Mr. Talent’s Surprise

Mr. Talent* had been on Mark* and me for a long time about going on an outing with him. A soldier with a retired four-star general for a father, our local friend kept laughing and telling us he had a surprise for us. Even though we weren’t quite sure what to make of all this, Mark and I knew that going would mean a lot to Mr. Talent, a new believer at the time. So, after a considerable amount of nagging, we finally got it on the calendar.

The day began by driving out of the city into a valley to the north, past the military academy where Mr. Talent had studied instead of going to university. Shortly after passing the academy, we pulled off the road for an early lunch at a large restaurant.

“Alright, I wanted you to try the kebabs at this place. They are exceptional! … and well-price too.” he said as our vehicle crunched into the gravel parking lot. There were many other military-looking men walking in or already seated at the tables. The thick black mustaches of the seated men were bouncing as they chewed, and they repeatedly made half-standing movement, raising their right hands to greet other men they knew who were entering. Several men did this for Mr. Talent, and he responded in kind with his right hand raised toward each of them, phrases such as “My lord, my soul, my elder brother,” effortlessly flowing off his tongue in rapid-fire succession.

“Aha,” I thought to myself, “This must be his surprise.” After all, Mr. Talent and Mark shared a mutual passion for excellent food, especially local kebab. Mark had even structured Mr. Talent’s early discipleship around a weekly local restaurant crawl. Study a chapter of John during the week. Meet up at a new restaurant each week to discuss it. Not a bad strategy, as far as discipleship plans go. Together they were becoming quite the authority on the local restaurant scene. Mr. Talent must have wanted to introduce us to one of his favorite places outside the city, a regular haunt of his academy days.

But Mr. Talent knew what I was thinking as we sat down and sipped the customary appetizer of creamy mushroom soup. “Just so you know, this is not my surprise. Just wait, you’ll see. It’s going to be fun.”

As was my custom when eating out with Mark and Mr. Talent, I let them pick my entree for me. When accompanying two such food aficionados, I had learned the benefits of trusting their expertise. And once again I wasn’t disappointed. The spicy kebab they ordered for me was indeed delicious – a rich and savory mixture of ground lamb, spices, and hot green peppers. I sprinkled the kebab with some salty and sour spice ate it in the local fashion, by pinching a bit of meat in a small piece of hot flatbread, and shoving both together into my mouth.

Over lunch we discussed Mr. Talent’s reading of the book of John and fielded some of his questions about theology and Christian living. He hadn’t been a believer for that long, but he was growing, realizing more and more of what it practically meant to be part of a tiny minority of Jesus-followers in a society dominated by Islam. I was glad to see his passion growing, and his willingness to speak about it so openly with us in a public setting.

Eventually we drank our respective cups of post-meal chai, rose to wash the kebab smell off our hands, fought over who would pay the bill (Mr. Talent forcefully insisting on paying the whole thing), and made our way back out to the car.

After a short drive through the foothills, Mr. Talent seemed to find the place he was looking for. We pulled off the side of the road into a yellow field flanked by low brown hills, Mr. Talent looking at us with a mischievous grin.

“Now for my surprise!”

He moved to the back of his car and opened up the trunk, pulling out an AK-47 and several empty glass bottles.

“Surprise! Ever shot one of these before? We are going to do some target practice,” he laughed, enjoying our uncertain expressions.

“Don’t worry!” he continued, “I used to come out here all the time to practice shooting. No one will bother us. I wanted to see if your aim is as bad as I think it is. Ha!”

I didn’t grow up with guns, but the adventurous part of me didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to try shooting a Kalashnikov, the most popular rifle in the world – favorite of terrorists and freedom fighters everywhere. Allegedly, you can even predict conflict in a given region solely by the price of an AK-47 on the black market.

Mr. Talent walked twenty paces or so into the field, setting up one of the green glass bottles on a small stump.

“That should do it,” he said, as he walked back to us. “And make sure someone films each of us shooting. I need proof to show your wives!”

So we began, each shooting several rounds in turn, attempting to hit the little glass bottle. It proved to be much harder than Mark and I were expecting. I had heard once that AK-47’s are notorious for the bullet following an unpredictable curving path after it’s shot, but even accounting for that, something seemed to be off. Even Mr. Talent – a trained soldier – was not hitting the bottle. And while I have little faith in my marksmanship, I felt that this time around I was shooting even worse than usual. We moved the target considerably closer, but continued to fail to make contact. We had almost used all our bullets when Mr. Talent finally hit the first bottle, glass shards shattering in a bright satisfying sound.

“There it is!” he shouted, “But I think something must really be off with this rifle’s sight. I knew you guys would be bad, but I’m never this bad of a shot. Yes, must be the sight… maybe my brother messed with it. Okay, one last shot for each of us!”

We had just finished our final shots (missing again) when we noticed two vehicles pulling off the road and driving toward us across the dusty field. I noticed, suddenly alarmed, that each was a tan military Land Cruiser truck, their beds full of armed soldiers. They pulled to a stop close to us, sending dust clouds wafting past us. All the soldiers hopped out of the truck. Their commander, wearing sunglasses, walked over to us.

“You are to come with us to the local security station. Nearby villagers reported a bunch of illegal shooting coming from this field. Clearly, we have found the culprits.” He said this looking unimpressed, staring at Mr. Talent, the AK-47 still in his hands.”

Mr. Talent was incredulous. “I have shot here many times in the past. What do you mean, illegal shooting? Since when did this become illegal? Was it that house far away over there? I’ll show them illegal shooting!”

“Sir, it became illegal when terrorists nearly took over our country a couple years ago, remember? Many laws about firearms have been tightened since then,” the commander said, still looking nonplussed.

“But I’m a soldier! Look at my ID. Surely it’s not a problem for me to do target practice in an empty area like this? With respect, what are we coming to in this country?”

