Comment Opinion & Features

At 17, a brush with guns, drugs and death saved my soul

I was introduced to guns, drugs, and death when I was 17, and it saved my soul. I was baptised on July 20, 1969 – the day Americans landed on the moon. By the time I was 17, the moon landing and my baptism had a lot in common in my mind:

• They were both pieces of history that my parents experienced and I didn’t.

• They both involved brief contact with a distant, cold, untouchable luminous orb.

• Both the astronauts and I had been earthbound ever since.

God was like the moon to me. I had stared up in wonder at both of them a few times, but then didn’t think much about either one. I did, however, think a lot
about death.

Teenagers are the natural audience of the “pop culture of death”, wearing skull T-shirts, watching movies whose makers bought fake blood by the gallon, and idolising guys like Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and James Dean ­– tragic heroes who died young.

On one wall of the bedroom I had at my parents’ home were photos of famous men, and I would challenge visitors to guess what they had in common: John Belushi, JFK, John Lennon, John Milton. The answer: they were dead guys named John. I remember being fascinated by Paul Simon’s suicide songs – A Most Unusual Man, Richard Cory, and others.

At the same time, living and life were more intense and certain in my teens than they would ever be again. Death was exciting to think about precisely because it was impossibly tragic. It was something that happened to other people, most of them old. It wasn’t something that was going to happen to me. But then it was.

At 16, I moved out of my parents’ house, and by 17 I was involved in two incidents with guns. The first was late one night when a friend – we’ll call him Mike – and I went to the Circle K to buy soda and cigarettes. Back then, you could find Circle K convenience stores on many street corners in Tucson, Arizona. And at night, you could find trouble at the corners of many Circle Ks.

Mike had a small yellow Triumph and a Chinese food delivery job. Because food delivery can be dangerous work, Mike kept an unloaded gun in the car.

We parked the car by the Circle K and walked into the store past the payphones at the corner of the building.

In the store, I bought a 48 oz Dr Pepper with no ice – and Mike bought cigarettes. His boss paid him weekly, in cash, and today was payday. Mike peeled bills off his wad of cash.

As we walked past the payphones again, the man by the truck asked if Mike wanted to buy any “herb”, which was slang for marijuana. The dealer helpfully gave Mike a sample of the product, and offered it to me, too. Mike approved, and asked for a dime bag – $10 worth.

But when Mike produced his wad of cash, our new friend – we’ll call him Robber No 1 – grabbed all of it and jumped into the pick-up truck, where another man, Robber No 2, was at the wheel, and they sped away. Adding insult to robbery, the truck honked its horn and flashed its lights playfully as it sped away.

Now, Mike had a gun, and we were teens. We knew exactly what we were supposed to do.

“Tom,” said Mike, “we’re going to get our money back.”

We took off after the robbers with all the speed that the slightly decrepit Triumph was capable of, and we found them a few blocks away at a stoplight. Mike rolled down his window and shouted. The truck took a turn, and we followed. Then it took another turn. Then another. We followed each time, until the truck pulled over to the left side of a street beside a dark, out-of-the-way park. We stayed in the roadway, but Mike cut our engine.

The two guys from the car leapt out and walked purposefully toward us.

Robber No 1 headed toward Mike’s door. Robber No 2 – the bigger of the two – headed toward mine.

“Now we’re going to take the rest of your money,” he said.

I remember becoming like a spectator at the scene, watching it unfold, the straw of my giant soda in my mouth.

Mike threw open his door, grabbed his gun, and pointed it.

Robber No 1 demonstrated for us what people do when you point guns at them. He stumbled backwards, threw his hands over his head, and begged for his life. “Come on, that’s not right. That’s not cool. Put it down. Put it down!”

Robber No 2 saw what was happening, ran to his truck, and drove away, literally leaving Robber No 1 in his dust. Robbers are cowardly by nature, and when guns get involved, they don’t assist, or wait, or watch. They flee.

When Mike saw the truck drive away – presumably, with his money – and when he saw the abject fear in the face of Robber No 1, he finally decided that he was going to have to give up his pursuit of his weekly pay. He put the gun under his seat, and started the car.

The robber rushed forward in a weird, panicked stagger. Mike’s car traditionally took a few attempts to start up. By the time he got it going, the robber was groping on the floor of the car for the gun. Mike pushed his hand away. The car started rolling. The robber jumped on, with one foot half in the car, holding on to the top with one hand, and groping with the other.

This part was like a movie. Mike hit the robber’s arm over and over again as we accelerated. Finally, when we were doing about 30 miles per hour, Mike shoved him away. He tumbled and rolled on the pavement behind us.

I remember our brief dialogue word for word.

“Tom,” said Mike, turning to me, “this is what life is all about.”

My cup slurped, and I realised that I had drunk 48 ounces of Dr Pepper without noticing what I was doing.

“Mike,” I said, “this is what death is all about.”

I didn’t just say it, I felt it to the very soles of my feet.

Just like that, death lost its romance. Looking back, it was one of my first steps back to faith.

To accept our baptism is to throw our hands up, dismiss death and cling radically to life. The baptismal promises are like the promises of a man with a gun pointed at him. In them, we reject the figure of death adamantly and totally – and we accept the figure of life with all our heart.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas