Friday, December 18, 2009
The Places In Between (Conecuh County, AL)
In January 2002 a British man named Rory Stewart decided to try and walk across Afghanistan and write a book about his experience. Those he informed, both in Britain and in Afghanistan, were flabbergasted. They told him straight up, "If you do this, you will die." Rory did the walk and he survived to tell the tale, but a few times he came perilously close to being killed. He entitled his book, "The Places In Between". That is where he took his life in his hands. While he was in a village or town, the Afghani people fed and cared for him as called to by their religion. In the places "in between" those towns, it was a lawless country beyond the confines of strict religious observance and the kindness of strangers.
Using Stewart's title for my book of essays wouldn't make a lot of sense. My walks from one town to another have been physical taxing at times but largely uneventful. For the first three and a half months I have walked along, alternating between my thoughts and my podcasts while 100 days, 1,300 miles and tens of thousands of cars went by. Hardly anyone stopped. Virtually no one talked to me.
It has been a different experience since Tuskegee. Getting some coverage on TV meant that a few people recognize me from time to time and pull over to say hi and encourage me. Other times they stop and ask if I need a ride. I always appreciate the concern and support. Not until Friday did someone pull over and eventually threaten to kill me with a 12-gauge shotgun. But that did happen ... in one of the places in between.
In a trip of over a hundred days and thousands of kindnesses offered to me by people all across the Eastern United States, it saddens me a bit to have to focus on something this potentially dangerous. Yet it happened and I'm fine, so I feel like I need to tell the story. I've had a couple days to process it and I now understand the context in which it happened, so I can write about it with a kernel of humor, as I am apt to do. In the moment, however, it was quite unsettling.
It was a dark and stormy night. I've always wanted to start a story that way. In this case, it is fundamentally true. Thursday night was dark and stormy but I slept safe and sound in the Williams family cabin just outside of Evergreen. Friday dawned raw and still rainy, so I wasn't anxious to get on the road. Instead, I dawdled around Evergreen. I had breakfast with Marc and Sharon Williams and their friends Greg and Jan White at Famous Floyd's. I met with Lee Peacock at the Evergreen Courant newspaper. Then I waited out the last of the rain at the local library, catching up on email correspondence. By noon the library shut down so its volunteers could attend the city Christmas Party.
Route 84 runs west from Evergreen toward Monroeville. Since Monroeville was a bit of a side trip, I had planned to walk about 12 miles and then get picked up by Rev. Thomas Butts around 4pm after he finished attending a funeral for his brother-in-law. Twelve miles from Evergreen along Route 84 would have put me about as far as Repton. I never made it that far.
A mile or so before getting to the town of Belleville I heard a car honk a few times and pull up into a small cutout right where I was walking. As I said, cars pull over from time to time to say hi, but something about this felt wrong right from the start. They don't usually honk when they do so, and they usually roll down their passenger side window so I can talk to them. As I approached this car I saw the passenger side window had duct tape all around it. The car itself was in rather poor condition.
I briefly thought of ignoring it, but when you are walking you are a vulnerable target. If someone in a car is insistent on talking to you, they will. I stopped and looked in. The driver indicated that I should open the door. When I did I saw a white man in his early 50s, bedraggled, drunk, with a 12 gauge shotgun laying across his passenger seat.
At that moment a certain word flashed through my mind with an exclamation point attached to it. I won't type it here but I think you can probably fill in the blank. I knew right away I was in a precarious situation. When the man started talking, it only got worse.
"What are you doin out here," he yelled at me, his drunkenness making itself even more self evident.
I remained outwardly calm even though inside I was repeating exclamatory word to myself ten time over. "I'm walking to Monroeville," I said as friendly as I could.
"You are walking to Monroeville?" he repeated, looking confused.
"Yes. I'm on a walk across America. I've been walking for the past three months."
"Are you a Christan man?" he asked suddently, cutting me off as his mind reeled in a different direction.
"I am," I replied. He could have asked me if I was a one-legged Zoroastrian at that point and I would have said yes. I wanted to say nothing to anger him as I calculated my options.
"I'm a sinner," he screamed loudly as his head fell toward the steering wheel, fighting off tears. His head snapped back up, "We ALL are sinners." With that he looked directly at me.
I continued my role as yes man. "Yes we are," I said. "Well, I better be heading on .."
Again, he broke in. "I saw you out here and I know God sent you to talk to me."
No God didn't I thought to myself. The only person who sent him out here to harass a stranger was Anheuser-Busch. As he said that he was peering at me intently, straining his head to see where my left hand was. It was resting on his roof. He saw me looking worriedly at the shotgun laying next to him.
"If I wanted to kill you I would have done it already," he said matter-of-factly.
Great. That makes me feel better, I thought. You always want to throw the word "kill" in there when tying to put someone at ease.
"Get in," he said, moving the gun a bit closer to him to make room.
Ah, that wasn't about to happen. Not in this lifetime and not in the next. I've watched 20/20 enough times to know that John Stossel expressly discourages anyone from going anywhere with a potential captor. Whatever is going to happen, let it happen in public.
