Danger Close - Chapter One
- Published: Monday, 07 January 2008 00:00
That night I was with my friend, Steve Shaulis. We had just completed an intensive first year of training for our future jobs and, since we were among the minority that had succeeded this far, we were celebrating.
Steve was from Baltimore and had made the pilgrimage to Ocean City many times, so he knew the hot spots. We were in such a hurry to get there from North Carolina that, when our stomachs grumbled in Virginia, we didn’t stop for food, except for some raw corn that we plucked from a field along the way. Finally we arrived, downed some real food, and made our way to a beachside converging point known as the Surf-n-Suds nightclub.
The place was filled with college-types; the drinking age was eighteen, so young blood coursed freely. The post-high school crowd was testing its wings, away from home or the dorm for a summer escapade.
As we toured the bar, a man approached, got uncomfortably close, and snarled his contemptuous opinion of our short haircuts in Steve’s face. A brown beult with an Indian head buckle marked the border between his blue pants and beige shirt. He wore a white metal necklace, and on his right arm was a tattoo, which seemed to be a marijuana leaf. I’d experimented a little myself during the waning months of high school. It confused me—but not enough to celebrate with a tattoo. On his left arm he had taken pains to emblazon in red: Death Before Dishonor—a clear warning to all of dangerous waters, like a sign that says “No Swimming—Crocodiles”
He was nearly half a foot taller than me, heavier and hyped-up as if on some kind of upper. Coke? His hand movements were wild and jerky, his head bobbed, and his words revealed that he traded in the currency of intimidation and violence. Steve and I were surprised at the sudden onslaught.
A year later, a newspaper article would quote an eyewitness who had seen the man: “He seemed crazed.” A young female acquaintance said that his behavior “scared me.” He had cut a swath of fear that day. His scraggly brown hair contrasted with our clean-cuts, maybe reinforcing the idea that we were easy prey. He was there with some friends and his younger brother who, according to later reports, had also felt his unfettered hostility that day, but they were peacefully occupying a table.
His mouth kept talking as if it weren’t well connected to his brain. Pressing in on us, he demanded: “Do you punks want some of this?” I glanced at Steve, he shrugged his shoulders, and we walked away. But we
didn’t realize how aggressive the man was, thinking he was just a barroom blowhard. Maybe it egged him on when we didn’t take him seriously. Within a few minutes I forgot about him.
Steve had disappeared into the crowd, and music was blaring from the live band Drawbridge, when the man suddenly reappeared. He resumed his tough guy routine, pointing angrily in my face. The painfully screeching music blurred his words, but the anger in his gray eyes and violent hand gestures was clear. Some words made it through: “Fuck you! You fucking little punk,” he yelled, jabbing his finger at my chest.
I was small, down to maybe 145 pounds after the arduous training, but he couldn’t see the muscle fiber through my loose shirt.
“Please leave me alone,” I asked, frustrated, but suddenly alert. I raised my hands, showing my palms as if to say Stop, and said: “I’m not gonna fight you.”
I avoided eye contact and was giving him no excuse to attack, which was all he was looking for. When I asked him to leave, he actually went away, but soon returned to badger me, so I went to a bouncer and asked for help. The bouncer spoke to the man, who angrily returned to his friends.
Soon I was chatting with a pretty girl, and Steve was off somewhere doing the same, when the man returned with another blast of profanity, and the smug arrogance of a larger man who knows he is physically in charge, the master of all those who are smaller and weaker.
He must have seen the girl as an opening; if he shamed me in front of her, maybe he thought that he could enrage me. He was ugly and mean, and though the girl had been showing some interest, she wasn’t keen on hanging around for a macho display. She left me standing with him.
The night was becoming an ordeal, and when the girl walked away, I felt anger pulse through my body. My hands tingled; there was a wrenching in my stomach.
Enough is enough.
“Let’s go outside!” I bellowed above the music.
Excitement flashed over his face.
He headed for the door that opened onto the boardwalk and the beach. I followed closely behind, and for a few moments I had an extreme advantage. One should never pick a fight, then turn his back on the intended victim. My muscles trembled as if under spring-tension, begging for release, for justice. But the world would not be fair tonight.
