A Gun and the Summer of ’746
It was the summer of 1974 and Benny and I were working at a small motel managed by some friends of my mothers’ as we anticipated going back to school in the fall. I worked in the office renting rooms, directing maids, answering the phone and keeping the small lobby tidy. Benny was the motel handyman. I know…those of you who know him are chuckling, but his persistence and accessibility to my dad kept him going that summer. Over the years he’s actually become pretty good at fixer-upping.
That day was like most others. Benny and I spent our lunch break in the comfy lobby chairs eating and watching “All My Children.” Ok, it was 1974 and there was nothing else on during lunch but the news. And I’m sure many of you enjoyed a soap opera or two along the way. I think Susan Lucci might still be playing Erica Cain to this day.
A young guy about age 20 walked into the lobby and asked for a job application. I explained we weren’t hiring, so he said he wanted a pack of Marlboros. I walked over behind the counter, handed him the cigarettes and told him that would be 50 cents. (Yes, you read that right.) He produced a $1 bill and when I opened the drawer to get change he told me he wanted all the money. I looked up and saw a small gun cradled near his left elbow as his arm rested on the counter.
I started to slowly move my left foot to find the small emergency button on the floor below, but apparently not slowly enough. He warned me to stand still and just give him the money. I obliged.
I remember thinking he was going to be awfully disappointed when I handed him so little money. And then he told me to pick up the change tray and get the larger bills underneath. Ugh. I had just checked in several rooms so there were actually quite a few $20’s stashed there.
He grabbed the cash then walked toward the nearby door. As he opened it to leave I noticed the cigarettes on the counter.
“Hey, you forgot your cigarettes,” I called, then tossed them to him as he turned to leave.
I then stepped on the emergency button, which alerted both the police and the motel owners in their downstairs apartment. The rest is a blur. I just remember sitting on the floor sobbing with Benny’s arms around me when the police arrived.
Had you asked me years before, “So what would you do if someone pointed a gun to your head and demanded money?” I doubt I would have described the scene about which I just told you. Too many factors would have affected my response. It would have been simply impossible to anticipate being in a small motel lobby watching TV with my husband, then interacting with a guy who manipulated me to be near the money by asking for cigarettes before he pointed a gun right at my face.
And I would never have anticipated playfully tossing him a stolen back of cigarettes as he left.
I felt so badly for “losing” my employers money. My post-incident reaction felt overwhelmingly out of control as I sat indian style on the floor of the lobby sobbing and shaking. I had just seen my first gun and it was pointed right at my head. I was violated and scared and embarrassed and probably in shock. Yes, my boss had explained the robbery protocols. But I never really thought it would happen…to me.
I can’t imagine how hard it would have been if people had started second-guessing how I responded.
“You should’ve stepped on the emergency button as soon as you walked over!”
“Why didn’t Benny sneak out to a phone and call the police?”
“You tossed him the pack of cigarettes before he left??? What were you thinking?”
“Why was a 19-year-old girl working basically alone in that environment anyway?”
And I don’t think it would be much easier now than then to hear what I did wrong or could have done better. Even 40 years later I still feel a tad weird inside about that experience. I’m grateful that everyone involved — my boss, parents, husband and the police — all focused on comforting and assuring me. Believe me, I rehearsed the shoulda coulda’s all by myself to the point that most times I went behind that counter to help someone I put my shoe right next to that button and started stashing all large bills in an envelope under the counter. And the bottom line was my boss said I did the right thing by just giving him the money and waiting to alert authorities.
We Christians too often think we know what we would do if we learned our spouse was committing adultery or our boss treated a co-worker unfairly or our son molested several little girls, including his own sisters. How do we know? Because when we read about these things happening to others we start evaluating how “those people” handled it wrongly. One of the first clues to self-righteous judgement of others is that “whoa…they sure mishandled this!” thought that creeps into our hearts and minds, and then eventually out of our mouths using the keys of our computer or the biting words shared with friends or family.
If we’ve never found porn on our child’s computer, suffered a mental illness we're ashamed to let others know about, agonized over the decision to put a loved one into a nursing home, limped through the aftermath of adultery or discovered that our beloved son or daughter has molested or been molested, let’s refuse to assume we know what we would do. We can think we’d respond one way…only to learn that when the fog of grief and shame and fear and the breathtaking numbness of sudden suffering hits us square in the gut we don’t think as clearly as we did when we heard about what happened to someone else. Sitting on our coaches and reading about people’s sin and suffering online as we sip lemonade is way different than being on their couch when they experience the searing pain of a knife in the heart that signals their lives will never, ever be the same again.
As flawed and broken people we will always make mistakes. Rarely handle situations in ways hindsight approves. Usually realize them. Then learn from them. But when it’s our turn to have the gun pointed in our faces - then perhaps have to relive that experience again and again in our nightmares or when we’re reminded of our pain and shame by countless different experiences — what doesn’t help is having people who know little or nothing about what we’ve walked through point the gun at us once again.
Perhaps I was stupid for tossing that kid the cigarettes and not stepping on the button right away. But honestly, I just did what I thought to do. And if he happens again I don’t know what I’ll do that time either. Hopefully whatever I do will seem right to me at the time. And if it’s not and you know me and my situation well enough to provide both compassionate and honest help, then please do. Otherwise, kindly just pray that God will give you grace and wisdom to do what’s right in your own disoriented and weakened state when crisis hits and you’re stunned by the gun in your face.