"We can talk here," I said. "I'm here to listen if you need to get something off your chest."
"I'm a sinner," he repeated. "And God sent you to come talk to me today." The volume of his voice continued to fluctuate wildly as alcohol played with his mind. "My house isn't far away so get in and you can come talk to me."
"I'm not comfortable with that. I need to keep walking this afternoon. We can talk right here."
"No," he said. "Get in!"
I sensed this encounter was coming to a conclusion. He was getting increasingly insistent and I was at the point where I knew I had to make a move. I kept focused on him, deciding within myself that if he went for the gun I was going to grab it first. With him being 10 sheets to the wind drunk, I had the reflex advantage.
He yelled at me to get in a couple more times and I politely declined each time. Then he looked at me wildly and yelled, "Get in the car or I'm going to fucking kill you."
Yeah, not what I wanted to hear. I don't remember even thinking it through in the heat of the moment. As soon as I heard that threat I pounced, reaching into the car, snapping his shotgun off the seat and running back into the road. A black pickup truck was coming down the road. I knew that I had to stop it and get help. The drunk man was starting to get out of the car, reacting slowly to what had just happened. For all I know he had a handgun with him as well.
I now know the driver of the pickup truck was a man from Auburn named Tim Dunnam. He is the hero of this story. I must have looked some kind of crazy running out into the middle of Route 84, shotgun in my right hand, jumping in front of his oncoming truck and waving at him to stop. Thankfully, he did. Without any time to spare, I looked at him as sincerely as I could and said, "I am walking and this drunk guy just threatened to kill me. I took his gun and I need to get out of here."
"Jump in the back of the truck," Tim said. I did, holding the shotgun awkwardly, and we sped off. Looking back I saw the drunk man walk out into the road, gazing off in our direction. Four miles down the road, after Tim had a chance to digest what happened, he called out his window.
"Where are you going?" he asked. "Monroeville," I replied. "All right, I'm gonna pull over. Come jump in with me and leave the gun in the back."
Together in the cab of his truck we got acquainted and I told him the whole story. Neither of us knew the area well so we wondered where the nearest Sheriff's office was. The closest we could find on our GPS systems was all the way in Monroeville, so we went there. Leaving the shotgun in the back of his truck, we went in to tell this unlikely tale.
The sheriff's office in Monroeville was as helpful as they could be. The situation was complicated by the fact the incident happened across the county line meaning they didn't have jurisdiction. Within 30 minutes it was decided that they would drive me in a sheriff's car back to the county line and the Conecuh County sheriff would meet us there and I would be transferred to them to give a statement and start the investigation.
I thanked Tim profusely and he went on his way after the sheriff took the shotgun from the back of his truck. When I was transferred to the Conecuh County sheriff's car I learned that the shotgun had been loaded and a shell was chambered. Yikes.
While waiting in the sheriff's office in Monroeville my host Tom Butts had called me. I filled him in on what happened and he told me he would meet me at the Evergreen sheriff office. Tom is well known in the area and personally knew both sheriffs in question. It is always nice to have the help of well connected people, especially when you are a stranger in a strange land.
At the Conecuh County sheriff's office in Evergreen I learned the wider story. I wrote out my statement and picked out the man from a picture of people the sheriff's office had on file who fit my description. My ID didn't surprise the sheriff deputies one bit. One, they knew the man to be a troubled veteran with a history of alcohol abuse and run-ins with the law. Secondly, and somewhat more humorously, he had called and reported his gun stolen shortly after he had threatened me.
When the sheriff deputy had gone out to take his statement about the stolen gun (before they heard from me at the Monroe County sheriff) they had found him at his trailer, stone drunk. Alabama state law prevents law enforcement from taking a statement from someone who is drunk, so they left. Upon hearing my story, they filled in the blanks and voila, the case was solved. The gun they got from me was the same one he had reported stolen.
Given that his gun was legal and his threat only a verbal one, I could have pressed charges against him for a misdemeanor menacing offense. The sheriffs told me that if I chose to press charges they would arrest him Monday and I would later be subpoenaed to come back to testify. I didn't want to do that. They explained what they knew of the man and that what he really needed was psychiatric help. Sober he was a really nice guy. Drunk, and reliving the demons of what he had seen and done in war, he was, as I like to say, a hot mess.
I asked them if me pressing charges would aid them in forcing him to get psychiatric help. They said no. They could use my statement either way to try and convince a judge to commit him for psychiatric treatment. But in Alabama that isn't easy to do absent help from a family member, and he had none in the area. Regardless, I decided to let it be. I had seen in his eyes that he was a troubled man. I felt sympathy for him and my only hope for him is that he get help, not be punished. They assured me he wouldn't get the shotgun back and then they wished me well and took me out to meet Tom Butts who was waiting for me patiently in the lobby.
The lobby of a sheriff's office is quite a bit for a first meeting, but Tom was as cordial and friendly as could be. He had a full weekend in Monroeville planned out for me. I was just happy to no longer be in a place in between. I was with new friends and they were looking out for me.