This is the story of one of the most memorable days of my life. One in which the memory is still quite clear over thirty-four years later. I’m sure that some things are no longer completely accurate, but, I can remember many of the details and sequence of events much better than even my wedding or the birth of my children. Those family events are more important to me, but, the memories are not traumatic so details fade over time. This story is deeply emblazoned in my memory and one of many reasons I am thankful to God.
This Thanksgiving holiday I am thankful that God gave me a calm demeanor and clear mind long enough to survive the experience, I’m about to relate to you. I thank God He allowed me to live to have three more children, see them grow up, and see my grandchildren. I am thankful that I lived to share this story with you.
It was a Monday night in late March 1982.
Working in Pinkies liquor store on the outskirts of Big Spring, TX on a Monday night can be boring. I brought my book to work; as the cashier there was little for me to do when there were no customers in the store. Even the bootleggers from the nearby dry county seldom came to stock up on Monday nights. I just finished reading my book, “The Day of the Jackel” by Frederick Forsyth and the thought in my mind was, “so ended the day of the jackel.” To this day I could swear that was the last line in the book, but, it turns out that is not the case. I’ve checked. Unless of course the edition I read was different from the edition I checked. In either case, the story ended and reality began.
At that very moment, before I even closed the book, two young men came in the front door wearing dark gray ski masks. It’s cold, but honestly, not that cold. One comes to the cash register pointing a handgun at my head and the other heads straight back to rear of the store. The guy now standing next to the cash register says, “This is a hold up.”
I’m thinking, “you’ve got to be kidding.” After all, a Monday night is absolutely the worst night to hold up a liquor store. Business is so slow that it really isn’t worth the risk and effort.
Then, as though he could read my mind, the kid says, “This is no joke. Open the register.”
Really? Was my facial expression that obvious? So I close my book, calmly place it on the counter behind me, and get up from the stool I sat on. Taking one step to the register I push the button to open the drawer without ringing up a sale. There isn’t much cash in the drawer. The robber looks at it and asks, “Is that all there is in register? What about under the change?”
I pick up the change tray and say, “That is all that is in here. For $4.15 an hour I don’t care what you take.” He hadn’t asked if there was money in any other place. I didn’t tell him about the wooden drawer to the side under the counter in which we put all checks and large bills. Not that there are many, but, there might be a few twenties and a fifty. He doesn’t ask. I don’t volunteer any more information than what is asked of me.
He empties the cash drawer of all bills and slamming the drawer shut, points the gun at me, and tells me to come with him. Stupid kid, he’s in front looking back and forth first at me then behind him as he walks backward to the back of the store. He’s pointing the gun at me and making me follow him. I can tell he is not comfortable in his role. He tells me, “Don’t be afraid, this is nothing against you.”
What does he care? In response I say, with conviction, “God takes care of me.” My instincts, or training from some other time, kick in and I start to take note of about how tall the young man is. I’m barely over five feet and he isn’t nearly as tall as my almost 6′ tall husband, so he’s probably 5′ 8″ or 5′ 9″ as close as I can tell. He’s a lightweight too. I figure he might be 140 pounds, soaking wet. His hair is a light brown and he has hazel eyes. As we round the end of the outside aisle in front of the beer cooler I see Cody, our stock boy, who is barely old enough to buy liquor himself, huddled down in the corner of the cooler. Poor kid, it’s cold in there, only a few degrees above freezing.
Entering the office area, a small nook next to the beer cooler door and between the front of the store and the back area warehouse area, I notice that Martha, the bookkeeper is not there. I assume that she too is in the cooler with Cody and that I hadn’t seen her. At that moment the other robber emerges from the narrow storage room where we keep the open case boxes of liquor that are used to stock the front shelves. Between the door to back warehouse and the side door to the narrow stock room he’s just exited, stands the safe. Impatiently, he jiggles the handles on the safe. Because he doesn’t know how to open it, he believes that it is locked. “Do you know the combination?” he asks.
“No,” I state calmly. He asked the wrong question and I answer honestly. I don’t know the combination. He should have asked if I could open it. It isn’t locked, it is never locked during business hours. Even if it was locked the combination is posted up on a small bulletin board on the wall next to the desk sitting just across the small office nook from the safe. But, he didn’t ask if I knew how to open the safe or if I could get the combination and I didn’t volunteer more than was asked of me. I begin to take note of this young man’s stature and physical features. He’s a little taller than the other one maybe 5′ 10″ with light blue eyes and sandy blonde hair, probably weights more like 160 pounds. He must be a little more observant than his companion and he’s bit more agitated. He seems to be in charge and my observations make him uncomfortable. He tells me to get under the desk with the instructions, “don’t look.”
It’s a good thing I’m short, I fit pretty easily under the old metal desk. Although I don’t try to turn my head to the side, only a slight bit and not noticeably so, I turn my eyes to the side to see as much as I can. They are wearing jeans and black tennis shoes. I’m listening to what is said. These two really do not know what they are doing, this might be the first time they’ve ever tried to rob a store. I can tell they are inexperienced. ‘Stupid kids,’ I think to myself. Not that I am much older. I just turned 28 yesterday. (Memory can fool you, I thought for a long time that this happened the day before my birthday, but, I looked it up for this post and it had to have occurred the day after my birthday.)
A car pulls up in front of the store. The boy in charge tells me to get out from under the desk and go out there and to ‘act normal.’ I think to myself, ‘what is ‘normal’ in this situation?’ Straightening up from being folded up under the desk, I walk out front. The person entering the door is Lou, the manager’s husband. The manager is away in Dallas attending a funeral. I have no idea what he’s doing here, though they do live just a little ways up the road, behind the store, in a house attached to the property. How did he know? He has a big old hunting rifle and tells me to move out of the way. So I head around the front of the beer cooler and back to the cash register. Lou is bad ass and there is gunfire exchange between him and the robbers. I have no idea who fired first. But Lou is apparently not prepared for the exchange and once the magazine is empty, he has no more ammunition.
“I have more shells out in the front seat of the car. Go get them for me.” Lou tells me. So I slip out the front door and as I’m about the reach the car I see a big man, with what appears to be a really big stick, come out from under the tree next to the front of the store. It is dark outside and I don’t know who he is or who he’s with. He is big and scares the crap out of me. Fearing the unknown, I run back into the store and tell Lou there is someone out there and I didn’t make it to the car. He reassures me that it’s okay and to get out of the way. I guess he isn’t completely out of ammunition because there is more gunfire. At this point I’ve crossed what is the the line of fire twice. My heart is racing and I’m crouching down behind the counter of the cash register. It really isn’t that safe of a place since the counter is made of wood. But it is in the corner and I’m convinced the known threat inside is better than the unknown threat outside.
About this time I see more car lights pull up in front of the store. Officers from the county sheriff’s department are arriving to save the evening. They approach silently, no sirens to alert the criminals. It doesn’t take long for everything to be over and the young men taken away in handcuffs. The store is a mess, a few broken bottles with liquor bleaching the floor tiles, a few bullet holes in the door jambs, but it’s over and no one is hurt. What a relief.
Martha, the bookkeeper, as soon as she knew what was happening, grabbed the keys to the warehouse door and slipped out before the robbers saw her. The warehouse door requires a key to get in or out so when she shut the door the only exit to the store was the front door. She went to the managers house to get help. Lou and his friend were at the house playing cards and they called 911 immediately.
I have no idea what possessed Lou and his friend, who was the person I saw coming out from under the tree, to arrive before the sheriff’s department, armed, to storm the store while the robbers were in there. As far as I know, as soon as it was apparent they wouldn’t get out of the store, the leader went back into the small store room and dropped his handgun in the wall between it and the warehouse. That wall was just a divider and did not go all the way to the ceiling so it was open at the top and all he had to do was climb the step ladder and drop the weapon down inside the wall. The handgun was not found, though rumor had it that later the manager retrieved and kept it for herself. A rumor, but one that is quite believable knowing what I learned about her a couple months later.
After it was all over I was sent home at about the same time I would have gotten off work. I arrived home very close to normal time. My husband and John, a friend of his who happened to be staying at our house at the time, were in the living room playing chess when I arrived. I calmly mentioned that I was lucky I lived to see tomorrow. They asked me what happened and I told them the story. Afterward they took me to a local tavern, Betty Lou’s, and I had a bottle of Michelob, it was the best beer I’ve ever had!
Blessings, and for all my US readers, Happy Thanksgiving!