We made it to the door and he walked out first. Gotcha!
This was not the place, and he was not worth it. Once he was outside, I told the bouncers that the man was still harassing me, then wheeled back around to more interesting matters. Inside, I laughed, tickled at my cleverness, but the confrontation left a heat in my body, like that of a lantern after
you cut off the gas: the mantle keeps glowing until all the fuel in the pipe is burned.
I searched for the girl to explain, but she was short and had disappeared in the crowd. As I pin-balled through the mob, I ran into Steve and told him what happened. Steve said that if the man caused any more problems, he would ask his friends for help. He knew some bouncers, which was a comforting thought. Steve was very tough, powerfully built and smart. His favorite sport was rugby and his idea of fun included jumping out of airplanes at night. With Steve and his friends, I felt I had a constellation of protection and backup. My body was still tense, but I was doing my best to will it back down. Relax. Change the subject. Look at all the girls in this place!
The man returned. Steve took control of the situation, asking him to walk outside where it was quiet, away from people. The man agreed, obviously primed for action, though he was outnumbered two to one. We all three walked outside, where Steve asked a doorman for help.
A bouncer later stated: “I asked what the trouble was, and spoke to [the man] and said, you know, you seem to be having trouble. . . .”
With the bouncers looking on, Steve, who was better with words than I was, explained calmly to the troublemaker that he would be removed if he didn’t settle down. It took some time, but Steve’s reasoning appeared to have brought peace.
A bouncer observed, “Steve Shaulis and Mr. Yon turned to me and said ‘O.K., everything is all right’ . . . They shook hands . . . Steve Shaulis put his arm around [the man]. …”
I figured it was finally over. We walked inside, and the man actually bought Steve a drink as I headed into the crowd. As they drank, I wandered around the dance area and found the girl, who was by now talking to someone else. I moved in and asked her to dance, but she was put off.
“No thanks,” she yelled above the music. My heart sank. She turned away and kept laughing with the handsome vulture that had swooped in. Her words were final. The door slammed in my face, and they were laughing together on the other side, while I stood alone in the crowd. What a night.
I didn’t know it yet, but it was only getting started.
I went for a beer and to scope the area for someone else to talk with, but the man apparently had no intention of going away.
Why won’t this guy leave me alone?
I did not escape him. Like a nightmare, every time I dropped my guard, he was back. He approached confidently, invading my space.
What a jerk! Where is a cop when you need one?
I went for help, for backup, for a mediator, for whatever it would take to make him leave me alone! I asked for help from the employees and patrons, or just walked away, probably a dozen times.
Finally, after he had stalked me for what seemed like hours, I had the idea of buying him a drink—surely the peace offering would settle him down.
The gesture of buying the beer did not calm him; in fact, he must have felt that the cold, sweating glass in his hand was proof of my submission. I had showed no trace of courage, except for the time I tricked him, and likely he saw that as cowardice. All I wanted was to get away; there were females all over, and I had been training so much over the last year that I had not been on a single date. Yeah, I was girl chasing, but most of all, I wanted to relax and talk with “normal” people. Particularly female people.
In buying him the drink, I accidentally must have led him to believe that if he used intimidation, I would surrender my dignity and my money to make him happy, like a frightened dog rolling over to offer its throat and belly in exchange for “free” passage. But perception is not always reality, and the time had arrived for each of us to pay for our respective blunders.
He said that he was in the Army Reserves. I was not impressed, but attempted conciliation by asking: “Are you a sergeant or something?” My question was not well conceived, nor apparently did he want to lighten the conversation.
His anger-level soared and he replied: “Are you fucking with me?! You know I’m not a sergeant major!”
“No,” I answered. “I asked if you are a sergeant, not a sergeant major.”
You can’t win with this guy. No matter what you say he will find something wrong.
If he was in the Reserves, especially with his scraggly hair and the wispy growth on his chin, he must have been a problem soldier. Maybe that’s why he zeroed in on our haircuts.
