This is a story from 38 years ago, in July 1979. This was not an easy story for me to write but I wanted to do it to add more detail to what I wrote in a previous article. Yes, this is a true story.
My Buddy Mark
The late 1970’s were a great time for me, as I was going through my teenage years with good friends and plenty of energy. We were growing up in the Chicago suburb known as Berwyn, living carefree lives, chasing girls and dreaming of the future.
My buddies Mark and his twin brother Steve were car aficionados. For a number of years, they bought and sold cars like GTOs, Chevelles, Firebirds, Trans-Ams, Fiats, and possibly even a Pontiac Fiero.
I was the lucky beneficiary of these activities because I usually got to work on the cars to learn how to be a mechanic, while also getting to drive these classic muscle cars. It wasn’t uncommon for the brothers to buy and sell multiple cars within short time periods.
It was one of these car changes that lead to this story.
One evening Mark and I decided to go girl watching in his green 1971 Firebird. He had recently purchased this car and we felt the natural urge that all 16-year-old boys feel, which gave us the impetus to go cruising through the suburbs to check out the chicks and to experience the excitement of his new car.
I remember that we didn’t have much money for gas that day, so we tossed together some change, 50-cent pieces and a few bucks to give us enough gas to drive around for a while. It seemed like we left late in the evening and returned late at night (past midnight) because the story suddenly and dramatically changed course from chasing teenage ambitions to the most serious situation I have ever been involved in.
My Turn to Do a Test Drive
Mark drove while we did the girl watching, but when we got back to my house, I asked him if I could drive the car around the block to test it out. We switched positions and I drove around the block.
When I pulled up in front of my house and parked along the curb, we turned on the dome light so I could look at the dashboard. This made it easy for anyone driving by us to look into our car. Within a few seconds, a car slowly drove by us and when I looked in the rear-view mirror, I saw the car turn around in an alley and it started driving towards us.
In my teenage mind, I had the following thought and blurted out to Mark: “It must be the cops and they are going to bust us for curfew violation!”. The car looked like a cop car, like a Ford LTD or similar, so I said: “Let’s go inside”. I turned off the ignition, opened the door, turned towards the back of the car, and suddenly things got real serious, real fast.
Staring Down The Barrels of a Shotgun
As I turned towards the back of the car, a sawed-off shotgun was thrust towards my face. The barrels were so close to the bridge of my nose that my eyes crossed as I looked down the barrels. When this first happens to you, a couple of things become abundantly clear. First, you quickly understand that you are not in control. Second, you realize that instant death is a real possibility.
When you have a shotgun suddenly pointed at your face when you least expect it, is not like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. You don’t stand there all calm and collected and say to Elmer Fudd, “Ah, What’s up Doc!”, when he is looking at you saying “I’m gonna blast you Mr. Wabbit”.
Instead, what happens is your brain goes into a mode of high-speed recording. It is like your brain becomes an ultra-high speed recording device where every nuance of the situation is forever emblazoned in your neural network. In other words, you remember everything as time seems to slow down. I think this happens because deep inside our primitive mind, we know the end is very near as our lifetime becomes compressed into moments.
At the same time the shotgun was thrust at me, Mark was met with another assailant that was sticking a pistol towards his head. This simply meant that we were in a 2 on 2 situation, and we were at a big disadvantage with three barrels to none.
At this point of the story, I have been tempted to go into the long format that I occasionally have been known to do. I have thought about weaving in alternate stories to explain the time compression I was feeling.
I wanted to explain to you how I saved two college students from getting crushed as they attempted to step in front of an old Cadillac that was getting hit from behind by a semi truck that was bouncing down the road towards us with its brakes locked. I wanted you to see the shattered tempered glass that exploded from the car windows and flew through the air all around us, as my fast reflexes allowed me to reach out and pull those kids back to safety.
I wanted to explain how I vividly remember the head whiplash of both Grandma and Grandpa as they sat in that car as it was being compressed in half. I wanted you to see the damaged Cadillac explode forward like a billiard ball collision happens, as Grandpa’s foot came off the brake and the truck’s momentum was transferred to the Cadillac. Instead, I’m going to continue with the story and keep this one short.
