Fifty years ago, I was a jackleg production supervisor in Fairfax Cotton Mill Spinning Room—a “second-hand” in the vernacular. Dealing with 40 or 50 allegedly adult people occupied in a manufacturing production process only reaffirmed my long-held sneaking suspicion: that being, there is no such thing as a truly grown-up person, including me. One of the few good things about an aggravating second-hand’s job was the extra week’s vacation given to such harassed individuals.
During the week of July 20, 1969, the same week Neil Armstrong left the first footprints on the moon, I took the extra week’s vacation to which I was entitled.
I, my wife Yvonne, our two young sons and my baby brother, were spending a few days at my uncle’s rustic Lake Martin fish camp, a beautiful, if remote, tree-shaded spot hard at the edge of the water. Usually a really pleasant place to relax and kickback, there was a fly in the ointment this trip. Some low-life, hell-bound, snake-in-grass had stolen the camp’s air conditioner.
Sleep was impossible. At midnight it hadn’t cooled off a tad and we were all still awake. Inside the camp, the air was stifling hot. And outside was even worse.
After getting no relief taking a late-night swim, and sitting in my LTD and running its air conditioner, we decided to pack it in and head home.
We were at home an hour later, shouting hosannas to our air conditioner, which was running at full blast I might add.
Someone flipped on the TV, just in time to see Neil Armstrong hop off the Luna Lander and start prancing about the moon, bouncing like a balloon in the wind.
What an unforgettable day and even more unforgettable night. And the excitement wasn’t over. In fact, it was just beginning.
We watched the TV proceedings for a while and finally everyone drifted off to bed. Yvonne went to bed before me, but soon returned saying the bedroom light bulb had burned out. When she asked me to replace the burned-out bulb, I resisted, saying I was tired and would do it the next day.
Besides, I said, why do we need a light in the bedroom when we’re sleeping? I can do it tomorrow.
She gave up on the new bulb and hit the sack. I soon followed, but was unable to sleep.
I finally started yawning and beginning to drift off when I heard a noise at the window. Startled and fully awake again, I realized that someone was removing the window screen.
I sat up in bed and reached for the pistol I usually kept in the bedside nightstand. It was a large .357 Magnum Colt Python pistol, reputedly with the power to stop anything, man or beast.
But I had taken the pistol with me to Lake Martin – and mistakenly left it in the car. Which I wasn’t aware of until I reached for it—and discovered it missing.
By the time I realized the gun was not in the drawer, I could hear the window being raised. It was being raised because it had been left unlocked.
Why would anybody lock a window?
I was on full alert by now, certain Jack the Ripper or some deranged lunatic was crawling into our bedroom.
And me with no weapon.
I hurriedly jumped out of bed and hit the light.
Uh-oh, it struck me that, in my lethargy, I had failed to replace that pesky bulb.
Fortunately, I remembered the picker stick used to hold up another bedroom window when it was opened. A picker stick is a loom part that legions of mill hands brought home to prop up windows, club fish or to serve as a semi-pro self-defense weapon.
A picker stick can be quite effective used this way, as has been often proved. Deadly, even.
Events were proceeding at a terrifying pace. I could hear someone grunting as he slid through the window. I quickly grabbed the picker stick and stepped to the window where the uninvited guest was crawling into the house.
The room’s only illumination came from an outside security light on a pole across the road.
But, even in that dim blue light, by the time I reached the window, someone’s head was plainly visible in the parted curtains.
While the American Dream has varied definitions, the worst American Nightmare usually has only one—waking to find an unknown intruder in the house. This horror had come to pass in my jumbled life.
I drew back the picker stick, preparing to deliver a vicious strike to the exposed noggin. But, just as I was about to land the crushing blow, a timid little voice whispered loudly, “Hey Kerry—ain’t you awake?”
Kerry was my oldest son. I instantly recognized the voice of Jeff, a really neat kid who lived down the street. Jeff, my son Kerry’s friend, was also nearly deaf.
Jeff and Kerry, rambunctious to their core, had planned this surreptitious nighttime visit. (And, as later learned, not for the first time.) Only Jeff had come to the wrong window.
Realizing how close I came to braining this kid, I got so weak I had to drop to one knee.
I’m afraid I talked really ugly to Jeff, even though deaf, he got the gist of my meaning, and quickly fled into the night.
I woke up Jeff’s daddy with a phone call and told him what had happened. Alarmed, he said, “Jeff just barged in the back door. I’ll have prayer with him.“
I was wide awake again by then, and didn’t try to sleep. Yvonne, awakened by the commotion, had gotten up with me. We were sitting at the kitchen table a short time later when there came a knock at the carport door.
It was Jeff, accompanied by his parents. They ordered Jeff to apologize for the scare and ask for our forgiveness. Which he did, shaking, with tears streaming down his face. It was revealed that he and Kerry had been slipping out their window late at night and visiting each other. Which didn’t make a lick of sense, but when you think about it, totally unremarkable boy behavior.
Before Jeff and his parents arrived, I had retrieved the Colt revolver from the car. It lay there on the table between us as Jeff and his parents apologized.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the pistol. Had it been in its usual place that star-crossed night, there is a more than good possibility that I would have blown Jeff’s head off.
His intrusion had alarmed me so badly I was in a “shoot first and ask questions later” frame of mind. Only my forgetfulness in leaving the pistol in the car spared Jeff’s life.
As Neil Armstrong said, July 20, 1969, was a great step for mankind, for sure. But it could have been a bad step for me. And an even worse step for Jeff. Jeff could have gone to wherever the dead go, and I would still be carrying the agonizing memory of mistakenly killing a likeable boy I knew well.
It still sends a shiver down my spine when I think of it, lo, this half century later.
I never read or hear comments about Neil Armstrong’s Moon Landing without remembering how close I came to sending a thoughtless, but harmless pubescent boy on the journey from which no one ever returns.
Nothing but pure luck prevented such a horrible tragedy.
And they who dismiss the relevance of pure luck in our haphazard affairs haven’t been paying close attention. Trust me on this…