As we leaned over the bar, elbow to elbow—the music was not as loud there—he held the drink that, I now realized, I had misguidedly bought him. The man was to my left, and to his left a patron sat hunched on a stool, elbows on the bar. Earlier, I had asked the man at the bar for help. He saw that the angry drunk was back, and that we were talking. I was unaware that a bouncer had moved closer and was shadowing us.
As the angry man drank, his tone changed. Maybe alcohol made him mean. Maybe life had made him mean. And his tattoo, Death Before Dishonor—what did that mean? That he would fight to the death? His death, or mine?
He glared down at me over his right shoulder. Suddenly, he pushed back from the bar and stepped behind me. Defensively, I turned around to face him. He put his hands on the bar so that I was between his arms, his body, and the bar. We were face to face. His alcohol-reeking breath slurred venomous words and spittle into my face. With my back to the bar, my position was bad, so I maneuvered right, pushing through his left arm so that we
swapped places. I stayed close, crowding him against the bar.
The spring tension was difficult to restrain. I knew my body would launch into his at the slightest indication of violence.
I figured that the cowboy boots he wore were the type known as “shit-kickers.” When you hit the ground, they kick the shit out of you. He wasn’t a cowboy, and the Surf-n-Suds was not a country western joint, but he was picking a fight.
He might be armed. Boot knife? Some people are walking arsenals, but you can hardly detect concealed weapons. I was unarmed and the only knives I owned were for my job as a soldier.
The most dangerous creature on the planet is the physically developed, yet still immature, human male. In their worst form, young males represent the ultimate killing machines. They are the pinnacle of unpredictability.
The situation was getting too serious. Everything I did provoked him. The act of pushing his arm out of the way upped the ante. It was time to find Steve and go somewhere else, but before I broke contact the man had some final words.
“I’m gonna kill you,” he spoke calmly.
I believed him.
Fear—my body shifted gears.
I felt a hard jolt as the evolutionary cocktail of adrenaline and other survival chemicals dumped into my bloodstream.
He had crossed a magical line.
Negotiations were over.
It was time to leave, while it was still a possibility. He said that I would soon be maggot meat, because he would stab me, shoot me, or both. If I had any doubt of his sincerity before—it was gone. He said that if I left, he would kill me outside.
The man is a lunatic! I’m staring at a killer!
Surprisingly, his tone was no longer angry. He seemed calm, like nothing was going on out of the ordinary for him, like this was just your typical Friday night, in your typical nightclub: Anywhere, U.S.A. In my head, alarms screamed: this is a very dangerous man.
His body changed somehow. Maybe it was his eyes, or his feet—I don’t know. His right hand clenched into a fist, but, probably because he was half-drunk with alcohol and half with hatred, his body showed the obvious signals of attack that are hard to describe but easy to see. I noticed his right fist coming up. I was galvanized by fear.
My left hand landed solidly, striking his right shoulder.
The open-handed blow was forceful and caused him to spin to his right, throwing him off-balance so that his punch was weak. My hand was on his shoulder, my fingers tightly gripping his shirt and flesh.
My right fist slammed into the left side of his face. The blow rattled my bones.
His head snapped back.
There was no turning back. It had begun.
Nothing existed outside of the fight.
If he wanted an excuse, he now had it. His anger-powered response likely would be a bright red, uncontrolled, maniacal rage. By landing the first punch, I gained a momentary advantage, but I could not let up or he might destroy me with his rage and superior size.
I didn’t want to die.
I had the power of desperate fear.
I kept him off balance by gripping his shirt and flesh with my left hand, pushing hard while quickly moving in. My shorter reach had become an advantage; so long as I stayed practically on top of him, his longer reach was actually a handicap. He was like a man who brought a rifle to a wrestling match.
As my left hand continued to push on his shoulder, the bar to his rear prevented him from stepping back to punch me.
After the first blow, my right fist followed up reflexively with another. But he was a moving target, and my fist skipped off his face at a bad angle, doing little harm.
He had a chance to react, and for a moment I was completely vulnerable. But he did not respond and was off balance, still recoiling from the first punch. He was still on his feet, or at least gravity had not yet brought him down.