For whatever reason, the robbers decided to force us into a lighted hallway in our apartment building. As I walked by the shotgun man, he stuck the barrel on my spine to force me into the hallway. With each impact of the barrels on my spine, I expected to hear the blast and feel the heat as the pellets sliced through the core of my body. My brain was convinced that I was going to be cut in half by the hot, searing pellets.
With our hands held above our heads and guns pointed point-blank at us, the robbers tried their best to steal anything they could from us. The took my watch, our remaining money and the car keys to Mark’s new Firebird. What I realized at this time were at least three things.
First, I determined that shotgun man was nervous. I knew this because I could feel his hands shaking as the gun barrels were vibrating on my spine. Second, my friend Mark was not liking the pistol being pushed into the base of his skull behind his right ear. I knew this because he kept jerking his head away from the gun, and my peripheral vision allowed me to see these movements. These movements made me fearful that the trigger was going to be pulled accidentally and Mark’s life would be over. Finally, my primordial brain went into a life-preservation mode. All I could do was to repeat the following phrase: “Please don’t shoot us!”. I wanted to live.
I wanted to live because six months prior to this event, I had lost my best friend in the world – my big Brother Danny. Danny had died at age 26 after undergoing a pacemaker operation. Just before Danny died, I had the chance to talk to him. I told him that I would be back to the hospital in a little while to see him.
I had to walk several miles home, through several feet of snow to pick-up radio control airplane equipment that I had ordered. Sometime during that cold and lonely walk, where no cars were driving down the roads due to the snowpack, Danny died. I didn’t know it at the time but I would soon find out when I returned to the hospital.
I realized that Danny had died when I finally understood why my family, the nurses and the doctors were all crying in unison. When the truth hit my brain, it went into that high-speed recording mode and my primitive brain took over. I hit the floor, convulsing while I hyperventilated uncontrollably. While the nurses got a bag to place over my face, someone helped pick me up and put me in a chair as the nurses told me to hold my head low and breathe into the bag.
That is when the truth became abundantly clear to me: we live a fine line between life and death. We are not guaranteed even one additional heartbeat and our lights can go out at any time. When God calls, you are going home. I learned that as a 15-year-old boy, and less than six months later, I was suddenly faced with my own mortality.
Earlier in the story, I told you that the 1970’s were a magical time for me. That was absolutely true. We watched Ali box in his prime, we ate apple pie and watched Hank Aaron set the home run record. We heard great music and lived carefree lives. Now as the 1970’s came to a close, not only was my brother’s life over, but mine was also about to be snuffed out for no reason at all. It didn’t seem fair to me and I wasn’t about to go down easily.
I remember thinking how I couldn’t imagine how my Mom was going to be able to survive the loss of both of her boys within six months. I begged those guys to let us live. I told them that Danny had recently died. I pleaded and begged for our lives and then did it again and again. I fought hard to live. I tried to appeal to their humanity if they had any at all.
After they took what they could get from us, they opened the door and backed out of the hallway. I knew that this was going to be the moment of truth. My body tensed so hard I felt like I was a block of ice. I tried to transform myself into a body of steel to deflect the bullets because I knew that the shotgun man was going to blast us through the glass door. I waited for the sound. I waited for the heat of the pellets. I waited to feel the blood drain from my body.
The only sound I heard was silence. Maybe I heard them drive away, and maybe I didn’t. All I know is that the next 36 hours happened without me going to sleep. It was during those hours that all kinds of chaos erupted from those guys which helped shape how I have lived my life.
To do the story justice (so to speak), I have to do some microfiche searching. I have to find the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times article that explains who they were and what they did after they robbed us. Although I know some of the details and I can see the story in the newspaper in my mind, the 38 years that have passed have made it impossible for me to read the words. I hope to complete this story sometime in the near future once the research is complete. These guys were really bad people as you will learn, and I know that Mark and I were lucky to have survived this encounter.
Thanks for reading.