I can hear them laughing now.

They're laughing in the mountains of West Virginia, in the marshes of the Chesapeake Bay, in the corn fields of Pennsylvania. Even in a pig lot in Howard County.

Ducks and geese and grouse and pheasants and woodcock and doves and pigeons and quail. All laughing.

They gather together in the evenings and chuclke and chortle about the greenhorn who couldn't hit the Hindenburg at 20 paces. I hear them laughing in my sleep.

Then there's the people.

"Just relax," they all say. "It's the most natural thing in the world. Just put the gun up to your shoulder, swing it with the bird and touch off a load. Bingo. Nothing to it."

Absolutely right. Nothing to it at all.

Because when I swing the gun and follow the bird and touch off the load and the gun goes bang, nothing happens. Nothing but the patter of lead pellets in the woods lot 150 yards away, and the flutter of frantic wings and the departure of yet another pretty bird that got away.

There was a neighbor kid a few years back who had a word for anybody who wasn't quite right. "That guy's 'flicted," he'd say, contracting the adjective "afflicted."

When it comes to shooting, I'm 'flicted.

And I don't know why. I get the gun up to my shoulder as quickly as anyone, my eyes are sound, I don't forget to click the safety off or fail to load up properly. I'm shooting the right shells for whatever I'm hunting, the gun is predictable and I've been shooting it for two years.

Still, if it can fly I'll find a way to miss it.

Fortunately there's a remedy for this malady.

"Skeet range," the hunters all say. "Go out and blow off about five boxes of shells until you're in the groove. That'll solve your problem right there."

Most of my hunting friends say they go afield principally for the fun of being there, getting exercise, seeing game and feeling a little wild. But even these enlightened souls agree that there's something perverse about getting up before dawn, driving a hundred miles or more and stomping through difficult terrain all day to kick up one, two or three birds if you're going to miss every one of them.

"Joe," I said to Joe Heeger, a skeet shooter who runs the Prince George's Winchester Public Shooting Center in Glenn Dale, "I need help. I want you to take me under your wing and tell me what I'm doing wrong."

Joe said he didn't do that kind of thing for everybody, but okay. We arranged a secret meeting early one weekday, when the range was closed and the world wouldn't be watching.

When I got there he put two boxes of shells on the counter. "That's all you're gonna need," he said.

Nice try, Joe. The two boxes went fast but the clay birds went faster, mostly undisturbed.We got another box. And then another.

My breaktrhough didn't come until half-way through the fourth box of 25 shells, when Heeger was called away to do some high-financing with his accountant, who'd been laughing at me from the clubhouse.

That left me alone with Henry Bellman, who was doing the pulling. That means when I said "pull," he'd press a button that sent a clay bird flying from one of the two launching sites.

Bellman and Heeger had me a little buffaloed.They weigh about 230 pounds each and I felt insignificant and overwhelmed between them. But with just Bellman around I could get a little aggressive.

I'd been whimpering along with mewly, born-to-lose orders.

"Pull, please," I'd simper, feeling another failure coming on.

"PULL IT, DAMMIT," I shouted.

Bellman pulled, the bird flew out and I blew it to smithereens.

"That's it," he said "Get mean."

Well, I'm in the groove now.

One more box and I was knocking them down as if they had magnets in them. I felt like I couldn't miss.

I took this newfound confidence afield last week to show those birds I was no laughing-stock anymore.

We kicked 10 pheasants up. I managed to hit one.

But now I know what I did wrong.

I forgot to yell "PULL IT."