While my left hand pushed his shoulder, the third right-handed punch landed sharply, unopposed on the left side of his face. I threw a fourth punch, but only partially, withholding it for some reason.
He was limp.
It had happened so quickly that few people saw the action. It seemed to me that the fight was over in about two seconds. A witness said four.
I released his body and it flowed silently off the bar, then crumpled into a pile on its right side on the dark, dirty floor at the feet of some patrons. He seemed stunned, or even unconscious. In the rush, I did not search him for weapons.
His friends and his brother were potential threats, and the bouncer was closing in quickly—on me. Fear told me to bolt for the nearby door, to escape. But I couldn’t leave my friend, so I ran to find Steve in the crowd. Some men began chasing me, but I was quicker at threading through the dancing people who were unaware there had been a fight, and got to Steve first.
A bouncer said later: “He then proceeded back into the bar to Steve
Shaulis … 25 or 30 feet away. He said something to Steve. …”
“COME ON! WE GOTTA GO!” I yelled in Steve’s face.
He replied calmly, yelling above the music, “Wait a minute!”
He didn’t believe that we had to leave; he thought we could explain that the fallen man had started it. If Steve wanted to stay, that was his choice, I thought, but to me, the man I’d just issued a black eye and a sore jaw was a lethal threat. When he regained his senses, I knew negotiations were out.
Three or four big men were quickly making their way through the crowd. There was no time to waste.
I grabbed Steve’s collar and yelled, “COME ON!”
He said, “Just wait!”
I screamed, “YOU’RE ON YOUR OWN!” released his collar and sought to escape.
A big man had nearly reached me when I again fled into the crowd. There was an area devoid of people just in front of the back emergency exit. I accelerated and hit the exit in almost full flight. The double doors were chained shut, though earlier they had been open. I crashed into the right door so hard that I recoiled and nearly fell over backwards. My head smashed into the metal. It was a serious impact. I staggered for a few seconds, but shook it off and quickly regained my senses.
A bouncer cornered me. He told a detective later: “I stopped Mike, told him that he was waiting for the police, this boy seemed like he was really hurt and I wanted him to wait. He said to me at that time, ‘O.K., I’ll wait for the police.’”
I had no intention of waiting for the police.
I raised my hands as in surrender while lowering my head to show my non-threatening intent. I allowed the bouncer to step behind and put me in an arm lock. I would let him escort me to the door, then go for the escape. As we took the first steps toward the front, three men closed in while the man behind me maintained his arm lock. I stayed loose and offered no resistance so that the bouncer would be off-guard.
I was not a karate expert, but the bouncer took the bait, relaxed his guard and did not properly set the lock. I could escape when ready. When the three men were about ten feet away, I moved.
The bouncer said: “At that point… he broke through my grasp. . . .”
I popped out of the lock, ducked low to take advantage of my smaller size, and scampered on all fours like a squirrel between two of the approaching men before they could react.
I jumped back to my feet, and threaded my way through the crowd toward the door where another bouncer stood, unaware. Someone yelled to the doorman to stop me. I was flying like a cannonball and would crash through him to unplug the exit if he blocked the way, but with the loud music he didn’t hear the alert.
I shot out the door, past the bouncer, the other men in pursuit; dashed down the boardwalk, jumped off into the first dark area, and flew over a fence or some such hurdle, which put an obstacle between us, and that was it.
I got away. Or so I thought.
I put some distance between us—not much, maybe a quarter mile—and ended up in an area with lots of people. I stopped running, so as not to draw attention, and caught my breath. It was almost midnight, but this being tourist time, some stores were still open.
I ducked inside a shop. To cover my short hair, I quickly picked out a Gilligan hat that I could pull down, almost covering my eyes, and a helium balloon to make me look younger. With the balloon and hat, I probably went from looking fifteen to appearing fourteen. My body trembled and floated with a full dose of adrenaline as I did my best to keep a poker face.
Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, I pulled some cash out of my left sock and walked to the register. I had not bothered to check the price, or how much the cashier rang up; I just handed over a twenty dollar bill and kept watch on the door, being as inconspicuous as possible. The cashier kept talking with another woman and hardly looked at me as she counted back the change in bills and coins, to which I paid no attention. I tore off the price tag, pulled the hat over my head, bent down and stuffed the bills into my sock, said “Goodnight,” and walked to the door where I stopped.
I held the coins and price tag in my right hand, the balloon in the left. From the doorway I scanned the sidewalk. It looked clear. I pulled the hat lower over my eyes, stepped out of the shop among the other tourists, began walking down the sidewalk, and dropped the loose change and price tag into the first trashcan I saw.
I had belted him pretty hard. That first contact was for the record books, I thought. The third was solid, too, but my hand didn’t seem broken. I would have to wait for the excitement to wear off and for my blood to cool before feeling the damage. After a serious emergency, it is important to examine oneself; the emotional experience can be so intense, that often soldiers and police officers do not realize that they have been shot or wounded until later. I had broken five bones as a kid. I would know in the morning if the number might climb to six or more. But there was no time for that now.
After the troublemaker’s cobwebs cleared and he pulled himself off the floor and stood up in his shit kickers, the knots on his head would be a throbbing reminder of my existence. By now, Death Before Dishonor and friends must be hunting like rampaging hyenas searching for what they thought was a rabbit. Rabbits aren’t supposed to fight back. Revenge! They
would want my blood and my hide, I was sure.
I didn’t know what he and his sidekicks were driving, and if they recognized me first, they could shoot me. Or they might be on foot. If I saw them first, I could probably outrun them, but not their bullets.
The thought of checking in with the police passed through my mind for a moment. A very brief moment. The Army would not be happy about tonight if word got back, so I axed that idea. I was on my own.
But there was another problem: Steve had stayed behind in the bar. We needed to link up and get out before the police got involved. We had not rented a hotel room. Steve was supposed to meet a friend, who would put us up, but I didn’t know the friend’s last name, and this was my first trip to Maryland. Linkup would be dangerous.
It would be crazy to walk inside the Surf-n-Suds to try to find Steve. So I crept back in the shadows and watched his truck from a distance, sitting down, crunching up like a cannonball, letting the balloon bob overhead in a way that said, “I’m not the one; I’m just a kid.”
Surely Steve realized that I would get in position to watch his truck, but he didn’t come out.
The police and an ambulance arrived.
Uh oh—an ambulance. Two ambulances. I hit him pretty hard. Must have shattered his jaw. Son of a bitch deserved it.
What about Steve ? Oh my God. Nothing I can add now with the police and ambulances there.
Steve might be injured, or worse, which worried me immensely, but if that were so we would link up at the hospital—I hoped. It was senseless to get arrested for nothing, and to create serious problems for both of us if Steve was okay.
My universe was focused on self-preservation.
The past year’s military training kicked in: gather information.
I boarded a local bus and, as the driver wrestled the big steering wheel, pulling away from the curb, I sat up front to hear the radio. A scattered handful of passengers were on board, but none were talking. Soon the speaker crackled with an inaccurate description of me, suggesting I was much larger. The distant voice added that I was with Special Forces, a “Green Beret.”
They had correctly identified me. That meant that Steve was still around, or someone who knew him, maybe one of the bouncers. The voice said that the man had been hurt, which explained one ambulance. I figured it was probably a broken jaw.
Well, it looked like I needed to settle the dispute. After all, there were witnesses galore to support me, and the police knew my name so there were no good options. Better to settle it quickly, to contain it, because if the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg caught wind about a “barroom fight,” the
Maryland police might be the least of my concerns. I had a secret clearance to protect, and if they couldn’t trust me to avoid fights, my brief stay in Special Operations was over.
I figured that I would file a complaint against the man and, with all the witnesses and some luck, he would get the broken jaw and the charges. Ha! The ambulance and the radio report meant that he was out of action and not looking for me. It was doubtful that his friends were searching without him leading the pack, especially now that the police were involved.
