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The Last Shift

September 11, 2013

The actual events of that night were frightening. They set in motion a course of events that continues to haunt me to this day, nearly forty years later.

It was about six weeks after I graduated from high school, and I felt the need to move on. I had a taste for independence; a need to make my way in the world…to figure out who I was.

I wasn’t going on to college. My folks were blue collar workers and encouraged my brothers and I to follow in their footsteps. They saw no need for higher education.

I had entered the full-time work force and gave my notice at the small convenience store that my family owned. For two weeks, I was working two jobs, and it was on my last shift at the Dairy Store that my life was forever changed.

It was July 21, 1974. 10:02 pm. One of those sweltering summer days where the temp and humidity didn’t drop, even at night. Two-thirds of the little barn-shaped store was fronted with floor to ceiling plate glass windows and a door that was solid sheet of glass framed in steel. At night, I felt like I was in a fish bowl.

The store faced due west and had no window shades or blinds to deflect the brutal heat. It was an oven inside and I had both small windows behind the counter open to gather what small breeze I could. I made small forays into the coolers from time to time when the heat became unbearable.

Ten o’clock was closing time and I had turned the sign off and locked the door, leaving my keys hanging in the deadbolt. I was kneeling down, restocking the pop when I heard a tug on the door. I remember thinking that odd because I hadn’t heard a car pull up. I didn’t hear an engine; there was no crunch of gravel under tires. I hadn’t seen headlights…something that normally caught my attention when I was reloading the soda shelf.

A man stood at the door. He was dressed in heavy clothing…a heavy jacket, hat and face mask. I wondered if he was ill, being dressed like that on such a hot night.

‘Are you closed?’ He asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied.

In one swift move, he pulled a shotgun from behind his back and pointed it at me. Its barrels lay side by side and I noticed the light from within the store glinting off the bore of both barrels. ‘Open up!’ He ordered.

His accomplice, a man in similar attire, stepped out from the shadows, standing shoulder to shoulder with his cohort.

I froze.

‘Open up! They commanded, jarring me into action.

I stood on shaky legs and crossed the short span to the door. My hands were visibly trembling and I had difficulty unlocking the door.

The criminals shoved me into the store and behind the counter to the cash register. One of them grabbed a paper bag from the rack and yanked it open as the other demanded I open the till and fill the bag with cash. Both were wearing brand new yellow gloves. The ‘Handy Andy’ logo on the back of each glove was in perfect condition. These gloves had not been washed.

I managed to press the correct button on the register and the cash drawer sprung open. There was no alarm system in this tiny store. It had been robbed before…most recently less than a year earlier when my cousin was held up on a Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a pro football game, perhaps even the Super Bowl.

Her assailants used a rusty old meat fork with one broken tine as a weapon. They pressed it into her belly and demanded money. They parked their vehicle in front of a nearby driveway. What they didn’t know was that the owner of that blocked in Ford truck had to work an afternoon shift at the local iron mine and he couldn’t back out of his drive. He called the police and the criminals were apprehended shortly thereafter.

Most of the time, the store was ransacked in the dead of night. Thieves would most frequently gain entry through the small window on the north wall and steal cigarettes, pop, candy, and generally make a mess of the place in their search for the cash box.

I was shaking badly and they cursed me…demanding that I empty the till faster. Finally, the one without the gun pushed me roughly into the corner, pinning me there while he pulled tens, twenties, fives and ones from the drawer along with a few register receipts.

They bolted from the store, leaving me shaken and weak. My head was spinning as I tried to concentrate. Soon, I realized that I knew two phone numbers; home and the police department. I had no idea which was which.

The store’s phone was not located in the most logical place, behind the counter…it was clear across the store, on the other side of the plate glass windows. I would have to navigate my way through the center of the fish bowl to the relative safety of the other side. Once there, I could hide in the closet, reaching an arm out to call for help.

I made a dash across the floor, yanked the heavy steel closet door open and dove inside. Reaching out, I dialed the first of the two phone numbers.

A sleepy voice answered. My mother. When I heard her voice, I fell apart, blubbering incoherently into the mouthpiece. Later she told me that she only understood two of my words: gun and police. She had to look up the police’s phone number.

I hung up, then realized that the other number had to be the police station.

The phone was answered on the first ring, and moments later a squad car screeched to a halt in front of the store, lights and sirens employed. Another cruiser gave chase to a dark colored Plymouth driving with its headlights off, blowing through a stop sign and careening onto the divided highway, heading south.

The officer’s first task was to talk calmly to me, to gain my trust. Only then could I answer his questions with any degree of accuracy. I was shaking badly, and my knees threatened to buckle. The cop noticed…and, with no chairs at hand, he picked me up and sat me on the counter.

He asked if I was a smoker. And when I nodded, he asked my brand.

‘Marlboro’s.’

