Not too long ago I came across a faded piece of paper from 35 years ago, 1977. It was a receipt from a police station in North Carolina. I had to sign it to get my car keys back. What caught my eye was the date, September 11th. I guess I was ahead of my time. I had my 9/11 twenty four years before the world was to experience theirs. It was a Sunday night. The time was listed as 23:14, military time for 14 minutes past 11 p.m.
In the fall of 1977 I was growing restless. I was taking courses at Dowling College but found nothing of interest. Then I heard about Chiropractics. This practice of manipulating the spine was becoming increasingly more popular. While I knew I could never afford to go to a Chiropractic College, this didn’t stop me from making an appointment to see a guidance counselor. I wanted to take a journey, an adventure. I had been driving for a few years, and I guess I wanted to hit the road all on my own. An adventure, a life experience, is what I got. One I’ll never, ever, forget.
My father bought a 1968 Ford LTD from a neighbor. He paid $1,300 dollars for a car that had only 7,000 miles on it. I loved that car. My Dad and I put over 100,000 miles on the dark green LTD with brougham interior. I think Brougham is a fancy name for plush seats and a nice dashboard.
This was at a time when a person could open up the hood of a car and fix things. I tuned that car up, changed the spark plugs, gapped the points, changed the oil, and learned to fix anything that was broken. The car was fast, a 390 cubic inch engine, 8 cylinders. Zero to sixty in a blink of an eye. I know; I put it to the test many times.
On Sunday morning I packed a change of clothes, a few sandwiches, and grabbed a couple of cans of soda. I told my parents I’d be back home late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. I’m sure they were apprehensive but I was pretty responsible back then. I took a look at a map. All I knew was that I was to take I-95 south and when I got to North Carolina I would have to get over to I-85 going west. Back then we didn’t need a GPS system. We grabbed a map, took some notes, and hit the open road.
Early into the drive what I remember most was the music that was playing on the radio. The Bee Gees sang about ‘Stayin Alive,’ while Meat Loaf screamed about ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light.’ Jackson Browne’s ‘Running on Empty’ reminded me to keep an eye on the fuel gauge. Back in 1977 gas was sixty-two cents a gallon. .62 cents!
Eric Clapton went from a sweet song, ‘Wonderful Tonight,’ to singing about ‘Cocaine.’ All of these songs, and more, played on and on. It wasn’t until I was south of Virginia when I was no longer driving alone. I had a passenger. Every damn radio station played one song and one song only. My new friend, my pal, who seemed to be sitting right next to me, was Crystal Gayle, a gorgeous woman with very long, straight, brown hair. She sang ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.’ She sang it over and over again. And I listened.
“Don’t know when I’ve been so blue. Don’t know what’s come over you. You’ve found someone new, and don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”
“I’ll be fine when you’re gone. I’ll just cry all night long. Say it isn’t true, and don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”
“Tell me no secrets, tell me some lies. Give me no reasons, give me alibis. Tell me you love me and don’t make me cry. Say anything, but don’t say goodbye.”
With my eyes on the road and only making stops for gas and bathroom breaks I was making great time. I was also getting very tired. Somewhere around eight or nine o’clock, in the dark of the night, I was within an hour of my destination, but I could barely keep my eyes open. I rolled down the window and allowed the air to rush over my face but it was of no use. I needed to rest, to sleep.
Should I get a motel room? Being 22 years old with a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket I could have, but why bother. I found a rest area. I think I found the darkest rest area in the United States. I didn’t see anyone around. It was very quiet. I figured I’d sleep for as long as I could. I’d shave in the bathroom, change my clothes, and then head off to the college, bright and early the next morning. I had a plan. It lasted five minutes. I turned the radio off and Crystal disappeared. I stretched across the front seat. I used my gym bag as a pillow.
Within five minutes I heard a tap on the driver’s side window. A meek, thin looking blonde haired guy got my attention. “Do you have jumper cables,” he pleaded. Of course I did. My father reminded me many times. He told me to never get rid of them. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” my Dad often says. “They’re the best.” I still have them; they must be fifty years old. And they are the best.
I told the guy that I couldn’t help him. He walked away. Two minutes later he returned. He asked again; for help of any kind. I should have been suspicious, but I felt bad for the guy. That reflection was short lived. As I got out of the car I walked to the trunk and opened it. There were the jumper cables. There was also a guy who leaped up from the passenger side of the car and quickly stuck a gun in my face. It was a silver gun. The guy holding it reeked of alcohol. He was drunk, he had a gun, a partner, and I was a long way from home, in the dead of the night, in a rest area with no lights. I was in big trouble. Thinking he wanted to steal my car I tossed the keys into the trunk and slammed it shut. The gun was now a few inches from my face.
With the gun pointed right at me the guy holding it said, “Back up.” I was in more trouble than I had originally realized. The man’s voice had a southern accent. 'Damn,' I thought, 'I’m getting robbed by some irrational, red neck hillbilly. From this moment on everything became more serious than I could ever imagine. I was told to keep backing up until I was in a slight downward piece of grass, a gully, a ditch. My attacker stood above me with his partner by my side.
You may wonder how you would feel in this situation. What I felt was anger. I grew up in New York City and never had much trouble there and now I’m in North Carolina and a guy has a gun in my face. I had tried to help someone; an act of kindness and now look at the situation I’m in. I was pissed off, much more, than I was scared. I’ve never figured out what that says about me.
I was ordered to give over all the money I had. I keep my cash in my left front pocket. I reached in and took some of it out and tossed it at the feet of the gunman. He got angry. When I bent down to pick it up I felt the butt of the gun hit my head once, then again. My hair became moist. I felt blood on my neck. I reached up and touched my head only to feel two large lumps. I thought of pretending to be knocked unconscious but then I realized he may very well just shoot me in the head and go on to his next victim. As I stood up I felt dazed.
Having gotten my money, though not all of it, the guy by my side wanted to leave but his partner wasn’t through with me yet. He demanded me to beg for my life. I didn’t. I couldn’t. When he held the gun and pointed it directly at my head I waited. What they say is true. Your life does flash before your eyes when you think you’re going to die.
Random events came to mind. Kindergarten, birthdays, my parents’ faces, I felt bad for them, my sister Lynn. I remembered playing Little League baseball and how excited Lynn and I got every Christmas morning. Events flew by in rapid succession; a kaleidoscope of memories in a matter of seconds. I felt I was going to die and the strangest thing about it was I found peace. It was okay, it was alright. And yet I was not about to give in. If I was going to die, I was going to go down fighting.
Since the gunman couldn’t get me to talk, to plead for my life, he spoke in a very calm, lifeless tone of voice. “Let’s walk,” he said. “I’m going to kill you.” Straight ahead, about a little more than a hundred feet away, lay a wooded area. With the blonde haired guy taking hold of my right arm the guy with the gun had the short barrel of it pressed firmly into my spine. In his drunken state I envisioned the gun going off by mistake. I needed to do something and it had to happen soon.
We began to walk. At a time like this I would imagine a lot of people would pray. I went to Sunday school. I know the Lord’s Prayer, most of the 23rd Psalm. And yet the only thing that came to my mind was simple. I said to myself, ‘God I’m in trouble. Could you please give me a chance?’ I remember repeating the last thought. ‘Please give me a chance.’ I never asked directly for help. For some reason I couldn’t even beg God for my own life.
I began to swing my right arm a little, forcing the one guy to move up and take hold with both hands. I then moved my left arm in the same motion. I did it once and then again. My request was answered. The drunk took the gun from my back and took a hold of my arm. These two thieves were on both sides of me, holding me tightly.
I knew I had to act fast. The wooded area was getting closer. I raised my right arm and very quickly forced my elbow back swinging my arm free. Then I twisted my body to the left and clenched my fist. I landed a punch squarely on the drunk’s nose. I felt it crush against his face. He groaned. The next sound I heard was a metal ping. It was the gun falling to the cement parking lot. It’s a sound I’ll never forget. I saw where it was and for a brief moment I thought to pick it up but instead I ran. Within a few seconds the next sound I heard took me by surprise, when in reality, it shouldn’t have. I heard one pop, and then another. I was being shot at. A third shot followed and I began to zigzag as I ran. The fourth and final shot seemed to come awfully close. I felt a chill to my spine.
I didn’t know if they were running after me so I kept on until I saw a truck at the far end of the rest area. Once I reached the truck I began to pound on the driver’s door, waking him up. He must have seen the fear in my eyes, maybe the blood on my head. He opened the door.
In 1977 we did not have cell phones but we did have CB radios. I think they were a requirement for every truck driver and many motorists. With the highway not far from the rest area reports went out over the radio about a shooting. Within minutes every North Carolina State Trooper, Policeman, converged on the rest stop. I was the first person they saw and their instincts, their training, taught them to draw their weapons on me. At first I was thrilled to see them, and just as quickly, I thought they were going to shoot me.
I bent down and showed them the blood, the bumps on my head. The truck driver vouched for me. From then on the troopers and the police were very kind to me. I was taken to the nearest Police station and filled out a report. They offered to take me to the hospital but I refused. They also offered to let me spend the night, but I just wanted to go home. The only requests I made were for a cup of coffee and directions to the highway. I never asked how but the police got my car from the rest area to the police station and the keys out of the trunk without doing any damage.
With one police car in front of me and one at the rear, their flashing lights on, I was led to the highway, a Police escort. Before I drove on ahead a policeman offered me his card and a phone number. “Call us collect,” he said, “if you don’t think you can make the drive. We’ll come and get you.” For the first and only time tears came to my eyes. I shook his hand and was on my way home. The first half hour of the ride was difficult. I had my windows rolled down and with every noise I heard I was sure the two guys who robbed me were hiding in the back seat.
When I made my first stop for gas, thankfully I still had some money left; I got a few strange looks from the people at the gas station. When I used the restroom I understood. The cuts on my head began to bleed again and I was covered in blood. I cleaned myself up, took a deep breath and began to drive. When I started to settle down, just a little, I turned the radio on and within ten minutes Crystal was back. I drove on and on. I was so tired that for a short time I swore I saw white ducks crossing the highway. I kept breaking so as not to hit them. Crystal Gayle’s voice became soothing. By now I knew all the words.
“I didn’t mean to treat you bad. Didn’t know just what I had. But honey now I do. And don’t it make my brown eyes blue. Don’t it make my brown eyes, don’t it make my brown eyes, don’t it make my brown eyes blue.”
I was never so happy when the Manhattan skyline came into view. I got a little disoriented and ended up driving through Manhattan up to the 59th Street Bridge. I parked the car in the driveway of my house and walked the flight of stairs to find my parents who were sitting, waiting, at the kitchen table. I had called my Mother from the road and briefly told her about what happened. My father left work early. They had an overwhelming look of relief on their faces. I took a shower, cleaned myself up, and despite the bumps on my head, which probably should have been checked out, I went right to bed. I was lucky; some may say I was very brave. And yet in reality it may be as simple as this: It wasn’t my time to die. Not then. Not there. Not by those guys.
The next morning I changed the oil in the car and got on with my life. I had a story to tell; though until now, I’ve told it to very few people. But one thing troubles me and I may never be able to let it go. After all these years, thirty five, I want to see those guys who robbed me brought to justice, and I want to be the one to decide their fate. Once again, I don’t know what that says about me as a person.