Saturday, June 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Out of gun barrel, the end of normal life

‘Let's kill 'em."

There are some words and some nights you never forget. They linger. They become an old, chronic ache seared into your memory — forever.

On March 18, 1967, I was an awkward 17-year-old kid on a date to attend a charity basketball game at St. Vincent High School in Akron, Ohio, which pitted (ironically) faculty members against members of the Summit County Sheriff's Office.

By the next morning, I would have grown up a great deal. By the next morning, I had become a victim of gun violence. By the next morning, I should have been dead.

It was cold. We had gotten to the gym late, and I had parked my mother's Buick in a dark alley near the school. The next day was St. Joseph's Day. No classes. As my date, Janet Fabrizio, and I sat in the car waiting for it to warm up and discussing where to go for a cheeseburger, there was a rap on the driver's side window.

Thinking it was a classmate outside the car, I rolled the window down, only to have a gun thrust against my temple. "What do you want?" I asked.

"We want you and the car," came the response from one of the two men standing in the darkness. I suggested they perform an unnatural act. The gunman pulled the trigger. I should have been dead. But the weapon misfired. Still, the gun came in handy to pistol-whip me across the face, opening up a gusher of blood.

This a long story. The details can wait for another time. But in essence what had happened is the two gunmen had just robbed and brutally beaten the elderly owners of a motel adjacent to the alley. When they exited the crime scene their wheel man had apparently gotten cold feet and driven off without them. So they hustled down the alley where they spotted exhaust fumes coming from the Buick.

And that is how I wound up, with Janet sitting next to me and the gunmen in the backseat, spending the next 90 minutes or so driving these thugs to Cleveland with a gun constantly pressed against the back of my head.

Eventually we found ourselves parked behind a dry cleaning store in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland, the scene of race riots the year before.

"Let's kill 'em," the shorter and somewhat more humorless of the two gunmen said. I figured I had seconds to make a lunge to push us out the door before the taller of the two vetoed the idea. We were instructed to get out and start walking toward Superior Avenue, where they told us we could find the car. And we did.

The cops never found the men who had assaulted the motel owners and myself. But they might as well have moved into my life.

Not a day has gone by since that night 46 years ago that I don't find myself pausing — albeit briefly — to ponder the fact that a desperate man once tried to take my life with a gun. There but for the vagaries of fate, I could have wound up like former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords — or worse.

After traumatic events such as the shootings in Aurora, or Tucson, or Newtown, we often hear about returning to a "normal" life after a healing passage of time. This is a myth. There is no such thing as a "normal" life when blood is shed, hearts are shattered and memories work overtime.

Since March 18, 1967, I have not lived a normal life. I can't imagine how the victims and surviving family members and friends of those lost to the nation's irrational preoccupation with violence have ever drawn a normal breath.

Would universal background checks bring an end to the epidemic of gun violence across the country? No. Nobody believes that. But the imposition of universal background checks would mark the beginning of the large mosaic of needed gun reforms to at last bring some coherency to the nation's weapons culture.

All the families of the 20 murdered children and the six fallen school employees of Newtown wanted was for the United States Senate to honor the memories of the dead by taking one, small, watered-down step toward gun rationality. But it was too much for 45 Senate toadies of the National Rifle Association who voted against expanded background checks for gun buyers.

It is tragic enough that these survivors and families must spend the rest of their days grieving the loss of their loved ones. Now they are burdened with the knowledge that 45 U.S. senators don't want to remember — or care.

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