I would have to deal with the Special Warfare Center, but that was for later. For now, I was shaking but starting to feel better, much better, even euphoric. I wanted to laugh loudly and sing a happy song of victory for whipping his ass after all that he had said and done. He had followed me around the club, scared off that nice girl, and threatened me.
The euphoria transformed everything that had been so frightening into something extremely funny.
He ‘11 think twice before pulling on his boots to go downtown!Ha ha, those men chasing me looked like a Chinese fire drill. Whoa! That was close. They almost clobbered me.
The closer the horn, the sweeter the pass. Toro! I was never an adrenaline junky, but I could see how people get addicted to the stuff.
I had cracked my head against the back door of the Surf-n-Suds, but no teeth were raining out, and I didn’t have a headache or even a scratch, so far as I could tell. I floated in the clouds, high on the survival chemicals in my blood, and feeling that justice had been served. A lesson had been taught to a very dangerous man, a menace to innocent people, after I had done everything possible to avoid trouble. My mind replayed the scene.
I even bought him a drink. Boy, that was dumb. But he didn’t ‘t get to enjoy it. I bet they’ll pump his stomach at the hospital before they fix his jaw.
Sweet victory and justice all at once. I only needed to find Steve and figure out how to approach the police.
As I considered my next move, an update burst through the airwaves and into the bus with a tense statement that the “victim” had died. I was wanted for a possible homicide. The voice continued, and, as it repeated my description, I froze.
Oh my God.
I sat motionless.
Adrenaline flooded my veins.
The world went silent.
I was alone.
The only person alive. Standing in a silent wasteland.
A blood red fear exploded throughout my body.
I was back in the world.
They were after me. I was the enemy.
An All-Points Bulletin was issued and off-duty officers were called in. They were throwing all their forces at me. The warning was reissued every fifteen minutes.
Homicide?I’m no murderer.
The bus driver sat only a few feet away and said, “I sure hope that I don’t run into that guy tonight.”
This was just too weird to fathom. For an interval of distorted time his remark hung in the air, then seemed hilarious.
I responded with, “Me, too! There are a lot of crazies out there,” and I laughed.
What am I laughing about! Suddenly I felt sick, and nothing was funny. There was no humor left in the world.
“Where are you from?” asked the bus driver.
“Alabama,” I answered, covering for my Southern accent; “I’m looking for my girlfriend.” Changing the subject, I said: “We came here with my parents, and she wandered off with them.”
He pulled the bus over to a stop where a couple waited to be picked up.
I stood and, as the doors opened, said “Goodnight,” keeping my head down as I passed him.
He said “Goodnight” to my back and I stepped down and passed the couple standing on the sidewalk. They boarded as I walked away.
Outside, tourists were everywhere. A steady stream of traffic sprinkled with police cars flowed up and down the road. I wore a T-shirt, shorts, running shoes and my Gilligan hat, holding the balloon that bobbed and tugged on the end of its string, pulling to be set free.
It was after midnight, and everything under the moon was fatally serious. I walked down the sidewalk and slipped into a dark area where I sat down to bring things into focus. I needed a break to sort things out. From my hiding place, the voices of passersby sounded like trains.
I had completed some “field craft” training a few weeks earlier. It was brief and they warned us that we were not spies, that it was only an introduction to guerrilla warfare concepts, but I was doing my best to make what
we had learned fit the situation.
My mind was churning every available piece of information. Meantime another part of my mind was defending me.
But. . . I’m innocent. He attacked me.Oh my God. He died?
I’m nineteen and he’s dead.
What will Granny think? What will my friends think?
But there are so many witnesses.
They know I’m innocent.
I was in mortal danger and being hunted. They would label me a “Green Beret” and assume I was a martial arts expert, crazy, specially picked because I could kill efficiently. Without feeling. The fact that I ended up in Special Forces as a teenager instead of college was as unlikely as killing someone in a fist fight. It was just a bizarre chain of events. I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.
When people say, “He is a Green Beret” at times they are probably dehumanizing the person in question, and saying he is a Rambo. I was young but experienced enough to know that they would not treat me like a fellow human.
We were warned in Special Forces training that soldiers returning from behind enemy lines are often killed not by the enemy, but, ironically, by the friendly troops with whom they try to re-establish contact. They are mistaken for the enemy and killed at the last moment by their own. Death by “friendly” fire—fratricide.
I wanted to turn myself over to the police but there was an important difference; they would not treat me as one of their own, but as a criminal. They were already labeling me the assailant in their written reports. The real attacker was being called the victim. After all, I had fled the scene, which could only be interpreted as a sign of guilt, right? I was the “Green Beret,” right?
The police may shoot me.Maybe I should wait a couple of days before turning myself in.
Maybe I should go to another town where the tensions are not so high.
I think this is an island.
They will watch the bridges. I may have to swim. I need a map.
I can go to a base and turn myself over to the military police.
Where is the nearest base?
But if I get spotted they might shoot me.
Maybe I should go to Mexico.
Maybe go live in the woods. Steal a boat.
He’s dead. I can’t believe this.They might shoot without giving me a chance to surrender.
And my “other mind” chimed in, Why didn’t I just leave when I’d had the
No time for that now.
Size up the situation.
The idea that I was presumed guilty and in danger of being shot turned out to be correct. If I wanted to run, it was better to go for it immediately, before they got organized. Normally the safest bet during evasion is to get far away, fast. If I could make it to the mainland, I would have the advantage of terrain—North America is a big place to hide in—and it would be dark for what, six more hours?
I would not make the mistake of taking a bus or hitching a ride. I would swim away. After I got to the mainland I would stick to the woods. Even if they had a clue, they would need bloodhounds and a lot of luck to catch me. On foot, I could easily make a hundred miles a week and find food along the way. It was summer. Cold was not a problem. Water was everywhere. I could stick to the woods as much as possible and be in Mexico before winter. I’ll have to learn Spanish.
The human desire to live told me to evade. Run away. My upbringing told me to face up to it. My gut told me that they would see my innocence; it also said that they might kill me.
To run away meant that I could never call my family again. I decided to have another look before making a decision. Even if I chose to run, I could always turn myself in later when it was calm. I left the relative safety of my hiding place and moved in closer to the scene to watch Steve’s white Datsun pickup. To approach the truck still seemed dangerous so I observed from a distance—luckily—since a closer approach would have taken me into a police ambush. (I later learned that police officers, too, were hidden, watching the truck.)
Police swarmed as if their hive had been kicked. Some wore plainclothes. They were easy to spot because they were searching, not just wandering about like the throngs of tourists. Besides which, they had antennas. I walked by them with my hat and balloon. I decided to face it. To face the police. When they heard the facts, they would know that his death was an accident. I was not a criminal. I would turn myself in to face justice.
Earlier in the month, I had parachuted as a member of a twelve-man team under moonless sky into the black wilderness for a two-week-long guerrilla warfare test. We had just been airlifted out by helicopter earlier in the week,
after successfully linking up with the “guerrillas” and hitting our guarded “targets.” That was nothing in comparison. This was not an exercise. This was live fire.
A witness later said, “He didn’t look scared.” He was wrong.
I can’t believe this. They’re looking for me.
More than twenty officers from the Ocean City Police Department were at the immediate scene, and who knows how many were searching elsewhere. The ones I saw looked jumpy. Danger hung thick in the air. I felt like every breath might be my last.
Two big policemen stood asking questions by the door of the Surf-n-Suds. Somehow I concluded they were less likely to hurt me when they were together, so I ditched the hat in a trashcan and released the balloon. I stood and watched it float into the void of blackness and wished I could go with it.
I approached the two uniformed men and said, “Hello, I think you would like to talk to me.”
They were holding notepads and had been taking the names of everyone who left the bar, and the police had been photographing the crowd. Another area outside was cordoned off with crime scene tape. The two police stood talking to a bouncer and to Steve, who surreptitiously signaled me to leave. The police didn’t notice the signal or pay attention to me. I motioned to Steve that I knew what had happened.
