention, they’d have given us two weeks off.”

This comment convinced him to give us the ammunition. We borrowed firearms from the shooting complex, trading our driver’s licenses for Browning 725 12-guages, and set out for Field #8 to start shooting. By then, it was eight o’clock in the morning. This proved disastrous for our performance, as the sun glared low and bright on the eastern horizon, and we found ourselves staring directly into it on the first station of the skeet course. However, we persevered and began calling for targets, which instantly vanished into the brightness as we fired blindly into the sun. This strategy of spraying-and-praying did not work as well as we might have hoped. As a team, we broke only 187 of 400 targets. It was an abysmal performance by most any measure, and we avoided last place only by merit of our not having enough shooters to qualify for the team rankings.

But the glory of shotgun sports rests in the fact that, no matter how few targets we might have hit, things could have always gone worse. Nobody was killed or maimed in our ill-fated efforts to break clays in the morning light, and there was something to be said for that. The next morning, we shot American Trap, and gained some sense of what we were up against. A coach for the Lindenwood University team, from St. Charles, Missouri, described their program: one hundred shooters, forty of whom had come to nationals, all practicing four or five days a week. They had won the last twelve national championships, and they had returned this year with high hopes of taking home another title.

Hell, with a team that size, they could’ve taken Costa Rica. In fact, I realized proudly, any country besides ours would have probably referred to the Lindenwood team as “rebel forces” or “the army.” I reflected on this unique aspect of our national identity as I purveyed the competition’s sponsors, headlined by various firearm manufacturers and the National Rifle Association. We were not at Harvard anymore.

This fact was further underscored by the sight of a large Confederate flag flying against the azure sky. It was lashed to a makeshift mast, anchored to the bed up a pickup truck. I wondered if anyone would call for the flag’s removal, but after reflecting carefully on the surrounding setting and demographics, I began to doubt the prospect. I was surprised, then, when upon pulling out my phone to capture the moment in all its backward glory, the flag began sliding down the pole. Evidently, the proud owner had reconsidered the wisdom of this particular flag display – or, more likely, some no-good, mamby-pamby bureaucrat running this competition had decided a secessionist battle flag was out of place at a national event in the spring of 2016. This, I thought to myself, was the bleeding edge of progress. I Snapchatted the moment for those back in snowy Cambridge, to warm the cockles of their goddamn liberal hearts.

A few minutes later, I looked back to where the Stars and Bars had recently flown – and was shocked to realize that the banner had reoccupied its former position high above the grounds, flapping vigorously amidst the breeze. As it turned out, the flag had not been taken down to inaugurate some new millennium of progress. Rather, the shaft from whence it flew had been removed from the pickup truck and reattached to a large RV – slightly closer to the competition area, so as to give all of us a better view of things.

When the dust finally settled from the breaking of the clays, Lindenwood emerged as the overall champion for the thirteenth consecutive year. Their top five shooters broke 496 of 500 targets in American Skeet, and 497 of 500 in American Trap. Their individual high scorer, Hardy Musselman – what a name! – had shot a perfect hundred in American Trap. He followed this performance with a series of shootoffs in which he shot another 25 targets, followed by three consecutive sets of 15 clays, for a grand total of 170. Not a single target had escaped him.

Many targets escaped the Harvard squad. If the clay pigeons had been real birds, the Audubon Society probably would have given us a lifetime achievement award for our conservation efforts. Our trap performance had far exceeded our pitiful effort at skeet, and we had still broken only 280 of the 400 targets we attempted. But, as someone pointed out, we appeared to have beaten every other team in Massachusetts, and that was something of which we can be proud.

Jess Clay ([email protected]) can’t wait to bare his other set of arms this spring.