The officer continued to hold his ground, and Mr. Talent kept getting more and more animated. “Do you know who my father is? This is shameful, I tell you! And I have these Americans here with me and all. Shameful!”

I grimaced, not sure how these armed men would respond to Mr. Talent playing his various cards. And would the mention of Americans help, or make our situation worse? At least we could all plead ignorance and hope that they would go easy on us. Though unavoidable, finding out for the first time about a law by breaking it is not one of my favorite cross-cultural experiences, though it has happened many, many times.

The officer was finished listening to Mr. Talent’s protestations. He held up a hand, indicating that he had had enough. “Get in your car now and follow us to the station. We’ll figure out there what to do with you.”

So we piled back in our vehicle and followed the trucks of armed men down the road to a small cement building, painted orange-ish tan. The country’s and regional flags flew from its flat rooftop. In its driveway was another tan Land Cruiser, this one with a mounted machine gun in its bed.

We were escorted inside. Mark and I sat in the reception room, a typical room of uncomfortable gaudy couches that lined the walls and faced the large desk of the station’s commanding officer. Mr. Talent was ushered into a back room, already back at his animated references to his father and insistence that we had done no wrong.

Soon the commanding officer of the security station walked in. He was a heavyset man, a veteran of past guerilla campaigns against the former dictator. He wore a suspicious look, and I wondered if he was a little worried that his men had arrested some CIA agents. Mark, built like a linebacker, can sometimes give this impression. But I am far too skinny and history-nerd looking for most to worry too much about if I’m a spy or not – unless they’re the sort that say, “Well, that’s just what a good spy would look like, isn’t it? Unassuming, just what you wouldn’t expect, eh?”

The commander looked back and forth at Mark and me, trying to put the pieces together. Eventually we started talking, beginning in English according to the speak-English-to-the-men-with-guns security practice most of us had adopted by that point. But the commander’s English was atrocious, so we quickly switched to the local language. This helped things a great deal as we were able to explain ourselves more fully. And soon the commander seemed more at ease, complementing our knowledge of the language, ordering chai for us, and adopting the posture of a man who has to rebuke some teenagers, but doesn’t really want to because he quietly finds their prank amusing.

“We can’t have people randomly shooting guns anymore. It frightens the villagers, you know. What with the close call we had with those terrorists. They thought you were radical Islamists! Good thing they couldn’t tell from a distance you were Americans either. Definitely would have reported you as CIA. Either way, dangerous for you.”

Mark and I nodded empathetically, trying to look appropriately sobered by our misdeeds.

“Where did you learn your English, sir? It’s very good.” said Mark. I’m pretty sure I impulsively shot him a look of confusion and surprise. The commander’s English was many things, but it was definitely not very good. Mark was apparently trying to butter him up in hopes of making our release quicker. The commander, for his part, looked charmed, and started going on about the inadequacies of his English education. I had never seen Mark, the straight-talking linebacker, adopt this tactic before, and made a note to tease him about it later.

Soon another soldier came in the room and handed a phone to the commander. It was Mr. Talent’s father, the four star general. We listened in on the commander’s side of the conversation.

“Peace to you, respected one. Is your son Mr. Talent? … He is, huh? … Well, you know he was illegally shooting guns in a village field… yes… with some Americans too… yes… We rounded them up… Not the same since the terrorists came, no, new laws and such… I see… well, I suppose because of our long friendship… yes, understood… kids these days… yes, of course, I am at your service… We’ll release them right way… Yes, my elder brother… my lord… respected one… God be with you, God protect you, you are my eyes, goodbye, goodbye, farewell, goodbye, bye now.

The commander finished his long chain of phone farewell pleasantries and hung up, motioning for the soldier to bring Mr. Talent back into our room. Mr. Talent’s dad had indeed bailed us out, leveraging his prestige to get us a welcome exception. Everyone was relaxed now and even exchanging contact info. The commander was asking about English classes and the soldiers wanted to get some selfies with us.

“You are all free to go now,” the commander said, “Is there anything else we can do for you?”

“Well, sir,” I asked, smiling, “I wonder if it would be OK to have your men handcuff us just for a minute, just so we can get a picture. You know, for the wives. If we really did get arrested today then we should go all the way, you know, make it official with photographic proof and all. Might make for some fun reactions.”

The soldiers laughed, thinking this was a great idea. But then someone mentioned how this kind of thing tends to end up on Facebook and Instagram, and might then lead to awkward conversations with superiors, and ultimately they decided against it.

“It was worth an ask,” I shrugged, grinning at Mark and Mr. Talent.

We said our warm farewells to the soldiers and the commander, and promised to visit again if we were ever in the neighborhood. Then we headed off down the valley for some mountain roads that Mr. Talent wanted to show us.

“So,” I said once we were back in the car. “That was some surprise, brother. I knew it would be exciting, but getting arrested! You have outdone yourself.”

Mr. Talent laughed. “Oh no! Don’t say that! That was not my surprise. Don’t think that will always happen if you accept my invitations – getting arrested, ha! No, I plan fun stuff! I’m a fun guy! That was… well, thankfully my dad bailed us out… if not… well, anyway, what a shame though, what are we coming to around here? Can’t even shoot a gun in an empty field anymore…”

And with that we sped off into the mountains. We had avoided getting arrested for illegal shooting. Now, I quickly realized, the next step of surviving Mr. Talent’s surprise was going to be avoiding puking kebab all over his nice car. The man was driving like he was in a Formula One race, whipping around hairpin turns and gunning the acceleration.

“OK,” I thought to myself, clamping my eyes shut. “Maybe I’ll wait a while before taking Mr. Talent up on any more of his surprises.”

*Names changed for security

Photo by vin on Unsplash

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