Earlier, when Steve learned that the man was hurt, he tried to help him. A police report said that Steve had found a pulse, and that he performed first-aid by treating him for shock. No wonder, with a man dying, Steve missed the linkup.
Now, standing next to the police, I silently mouthed the words “I know” so that only Steve saw.
He strongly reiterated his signal for me to leave while acting as though he didn’t know me. He was afraid that I would be hurt and silently screamed with his actions “Go away!”
The closest policeman dismissed me with the wave of a hand—shoo fly!—as if I were a pesky adolescent who should be at home. At that moment I wished I were.
They are called “police” or “law enforcement” or “officers,” but at times, as with soldiers, they are merely people with guns, and all that stops them from misusing deadly force is self-discipline and training. Wispy laws written in a distant world cannot keep a frightened or angry human from pulling the trigger if the mind tells the hand to shoot.
The men with guns turned away and kept talking, as I stood alone, trembling, within arms reach. Walkie-talkies for calling other people with guns hung on their left hips. They each wore pistols on their right hips. These men were right-handed.
I focused on the policeman closest to me. To regain his attention, I
reached out with my left hand and with my pointer finger, flipped the black rubberized antenna of the walkie-talkie hanging on his police belt. I was afraid to touch him for some reason. Both policemen looked at me with obvious irritation, causing something inside me to bark: Leave!
My feet took me away.
The ocean was only a rock’s throw beyond, so I stepped off the boardwalk and trudged through the soft sand until I was on the harder sand next to the water. Waves licked the beach from dark waters, and there was the smell of salty air carried by a warm summer breeze. I thought about swimming out into the dark ocean, but kept walking slowly, going nowhere. Certainly not running away.
My grandmother kept intruding on my thoughts. It was bad enough that I had been in a bar. What if I die tonight? It could kill her. And her final memory would be of me fighting in a dimly lit bar. I was drinking beer for Christ’s sake! Drinking, fighting, shot dead on the beach. My little sister looked up to me and was so proud of me, and now this. Some last memory.
I’ve got to turn myself in before something happens.
While walking, I watched numerous police patrolling up and down the brightly-lighted boardwalk—the police supervisor had called everybody and they were hunting intently, though I was in clear sight.
I walked slowly on the beach. Sounds murmured from the mouth of the ocean as black water collected in waves and collapsed on the shore. The ocean to my left meant that I was walking south. By now the police must have called Fort Bragg. They definitely know that I am with Special Forces. Maybe they know that I am trained as a weapons specialist? My job title, along with the dog tags that hung around my neck, was a heavy burden in light of my being hunted for murder.
To them, I was a Green Beret, a title unlikely to evoke mercy from a man with a gun.
It had been more than two hours since the fight. I was within their grasp and watching them for much of that time as they pressed their manhunt.
A witness described the encounter with the two policemen who had dismissed me with the wave of a hand: “[Mike Yon] just walked up . . . and then he started to walk away and I said to the policeman, that looks like the guy and they said he’s . . . too short . . . [The suspect is] five eleven and [that guy is] five nine or something and I said, Well, you should stop him 1 should think.”
Finally, the police realized who I was. They were on the boardwalk trying to look inconspicuous, which was difficult to do, since they formed what amounted to a skirmish line. It was obvious that the people carrying guns were afraid and prepared to use deadly force. Judging by the way they were
forming up and taking their time, they were respectful of their quarry and their movements suggested they were approaching a cornered lion.
Any false move on my part and I would be dead. I could do everything right and still be dead. My pace slowed to a shuffle as I estimated the center of the line of police and veered from the ocean darkness toward the light. I wanted them to see me clearly, to know that they were in complete control.
My hands clearly empty.
No need for violence.
My heart raced.
This was it.
More survival chemicals poured into my veins and I felt the jolt. If they shot me I would feel no pain. I would simply feel the thuds and die. I was helpless, utterly at their mercy. My life was theirs to take, or to leave.
Don’t trip or stumble.
They say that before you die, your life passes before your eyes.
This chapter is from my first book, Danger Close, a new edition of which is now in stock, shipping within 48 hours. Please click here for order information.