Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Booze, Guns, Vietnam Vet and Mayhem in Mexico Part 1.

After high school, I rented an absolute dump on the west mesa of Albuquerque with two friends.  This shack was smack in the middle of some serious gang-ville and we were the only gringos stupid enough to live there.

One night, I was drinking with two good friends, Ray and Damon.  Ray decided that he wanted to go up to the mountains to shoot guns.  Being young and drunk, we agreed that it was a great idea.  We started loading up Ray's old turquoise Ford Bronco with booze and guns.  Just as we were getting ready to leave, my next door neighbor, who I'd never met came out and asked us what we were doing.  He was an old guy with scraggly long white hair and a beard that covered almost his entire face down to his chest.  We told him what we were up to and he quickly invited himself along.  The old guy ran into his house, grabbed a 357 magnum, gallon of vodka then jumped in the front seat of Ray's Bronco to join our late night adventure.

As we got onto the highway, the old guy started telling us about himself.  He was a decorated Vietnam Vet who was on lifetime disability from injuries he received in the war.  I could see some of the damage to his face that he'd received when a phosphorous grenade exploded next to his head while he was in a tunnel chasing Vietcong soldiers.  His stories were amazing and absolutely terrifying, it was a miracle he was alive.  

All went well on the drive to the mountain, that is until we came onto a portion of highway in Albuquerque called "the Big I".  The old guy started asking us why we were going shooting in the mountains.  At first, I didn't understand why he was asking this because we'd already told him, he was in the truck, with his weapon.  Then things went horrifically wrong.

In order to correctly convey the entire picture of what was happening, I have to go back to less than a year earlier.  My old friend Ray, who was driving the vehicle and sitting right next to the old guy, had been shot several times in a robbery.  He was working at a convenience store at night when 2 robbers came into the store and robbed him at gunpoint.  After Ray gave them everything they wanted, they made him lie on the floor where they commenced to shoot him multiple times.  Ray was shot in the back, hand and face.  He survived but was still nursing his injuries the night we took to the road for some target shooting in the mountains.

As I said above, we reached the Big I and things went horrifically wrong.  The old man started repeating over and over, “why we were going shooting in the mountains”.  He then hit a high octave as he was saying "you mother-fuckers aren't going to kill me".  Next thing I knew, he had pulled out his 357 magnum and put it in my face.  I was stunned.  It was not the first time I'd had a gun pointed at me and I'd already been shot at several times.  But this was bad, seriously bad.  We were barreling down the highway at 90 miles per hour, crammed in a small Ford Bronco, with an armed man who we now knew was very very sick in the head.  

I was frozen with terror.  It's a feeling that's really hard to describe to somebody who's not experienced it.  I believe it's like the stories you hear from solders who've been in close proximity battles and had to kill others.  I could hear Ray, almost as a distant faint voice, begging for my life.  His voice sounded hysterical and almost resigned to what was about to happen to me.  I couldn't look away from the old man's face, not because it was an inch above the pistols barrel or because the barrel was pushed against my face. It also wasn't because of some horseshit Hollywood machismo nonsense.  It was because in moment, I felt that my only hope was to connect with this guy in some way.  Everything got really quiet as i watched him put his finger on the trigger.  I could see his knuckle whiten as he started to pull the trigger.  In reality, things were not quiet.  I could see Ray's mouth moving, pleading with him.  I could see Damien doing the best he could as well.  Then he removed his finger from the trigger.  Everybody stopped talking.  I was hoping that this ordeal was over, but I was very wrong.

The old man began his crazy talk again but this time, he focused his rage on Ray.  He shoved his pistol deep into Ray's temple, and then cocked the gun.  Now I found that Ray and I had switched places, he on the verge of a horrible death and me pleading for his life.  As I was saying every word that came to mind to calm the situation down, all I could think about was how sorry I felt for Ray.  He'd already experienced the horror of being shot less than a year before.  He knew the confusion, terror and pain of such a violent event.  For the rest of my life, I'll never forget the look on his face and how his body reacted to the gun cocking; it was surreal.  

I started trying to convince the old guy to let Ray stop the car and let him out; nobody needed to be hurt.  I told him that we didn't want to hurt anybody and we should all just go home.  I know much more was said but it's really a blur.  You have to remember, this all happened in less than a minutes time, plus or minus, but it felt like hours.  There were tears, everybody was sweating.  I remember saliva flying from Ray's mouth as he pleaded for my life.  I also remember smelling urine, I don't remember if it was mine, Damon or Ray's.  Then, all of a sudden, with the gun cocked and now pushed into Ray's right cheek, so hard that Ray could not close his mouth, the old guy instructed Ray to pull over.  Looking back, I should have felt some sort of relief but there was none.  My first thought was how quickly could Ray slow down the old Ford going at 90 miles per hour before the old guy changed his mind.  Then I began to realize that he was telling Ray to pull over because he couldn't shoot any of us while the vehicle was moving without risking his own life.  This revelation was almost as terrifying as his putting a gun against my face.

I was spot on with my fear; he did intend to get the car stopped then shoot us.  Almost the moment the old guy told Ray to pull over, Ray had hit the brakes as hard as he could.  We were in the fast lane so Ray had to merge across 2 other lanes to get to the side of the road.  He did this so fast and with so much velocity that he almost rolled his vehicle.  Ray jumped the truck over the curb and onto the embankment and slid sideways to a stop.  The old guy opened his door and as he was getting out of the vehicle, he started to turn back towards us, cocking the gun as he raised it to shoot us.  Luckily, Ray popped the clutch and floored the gas.  The jerk was enough to pull the old guy off balance because his free hand was holding the door handle still.  I can't say how many times the old guy shot at us as we sped away but we were very lucky that he didn’t hit one of us.  As ray sped away, he violently pulled back onto the interstate highway.  He caused numerous vehicles to slam on their brakes and swerve to miss is.  I believe this is part of the reason the old guy didn't get the chance to get off a couple accurate shots.  He was first distracted by Ray jerking him off balance, then distracted by the numerous vehicles swerving, honking and screeching on the highway right next to him.

We got away unharmed.  We literally got a second chance at life.  Ray drove about a mile up the road before he pulled over.  We all got out and sat down on the ground.  It was all I could do to keep from vomiting as we sat there.  I remember looking at Ray and seeing his hands tremble as he smoked a cigarette.  I was again thinking about how horrible this must have been for him being the second time in a year that he almost lost his life to a gun.  Damon sat with his hands in his head saying “fuck, fuck, fuck” over and over.  It was a nightmare that I hoped to never re-live again in my life.  As fate would have it, our journey had just begun and we’d see more violence in the days to come.  

Ray is alive and well and has not been shot at, gun pointed at or threatened by somebody with a gun since 1987.  He has enjoyed a very successful career in the avionics industry and remains one of my oldest and dearest friends to this day.

Damon was killed in a tragic auto accident not long after this story took place.  The accident was more than 10 miles east of the spot where we dropped off the old guy, on the very same highway.  I think of Damon often and still miss him very much.