Friday, June 14, 2013
Staring Down the Barrel of a Gun
Thirty five years ago today I got up in the morning and went to work. It was a day just like any other, except for one thing: I almost didn’t get out of the office alive.
I worked for an afternoon newspaper then, so I put in a hard morning, as usual. Typically the newsroom cleared out around 1 p.m., when we had put the paper to bed for the day. A lot of people had been out late covering meetings the night before or would be covering one that night, so they often took a long lunch hour and ran some errands. I was one of two people in the newsroom at 2 p.m., and the other one was on the phone when Scott Nice from classified advertising came up to me and said there was a gentleman in the office who had a story for us.
The fact that said gentleman went to the classified ad department with his story should have been a tipoff, but I agreed to hear him out. We always did. Nineteen times out of twenty it was a crackpot or someone with a non-newsworthy resentment, but you never knew until you listened.
He Got My Attention
The vistor was a young man with long hair and twitchy mannerisms. He wanted to go to a conference room or some place private, but I figured I’d never get rid of him if we did that, so I insisted he come to my desk in the middle of the newsroom. He sat down across the typewriter about three feet away from me, pulled aside the sweatshirt that had been draped over his right arm and hand, raised the gun in his hand, and pointed it directly at my chest.
“I want you to tell my story,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied. “Let me get some paper in the typewriter so I can take notes.”
As the court-appointed psychiatrist later confirmed, he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and his story was rambling and incoherent, with one running thread: Everybody was out to get him or wasn’t taking him seriously. The one exception at the moment was me. As long as he kept pointing that gun at me, I was taking him very seriously.
A Phone Call for Help
At one point he mentioned that his psychiatrist was blowing him off, and I suggested that perhaps the doctor would take him seriously now if we gave him a call. He agreed to that, gave me the shrink’s name, and I slowly and deliberately lifted the receiver and made the call. There were no answering machines in those days, so the call was picked up by a receptionist on the second ring. I asked to speak with the doctor.
“He’s with a patient,” she snapped. “Is this an emergency?”
I turned my head, looked at the gun pointed directly at me, and replied, “I would say it’s an extreme emergency.”
She got him on the phone, and I explained the situation to him, choosing my words very carefully so as not to agitate my friend with the gun. The doc asked if the police had been called, and I said no. There was still almost no one else in the newsroom, and the sight lines in the building were such that probably no one else could see that my visitor had a gun in his hand. He said he’d call the police and be there in half an hour.
Just Buying Time
It was probably the longest half-hour of my life. At that point I figured my visitor was engaging in what the mental-health folks refer to as a cry for help, and having gotten a positive reaction, he wasn’t going to shoot me as long as I didn’t do anything really stupid.
However, he was rambling on and getting quite angry at times, waving the gun around wildly as he talked, with his finger on the trigger. I was afraid it might go off accidentally, and all I could think of was that Linda and I had just bought a house and that she wouldn’t be able to make the mortgage payment without my paycheck.
So I sat as still as I could, listened, and made soothing and reassuring noises. Meanwhile, half the law enforcement personnel in Santa Cruz County had gathered in the parking lot outside and were quietly evacuating almost everyone else from the building. Just before three o’clock, the psychiatrist came in and walked up to the desk where we were sitting.
Instinct — Sheer Instinct
He introduced himself, shook hands with me, shook hands with the gunman, and looked around. “Do you have a chair I can sit in?” he asked.
“You can have mine,” I said, standing up and walking out of the building. I still shake my head when I think about that. If I’d thought about it for even a nanosecond at the time, fear would have taken over, and I wouldn’t have done it. Sheer instinct alone gave me the confidence to pull it off, and with the doctor there, the gunman wasn’t even thinking about me any more.
Fifteen minutes later, the shrink had talked the gunman into handing over his gun and going to the county mental health unit. They walked out the front door of the building, got into the doctor’s car, and drove to the clinic in Santa Cruz, 15 miles away. The police were so busy planning how to get a sniper in to take out the gunman that they never saw him leave.
My visitor was found mentally incompetent to stand trial, committed to a mental facility, and released in a few years. As far as I know, he’s never committed another serious crime. When the police checked the gun, they found it was loaded. One twitch of his finger, and I might not be writing this today. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all been bonus time since then.