Then he inquired about an ashtray and matches…questions I could answer. He handed me a Coke before he began questioning me about the robbery.

With quivering voice, I told my story, describing my assailants as best I could: heavy jackets in dark colors…perhaps blue or green, maybe black. Dark colored winter face masks. The knit kind with holes for eyes, nose and mouth. They both wore yellow ‘Handy Andy’ gloves in pristine condition.

I did not see or hear a car. I was sure that the gun had two barrels, side by side, not one on top of the other. The barrels were shiny. There were two triggers. The stock was light brown and the shoulder pad was a reddish color. I didn’t know the make.

The cop helped me lock up the store and followed me home. He waited in the cruiser until I was safely in the house. Mom sat at the table in her nightgown and light cotton robe. Dad paced the kitchen floor in his skivvies, raking a hand through his tousled hair. Both had beer.

As soon as I saw them, the thin thread of my control crumbled and I cried hysterically. Dad sprang into action. He grabbed a large tumbler from the cupboard, filling it three-quarters full with brandy, topping if off with Coke.
‘Drink,’ He said as he handed me the bumpy green glass.

I slurped it down gratefully.

The phone rang. A police sergeant asked me to come down to the station and identify the car. I reminded him that I had not seen the vehicle. He talked me into it, saying that there might be something in the car that I had seen.

Mom and dad refused to accompany me. Dad had to get up early for work, and mom always got up and made him breakfast.

I was left to drive across town alone. In the dark. I was afraid, and I had been drinking. I insisted mom watch out the window until I was safely in my 1966 Dodge Polara with all four doors locked.

Cautiously, I drove through the dark streets and parked in the most well-lit spot…right in front of the station house…the area reserved for police cruisers. The sign promised my car would be towed at my expense. I did not care.

The desk sergeant addressed me by name as I burst through the heavy doors, stopping just shy of the counter behind which he stood. There was no need for me to introduce myself or explain my emergency. I lived in a small town and they already knew.

I was led into the garage. Anderson’s towing was just prying open the trunk. The robbers abandoned this car in a field as they fled into the nearby woods, narrowly evading capture.

Yellow ‘Handy Andy’ gloves were pulled from the trunk. A bag of cash was there, too…along with cash register receipts bearing the name of the store. There was no doubt that this was the car.

Hunter orange heavy coats were removed from the trunk. My descriptions of the gun and gloves and face masks were extremely accurate, but I thought the coats were dark green, blue or black when in reality, they were bright orange.

An officer reached into the vehicle and produced the shot gun.

‘That’s it!’ I cried. ‘That’s the gun!’

Both officers questioned me, asking if I was sure. Was I absolutely positive that the gun’s barrels sat beside each other? Was the color right? Could I be mistaken?

No, I thought, I was not mistaken. This was THE GUN. I was positive. I would stake my life on it.

The cop cracked the gun open…both barrels were loaded! The base of each shell was shiny brass.

My legs gave out and I slumped to the concrete floor. They used smelling salts to bring me around. Two officers knelt beside me, calmly telling me not to worry…telling me to take my time. Another brought me juice to sip.

In the interrogation room, I was required to retell my story to yet another detective before I was allowed to go back home.

One of the perpetrators was caught four hours after the robbery, and the second was apprehended at two o’clock the next afternoon. They both lived in a nearby town, about thirty miles to the west.

Periodically, in the time between the robbery and the trial, I was asked to come to the police station to go over the details. A few times, a detective came to the house for an interview.

The trial began. I told my story and endured hours of cross-examination but in the end, both were found guilty of armed robbery and sent to prison for nearly a decade.

A silent alarm was installed in the Dairy Store a few days after I was held up. My family owned the store for another ten years. The alarm provided comfort to both owners and employees. It was tested from time to time to be sure it worked. There were no more armed robberies.

My life changed on that fateful night nearly forty years ago. I lost my faith in people…especially men. I have become suspicious and I find it hard to trust.

I lock my car doors. The doors on the house are locked when I’m home alone. I do not like walking alone…especially at night.

I am angry at these men. They robbed the Dairy Store, but more importantly, they robbed me. They took something from me that I can never get back, and I am angry!

I have seen counselors. I have thought that I have worked through these issues. And sometimes, it’s okay…an unforgettable part of what makes me who I am. At other times though, it’s not okay at all.

I cannot change what happened, nor can I allow myself to ask why it happened. There simply is no answer. Instead, I must ask how I can go on.

I am so grateful that the ‘what-ifs’ didn’t happen…

What if I had been shot? Or killed?

What if I had been raped?

What if I had been kidnapped?

This experience could have been so much worse, and I am truly grateful that it was not.

I thank my God for bringing me through it, even though it still haunts me now and then.

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One Comment
  1. Margaret permalink

    Holy moly, how scary!

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